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Mind Heist

Chapter Text

“Grayson to Mercer. Do you read me?” 

Ed retrieved the comscanner from the pouch hanging from his belt and raised it. “Loud and clear, Kelly,” he acknowledged, glancing down as he did so in order to more carefully pick his way through the underbrush they were currently traversing. 

Kelly’s voice was calm as she responded, “Just checking in.” There was a brief pause before she went on, “How is it down there?” 

With a small smile Ed scanned their surroundings and nodded his head even though the woman on the other end of the line couldn’t see the motion. The trees extended up as far as the eye could see, and the same could be said for every other direction as well. They had landed the shuttle about half a mile south of their current position after finding a suitable clearing in the great forest that they were currently exploring. Just ahead and to his right Talla was picking her way through various plants and debris, just the same as him. There were two other Security officers in their party and three members of the Science team with their scanners out, collecting as much data as possible. Ed had briefly debated bringing Isaac along on the excursion before opting to give some of the lower-ranking members of the team the chance to do some exploring for a change. The planet was inhabited only by what the Kaylon had described as lower life forms, the vast majority of which were concentrated around a large body of water off to the north-west of their location. If they had time Ed thought they might head over and take a look but their primary interest in the planet was a possible source of dysonium that their scans had picked up about three and a half miles north of the clearing in which they had left the shuttle. Free gas, as Gordon would call it, and definitely something worth investigating. 

“Honestly?” he said to his First Officer as he lifted his leg high enough to step over a fallen branch that was already well on its way to becoming part of the forest floor. “It’s breathtaking.” 

“Yeah?” Kelly was smiling, he could hear it in her voice. “Well,” she went on, “make sure you take lots of pictures.” 

Ed chuckled to himself, glancing across at Talla who had overheard the request and was smiling as well. “Will do, Commander.” Glancing to one of the Science officers, an Ensign Fuller, he said, “Mercer out,” and then replaced the comscanner at his belt after disconnecting the line. 

Fuller had found something interesting, obviously, crouching down amidst a bundle of bushes and brambles in order to more closely investigate whatever it was. Ensign Ludlow, one of her companions, moved closer to get a better look as well, and the two started to discuss whatever it was with no small amount of intrigue. 

Ed left them to it, picking his way over closer to Talla, who had seen the curiosity in the pair and slowed her own progress to a halt as well. The other members of her team surveyed the area as they waited for the two Science officers to finish their study of whatever it was that had caught their attention. “You know,” Ed said to Talla as he came up to her side, “Kelly will make out like she’s jealous that we got to come down here and she didn’t.” 

Talla sensed he wasn’t done. “But?” 

Ed chuckled again, squinting a little as he turned his gaze up towards a gap in the canopy overhead where a shaft of sunlight was piercing through. “But she’s not an outdoorsy person,” he told the Xelayan at his side, bringing his eyes down to her and giving her a smile. 

It was Talla’s turn to laugh quietly, nodding her head. “Fair enough,” she said. “It’s a shame though,” she went on. “This place would be great for hiking.” She turned her pale eyes forward, down the path they were in the middle of taking through the tall trunks of the innumerable trees that surrounded them. “And we haven’t even seen more than a small piece of it.” 

“Well,” Ed said, his hands having come to rest on his hips as they waited, “if we’re lucky maybe we’ll find something really interesting and the Admiralty will grant us clearance to stick around.” 

Talla turned her head and gave him another smile. “Maybe.” With a nod that he thought might have been hopeful she turned her attention forward again. Before either one of them could say anything further a small frown formed across her brow. Her smile faded and then disappeared completely as she took a step forward, narrowing her eyes a fraction to scrutinise something through the trees. 

“Talla?” Ed moved closer, following her path. “What is it?” He cast a glance back at the Science officers. Lieutenant Rekya had moved over to join them now as well. 

The Xelayan was in the process of retrieving her comscanner from her belt when an energy burst struck the tree not far to her right. The bark burst outward in a shower of splinters and Talla gave a curse under her breath, reaching for Ed even as he moved to snatch his PM-44 from his belt. She was raising her voice to call an order to her team to arm themselves and take cover when one of them was struck by an energy burst similar to the one that had barely missed the Security Chief herself. 

Instead of moving backwards Ed moved forwards and angled his body against the tree there, using it for cover even as he tried to peer around the trunk to get a look at whoever it was ahead of them taking pot-shots. “Do you see anything?” he called to Talla who had done much the same and taken shelter behind a tree. There was nothing else to take shelter behind, not unless they wanted to make a break for the shuttle, and that was too far to go through such unfamiliar territory, and with one of their own already down for the count. 

She shook her head and glanced across to the others, first one way and then the other. Ed could see on her face that it was killing her to not be able to go to her fallen subordinate and he sympathised. The other member of her team had done a good job of encouraging the Science officers to take cover and keep their heads down but they had all opted to replace their comscanners with their weapons anyway. 

Ed pulled his head back behind the trunk just in time to avoid getting hit by one of the bursts and took the opportunity to tap his comm. “Mercer to Orville.” He didn’t waste time waiting for a response. “We’re under attack.” 

Just ahead and off to the side, closer to Talla’s position, Ed made out signs of movement that didn’t belong to any of their landing party. That was all the encouragement he needed to line up a shot of his own and squeeze the trigger. The shot hit the figure to one side of the chest and spun them right off their feet. They dropped from sight and didn’t reappear. 

Talla was taking shots from behind her own cover as well and as she ducked back behind the tree Ed heard a voice from ahead of them, from whoever it was advancing on their position. “—the Xelayan!” The deafening crack of splitting bark had drowned out the beginning of the bellowed command but as he glanced across at his Security Chief he pieced it together well enough without hearing every single word. 

They were targeting Talla. 

Ed braced one hand against the tree behind which he was shielding himself and stepped out enough to fire at the advancing hostiles. He couldn’t clearly make out just how many of them there were but he was able to pick out at least five, maybe six. One of them was significantly larger than the others. His shot went wide and struck some kind of foliage, if the burst of leaves and twigs was any indication, and with a rush of frustration he ducked quickly back behind his makeshift cover. 

“Captain!” Talla was looking his way when he turned his eyes in her direction. “We’re outnumbered,” she told him, even as shots streamed past her, the tree she was hunched behind mercifully shielding her from their weapons fire. “We have to make a break for the shuttle.” 

She was right. Ed couldn’t argue with her. Even if they headed back empty handed he would much rather they get clear of whoever these people were than risk the safety of the landing party for what might end up being a relatively small deposit of dysonium. Their scans hadn’t detected the hostiles, for whatever reason, and that was enough to tell Ed that they weren’t to be taken lightly, especially not if they were targeting one of his team. The why of that didn’t matter, he just had to get them all out of here in one piece and back to the ship. They could recover Talla’s fallen man on the way. So he gave his Security Chief a nod and turned his head to tell the others to get ready to make a break for it. 

Before he could raise his voice to do anything of the sort something arced down through the branches overhead and landed heavily in the underbrush between him and the rest of the landing party. He couldn’t clearly make it out from his current position but he could see lights flashing in a metallic case, the rapidity of the blinking increasing with each passing second, and that told him all he needed to know. 

It was some kind of weapon, and it was about to go off. 

DOWN!” 

No sooner had the word left his mouth, with as much volume and force as he could muster, than the weapon went off. Before the team could even finish throwing themselves to the deck the casing released a concussive blast that ripped outward and struck each and every one of them. Ed felt the initial impact, the first wave of the blow, and then he felt nothing at all.

Chapter Text

Her chest ached, like she’d been punched. Her lungs ached as if they had been starved, no matter how briefly, and her mind was reeling as her consciousness stirred. Talla thought about moving, as much as she was able to think about anything, and then heard the sounds of forest detritus being crushed underfoot by footwear much heavier and more solid than anything any Union officer wore as part of the standard uniform. Instinct told her to be discreet, to remain still, but she was able to open her eyes the bare minimum at least and confirm her suspicions. 

Those people were not Union officers. Their clothing was dark but mottled enough that they had been able to blend into their surroundings. Her skull was throbbing but she could piece together that much and the longer she watched them from her place on the ground the more her body and mind fought fiercely to recover from whatever had been in that thing they had fired through the trees. 

Some kind of concussion grenade, she thought. Not an explosive in the traditional sense of the word, meant to overpower and subdue an enemy more than damage them. 

The figure closest to her turned and she let her eyes slip closed again, feigning unconsciousness until she heard the tell-tale sounds of them moving off again. They moved closer first and she felt their shadow pass over her and linger there for several seconds, close on a minute. Her heart picked up its pace, beginning to race in anticipation, but when they moved off again she felt a surge of relief. She might have been regaining consciousness much faster than any of the others but that didn’t mean she felt up for a fight. 

“She out?” Talla could just make out the one speaking, their back turned to her. All of their backs were turned to her. Two of the figures were even further away than the others, most likely checking the rest of the team. Most of the figures were close to the tree behind which Captain Mercer had been taking shelter. 

“Yeah. It did what we needed it to do.” The grenade, she assumed. 

“Good.” That was the first one again. The way he carried himself told Talla everything she needed to know about his place in the hierarchy of this little group: he was in charge and there was no doubt about it. The others were all looking to him, even the pair over by the rest of the downed landing team. “Let’s get what we came for and clear out. We’ve got about six minutes before the jammer gives out.” 

Talla’s heart jumped, just about ending up in her throat. The jammer. She had heard Captain Mercer contact the Orville, or rather she had heard him try. Now that she thought about it she hadn’t heard anyone respond. Kelly would have responded. Whoever these people were they had done something to block the ship from communicating with them and vice versa. 

If she could have cursed then she would have. 

That feeling was only worsened by what happened next: two of the men crouched, jostling with something, and when they straightened it was plain to see that they had retrieved the Captain from where he had fallen. They had an arm each, which they proceeded to drape around their shoulders. Captain Mercer’s head lolled forward, completely unresponsive, even when the men started to move, taking him with them. 

Talla’s heart practically stopped beating then and she fought frantically to overcome the last of the fog that was sticking stubbornly in her brain. As the group moved off she was finally able to count them and the number she came up with made the bottom of her stomach threaten to drop out. 

Eight. And one of them was a Moclan. 

In her current state she was in no condition to take on more than two, at best, and that was if she went up against regular humans. But she couldn’t just lie there and do nothing. She had to do something

She had to wait until they had moved far enough away that she could heave herself up from the ground without making it obvious that she was doing so, fighting to catch her breath and keep her balance as she did, having to catch herself against the tree she had used for cover once she was up off the ground. The group were about thirty feet ahead of her now, give or take, and gaining ground fast. 

Using her comm would have been a waste of time and her PM-44 wouldn’t do her much good against so many hostiles but she had scooped it up from the ground habitually anyway and returned it to its holster. The world spun dizzyingly on its axis as she stepped around the tree and made her way as quickly as possible to the next one, and steady pulses of nausea worked their way up from the pit of her stomach as she forced her heavy body forward. 

Maybe she wouldn’t have even been able to take two of them. Her vision was swimming intermittently as well, she noticed alarmingly, on top of everything else. 

She just had to stay on her feet and keep the hostiles in sight. She had to follow them as far as she could. Commander Grayson was relying on her. So was the Captain. 

Keeping up with the group proved more difficult than it had any right to be and Talla didn’t even realise she had buckled against a tree and sunk halfway to the ground until she heard raised voices, one in particular calling to the others to hurry it up, we’re almost out of time

Talla’s breath caught in her throat and she gathered what little strength she had in her body to not just move around that tree but sprint from behind it, covering as much ground as possible. Fallen branches and leaves rustled and cracked beneath the soles of her boots but she didn’t have the time or the mental capacity to care about that, not with so much riding on her covering the ground needed to bring her back within sight of the group she was following. 

They were in another clearing similar to the one they had landed their shuttle in and as she caught herself against another tree, thankful for the large thick bush that aided her concealment, she got her first good look at their own vehicle. It was a shuttle as well, scuffed and scarred and well-travelled, its back door lowered so the group could board. The pair bearing Captain Mercer’s weight between them were just boarding as Talla braced her suddenly-all-too-heavy weight against the tree at the edge of the clearing. She had to bite her tongue to keep from uttering a curse or any other sound of frustration. 

Her knees were about to give out on her. Her vision was starting to blur again. That pounding in her skull was picking up in not only speed but intensity. 

She clutched desperately at the rough bark of the tree’s trunk as the sounds of its engines firing up filled the small clearing and it was then that she got a good look at the markings along the shuttle’s outer hull. The bottom of her stomach didn’t just threaten to drop out then, it gave way completely, right as the rear hatch sealed and the shuttle lifted off from the ground. 

Talla’s knees hit the forest floor as a heated curse spilled breathlessly from her lips and she had just enough time before darkness claimed her again to swat at the comm on her wrist and all but gasp Commander Grayson’s name, hoping against hope that it would go through. 

 


 

Com—der G—son—” 

No sooner had that gasped and broken communication come through the ship’s system than Gordon was turning in his seat to look in her direction. Kelly turned her head to look at Bortus in a sort of unintentional domino effect, even as Isaac busily worked the controls at his station to try and get the answers to the questions she hadn’t even thought to ask yet. 

“Was that Talla?” Gordon’s voice was puzzled but suitably concerned. The last they had heard from the landing party had been Ed’s promise to take plenty of pictures at Kelly’s request. It had been a joke. It had made them chuckle, a lazy sort of amusement that had been well-suited to the calm ease of the situation as a whole but now it didn’t feel the least bit funny. 

“Talla?” Kelly tried, rising from the Captain’s chair as she did so and pacing that bit closer to the forefront of the bridge. When nothing but silence came back across the line she tried again, “Lieutenant Keyali, come in?” Still there was nothing and she turned again to the Second Officer, who was working his own station. “Bortus, you have the conn. Tell Doctor Finn to meet us in the shuttle bay.” 

Bortus was already rising from his station. “Aye, Sir.” 

She turned forward again. “Malloy, you’re with me. Isaac? You too.” 

The three of them left the bridge and as one they moved as quickly as possible through the ship. True to form Claire was awaiting their arrival, her own response prompt and efficient, her face a mask of concern. “Do we know what’s happened?” she asked as the four of them boarded the shuttle. Gordon moved immediately for the helm and started pre-flight, running through the process as swiftly as possible. Within a couple of minutes they were rising from the deck and heading through the launch shield between the open bay doors. 

Kelly had responded to their Doctor’s question with a serious shake of her head as she had taken the other seat at the front of the shuttle. “Last we heard from the landing party everything was fine,” she said as Gordon turned them on a dime once they were past the engines and set them on a direct course for the planet. “Isaac,” she went on without looking back, “had you picked up anything unusual on your scans?” 

“Negative, Commander,” the Kaylon responded from his place behind the front seats. “Our scans had not indicated anything of note while the landing party were on the surface, certainly not anything that contradicted our earlier readings.” 

Kelly was running scans as they went, shaking her head to herself because what she was seeing didn’t give her any answers and that frustrated her. What she saw on the screen in front of her matched almost perfectly with what she had last seen on the screens aboard the Orville. Nothing out of the ordinary. No unusual signals. Nothing at all to be concerned about. 

So what the hell had happened down there? 

Tapping the right point on the console she raised her voice to say, “Commander Grayson to Captain Mercer, come in?” There was no answer and she felt her heart skip a beat. “Ed? Can you hear me?” 

Gordon was shaking his head as well, briefly lifting his gaze from his screens to glance in her direction. 

“Commander Grayson to anyone in the landing party, please respond.” Nothing. Dead air. Kelly could have cursed but instead she bit her tongue and drew in a deep breath. Losing her composure wouldn’t help anyone, least of all those on the planet’s surface. 

Gordon directed the shuttle to the exact same clearing in which the landing party had set the first and Kelly made a point of handing out weapons before they stepped out of the rear hatch and onto solid ground. Since they didn’t know what had happened they had no idea what they were dealing with or what they were about to walk into. “Isaac?” The Kaylon turned his head in her direction. “Take point.” 

“Yes, Commander.” With that the Kaylon stepped out of the shuttle with scanner in hand, taking only a moment to ascertain which direction they needed to travel in before setting off at a swift but steady pace. The rest of them followed in his wake, weapons at the ready. Kelly brought up the rear and watched their six as they travelled, wanting to keep their Helmsman and Doctor in the middle and that little bit more protected as a result. She trusted Isaac to break out the big guns, literally speaking, if they ran into trouble, and now that the Kaylon were known as a real force to be reckoned with throughout the galaxy she didn’t expect many opponents to take him on directly, certainly not without hesitating long enough for their little group to deal with them first. 

As they moved Kelly tried not to let her imagination run away with her but she only did a subpar job of that at best. The sound of Talla’s voice, breathless and harried, was still ringing in her ears even now, and the silence from the whole party was wreaking havoc with her composure in general. The sooner they found their people and got some answers, the better. 

“I have pinpointed the location of most of the landing party, Commander,” Isaac said from the front of their little procession and his words gave Kelly pause. 

She wasn’t the only one, clearly. “Most of them?” Gordon glanced back at her, frowning. “What the hell does that mean?” 

“I am only detecting the presence of five individuals,” Isaac clarified. “They are approximately forty-five feet ahead of us.” 

He wasn’t wrong. In next to no time at all they had come across the individuals in question and Kelly could see at a glance that none of them were Ed or Talla. There was no distinct blue command jacket and the two officers in red were male. She had to take another deep breath to gather herself. “Doctor?” 

Claire had already moved forward and was scanning the seemingly unconscious officers one at a time. Once she had finished her scans she looked in Kelly’s direction. “They’re unharmed. Just unconscious.” 

“Where’re Ed and Talla?” Gordon was looking around, keeping his PM-44 halfway raised so it was ready to fire at the first sign of trouble. 

“Isaac?” 

“I am detecting another life sign in this direction, Commander.” And Isaac set off again, leading the way once more. 

No one spoke as they moved on. Kelly had debated leaving one of their small party with the unconscious officers but without knowing what had happened to their Captain and Chief of Security she was reluctant to spare any of the few people she had to support her if they encountered any sort of resistance and she wasn’t keen to leave anyone else in a vulnerable position. Maybe that was the wrong choice to make and perhaps she would regret it later but she was having to deal with one problem at a time. All she could do was hope she had made the right call. 

“They are directly ahead, Commander.” 

Kelly moved up and to the Kaylon’s side just as the figure came into view. “Talla!” Against her better judgement she sprinted forward the short distance to bring herself to the Xelayan’s side. She was lucky it wasn’t some sort of trap, that she didn’t come under fire the second she got within a couple of feet of her friend, but she wasn’t in the right frame of mind to even feel relieved by that fact as she looked the other woman up and down to check for injuries. She couldn’t see anything but Claire was coming down beside her within moments and running her scanner over the Xelayan’s frame, from head to toe. “Talla? Talla, can you hear me?” 

Gordon and Isaac were standing nearby, the former scanning the area with his eyes while the latter used the device in his hand to do much the same. 

Their Helmsman opted to raise his voice to call to the last member of the party still unaccounted for. “Ed?” When no call came back he raised his voice further still, putting more force behind it as he shouted his friend’s name. “ED?” 

Kelly couldn’t blame him, she had wanted to do much the same but she collected herself enough to tap her comm instead. “Grayson to Mercer.” She waited. “Ed, it’s Kelly. Can you hear me?” Nothing. She turned her head and looked back at the Kaylon. “Isaac?” 

For a few moments he was motionless beyond the slightest turn of his upper body as he waited for the scanner in his hand to finish whatever process it was currently running. When he turned his head in her direction she felt her chest tighten in anticipation, but of what she didn’t know. 

“I am detecting no further life signs, Commander.” 

What?” Gordon lowered his weapon to his side and turned fully on his heel to look over the Kaylon’s shoulder at the scanner as if Isaac had misread the data. “That’s impossible!” He actually reached for the device then, all but snatching it from Isaac’s hand. To the Kaylon’s credit he let it happen without any sort of resistance. “He’s gotta be here somewhere.” At which point he started to turn on the spot, his eyes glued to the screen, before he paced several steps away and did another three-sixty spin on his heels with the scanner held up in plain view. 

Kelly’s heart ached just watching him, the obvious signs of building desperation making her want to go to him and put her hand on his shoulder at the very least. It wouldn’t do any good, she knew, just as nothing would have helped her in that moment. Her heart had started to beat faster and her breathing had grown a touch shallower, her mind going a mile a minute and grasping at straws for explanations on what could have happened to Ed. 

Claire was in the process of suggesting they get the unconscious members of the landing party back to the shuttle when the figure on the ground between them uttered a low groan. Kelly’s gaze dropped instantly. She had left her hand on Talla’s shoulder while they tried to locate the last member of the team and now she gave the other woman’s arm the slightest squeeze. “Talla? It’s Kelly.” 

Isaac had moved off from the group without a word into what looked like a moderate sized clearing just ahead of them. Kelly paid very little attention to whatever he was doing, the majority of her attention focused on the rousing of the Xelayan on the ground. Talla gave another groan, this one thicker and longer, more aware, and Kelly looked to Claire for reassurance. 

“Talla? Can you hear me?” the other woman said to the Security Chief, and as they watched the Xelayan’s eyelids began to flutter open. It was an obvious struggle, her body clearly fighting her, but soon she was blinking off the worst of it and looking from one of them to the other. “There she is,” the Doctor said quietly, bringing Talla’s gaze back to her face. 

“Claire?” Talla’s voice sounded a little sluggish as she said it and she winced as the name left her lips. Even so she started to push herself up. Kelly could have told her to take it easy but she wanted to make sure the other woman was all right, and see if they couldn’t get some answers as well. 

“Talla, what happened?” She couldn’t hold the questions back any longer. “Are you all right?” 

The other woman’s initial response was a low groan and then she gave a groggy sort of nod. Her simple side-swept ponytail had come loose, Kelly noticed, and her hair was in an uncharacteristic state of disarray. She lifted a hand to her head, her eyes closed as she tipped it back and managed to say, “Attacked.” 

“You were attacked?” Kelly looked back at Gordon who was still scrutinising the comscanner in his hands as though he could change its mind on the negative readings it continued to feed back to him. “By who? Or what?” 

Isaac’s voice interrupted them before Talla could respond, turning their attention to the clearing in which he stood. “Commander Grayson.” He waited until he was certain he had Kelly’s attention, at least, before going on to say, “I believe there was a shuttlecraft in this clearing recently. The ground has been disturbed, and there are several sets of fresh footprints.” 

“Yeah.” Talla sounded like she was in discomfort but when Kelly looked at her the other woman’s eyes were open again and she was awkwardly twisted in her place on the ground to look into the clearing as well. “He’s right.” She turned her head and looked Kelly directly in the eye. “There was a shuttle. They’re the ones who attacked us.” 

Gordon had moved over, crouching down to the Xelayan’s level. “Talla, where’s Ed?” 

Talla looked like she felt nauseated and as soon as the words she said next left her mouth Kelly understood why. She felt sick to her stomach just hearing them. 

“They took him. Bounty hunters. They took the Captain.”

Chapter Text

Richard Blake was not a captain. He had no rank to speak of, no insignia or legitimate recognised status aboard any ship he set foot on. What he did have, and in spades, was reputation. On his home planet of Earth it was how most people stood out from the crowd nowadays, how any one individual got to be wherever they ended up. Money had fallen by the wayside with the invention of matter synthesis, as everyone knew, but a person’s deeds could bring them the sorts of fame and admiration that all that money once would have afforded humans centuries ago. 

In a different life perhaps Richard Blake could have been a captain with a rank and an insignia and a uniform, he could have had a crew with their own ranks and titles and a ship that he could get repaired and stocked at any legitimate outpost. But there would have been assigned missions and rules and regulations set by someone other than himself and that was not the kind of life a man like him wanted to lead. It wasn’t a good fit. 

And the work he liked to do was very much considered not only illegal back on Earth but also immoral and unethical. 

With a smile he took one hand from the back of his pilot’s seat in the cockpit and patted the younger man on the shoulder in the wake of the news that they were in the clear. “Good work, Lowell. Keep us on this course at maximum speed.” 

Lowell gave a confident nod of his head, going on to toss his unruly blonde hair out of his face. “Sure thing, Boss. We should be there in a few hours.” He tapped a few keys with the kind of ease that comes with muscle memory, not even having to watch what he was doing to get his job done. Lowell was a good kid, one of the best in the business. He knew what he was doing and there weren’t many people out there who could outpace him at the helm of a ship. 

Blake didn’t count Union officers in that assessment. 

Giving the younger man another clap on the shoulder he turned and moved from the front of the ship, heading through its bottleneck corridor to the main deck. He could hear the regular chatter and clamour of his crew busying or distracting themselves in one way or another, occasionally popping out from wherever they were skulking around to do important things like checking on the engines or taking a passing a glance at scanner readings. Blake left them to their own devices at times like this, more often than not. They didn’t have ranks or insignias but they had responsibilities and Blake made sure early on into their time with him that they knew to keep on top of them if they didn’t want to end up somewhere unpleasant. They knew what they were doing. So he left them to it. 

Maykor lifted his head as Blake came through the hatch into what passed for the main thoroughfare for the ship, a relatively small vessel that housed the crew comfortably and enabled them to slip through cluttered systems much faster than anything larger and bulkier. They had all the essential systems and enough room to work, and they even had enough space for a shuttle. It had always been good enough for Blake. Lowell said she’s a good girl on a regular basis and the fact that the she in question wasn’t too fussy about what parts they patched her up with was a definite bonus. 

Blake gave the Moclan a dip of his head in acknowledgement, one the other male returned before lowering his gaze again. When he spoke his deep, gravelly voice made him sound even more displeased than he usually was. “He is not so impressive.” 

The ship had several handholds protruding from the inner hull for when going got rough and out of habit Blake hooked his fingers through one overhead as he turned his gaze down to follow the Moclan’s. 

Their quarry was still unconscious and Blake intended for him to stay that way for the duration of their journey. It was cleaner that way. There was probably no need to restrain him but that was cleaner too, just in case he did come around. Less hassle for all of them. His wrists were bound behind his back and there was a length of chain attached to them running up to the ceiling to ensure he was secure. His ankles were bound as well. The gag definitely wasn’t necessary, strictly speaking, but that had been Maykor’s request and Blake had seen no reason to deny him. 

Captain Ed Mercer’s reputation, much like Blake’s, preceded him, and in more ways than one. The unlikely Union Captain who had accomplished any number of surprising feats during his time in command of an unremarkable mid-level exploratory vessel. Blake couldn’t help but agree with Maykor though, looking at the man now he didn’t appear to be anything special, and if anything it was almost difficult to believe that this was the same person they had all heard so much about. 

“Hard to believe this is the guy who won the Battle for Earth.” Shelton had just stepped through the rear hatch, having to duck his head so he didn’t bash it on the way through the low opening. He had one of his engineering tools in his grease-stained hand which he set down on the mildly cluttered table fixed to the floor in the centre of the large space. Much like his brother at the helm Shelton had scruffy hair but unlike his younger sibling he had the beginnings of a beard. It was darker than the hair on his head. Good thing, too, since most people had trouble telling the two apart at a glance. “I mean just look at him.” He leaned on the table with his arms crossed and turned his gaze to Maykor. 

The Moclan bared his teeth in a silent snarl. “What right does a human have to meddle in the affairs of Moclans?” 

Blake met Shelton’s gaze but he didn’t mirror the slight smirk his younger companion allowed to show. He turned his gaze down to Mercer again, not because he was worried about the other man waking up but because Maykor’s temper was best left to burn itself out. Meeting his gaze would only rile him further. If they let him get it out of his system then he would calm down on his own. 

“Speaking up on behalf of females.” Maykor practically spat the word but he followed it up with the real thing anyway, turning his head to make sure it hit the floor and not the table. “If not for him that colony would have been eradicated. That would have been right.” He bared his teeth again, moving around the table and that little bit closer to their unconscious quarry. “They are not the only ones who should be eradicated.” 

So much for letting him calm down on his own. 

Blake stepped forward before Maykor could close the gap any further, laying one hand against the Moclan’s massive chest. Maykor had several inches on him, at least, but he also knew who was in charge here. “We need him alive,” he told the other male, “and in one piece.” He met Maykor’s eyes then, firmly and unwaveringly. “Or we don’t get what we were promised.” 

The Moclan made a low sound in his throat, as close to a rumbling growl as anything Blake had ever heard, and for just a second he thought he was going to have the beginnings of a fight on his hands but the tension against his palm eased and the other male backed up just enough for him to know his point had pierced the veil of Maykor’s rage enough for him to get a handle on his temper. Good. 

“What’re we gonna do with these?” Shelton was reaching across the table and snagging a hold on the sleeve of Mercer’s discarded uniform jacket. They had stripped him of it as soon as they had gotten back to the ship. He wouldn’t be needing it where he was going. The Union comscanner that had been stored at his belt was sat atop the bundled material. 

“Why?” Blake asked, no longer concerned about Maykor doing something they would all regret, taking his eyes from the Moclan to look at their engineer who was studying the sleeve of the jacket, or more specifically the device on the left wrist. “You think you can do something with it?” 

Shelton’s expression became briefly contemplative, his head tipping a little to one side, and then his features levelled out again as he scrutinised the small device. “Maybe,” he said. “I’d have to see if I can crack it open and take a look inside.” With the beginnings of a smile he added, “I always wanted to know what makes these things tick.” 

Blake allowed himself a momentary smile as well before he dipped his head in a nod. “Knock yourself out.” Shelton’s smirk became a grin, like a kid on Christmas morning who had just discovered something exciting under the tree. Blake knew the younger man would probably spend hours poring over all the various tiny components of that comm device and he was happy to leave him to it. If he could learn something and upgrade some of their own systems as a result then all the better. 

With one last glance down at Mercer he said, “Lowell says we’ll be at the rendezvous in a few hours.” To Maykor specifically he said, “No one touches him between now and then.” When the Moclan met his gaze he added, “Remember where he’s going. He’s getting what’s coming to him. Right?” 

Maykor glanced down at their bound quarry and drew in a deep breath, bringing his attention back to Blake, whose words seemed to have had the desired effect. The Moclan appeared appeased. “Yes,” was all he said, but there was a definite note of satisfaction there and the very beginnings of a smile. 

Blake smiled back at his friend and gave him a nod, patting him on the arm before making his way through the nearest hatch. 

 


  

Gordon looked around the table at those gathered, glancing to the door when it opened and permitted the entry of Doctor Finn who was the last of the senior staff to join them. She had been ensuring the rest of her patients were ready for discharge, Gordon knew, but waiting for her to get here had been excruciating. It felt like hours had passed but he knew it had only been minutes between Kelly’s message over the comms and the Doc’s arrival. 

It was all but impossible not to notice the absence of one person in particular. Gordon was trying but he wasn’t doing a very good job. Something told him he wasn’t the only one struggling with that. 

“Okay.” Kelly said the word on the exhale of a deep breath she had taken, most likely to prepare herself for what was coming. “The Admiralty have been alerted to our situation but all I did was give them the basics.” She turned her eyes to Talla for a moment before she went on, “I told Admiral Halsey I would get back to him when we had all the facts.” 

Just for a second or two Talla looked remorseful and Gordon wanted to reach across the table to assure her that she hadn’t done anything wrong. She had blacked out again on the way back to the shuttles and had only regained consciousness after Kelly had made her initial report to Union Central. No one was holding anything against her. 

“So.” Kelly looked around the table and then landed her gaze specifically on Talla as the only person present who had seen what happened down there. With no idea of where to go for the time being they were still in orbit of the planet they had been exploring when Ed had gone missing. “Talla?” 

Gordon kept his gaze on the Xelayan as she recounted what had happened in as much detail as possible, obviously taking her time with the telling so she didn’t miss anything important. It wasn’t a long story, all told, but Gordon was impressed by the amount of detail she was able to recall anyway. 

“The device of which you speak is currently in my laboratory,” Isaac said when Talla was done. “We recovered it from the planet’s surface once we ascertained that it would not pose a threat to the ship or the crew.” 

Talla nodded. 

Gordon couldn’t keep his mouth shut any longer. “You said they were bounty hunters.” The Xelayan turned her eyes in his direction, as did everyone else. “How do you know that?” 

“I’ve encountered them before,” Talla told them, looking around the table. “Not at length or anything, and I’ve never had any direct dealings with them personally, but I know the markings on that shuttle. They’re like a brand.” Her brow furrowed as she frowned. “No, not a brand,” she corrected. “More like a serial number.” She looked at Kelly. “They’re part of a network of ships that run operations like this one. It’s not like a fleet, they’re not that organised, but there are a few of them in the game and the markings on the hulls are how they recognise one another. Their ships are usually cobbled together from whatever they can find so without the markings it’s a guessing game.” She turned her head to address them all as a group. “They call themselves Razers.” 

Razers?” Gordon echoed, screwing his features up a little to show what he thought of that name. “Jeez.” 

No one else around the table chimed in on the matter so he said nothing further on it himself, but the name kept going around and around in his head anyway. 

“They work together?” John asked from the other end of the table. 

Talla shook her head. “No, not that I’ve ever heard of anyway. They don’t target one another but they’re in competition, basically.” After a moment of hesitation she said, “But I think they would band together against the right enemy.” 

Kelly was frowning. “You mean us.” 

Talla was quiet as she nodded. 

Gordon realised he was worrying his hands together on the surface of the table and he forced himself to stop. “So what do we do now?” he asked. “We didn’t even know these guys were down there.” 

“How did they do that, exactly?” Kelly asked, looking to John for answers. 

“Best I can gather is they were using some kind of jamming frequency to blind our sensors. It must be pretty powerful if it can affect a Union ship like the Orville but it’s the only thing that makes sense.” 

“They mentioned a jammer,” Talla confirmed. “They said they only had a limited amount of time to hide behind it.” 

“That explains why Talla’s message got chewed up the way it did,” John said, looking from the woman in question to Kelly at the head of the table. “Something that powerful would use a lot of juice,” he went on, shaking his head. “They had it down on the planet but they had it up here as well.” 

Bortus turned in his seat to look at their Chief Engineer. “What do you mean?” 

“Well we didn’t pick up any other ships in the area,” John explained, spreading his hands for a moment. “We were running scans constantly the entire time the landing party was down there, just in case. No ships, no shuttles, and no other humanoid life signs. Not a thing.” 

“Chief LaMarr is correct,” Isaac said. “I did not detect any power signatures in the vicinity before Lieutenant Keyali’s message came through, nor did I detect anything out of the ordinary after the fact.” 

Talla was frowning again. “Captain Mercer tried to reach the ship,” she said, shaking her head. “It didn’t come through?” 

Gordon looked to Kelly as she straightened a little in her seat, surprised and displeased by the idea that she had missed something vital. “No. We didn’t get anything.” She glanced to Bortus and Isaac for confirmation and neither of them disagreed with her. 

“That must have been when these guys arrived,” John told them. 

“Damn,” Gordon breathed. “These guys work fast. They must’ve been in and out in minutes.” 

With a nod of her head Talla said, “That’s their reputation. Hard and fast, with a high success rate.” 

“But why did they take the Captain?” Doctor Finn had been quiet up until that point and they all looked in her direction when she spoke. “They must have had a reason.” 

No one answered immediately. Gordon looked around at the faces of those gathered and waited, the silence becoming increasingly oppressive the longer it went on. 

It was Kelly who spoke, finally, saying, “It could be any one of a number of reasons.” Gordon could see that she was holding herself together well but in her eyes he could see the concern that was currently wreaking havoc in his own system as well, fraying and scattering his thoughts and making it increasingly difficult to concentrate. 

“You really think he has enemies out there who would hire bounty hunters to come after him?” John didn’t sound convinced. 

Gordon shook his head, deciding to try and give Kelly a break by jumping in himself. “Is it really so hard to believe?” he heard himself say, part of him hating that he was even considering the fact but knowing it was a sensible possibility to consider. Out here in space there were countless cultures with all sorts of prejudices and resentments and Ed had done a good job at kicking a few hornets’ nests while in command of the Orville. “The Kaylon, the Krill, the Regorians, the Moclans.” He paused. “No offence, Bortus.” 

“None taken, Lieutenant.” Bortus’ response was immediate and heartfelt. It was no secret that he wasn’t like the vast majority of his species. Lucky for them, as far as Gordon was concerned. 

“We have a treaty with the Krill,” Kelly said by way of objection but even as she spoke the words Gordon could tell she wasn’t fully convinced by them. At this point anything was possible and they had to consider every angle. 

“The Kaylon would not resort to such crude measures in order to target just one biological,” Isaac interjected. 

“And the Regorians probably closed their doors for good as soon as we got out of there,” John added. 

Gordon thought it was interesting, or perhaps more to the point alarming, that no one offered any argument on behalf of the Moclans being behind the attack and subsequent abduction. 

“All of this is speculation,” Doctor Finn said, gesturing with one hand to take in the individuals gathered. “We have no way to be sure of any of this.” 

Kelly sighed, albeit quietly. “I’ll contact Admiral Halsey now that we have more information.” She glanced at Talla and Gordon saw the way her expression warmed just a little, enough for the Xelayan to know the Commander was thanking her for what details she had been able to provide. “We’ll get his opinion on the situation and go from there.” Glancing around the table again, she concluded by saying, “Dismissed.” 

Gordon watched everyone rise from their seats and take their leave, following suit on the former but hesitating on the latter. When it was just him and Kelly he frowned as he looked at her. “What do the rest of us do?” he asked her. He hadn’t asked her sooner because this was difficult enough for her as it was. Adding to her troubles by questioning her orders at the conclusion of a senior staff meeting wasn’t going to help matters. 

Kelly looked at him, her lips drawn in a thin line, and shook her head. “Honestly?” She met his eyes. “I don’t know.” 

For a few moments he stood there looking back at her, and then he nodded. When he uttered an acknowledgement it was so quiet he wondered if she had even heard him. “Okay.” But he met her gaze one last time before he left to show her he had her back going forward, whatever she needed. Whatever it took to get Ed back he would help her do it.

Chapter Text

It was like being hit with an electrical charge. Before he even really knew what was happening Ed was conscious, his awareness spinning and swimming as it came abruptly into focus along with his vision and other basic senses, but even with everything still reeling he pushed up from the ground until he was in a sitting position. A cool breeze brushed across his face from one side and he had to turn his head away briefly to shield his eyes from it as they finished adjusting to the light. Even before that was done he was summoning his voice, a little rough though it was, to call out, “Talla?” 

Blinking back the last tendrils of fogginess Ed lifted his head again and got his first good look at his surroundings. His hand was against rough ground, intermittent stone amidst crumbling soil, and as he turned his head he saw a low formation of rocks at his back. In front of him was a growth of trees clustered tightly together, their canopies intermingling to shadow the floor beneath them. Off to his left in the distance he could see bigger rock formations, what might have been mountains, and to the right there was an open expanse of yellowing grass before a rise in the ground that blocked the rest of the landscape from view. Whatever lay on the other side was a mystery for now. 

All Ed knew was that he didn’t recognise any of it. 

“Talla?” he called again, getting his knees under him and turning his head this way and that to get a better look at the immediate vicinity. “Ludlow? Fuller?” When no voices came ringing back to him he concluded none of them could hear him and he tapped at his wrist to activate his comm. 

Only it wasn’t there. 

Ed looked down then and it was at that moment that he realised something equally as jarring as the unfamiliarity of his surroundings: he was no longer wearing his uniform. The pants and simple shirt were black, as was the jacket, but none of it was familiar to him. That went for the boots as well. He lowered a hand to first one hip and then the other, feeling the building sense of concern at the absence of even the holster he had been wearing to house the PM-44 that was, along with everything else, nowhere in sight. 

“Okay,” he breathed to himself, getting one foot under him and then the other, rising cautiously from behind the jutting rocks that, thankfully, were taller than he was at his full height. That gave him a little cover from the rear, at least. “Okay,” he uttered again, dusting his hands off on his thighs and taking another look around, even going so far as to gaze skyward this time. It was a blue sky, unremarkable, with nothing at all unusual about it to make it any more distinct than the skies of countless other worlds he had visited over the course of his life. Cautiously he moved to the edge of the outcropping and leaned around it to get a look at what lay beyond. More trees. Great. 

He needed to figure out where he was, how he’d gotten here, what had happened to the rest of the landing party, and how he could get in touch with the Orville

But first things first, he had to get the lay of the land.

 


 

If she had to have this conversation with anyone she was glad it was Admiral Halsey, a man she had known for years now, and a man who had been very close with her father. He had always spoken highly of Admiral Halsey, and with great admiration, and that fondness and respect had passed on to Kelly even before she had gotten her first bars on her shoulders. As role models went she thought she could do a lot worse. 

But there was something else about him beyond just professional respect and admiration and Kelly knew she would have been lying if she had tried to tell anyone that she didn’t care for the Admiral in a personal capacity as well. It was no secret that he took particular interest in the goings-on aboard the Orville, and she knew he had helped them on more occasions than either she or Ed were probably aware of. 

If anyone could help her now, help them, it was Halsey. 

When the line connected and he popped up on the screen she was instantly filled with a sense of reassurance that she could find nowhere else. “Admiral.” 

“Commander,” he acknowledged, quickly moving on past the professional acknowledgements. “Have there been any developments?” 

“Lieutenant Keyali was able to fill in a few of the blanks for us,” she told the Admiral before giving him the story their Security Chief had given them in the briefing room, almost word for word. The name Talla had given them was still weighing heavily on her mind, a name that under any other circumstances she might have mocked right along with the one man who was missing right now. “The men we’re dealing with,” Kelly told Halsey, “she said they call themselves Razers.” 

Something in Admiral Halsey’s expression shifted just enough for Kelly to know that he recognised the name. The how and why didn’t matter. What mattered now was whether or not he could give them any more information that would help them find Ed. “I’ll be honest,” he told her with the finest thread of a sigh, “I was hoping for any other name but that one.” 

“You know them?” 

“By reputation, mostly,” he said, shaking his head. “They’re notoriously hard to keep track of, and despite the fact that they’re made up of outcasts and outlaws, or perhaps in large part because of it, they’ve earned that reputation.” 

“What is their reputation?” Kelly didn’t have enough information to get a clear picture of who and what they were dealing with and she needed every scrap of knowledge that she could get her hands on right now. 

“They’re ruthless and relentless,” Halsey told her, “and they’ll go to any lengths to collect their bounty. Your people are lucky no one was killed.” 

Something in the pit of Kelly’s stomach went cold but she stayed quiet, waiting for the Admiral to go on. 

He didn’t disappoint her. “Many of them are ex-military of one sort or another from various cultures, and a few of them even served in the Fleet. They’ll accept any race with any background and so long as they can bring a skill to the table no one is turned away from joining a crew. But—” it was almost like he paused for effect, “—people who fall short of expectations, and those who break the rules? They don’t last long.” 

The more Kelly heard the less she liked what they were dealing with. Part of her really wanted a drink in that moment but now wasn’t the time. It was about as far from the time as it was possible to get. 

“If your Chief of Security can describe any of the individuals she saw we might be able to figure out which crew we’re dealing with. For now I’ll compile all the data we have on their organisation and forward it to you.” 

Thank God she wasn’t dealing with Admiral Tucker. Kelly could only imagine how badly that might have gone. It was nothing against Tucker that he was so strict, his orders were usually in the best interests of the Fleet as a whole, but she didn’t doubt he would have taken an entirely different route to Halsey on this one and she wouldn’t have been able to hold her tongue if he had told her to write Ed off as lost in the line of duty. 

“Thank you, Admiral,” she said, nodding her head. She paused, eyes downturned, and when she raised them again she was frowning as she asked, “We will be able to go after Ed, won’t we?” 

Halsey hesitated, but only for a moment. “I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure that’s the case, Commander,” he told her, but she heard the reluctance to promise her anything in those words. She had to fight to keep her frown from deepening any further and nodded her head again, acknowledging his words. “I’ll get those files to you right away. Halsey out.” And then he was gone. 

Kelly looked around her office. All of a sudden it felt very empty, and she felt very alone. 

 


 

Night was beginning to draw in. That wasn’t good. Ed thought he must have covered close on ten miles now and a good deal of woodland in the process, but as of yet he hadn’t come across any decent source of water or shelter. He had found a small stream but it was so muddied and cluttered with various bits and pieces of the usual expected suspects in this sort of landscape that he didn’t trust it. So he was following it as best he could to try and find the larger body that it would, or rather should, inevitably meet up with. 

But now that the light was failing he had that concern to deal with as well. As a general rule temperatures dropped, sometimes even plummeted, when the sun set, and he had no reason to believe that this place would be any different. Already he could feel a difference in the air, it had an increased bite to it that he thought promised more uncomfortable conditions when night set in properly. If he didn’t find shelter before then he could add the risk of hypothermia to his growing list of problems. 

Taking a look around to make sure there was nothing moving in sight and therefore no risk of being overheard, he started talking to himself out loud, airing his thoughts and in doing so hoping to make some progress in figuring out what the hell had happened. “How much time has passed, how much distance I’ve covered, who those people were—” Ed sighed to himself, “—I don’t know any of that.” With a frown he looked around again. “I could be on the same planet or somewhere light years away.” But that would mean the Orville hadn’t noticed another ship in orbit before it was too late. “Not exactly comforting,” he muttered to himself as he continued to trudge along, clearing the trees now and slowing his pace as he came to a slight crest in the land that afforded him a better view of the landscape beyond. 

The stream seemed to come to a dead end, dwindling to nothing at all, but there was another rocky outcropping ahead, not too far away, and as he stood studying it he felt a building sense of hope. It was possible there were caves beneath the formations he could see and if the shadows already in sight were any indication then there were a lot of good options if he could climb high enough. Caves meant shelter, even if he didn’t have any other means of staying warm. Carrying firewood that far wasn’t really feasible without anything to carry it in. 

Ed looked down at himself and then back at the woodland he had just cleared. For a few moments he debated the logistics of it before he threw caution to the wind and shed the jacket he was wearing. It didn’t take him long to fashion it into a crude semi-satchel in which he was able to support the weight of a good amount of potential kindling, and he found a few good candidates for striking a spark as well in the form of a small collection of rocks. He might have had access to the latter up by the caves he was hoping to find but it was better to be sure now than disappointed later. 

“I only need one cave,” he said to no one and nothing in particular as he picked his way across the open stretch of grassland, glancing skyward regularly to try and gauge how much time he had to reach his destination before he lost the light completely. By his estimation he had enough time, maybe even with a little to spare, and it was a good thing too. He didn’t fancy climbing anything like what lay ahead with no natural light to work with. 

As he walked his thoughts kept coming back to the rest of the landing party and the hope that they were all right. Had they ended up out here as well, wherever here was? Part of the reason he had been regularly casting his gaze around looking for signs of movement was in the hopes that he would catch a glimpse of someone he recognised, admittedly, just as much as he had been looking for any possible threats. 

Who had those people been? Had they known the Orville crew or had it just been a random attack? And if they had been targeting Talla then what had they done with her? 

Ed had a decent sized knot in his stomach by the time he reached the base of the rocky formation. Talla Keyali could take care of herself as well as anyone else aboard the Orville, if not better, and Ed knew she would be the first to tell him he didn’t need to worry about her but as her Captain, as her friend, he couldn’t help himself. Those people had definitely singled her out and not knowing why was weighing heavily on his mind. 

“Talla will be okay.” His voice was quiet but Ed put as much conviction into the words as possible, drawing in a deep breath and adjusting the crude makeshift satchel so he could carry it without losing the use of either one of his hands. He had tied the sleeves in a rough but tight knot and luckily there was enough length left in them to drape it over his head and around his upper torso, the majority of the weight of the burden braced against his upper back to keep it secure. That was the hope anyway. 

With nothing else to do but get it over and done with Ed tested his footing and handhelds and then started to climb. It was rough going at first with little in the way of ledges to rest upon but the higher he got the more easily he could support his weight. The light continued to fade as he worked his way up and by the time he started to find outcroppings large enough to support himself on fully he didn’t have much left to work with. 

But he still wasn’t high enough. He hadn’t found any kind of shelter yet. 

By the time he did his hands felt worn and raw and he was breathing heavily and raggedly. Physically fit though he was, a prerequisite of being a Union officer, all he had to do was glance back the way he had come to understand why he was struggling. He must have climbed well over a hundred feet, and with no gear to work with and a burden to carry it was no wonder he felt exhausted. The sweat that had broken out over a good portion of his body wasn’t helping with the dehydration he was going to have to deal with in the very near future, he knew, but that would have to be at the top of his list when dawn broke. 

For now he could content himself with the fact that he had found what looked like a shallow but serviceable cave that cut back into the face of the rocks. Loosening the jacket he set the load down carefully and quietly on the ground and stepped into the mouth of the cave, standing there for well over a minute, listening for sounds of movement from within. When he didn’t hear anything he picked up a small rock from by his foot and tossed it inside, listening to the sounds of it bouncing and skittering across the ground within and the subsequent echo that trailed after it. 

But there was nothing else. The cave was unoccupied. 

“Thank God for that,” he muttered to himself, swiping the back of one hand across his brow and looking over his shoulder at the load he had carried up here with him. Exhausted though he was he needed to build the fire that kindling had been gathered for if he was going to keep the growing chill at bay. 

Ed let out a sigh. “Okay,” he said, once again to no one at all, looking out across the landscape from his elevated vantage point, and then back down at his tools. “Let’s see if I remember how to do this.” 

 


 

The files Admiral Halsey had promised them had come through and they had once again gathered together in the briefing room to pore over them as a group. Once they had the bulk of the facts they would split up again and work in their respective teams but Kelly had wanted the senior staff to view the data together first. Talla wasn’t about to question her logic. 

Every individual around the table had a pad with the available files and they had browsed over the basics in their own time quietly before the larger pieces were loaded onto the main screen at the head of the room for them to go through collectively. Talla knew that her main job here was to try and identify faces as they cropped up on the screen but John hadn’t gotten to that portion of the files yet. 

“From what Union Central’s been able to gather about these guys they’re spread out pretty much all across the galaxy, and they’ve even branched out further than the Fleet itself has managed to cover,” the Chief Engineer was saying from the front of the room. He was gesturing to star charts and broken bits and pieces of records that had been cobbled together from various reports as he spoke but Talla wasn’t really watching the movement of his hands so much as she was studying the information behind him. “As many as a dozen different crews have been identified over the last decade, but Union Intelligence thinks there are more cropping up every year.” 

“No set rules and regulations and free rein of the galaxy?” Gordon shook his head and set his pad back down on the table, bringing his eyes up from it. “It’s not hard to see why.” He didn’t sound like he agreed with that way of life one bit but he understood it at least. 

Even Talla could see the appeal, though what she’d heard about their workings meant she would never consider such a lifestyle herself. 

“They’ve done everything from heists to smuggling and even human trafficking,” John went on, having briefly met Gordon’s gaze after the Helmsman’s contribution to the discussion. 

“So they’re not just bounty hunters,” Doctor Finn chimed in. 

“It depends on the crew, from what we know of them.” John shook his head again. “And honestly? From what I can see in these files? What we do know is fractional at best. A lot of it is hearsay and guesswork. We don’t have much in the way of facts.” 

“Admiral Halsey said in his message that there were pictures of a few of these people,” Kelly said from her place to Talla’s left. “Can we take a look at those?” 

“Sure thing, Commander.” John hit a command on the screen and a selection of images displayed in a grid came up. There were maybe fifteen altogether and the array of races on show was surprising to say the least. They weren’t all male either. It was as varied a mix as the crew of any Union ship, with one very striking exception. 

“Is that a Krill?” Gordon was indicating the screen with disbelief written all over his face. 

John nodded his head. “Not the only one in their ranks either, apparently. At least three different Krill individuals have been spotted over the years, according to the records.” 

“My God,” Doctor Finn muttered from across the table, shaking her head as she sat back in her chair. 

Kelly turned in her chair. “Talla?” 

Their eyes met and Talla nodded her head, knowing that the moment she had been waiting for was upon them. Pushing up from her seat she moved around the table and to the head of the room, noticing the way Chief LaMarr stepped back to give her all the space she needed to scan the wall and the faces displayed across it. 

She studied them all carefully, trying to recall every single detail and specific that she had been able to capture in the moments when she had gotten a halfway decent look at the individuals on that planet. She had been reeling from the effects of the concussive wave at the time but thanks to the resilience of her system, as a Xelayan, and the fact that she had been furthest away from the blast radius, she hadn’t been out nearly as long as everyone else. The rest of the recovered members of their party had been unconscious for more than six hours. She couldn’t help but wonder if that had been the case with the Captain as well. 

As soon as she saw something familiar it was like a switch was flicked in her brain and she stopped. “This one.” She touched the image and it expanded, casting the others in the grid into the background. “He did most of the talking,” she told the others. “If I had to guess I’d say he was the leader.” Glancing back she saw Kelly making a note on her pad, probably for Admiral Halsey when she next communicated with him. 

“What about the others?” Gordon asked from his place to the right of her own seat. “You recognise anyone else?” 

Tapping the image once more cast it back into the main grid and enabled her to get a better look at the collection again. She was still studying the faces and trying to be certain of familiarity when Bortus spoke up. 

“Wait.” 

They all turned to look at him as he rose from his seat and crossed to the screen as well. Without waiting for anyone else to speak he touched one of the images and enhanced it. 

Talla was glad that he had. The recognition hit home as soon as the image had been enlarged. 

“I am familiar with this Moclan,” Bortus told the group, turning so he could address them and moving his body enough that they could all see the face in question. “He served in the Moclan Fleet for a number of years before he was cast out.” 

“Cast out?” Doctor Finn frowned. “Why?” 

“His practises were—” Bortus paused, searching for the right word. “Unwarranted.” When those at the table cast uncertain glances around amongst themselves Bortus tried again. “His methods were unnecessarily aggressive. I have heard stories of his violent tendencies.” 

“You mean he’s violent for a Moclan?” Gordon obviously only realised what he had said once the words were out of his mouth. “Sorry, Bortus. I just mean—” 

“It is all right, Lieutenant. I understand.” Bortus turned to look at the image on display again but he caught sight of Talla’s face and stopped. “Lieutenant? Is something the matter?” 

She wished she was wrong, that she wasn’t about to say what she was, but there was no sense in wishing and hoping for something that wasn’t the case. “I recognise him too,” she told first Bortus and then the others, turning her head to address them as a whole even though her gaze met Kelly’s specifically. “He was one of the ones who ambushed us.”

Chapter Text

Admiral Halsey’s sigh was heavy and almost resigned as he sat back in his chair. Kelly didn’t like the way he did that, or the small shake of his head, or the silence that hung in the air between them across the connection as she waited for him to say something. At this rate, as the silence stretched, she didn’t care what he said, just so long as he said something

“Richard Blake is not a man to be trifled with,” he said at last, knitting his hands on the desktop in front of him. “He’s one of the most notorious members of this organisation, and with good reason.” 

“What do you mean?” Kelly could let her imagination run away with her on that but she would rather have the facts. 

Admiral Halsey took a moment before he spoke again, obviously gathering his thoughts. “From what we’ve been able to gather Blake was among the founding fathers of this whole thing. He might not have been one of the very first but he’s been in their ranks long enough to be considered a progenitor of sorts. This group doesn’t have a governing body like the Fleet but if it did? Blake would be right up there, maybe even at the very top.” 

Kelly frowned, shaking her head. “Talla said these people don’t work together, that they’re in direct competition with one another.” 

“And Lieutenant Keyali would be right,” he said to her, “but these people are outlaws. They’re as close to pirates as you’re likely to find in this day and age, and they hold true to the old adage the enemy of my enemy is my friend. You can guarantee that they would band together against a larger threat.” 

“Like the Fleet?” 

“Like the Fleet.” He nodded his head. 

“So if we go after these people—” 

“You won’t be dealing with just one crew,” Halsey cut in by way of agreement. “Precisely.” 

Kelly straightened in her seat. She could have told the Admiral she wasn’t afraid of a few ragtag outlaws and thugs but the truth of the matter was those words would have been empty arrogance and nothing more. The files Halsey had sent through proved to them that they didn’t have nearly enough information to get a good grasp on these people and the facts that they did have painted an ugly picture. 

With a shake of her head she said, “Admiral, you know that’s a risk we have to take.” Before Halsey could say anything else she went on, “I know the Admiralty wouldn’t consider this a worthwhile risk to take, but, Sir—” For a moment she was at a loss for words and she had to pause to collect her thoughts and her breath and everything in between. “Admiral, this is Ed.” 

Hopefully that would be enough to convey all the things she wanted to say but couldn’t put into words. 

Several seconds passed in which Halsey was quiet and when he did start speaking it wasn’t in an immediate dismissal. “I understand, Commander,” he told her, leaning his weight forward again, settling into his characteristic pose. “And believe me when I say that I’m going to fight with everything I have to get you and your people clearance to move forward with a rescue mission, hopefully with the backup I don’t doubt you’ll need if you’re going to go up against these Razers.” He spoke the name with obvious disdain. “But I won’t lie to you,” he went on, “it’s going to be a hard sell.” 

She felt her shoulders threaten to drop. “Admiral—” 

He held up a hand. “You don’t have to try and convince me, Kelly.” The fact that he used her name rather than her rank told her this meant as much to him as it did to her. So she held her tongue and let him speak. “I know how much Ed means to you, and to the rest of the crew of the Orville.” Something about the way he said that told Kelly that the man in question meant a lot to Halsey as well. “He’s a hell of an officer and the Fleet would be worse off without him. I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would say otherwise.” He straightened in his seat. “So when I tell you I’ll do everything in my power to get you that clearance? I mean it.” 

Kelly gave him a nod. “Yes, Sir.” She had to swallow past the lump of emotion that had suddenly formed in her throat. “Thank you, Admiral.” 

He nodded back at her. “Don’t give up hope, Commander. We’ll work this out.” He waited until she gave him another dip of her head by way of acknowledgement before ending the call. 

This time Kelly didn’t stick around long enough to recognise just how lonely it was in her office. No sooner had the words Halsey out come across the line than she was rising from her seat and making a beeline for the door. 

 


 

Even with his jacket on Ed couldn’t help not just feeling the cold but being almost painfully aware of it. Every breath rode out on a cloud of mist and it was a struggle to keep from shivering. Even with the fire he had managed to get going the sharp bite of the night air was a vicious thing that just couldn’t be ignored. Sleep wouldn’t have come easily even if he had been trying to achieve it but the harsh reality was that Ed didn’t trust himself to so much as attempt it. He still didn’t know if he was alone here and if he slipped into too deep a sleep and didn’t rouse in time to protect himself then there was no telling how bad things might get. 

The cold made it easy to stay awake, at least. That was something. But in staying awake he only became increasingly aware of his thirst and the hunger that had decided to rear its ugly head and join in on proceedings. If he didn’t find a decent source of food and water in the next day or two then he was going to be in serious trouble. 

If he could just find some signs of civilisation— 

Ed stilled and strained to listen past the crackle of the fire for the sound he knew in his gut he had just heard. 

There

A rustle. The unmistakable sound of small stones shifting and tumbling. 

His heart skipped and an icy chill that had nothing to do with the temperature of the air chased up his spine. For a moment he didn’t breathe as he focused on what his gut was telling him. Without warning, as quickly and forcefully as he could, he shoved himself back and fully out of the spot he had been occupying for the last few hours. 

Something heavy came crashing down right where he had been sitting and in its wake came a harsh spitting of what Ed thought might have been curses. The only light to see by was being cast by the fire that crackled and jumped aggressively as the ground near its base was disturbed violently. It cast the figure into an almost eerie silhouette as Ed got his bearings and came to terms with the fact that he most definitely was not alone here. 

And whoever this was, they obviously weren’t interested in pleasantries. 

But that didn’t mean Ed wasn’t going to try and get through to them anyway. “Hey, wait—” 

They didn’t wait. The figure rushed towards him so frantically that their feet scuffed across the ground with such violence that it cast a shower of dirt and small stones back into the fire. Sparks and embers jumped erratically skyward as Ed threw himself to the side as quickly as he could. His shoulder thudded against the edge of the mouth of the cave and he had just enough time to wince in reaction before he caught the flash of light bouncing off something metal. 

Without thinking he ducked, just as that something metal struck the rock at the cave’s mouth and made a distinct grating sound. 

Wait!” Ed tried again, coming around to face the figure again and feeling the brush of the warmth from the flames against the backs of his legs. He got a halfway decent look at the figure then and he winced again because he was hard pressed to think of a time when he had ever laid eyes on a sorrier individual. They were skin and bone and dirty clothes that didn’t fit them properly, their hair and beard a scraggly and dishevelled mess. 

It was their eyes that gave him pause. Wide and wild and completely without any kind of focus that hinted at reason or logic. 

And that something metal was most certainly a knife. And not a small one. 

“Oh sh—” Ed didn’t even have a chance to finish uttering those words before the man hurtled at him again, moving much faster than someone in that condition should have been able to manage. This time Ed wasn’t fast enough to get all the way clear of their path and he felt skinny but unnervingly strong fingers latch in the material of his jacket and heave. It threw him off balance enough that his weight was swung around and he lost his footing, going down to the ground far too close to the fire for comfort. Ed rolled away from the flames before they could lash out and catch at his face or hair, or even his clothes, and tried to pin down the position of his unexpected guest at the same time. 

They came out of nowhere again, using the lack of light well and truly to their advantage to rush out of the shadows on Ed’s other side and force him back to the ground before he had even managed to get more than a quarter of the way up. His shoulders took the brunt of the impact against the ground and those small stones jabbed sharply into the small of his back and his legs but he didn’t have time to worry about them because the blade had come back into view and was being driven down towards his face. 

Just in time to slow the momentum Ed caught the man’s arm, a slender limb that had far too much power. But Ed knew adrenaline and desperation when he saw it and he recognised just how much danger he was in if he couldn’t get the man away from him. “Stop,” he managed to grind out, looking into the man’s wild dark eyes for any sign of reason or humanity but there wasn’t even so much as a twitch of hesitation. 

Talking wasn’t going to help. 

The man shifted his weight to press it all down on that one arm and Ed felt his own shaking and straining. He let out an involuntary sound, equal parts effort and the very beginnings of panic, before he felt his foot scuff against something solid. With nothing else in the way of options he got his foot against that solid surface and shoved

Ed succeeded in forcing his own body across the ground and mostly out from beneath that of the other man but he also failed to account for the fact that he surrendered his grip on his attacker’s weapon arm in the process. Without Ed’s arms in the perfect position to keep it at bay the other man’s was free to plummet down, weapon and all, the downward drive made all that much forceful by the lean of their body and the sudden release of resistance. 

The blade pierced straight through first jacket and then shirt, meeting skin beneath and sinking through effortlessly. The shock of it kept Ed from reacting beyond a gasp initially but when he felt that blade scrape against the bone of his hip he let out a loud and agonised yell. Frantically he grasped at the ground and as soon as his fingers clutched around something solid he brought it around as a weapon. 

When the rock struck him in the head the man grunted gruffly and staggered to one side but he kept his grip on the hilt of the blade as he did so, jarring it roughly to one side and at an angle. Ed nearly choked on the pain. With tears in his eyes and a building sense of instinctual panic he kicked at the man, trying to get him off and away but all he managed to do was provoke him. 

He still had the rock in his hand, by some miracle, and when the man came over him again with his brow gushing blood and one eye full of the stuff, half blinded, Ed struck at him a second time. He hit him close to the ear this time and the sound the man let out was nothing even close to human: it was guttural and manic and half-crazed. With one arm he swatted and smacked at the rock in Ed’s grasp and managed to knock it free even as he wrenched the knife again. 

Ed did choke then, briefly going blind and deaf and dumb as the agony of the wound tearing engulfed him. The world went white and then black and then came screaming back into horrendous focus as the man loomed over him. His yellowed teeth were bared in a predatory grin and spittle had spattered through his beard and across his cracked lips. Ed realised then what it was that was most frightening about the man’s expression. 

He looked hungry

Panic took over, pairing desperately with instinct and what scraps of adrenaline he had left, and Ed punched the man. Hard. Repeatedly. Ed hit him in the face as many times as he could, until his arm burned and his shoulder blazed and he could barely breathe. The sounds he made with each fresh punch became increasingly frantic and pained until finally, finally, the man wobbled and rocked enough for Ed to heave his own body over and to the side, all but screaming as he did so because everything hurt more than he could bear. 

There was a moment, just a moment, in which their eyes met again and the hunger had dropped from the other man’s to be replaced instead by an abrupt realisation, followed in an instant by a rush of what Ed thought might have been relief. And then the other man’s eyes were gone. Not closed but gone, along with the rest of him. Ed fought to suck in a breath of air and blinked, sweat stinging in his eyes along with dirt and God only knew what else. 

He was at the edge of the outcropping. Right on the ledge. 

His jaw hanging open in shock Ed managed to steal a glance over that ledge to the sheer drop beyond. It was dark but if he strained his eyes he thought he could see a body on the ground far below. It wasn’t moving. 

Pain throbbed through his stomach and Ed gasped and groaned, coming back to the moment and the reality of his situation, forcing himself to look down at his body. The blade had been pulled almost all the way out in the last throes of the struggle between him and his attacker but that was far from a relief. 

Even as he watched a fresh pulse of blood ebbed free of the torn flesh of his lower abdomen. 

“Oh God.” He could barely get the words out. Ed tried not to think about how cold he felt now, in a way that had absolutely nothing to do with the chill in the air and everything to do with the sheer amount of blood he was losing. Trying to push up from the ground was a huge mistake and it left him breathlessly buckled on his back too close to the edge of the outcropping. His hands had instinctively gone to the ugly wound and instantly they were slick with the blood that continued to pulse out of him. He could feel it fighting to spill out of him, oozing and sliding through the spaces between his fingers and out from beneath his wet palms. 

He tried to move again, tried to get back over to the wall, but the effort left him drained and close to blacking out. Ed only managed to get his shoulders and the back of his head against the face of the rock close to the mouth of the cave, near enough to the fire now that the wound was cast into harsh relief. 

It was bad. Extremely bad. 

Ed felt sick. Lightheaded. Terrified

He couldn’t stop the bleeding. He was losing too much. Far too much. The ground he had somehow managed to cover was coated in it, a dark and ugly stain that stood out even in the blackness of the night. 

It was getting harder to breathe. Harder to think. Ed blinked repeatedly and tried not to notice the way the brightness of the fire dimmed each time. His heart was thundering and skipping and drumming madly. 

And then it wasn’t. 

His last thought was of Kelly.

Chapter Text

The pad bounced off the palm of his hand as he walked down the corridor, not looking where he was going and not even thinking to lift his head and thank the few officers he encountered who had enough presence of mind to move out of his way. Gordon wasn’t paying attention, he wasn’t thinking about such trivial things. They couldn’t be any further from his mind, in fact, and he got to where he was going without even having to be consciously aware of his journey. By now he knew this ship like the back of his hand, he had every inch of her mapped out in his mind and he would be able to navigate her many halls and corridors with his eyes closed, or in pitch blackness. 

When he reached the door he had been headed for he stopped, bouncing pad and all, and hesitated for only a moment before thumbing the call button on the panel fixed to the wall. He heard the chime, counted off the seconds before the response, and when nothing happened he frowned subtly and thumbed the button again. 

This time there was a call from within, permitting him entry. 

The doors opened with their usual smooth obedience and he stepped in, doing so a little cautiously at first because the fact that Talla hadn’t responded to the first call made him wonder if she wasn’t as up for visitors as she normally would have been. “Hey,” he said by way of greeting, but it was lacking his usual cheer. “Can I come in?” 

She was looking his way, her computer screen active, and she gave him a nod. Without a word she turned her gaze back to the screen. Gordon hesitated again. Talla usually closed her screen when people came to her office, not because she was worried about people seeing whatever she was working on but so that she could give them her full attention, or at least that was how he saw it. 

“Everything okay?” he asked, holding the pad he was carrying in both hands now. “I can come back later if—” 

Talla closed her eyes and gave her head another shake. “No, it’s okay.” With a small sigh Gordon wasn’t sure he was supposed to have heard she lifted her head and met his gaze properly then. “What can I do for you?” 

He paused, debating whether or not to tell her that she didn’t need to do anything for him, especially not after what had happened, but in the end he decided against it. Talla didn’t need his platitudes and reassurances. In the long run they wouldn’t help her. So he cleared his throat and moved further into the room. “I’ve been going over the files Union Central sent through,” he told her. 

Talla’s gaze briefly dropped to her computer screen and the smile that touched her lips for just a moment was anything but amused. “You and me both,” she admitted, setting her arms on the surface of her desk, her hands loosely grasping her elbows. She was quiet for a moment, contemplative, before she asked him, “Have you had any luck?” 

Other than the couch against the back wall there were no other seats in Talla’s office but Gordon didn’t want to sit anyway. Instead he paced back and forth in front of her desk, slowly enough that he hoped it wouldn’t be irritating. Sitting still right now wasn’t something he felt capable of doing and until they had some kind of destination to head towards, not to mention approval from the Admiralty, all he would be doing on the bridge was just that. So here he was, pacing back and forth in Talla’s office, trying to make sense of the information they had been given. “I just can’t figure out how we’ve never run into these guys before,” he said to the Xelayan, shaking his head, gesturing with the pad in his hand and being careful not to lose his grip on it. “If they’re as prolific and far-reaching as these reports say they are, then—” At a loss for words he shrugged his shoulders. 

With a nod of her head Talla said, “I know what you mean.” 

“But you said you’d encountered them before.” 

“Not directly,” she corrected, rising from her chair after the fact and moving around the desk to cross to the synthesiser in the corner. Gordon watched as she keyed a couple of buttons and wordlessly requested two glasses of something. As she crossed back to him and offered him one she said, “My last ship had a near-miss with them on a planet we were exploring once. Our First Officer caught sight of them retrieving something from a quarry and called it in but they realised we were there before we had any orders to work with. We pursued them but were too late to engage before they managed to escape in their shuttle. That’s how I recognised the markings on the one that took the Captain.” She paused and shook her head. “We never did find out what it was they got from that quarry.” 

Gordon thought it probably didn’t matter. He accepted the glass and when he lifted it to subtly sniff at its contents he couldn’t get anything at all. Sipping it revealed it to be nothing more than water. “Whatever it was,” he said as he set the glass down on Talla’s desk, even as she made her way around it again to reclaim her seat, “we have to assume it was something they were sent there to retrieve.” 

“Exactly.” Talla set her own glass down without so much as taking a sip. She was looking at her monitor again. “We would have given pursuit once they were off the planet but they had enough of a head start on us that we couldn’t keep up. The Captain wasn’t about to leave us on the surface to give chase.” 

Gordon nodded his head. Ed would have made the same call, he was sure. With a furrow in his brow he looked down at the pad he was holding. “Talla?” Without lifting his gaze to confirm as much he thought she looked his way at the sound of her name. “We can find these guys.” He lifted his gaze then to meet hers. “Right?” 

She didn’t hesitate long before she said, “Right.” And then she added with more conviction, “Of course we will.” 

Gordon didn’t feel much better for hearing her say it but he would take whatever he could get at this rate. After glancing down at the pad once more he was quiet for a minute before he thought to speak again but when he lifted his eyes he saw Talla had averted her own. She was looking at her screen but her attention wasn’t moving beyond one spot. She wasn’t reading anything. Just staring. 

“Talla.” There was the subtlest increase in tension in the line of her jaw that told him she was listening. “You know what happened down there wasn’t your fault, right?” With a shake of his head he added, “No one blames you for anything.” 

She lifted her gaze after a moment and met his eyes. It had been a bold statement on his part, possibly too bold, but when she didn’t immediately dismiss his remarks he was reassured that he hadn’t crossed a line. 

“That’s where you’re wrong, Lieutenant,” she said to him and there was a weariness in her voice that was impossible to miss. “I do.” 

Gordon didn’t know what to say to that. Putting himself in her shoes didn’t help one bit because he knew he never would have forgiven himself if he had been in her position. If he had been down on that planet when those people had swept in out of nowhere and taken Ed he wasn’t sure he would have been able to deal with the guilt. Talla was functioning, at least, focusing on her job much as she had when they had believed Locar had been murdered in the simulator, but it was eating away at her that she hadn’t been able to stop the abduction. 

“You could have been killed.” His voice was quiet but he put as much conviction behind the words as he could muster. He was ready to meet her gaze when it lifted. “You know that.” From what he had read about these people, about Blake in particular, he didn’t doubt it for a second. 

Talla looked like she was thinking about arguing with him but whatever she had been about to say died on her tongue before she could give it voice and instead she just dipped her head before giving it the smallest nod. Drawing in a breath she looked at her screen again. “We’re going to find these people,” she said then and he heard the strength they had all come to associate with her working its way back to the surface. “Whatever it takes.” 

It was Gordon’s turn to nod his head. “Whatever it takes.” 

 


 

The Admiral had asked her to collect the senior staff for what he had to say and it was with her heart threatening to leap up into her throat that she had done so. As they filed in she met their gazes, each of them in turn, returning Claire’s quiet smile with as much sincerity as she could muster, which wasn’t much. When Talla stepped in, the last to join them with Gordon following in her wake, she gave the Xelayan a small nod that was returned in kind. 

They all took their seats and turned their heads to the main screen as it came to life, showing them Admiral Halsey at his desk. 

“I know this is a difficult situation for everyone,” he said to them, “so I won’t waste any time with pleasantries.” 

Kelly, for one, appreciated that fact. 

The Admiral went on, wasting no time in doing so. “I’ve met with the Admiralty and explained the situation to them in full. I’ve given them all the details that you were able to provide and explained the benefits of sanctioning a rescue mission.” 

Kelly heard Gordon fidget in his seat on the other side of Talla, who had claimed the chair to her immediate right. 

Halsey didn’t look relieved as he said, “A recovery mission has been approved.” Before any of them could heave any sighs of relief he went on to explain, “But Union Central’s primary interest in this particular endeavour is the information it might provide as far as the Razers are concerned.” 

Gordon didn’t hesitate to put voice to everyone’s disbelief in the wake of that remark. “What?” Kelly glanced in the Helmsman’s direction and saw the borderline disgust in his expression. “They’re kidding with that, right?” He gestured emphatically with one hand, taking in the entirety of the table and its occupants before directing the gesture towards the screen. “You’re seriously telling us they’re more interested in learning more about these bounty hunter sons of bitches than they care about rescuing the Captain?” Gordon looked like he was ready and raring to go on but the Admiral held up a hand. 

“I understand your feelings on the matter, Lieutenant,” he interjected, “and I sympathise. In fact I couldn’t agree more, and between you and me I told the rest of the Admiralty as much.” 

Kelly could actually hear the disapproval in the man’s voice. It didn’t do much to make her feel better, unfortunately. “So what do they want us to do, exactly?” she asked, hearing the tightness in her own voice. 

“They’ve given you and your crew the green light to pursue any and all leads,” Halsey told them. “Union Central’s resources are, obviously, at your disposal and they’ve given clearance to contact any and all of our allies in the hopes that you might be able to piece together more information to paint a better picture of these people and their organisation.” 

John shook his head. “But what about the Captain?” 

Halsey sighed, opening his hands before knitting them again. “Obviously he’s my first priority as well, but you have your orders.” And he couldn’t overrule or dismiss them, Kelly suspected, no matter how much he might have wanted to. “If the information you gather gives you clues that lead to his location? Then you have Union Central’s go ahead to pursue them. But—” He looked like a bad taste had settled on his tongue in the pause before he went on to say, somewhat gravely, “Officially? The Razers are to be your focus.” 

Kelly looked around at the faces of those gathered and saw the same disappointment and frustration that she felt boiling up inside of her. To her right Talla was tense with what she suspected was genuine anger, Gordon’s face was a mask of disgust, Claire’s lips were drawn in a thin line, John was choosing very pointedly not to look at the screen, and Bortus’ expression was as dark as she had ever seen it. Isaac was much harder to read but Kelly was choosing to take his silence on the matter as a stance that aligned perfectly with theirs. 

“There’s something else, Commander,” Halsey said, breaking the uncomfortable silence. 

With a knot forming in her stomach she looked to the screen, waiting for him to continue. 

“If you and your crew haven’t found anything of any real significance within seventy-two hours—” the Admiral pulled in a deep breath, looking unhappy about the words he had said and even more so at the ones that followed, “—you’re to call off the mission entirely and return to Earth.” 

Out of the corner of her eye Kelly saw Gordon’s jaw drop open but no sound came out, not even so much as a single syllable of disbelief. It was too much of a shock for the Helmsman to vocalise, clearly. 

There was a bad taste on her tongue now, one she swallowed back as forcefully as she could so that she could at least raise her voice to say with no small amount of resentment for the orders that had been given, “Understood.” 

It was a lie. She didn’t understand. Not one bit. 

Halsey frowned, a sympathetic looking expression that lingered even as he said, “I’ll contact you again in a few hours.” He hesitated, appearing as though he wanted to say something further, before he changed his mind. “Halsey out.” The screen flicked back to its static appearance of a station in orbit of a planet. 

“This is bullshit.” Gordon’s voice was tight, betraying how close he was to losing his temper. It took a hell of a lot to push him to that point, Kelly knew. 

“They can’t seriously expect us to focus more on learning about the people responsible for this than finding the Captain.” Even as she said the words Claire sounded resigned to the fact that that was exactly what the Admiralty had decided. 

“It is wrong,” Bortus chimed in. He turned his eyes to Kelly. “And it is an order that we should disobey, Commander. With all due respect.” 

That bad taste hadn’t shifted or receded as much as she had hoped it might. She shifted in her seat, leaning her weight forward, resting her arms on the table and looking down at its surface as she tried to think. Letting her emotions get the better of her and ultimately cloud her judgement wouldn’t help anyone. It certainly wouldn’t help Ed and regardless of what the Admiralty had decided that was their primary concern. He was their primary concern. 

“Maybe we don’t have to,” she said at last, lifting her gaze and looking around at the rest of the officers present. Isaac’s head tilted to one side and she took that as her cue to go on, “We can do exactly what we’ve been told to do and hunt for the Captain.” She had to catch herself before she called him Ed. Trying to maintain an air of professionalism probably wasn’t fooling anyone but using his rank instead of his name actually helped her to stay that little bit more balanced for some reason. That probably wouldn’t be the case for long if they didn’t get any answers that helped them figure out where he had ended up but she would run with it as long as she could. “In order to find him we have to learn more about these people anyway and that gives us an edge.” 

Gordon was watching her intently, his eyes narrowed a little as he said, “A loophole: we use the search for Ed to get Union Central what they want.” 

“Exactly.” Kelly’s nod was short and clipped, a precise acknowledgement. “They don’t need to know our priorities are any different than theirs.” 

“Even though that should be pretty damn obvious,” John added, a remark that was met with no argument from anyone. 

Isaac spoke up for the first time since they had gathered. “Whether or not it is obvious is irrelevant, Commander.” He looked across the table to Kelly. “It is those of us aboard the Orville who will be conducting the search in question, not those in command at Union Central.” With a smooth gesture of one hand he went on, “And it would be difficult, to say the least, for those individuals to keep us from following whatever leads we choose to follow in our assigned mission.” 

Despite herself Kelly couldn’t help but smile. Just for a moment she found herself thinking back to that moment in Admiral Halsey’s office following the Kaylon Conflict when Ed had taken full responsibility for Isaac. Halsey had called it a heavy obligation but Kelly didn’t see it that way because what she had heard in the Kaylon’s words just then was nothing short of complete and unwavering loyalty. It might have been impossible, in his own assessment, for an artificial life form to truly feel anything, but it was there all the same and she doubted any of the people around the table now would be able to disagree with that. 

She nodded at last and looked around at her companions. “All right,” she said. “Let’s go find the Captain.”

Chapter Text

Everything was dark and silent and still. 

And then it wasn’t. 

With jarring force and alarming speed the world pressed in from all sides. It was instantly oppressive and overwhelming even before senses had stopped reeling and tripping, trying too fast to engage in the wake of such a sudden and unexpected overload. Sounds were too loud, the glare of lights that were too bright was almost painful, the air rushing down to struggling lungs was too warm with a strange quality to it that left a bad taste sitting heavily on the tongue. 

His heart was thundering and skipping and drumming madly. 

His heart. It was beating again. 

He was alive

It was a fight to open his eyes and one he almost instantly wished he hadn’t won when they obeyed him. That glaring light immediately made them water and he winced with a groan that sounded strange to his own ears. He tried to turn his head but it wouldn’t move. Trying again only left him with a dull ache through the back of his neck that traced all the way up through the rear of his skull. 

Ed blinked, repeatedly, struggling to overcome those too-bright lights so that he could get his bearings. It was too bright to be daylight. The light was too pure, too white. Too clinical. There was no warmth to it. 

He groaned again, trying once more to move not only his head but his arms so that he could attempt to push himself up. Nothing responded. And there was still something strange about the sound of his own voice, low and brief though it was in the form of that groan. It was almost muffled. It was the same when he breathed, he realised, and that odd quality to the air hadn’t lessened. If anything it had only gotten worse. 

“—didn’t disappoint.” The voice came from somewhere off to the right. 

Another sounded from off to the left. “It’s a shame it ran into Rambler the way that it did.” 

Ed thought he heard a low acknowledgement. He winced, that ache through the back of his skull picking up enough that he missed some of the words that followed the low sound. “—first one to take it with them though.” Trying to concentrate only made it worse and the voice was fractional and broken again, “—should have taken it out of the system a long time ago.” 

There was a low hiss of a sound that came from all around, harsh and abrupt enough that it made Ed’s whole body tense and that only highlighted the discomfort that was starting to settle in to every inch of his frame. Suddenly it felt like the whole world was tipping on its axis and it took him several seconds to realise it wasn’t the world but him. Something was angling him up and slightly forward. It was disorienting enough that he felt briefly nauseated, having to close his eyes tightly against the sensation. 

The next sound was more like an electrical hum but it was cut off by a sharp stab of pain through the back of his head that robbed him of breath. When he recovered enough to suck down a lungful of air the sound of it had returned to normal. It didn’t sound muffled anymore. And he could move his head. Ed was grimacing as he opened his eyes and tried to get his vision to clear so that he could figure out what was going on. 

Slowly but surely things came into focus, revealing that stark and unwelcoming white lighting once again. There was a slight blue hue to it that sorely lacked the homely quality that the illumination aboard the Orville provided. Across the space of whatever room they were in he could see work stations and monitors, unintelligible readings flashing and streaming across the various surfaces. 

Without warning the lighting dropped and Ed realised belatedly that it hadn’t come from overhead, but rather from points in the upper walls, almost like spotlights. They had angled down and dimmed almost to the point of extinguishing, leaving the space looking and feeling much darker. It didn’t help with the overall sense of disorientation. If anything it made it that much worse. The space felt even colder now, and more alien. 

Ed had been waiting for everything to stop reeling in the wake of the unexpected return to consciousness before trying to move again in the hopes that he had just been too thrown by the fact that he was alive to get anywhere. But that wasn’t the case. When he did try again he was met with just as much firm resistance as before. 

There was something else as well. He remembered being in agony before passing out— 

No. He hadn’t passed out. He had died. Ed was sure of it. He had felt the exact moment when his lungs had seized and his heart had stopped. There was no mistaking the building sense of crippling, all-consuming terror, the finality of the knowledge that the next few seconds would be his last. 

Ed looked down, expecting to see either an ugly gaping wound or evidence of its repair, but there was nothing of the sort. Instead he saw exactly why he couldn’t move: there were restricting bands holding him back to a firm, flat surface. There was one across his chest and upper arms, another across his lower abdomen, and a third just above his knees. His wrists and ankles were tightly secured as well, to the point where he couldn’t even turn his hand in the restraint. That didn’t stop him from trying. 

It was a conscious effort to keep his breathing steady. Ed knew that the restraints were less alarming than the fatal wound he vividly remembered sustaining but it was only by the barest margin. 

He remembered then that he had heard voices and now that he could move his head he turned it, albeit cautiously, to one side. It hurt to do that, his neck and head were aching persistently and his vision wavered momentarily in the wake of the motion but he took a deep breath and steadied himself as much as possible. 

The figure off to the right wasn’t paying any attention to him, but they were much closer than he had expected them to be and it was almost startling. They were examining something that Ed couldn’t see on the wall against which he was trapped. Ed thought about speaking to them but he wasn’t sure that he could trust his voice just yet and his brain was too occupied by trying to recognise the species of the individual. 

Their skin was pale and they had no hair to speak of, their head flawlessly smooth. Their features were humanoid to the point that they could almost be mistaken for one but their eyes were a shade of green that Ed knew had never been natural on Earth. The alien brought one of their hands to their face briefly, their expression contemplative, and he saw that they possessed only three fingers as well as an opposable thumb. The digits were longer than a human’s as well. 

He didn’t recognise them in the slightest. 

“Vitals are stabilising quickly,” they said in a voice that was more masculine than feminine but Ed wasn’t making assumptions. He turned his head more to the left, struggling against the wave of disorientation again, and saw another very similar alien on that side. This one looked a little slimmer but otherwise he would have had a lot of trouble telling them apart. Even their clothing was identical. Uniforms of some sort, most likely. 

“Mm.” It was a distracted sort of noise, the kind Ed had always associated with deep concentration. 

Ed took a breath and hoped his voice would obey. “Hello?” It sounded a little dry but other than that it didn’t fight him too much on the way out. 

Neither alien took any notice of him. The one on the right spoke again, “It lasted longer than any other subject in that environment on a first attempt.” They made a thoughtful sound. “Impressive.” 

“Hey.” Actually thinking of what to say to get their attention was more exhausting than it had any right to be. 

“Remember what we were told,” the other alien said, glancing back towards their associate for only the briefest of moments. 

Hey.” Ed tried to pull at the restraint around his right wrist but he could barely move at all to get any kind of leverage. Attempting to struggle with the rest of his body was even more difficult. His back was pressed firmly against whatever he was secured to, a surface that was at the slightest angle to the floor so that if he dropped his head Ed could look directly down at the ground beyond his feet. It was like being at the edge of a sheer drop, suspended in mid-air over a fall. Just for a second Ed was reminded bizarrely of a theme park, specifically the rollercoasters that some people back on Earth were still so fond of. 

Neither of the aliens had paid the slightest bit of attention to him. 

“Who are you people?” he asked, looking from one to the other. “What is this place?” Nothing. “Hey, talk to me!” 

Confirmation that they could hear him came in the form of a fleeting moment in which the alien to his right met his gaze. If he had blinked he would have missed it. 

“You can hear me,” he said to that one, almost accusatorily, focusing his attention on them now. “What do you want? What am I doing here?” Ed was still pulling against the band around his wrist, it was already starting to feel sore but he couldn’t stop trying. So he would keep struggling and keep talking until he got either answers or some chance at freedom. Whichever came first. Hopefully one would lead to the other. 

The alien to the left spoke again, cutting directly across Ed’s renewed attempts to get an answer out of the one to his right. “We already have interest.” 

“Oh?” The head of the alien to his right lifted and turned. 

His companion was looking back at them as they nodded. 

“Who?” 

Ed could feel his heartbeat picking up, the finest threads of panic working their way through his building frustration. “What are you talking about?” He had already raised his voice but he did so again, trying to talk over the pair to turn their attention to him. “What is this place? What do you want from me?” 

They ignored him. The one on the right had crossed the room to look at the screen of the one on the left. They uttered that same low sound that Ed remembered hearing before he had opened his eyes and properly regained consciousness. “Well,” they said, “this should be interesting. And they’re already on site. Even better.” 

“They have been requesting something more challenging.” 

“Hopefully this one won’t disappoint.” They turned and moved back to their original position without so much as glancing in Ed’s direction. 

“Hey,” Ed tried again. “Please, just talk to me. There must be some kind of misunderstanding.” One that they could figure out, he hoped, but if neither of them would engage with him then that was a futile hope at best. “Where are the rest of my people?” Were Talla and the others here too? That had occurred to him before that moment but he had wanted them to respond to him before asking. Still they said nothing, the one to his right working at whatever monitor was fixed into the wall there. 

“It’s not too soon?” That was the one on the left again. They were turned to watch their associate, stepping closer without crossing the distance completely. 

“I don’t think so,” they responded with confidence, “no.” 

Ed had been about to ask them what they meant when he felt a sharp jab of pain in his right arm that turned his head down. There was a needle there, not far up from the band of the restraint, and a tube seamlessly attached to its end. Ed could just make out a clear fluid running through the tube. “What is that?” He looked from one alien to the other but they continued to ignore him as though they couldn’t hear him. “What are you doing?” A similar jab of pain flared in his left arm, in the crook of his elbow this time, uncomfortable enough for his breath to catch. The fluid in the tube there was not clear but a pale blue. Ed’s breathing had quickened as he looked between the two aliens again, wanting to ask them what was going on but his voice failed him abruptly. His breathing started to slow again but not by his own doing. 

He heard the hiss again and the platform to which he was secured levelled vertically and then tipped back. Before he could move his head to try to protest again he realised he couldn’t move it at all, that it was being held in place somehow. In the next instant an oxygen mask settled over his nose and mouth, that off-tasting air slowing his breathing even further. It was suddenly incredibly difficult to keep his eyes open. 

And then the sharp stab of pain at the back of his skull. 

The world went black. 

 


 

And then in an instant it was filled with blazing light. 

With a curse jumping to his tongue Ed jolted up, expecting to be met with firm resistance but his body moved freely. That was almost as startling as the abrupt shift in his surroundings and for several seconds he sat there on a hard, uneven ground in breathless surprise. He blinked rapidly to try to get his eyes to adjust to the sudden harsh brightness of the space, lifting one hand from the ground to shield his face from the glare overhead. 

It wasn’t the spotlights from whatever that place had been, he realised quickly, but a sun. It was beating down relentlessly on what looked like a broken old city in which Ed seemed to have been set down quite at random. Dropping his hand in disbelief and near-overwhelming confusion he stumbled to his feet and turned on the spot. It was like a different world to where he had been what felt like mere moments ago. It didn’t make any sense

There was no sign of the woods or the rocks he remembered dying on either. 

“What the hell?” Ed turned on the spot again, looking around in more detail, in the hopes that he would see something that would jog his memory somehow but there was nothing at all. It was a wholly unfamiliar place and he had never set foot here before in his life. 

Thoroughly at a loss Ed lifted his hands and looked at them, first the backs and then his palms. Shoving up the sleeves of the nondescript dark jacket he was wearing he looked for evidence of the needlepoints that he distinctly remembered jabbing into his skin but there was nothing at all. With a tug he pulled up the hem of the black shirt. Not even so much as a scar from the ragged hole that that wild and crazed man had torn into him on that outcropping. 

Ed dropped the shirt and raised his voice, calling out to anyone who could hear him, “Hello?” 

Nothing came back but the almost lazy echo of his own voice. When he tried again he got the exact same result. 

Ed felt his heart sink even as his mind reeled and railed against what was happening. In little more than a mutter of utter disbelief and bewilderment he said to no one at all, “What the hell is going on?” 

 


 

“Due to the fact that the ion trail of the Razer ship was thoroughly masked, we are having to resort to alternative measures in order to track their movements.” Isaac didn’t look up from his work the entire time in which he was speaking. 

John was used to that. As he walked around the central terminal in the Kaylon’s lab, thinking over the problem at hand and considering ways to work around it, he listened to the soft sounds of the station as his companion worked. When he came to a stop it was directly in front of the device that they had recovered from the face of the planet on which the away team had been ambushed. Uncrossing his arms he set one hand down just to either side of the thing, staring down at it thoughtfully. 

“So now you’re trying to—what?” He lifted his gaze and looked at the Kaylon, who lifted his head only briefly before returning to his work. “You really think there’s gonna be some kind of manufacturers’ mark or whatever?” John was sceptical and had never shied away from letting others know when that was the case. Honesty was the best policy, as a general rule, and though he knew his own brand of honesty could come across as cold, even downright brutal at times, it was only ever meant to help keep things clear. John didn’t like muddied waters. 

“That is my theory, yes,” Isaac confirmed, taking one hand from the console and gesturing to the device, pausing in his work as he explained further. “It is a crude but effective device meant to incapacitate a group of individuals for several hours at a time, as was the case with the landing party, with the exception of Lieutenant Keyali due to her inherent Xelayan resilience and the fact that she was at a greater distance to the epicentre of the blast. I believe it could, with a few rather simple alterations, be repurposed as an actual explosive, but it is clear from my studies that this was not its original purpose.” 

“It was made as a kind of giant stun grenade?” 

“Precisely, Commander.” With a dip of his head that counted as a nod Isaac lowered his attention once more to his primary workstation. 

John looked down at the thing and tilted his head, considering it with narrowed eyes and a furrowed brow. “Who would make something like that?” He was just thinking out loud really but the Kaylon had never been good at figuring that out so when he answered anyway John wasn’t surprised. 

“That is exactly what I am hoping to ascertain, Commander.” 

It would have been easy to give the Kaylon a snippy response but he held his tongue. It wouldn’t have served any purpose beyond wasting their time. Gesturing at the thing he went on to say, “So you think there’s someone out there somewhere actually making these for exactly what those guys used it for down on the surface.” It wasn’t a question and he didn’t pause long before he went on to say, “And I guess if you really think about, there could be a market for it, especially with a group like the Razers.” 

“That was my line of thinking as well,” the Kaylon concurred. 

“They’re bounty hunters, and they’re not gonna want to risk losing their bounty by resorting to rougher means to get what they’re being paid to retrieve.” In this case that was their Captain but John was having an easier time discussing this whole thing if he distanced that fact from his mind while he pieced this puzzle together. He couldn’t do that for what he went on to say next though, so he took a deep breath to steady himself and make it that little bit easier, “Which means whoever hired these guys in the first place wanted the Captain unharmed for whatever reason.” 

“An interesting requirement, certainly.” Isaac lifted his head again, looking from the device to John. 

“But why go to all that trouble to hire a group of people who’re essentially space pirates to grab a guy if you want him unharmed?” John shook his head. “You heard the Admiral, these people are pretty rough around the edges. Whoever hired them can’t have known for sure that they’d get the Captain in one piece.” 

“That would depend on what was promised in exchange for Captain Mercer’s delivery, and the condition in which he was delivered.” 

John wouldn’t have put it like that. It felt a little cold, even to him. But Isaac didn’t mean anything by it. “But why not just grab him themselves?” he went on, brow furrowed as he shook his head again. 

“I have wondered this as well. There are many possible explanations,” the Kaylon responded. 

John made a low sound at the back of his throat, indicating the device. “You think they’re the ones who made this thing?” 

“That is my hope, Commander.” 

Hope. That was an interesting choice of word for the Kaylon to use, John thought. “Because we could follow the trail right back to the Captain?” 

“Yes. However—” Isaac turned his head down to his work and gestured at it with one hand, “—it is equally likely that it was manufactured by a third party who are otherwise unconnected to the incident.” 

“And following their trail just eats away at our deadline.” John couldn’t help but sigh. 

Isaac lifted his head again. “Precisely.” 

With another sigh John nodded his head. “All right, man.” He looked down at the device and frowned, going on to add to the Kaylon, “Well, keep at it. We’ll do what we can in Engineering to help it along, and see if we can’t unmask these bastards’ ion trail enough to give us some idea where they went.” 

“Yes, Commander.” Isaac didn’t lift his head that time. “I will be sure to contact you if I make any developments.” 

But not before he’d reached out and touched base with Commander Grayson first, John thought. They all knew that the First Officer was on the edge of her seat waiting for news of any kind from any department and none of them could blame her. John, for one, would have been shocked if that hadn’t been the case. 

 


 

Ed’s mind was still reeling, trying to make sense of what was going on, by the time he gathered himself together enough to get moving. Standing in one place probably wasn’t a good idea and what exactly made him so certain of that he couldn’t be sure but he was going to trust his gut. It had served him well enough on that cliff when that man, the one those aliens had called Rambler, had tried to sneak up on him, and several times since he had taken on the duties of commanding officer aboard the Orville they had played their part in any number of ways. Ed knew he could trust those instincts and until he had good reason to do otherwise that was exactly what he planned on doing. 

Finding some kind of weapon would be a good idea, he knew. If he had had some means of defending himself against the one they called Rambler then he probably wouldn’t have ended up— 

God, it just didn’t make sense

Ed remembered dying. 

And yet here he was. 

Even now if he thought about it he could all too vividly recall the blinding agony that had blazed through him when that blade had ripped a hole in his abdomen. He remembered all too clearly how it had felt when all that blood had been spilling out of him, the rush of cold that had come over him as his life had been slipping away. He remembered the pressing sensation through his chest as his lungs failed. Ed remembered feeling that last laboured thud of his heart. 

And he remembered thinking about Kelly in those last moments, holding on tightly to the image of her face that his mind had conjured as his body had given out on him. 

With a shake of his head he muttered under his breath, “Keep it together, Mercer.” Losing his mind over the countless questions and mysteries surrounding his situation wouldn’t help him find a weapon, or shelter, or some means of sustaining himself for however long he ended up stuck here. Wherever here was. 

What he needed was higher ground, so that he could see if he could spot anything even remotely similar to where he had fought with that wild figure on those rocks. As he lifted his gaze and considered the abandoned and hollowed out buildings around him he tried not to think too hard about the fact that the sky here wasn’t nearly as clear and blue as it had been in that other landscape. Here it was tainted a kind of orange that reminded him somewhat of Moclus. It wasn’t quite so harsh as that planet’s polluted atmosphere but the reminder was there all the same. 

One vantage point was as good as another, he ended up deciding, and so with a glance around at the rubble-strewn street on which he had been walking, albeit close to the walls so as not to leave himself too exposed, he cut to the left when he spotted an opening that promised an entry to the nearest building of significant height. His suspicion paid off when he found a doorway that was already halfway open, a gap that he couldn’t force any wider but one that he could fit through all the same by turning his body sideways. His foot caught against something on the inside, something that scraped against the ground as it reacted to the nudge of his boot, and he looked down to see a length of metal not unlike a crowbar. 

It would do for now. Ed scooped it up and adjusted his grip on it until the weight felt comfortably balanced, and then with crude weapon in hand he started forward into the building to look for the stairwell. Hopefully it had survived whatever had happened here, whatever vicious conflict had left the place in obvious ruin, but if it hadn’t then he would move on to the next building and try again. 

By some stroke of luck the first flight of stairs was completely intact, and the second was only partly destabilised along one edge, which Ed made sure to avoid after hearing it groan under his weight. Hugging the railing on the other side he practically sprinted up that one and continued to make his way up until he felt that he was high enough to be able to judge whether or not he was even on the same planet anymore. How anything else could be the case he couldn’t even begin to imagine but there were so many conflicting and tangled thoughts racing through his mind that it was difficult to concentrate on any one of them in particular. 

He was in luck again, he realised, when he could make it all the way to this building’s roof without encountering any serious obstacles. So he kept on going until he reached the uppermost level of the building and found the door leading out. There were broken shards of rubble across the ground here and a hole in the far wall from which they must have originated, and Ed nudged one of the larger pieces into the gap once he had managed to shoulder the door open. He didn’t want it closing on him and trapping him outside with no way back down. That might not have been the case but he wasn’t going to take any risks. 

The air felt thicker up here, warmer, and not in a way that was at all comfortable. It made Ed think that the less time he spent up here the better off he would be. There was a ragged, broken hole in the roof off to one side, and a chunk of the outer ledge was gone as well, and he gave it a wide berth as he made his way around the intact edges and gazed out towards the horizon. The breeze that tugged lazily at his clothes and hair was stiflingly warm and after a few minutes Ed realised he felt strangely sluggish himself. Drowsy, almost. 

It wasn’t safe. He had to go back down. That thought hit him with brilliant clarity while he was rubbing at his face to try and shake off the worst of that sudden drowsiness. That was instinct again, his gut calling the shots, and Ed obeyed after only a moment’s hesitation. 

Once he was back inside and safely down a couple of floors he felt better, his head clearer and his body no longer feeling so unusually heavy. 

He was gazing up towards the roof, blocked from view now though it was, when he heard the sound from somewhere nearby. It turned his head down immediately and he held his breath to listen. It sounded again, a little longer this time, an echoing kind of cry that was almost mournful. 

Ed knew he needed to be careful, that he probably shouldn’t investigate it, but something about the sadness in that voice made him throw caution to the wind anyway. Even as he tugged open the door leading to the floor beyond he was well aware of the fact that it could have been some kind of lure, the first stage of a trap, but if that wasn’t the case then Ed couldn’t just ignore whoever it was making that awful sound. It was a risk he was willing to take. 

With his grip on the crowbar tightening he quickly decided that the hallway into which he had stepped was empty before he progressed down its length towards the sound. It had dropped out briefly before picking up again, the mournfulness of it increasing audibly. It pulled at something in Ed’s chest and he wanted to quicken his pace but he kept his going steady and cautious, turning his head to look behind him regularly, pausing by each doorway to ensure nothing was going to spring out at him, his weapon halfway raised ready to swing. Just in case. 

But nothing like that happened. Instead the sound grew louder as he got closer to it, slowly but surely closing the gap. Ed would have called out but his instincts told him not to. Whoever or whatever it was making that sound would react to a call and without knowing how they would react he didn’t want to risk it. For just a moment it occurred to him how ridiculous it was that he was more willing to physically approach the source of the sound than he was to call out to it. Kelly would have given him hell for that, he was sure. 

Thinking about Kelly probably wasn’t the best idea, he knew, because when he did all he did was worry about where she was and what had happened to her and the rest of the crew. She hadn’t been on the surface when they had been ambushed but what if whoever had attacked them had been launching an attack against the Orville at the same time? It was the kind of thought that would drive him to very real distraction, unfortunately, so for the time being he had to put it out of his mind, or at least as far from the surface as he could keep it. 

It wasn’t long before he reached the doorway from behind which the sound was emanating and he paused to listen to it, the crowbar held readily in his hand as he did so. There were tell-tale and unmistakable hitches in audible breathing from beyond the door that was pulled most of the way closed, sounds much quieter than that near-wail he had been following to this point. If they were fake then why were they so quiet? Ed found himself looking around for any surveillance equipment, anything that would have been able to track his movements, but he saw nothing like that and with the state of the building as a whole, not to mention its general surroundings, he doubted there was anything advanced enough to get the job done without it being in plain sight. 

So he nudged the door open. He kept his body back as he did so, using the toe of one foot to get it open wide enough that he could get a good look inside. 

The ragged breathing paused and everything was quiet for a moment before it picked up again, this time faster and a little more frantic. Ed knew fear when he heard it. 

“Hello?” He saw no reason to keep quiet anymore and as he carefully slipped through the wider opening in the doorway and looked around the cluttered and disorganised room he couldn’t pick out any obvious dangers. No call came back but the breathing hitched again and he heard what sounded like shuffled movement. There was definitely someone in here, and they were trying to hide. 

“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, his voice raised just enough to carry through the room but not so much that it would go far beyond these walls. Whoever was in here was afraid of something and Ed didn’t want to bring it crashing down on both of them, not when all he had to defend himself with was a crowbar. He kept it down at his side as he moved further into the room, looking this way and that, making it two thirds of the way into the haphazard space before he caught distinct signs of movement out of the corner of his eye, off to his right, against the far wall. 

It was a man. At first that was all Ed could be sure of and even then he had to take a moment to figure it out. They were huddled into themselves against that far wall, down a passage between two piles of clutter consisting of everything from books to boxes and God only knew what else. As Ed watched they scooted themselves as far back as they could physically get. Their clothing was dark, much like his own, and their hair was a very normal shade of brown and somewhat wild and unruly. It looked almost as though he had been running his fingers through it repeatedly. 

“Hello?” Ed approached, albeit cautiously, keeping his voice calm and level. “Are you okay?” They were still making low sounds of distress, almost constant murmurs and moans now. “Hey, I’m not going to hurt you. Okay? I promise.” To try and make that statement more convincing Ed lowered himself to a crouch, hoping that would make him appear less threatening, the hand holding the crowbar going right down to the ground even though he didn’t take his fingers from around the metal shaft just yet. He held his other hand up for the man to see, opening his palm to show that it was empty. “I just want to—” 

There was a distinct click from close behind his head. Ed stilled. He knew that sound. 

It was the sound of a gun being primed.

Chapter Text

“Don’t move.” 

“Okay.” Ed’s throat felt dry as he took a steadying breath. “Take it easy.” 

“Take your hand off it.” 

They meant the crowbar, obviously. Ed did as he was told, bringing that hand up to mirror the other, making sure to do so slowly. 

“Stand up and back away,” the voice went on, sounding rough with barely restrained aggression. “Slowly.” 

Ed wanted to nod but he kept his head still as he said again, “Okay.” Without seeing just who he was dealing with he didn’t want to take any chances and that meant holding himself back from saying too much too soon. So he held his tongue and did as he was told, managing to rise to his feet without lowering his hands to aid himself in doing so. As he rose he saw that the man against the wall was peering at him over the tops of his thin arms. They were hugged tightly around his knees which were folded in against his chest. 

The mournful sounds had stopped. Ed might have thought it had all been a show but just before he started to back away he noticed that the man was shaking. His whole body was trembling. 

“Keep going,” the voice told him and he was aware of movement to his left even though he couldn’t hear it. He hadn’t heard them enter the room and sneak up behind him either. Had they been in here all along? Even if that were the case there was so much garbage and debris strewn all over the place that it should have been impossible for them to move so silently. “Stop right there.” 

Ed stopped. He got his first good look at the speaker then as he turned his head. It was a human woman, of average height and build with dark eyes and hair cut just below her strong jaw. It was a harsh cut that gave her a severe look that was only added to by the roughness of her voice as she asked, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” She kept the gun she was holding levelled on his face. 

“My name is Ed Mercer,” he told her, first of all because she had a gun aimed at his face but secondly because he saw no reason not to. “I heard sounds and I followed them here. It sounded like somebody was hurt.” With a frown he added, “Is he okay?” As he asked the question he gave the slightest nod to the man against the wall. 

She hesitated, turning her head in such a way that made Ed think she wanted to look back at that man but she wasn’t willing to break eye contact with him in order to do so. She didn’t trust him. What she did do was look him up and down, her brow furrowing as she did so, and she was frowning as she stepped back and closer to the other man. “How did you get here?” The way she asked that made it sound like she already knew the answer. 

It was Ed’s turn to frown. “I—” He didn’t know exactly how to answer that question. “I don’t know,” he ended up saying, shrugging his shoulders lightly, gesturing a little with his hands to emphasise his cluelessness. “I just—” It sounded ridiculous, he knew it did. “I just woke up outside, about a quarter of a mile down the street.” 

She watched him, studying his expression, once again dropping her gaze to take in his overall appearance before something in her stance shifted. It was subtle but Ed recognised it as a slight relaxing. Her shoulders dropped a fraction and slowly but surely she lowered the gun. She thumbed forward the hammer once it was down at her side. 

Maybe it hadn’t sounded so ridiculous after all. 

Ed kept his hands raised for a few moments just to be sure that she wasn’t going to change her mind but when the gun didn’t snap back up towards him he lowered them to his sides, even as he asked, “What is this place?” 

One of her eyebrows quirked upward. He could see now that there was a slight reddish hue to her hair but it started about an inch down from her scalp. It was dye, and it was growing out. “You don’t know?” 

Ed shook his head, his frown deepening. 

She narrowed her eyes. “Think about it,” she said to him and then fell quiet. She stood there and watched him, not moving an inch even as the man behind her made a small noise that sounded almost like an appeal. 

Ed glanced briefly beyond her to the man but when she continued to stare at him with that quiet expectation on her face he shook his head and looked around the room. “I was on a planet with a landing party.” He was speaking to get the thoughts out in the open, not because she wanted the whole story behind how he had gotten here. “Some men came out of nowhere and knocked us out. I woke up in the woods somewhere, there were mountains, and a man—” A man who had stabbed and killed him. Ed had to take a breath. “Then I was somewhere else. It looked like a lab of some kind.” With another shake of his head he gestured to one of the windows. It was so dirty it looked as though it had been boarded over but he could just make out the shape of a building beyond. “And then I woke up here.” 

Her eyes were still narrowed as she angled her head a little to one side. “The man,” she said. “And the woods and the mountains.” She paused. “What happened? Between that and the lab?” 

Ed had been about to say that he didn’t know, he had even opened his mouth to start speaking the words, but something about the way she was looking at him told him that would have been a waste of time. And it wasn’t true. He did know and refusing to speak the words wouldn’t stop that from being the case. “I—” He had to pause and swallow against the dryness in his throat, wetting his lips and taking a deep breath before he said, “I died.” With a frown he shook his head, dropping and averting his gaze for a moment. “Or it felt like I did.” 

She was nodding when he lifted his eyes back to her face. “You died,” she said. She turned away from him then, fully exposing her back and moving closer to the wall, and the figure hunched against it. “You didn’t imagine that. I know you were trying to convince yourself that you did.” She glanced back at him over her shoulder even as she lowered to a crouch. “Sorry to be so blunt. But it’s better if you accept it.” 

It still didn’t make any sense. Ed stepped closer, pausing after the first stride to make sure that she wasn’t going to object. When she didn’t even so much as bat an eye he closed the gap between them and crouched again. It didn’t even occur to him to so much as glance at the crowbar. “But that’s crazy,” he said, shaking his head. “And even if that is what happened how did I get from there to here, and what was that lab? Who were those people?” 

Why Ed thought this woman had all the answers he couldn’t be sure but the way she was speaking, the way she was conducting herself, all of it led him to believe that she had much more in the way of information than he did. And that was enough for him to let all of those questions come spilling out the way that they had. 

She was watching him again. “You know.” She spoke the words quietly, almost sadly, and as he watched her she lifted a hand and set it on the arm of the man against the wall. His trembling eased and he peered at her from behind the shelter of his arms. As that same hand lifted and touched to the man’s unruly hair instead, she spoke to Ed even though she wasn’t looking at him anymore, “Deep down you already know.” 

Did he? Ed was about to ask her what she meant by that but then he stopped. He stopped and let his thoughts bubble up in his mind, every unanswered question and confusing half-formed theory about his situation that had come into being between waking up in that forest and ending up here in this room with these people. He had asked himself those questions, both silently in his mind and out loud, and Ed wondered now if he really had had the answers all along. 

Or the answer. Because there was only one that made sense from every angle. 

The woods with the mountains and the crazed man with the knife and this place with the broken city and the foul air: they were two very different worlds. That lab and those aliens: that had been another altogether. That crazed man with the knife had torn him open and he had died on those rocks. Ed remembered that. He was fairly sure that that was a feeling he would never forget. 

And then there were the things those aliens had been saying to one another. 

“It lasted longer than any other subject in that environment on a first attempt.”  

“—should have taken it out of the system a long time ago.” 

Ed felt his shoulders drop, his head shaking slowly as he lifted it, looking around the room and then over to the woman who was watching him wordlessly, waiting for clarity to come to him. Ed honestly couldn’t believe that it hadn’t occurred to him before. 

“It’s a simulation.” He heard the disbelief in his own voice. “All of it.” Rising to his full height he briefly covered his mouth with one hand before he swiped it down over his chin and then back along the line of his jaw, turning briefly away as he did so. “Everything except that lab is a goddamn simulation.” He turned back to the woman. “None of this is real.” He didn’t word it like a question but she dipped her head in a nod anyway. 

That was when he noticed that the clothing the other man was wearing wasn’t just similar to his own, but identical. The woman was wearing the exact same outfit as well. 

Ed thought back to that crazed man on the outcropping. 

“My God.” 

He had been wearing the same clothing too. 

“How long have you been here?” Ed had to keep talking, he had to keep making sense of this, otherwise that sudden somersault that he had just felt in the pit of his stomach was going to grow into a very real wave of nausea and he wasn’t entirely convinced he would be able to keep it at bay otherwise. Learning more about his situation would help. It certainly couldn’t make things any worse. 

“Me?” The woman sighed. Ed watched as that hand of hers on the other man’s head swept back through the unruly hair. It was a tender motion that spoke of a familiarity that went far beyond this place. There was very real affection there that Ed thought a person would have had to be blind to miss. “Not as long as my brother.” 

Siblings. That made sense. 

“When he went missing,” she went on, “my wife and I came searching for him. I knew something had happened to him, possibly something terrible, but I couldn’t just leave him alone. We managed to track him to this place but before we could break him out we were overpowered and then—” She shook her head and looked down at her brother. Obviously they had been captured and trapped in this simulated environment as well. 

“How long ago?” Ed asked again, because he had noticed that she hadn’t answered that question. The furrow in his brow deepened as he added, “And where’s your wife now? Is she out there somewhere?” He gestured to the dirty window nearby. 

The woman shook her head, her lips drawn in a thin line, her gaze fixed on her brother who still hadn’t made a sound beyond those small moans and murmurs. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “I don’t know how long it’s been since we were first trapped in here. And I don’t know where my wife is now.” She looked up at Ed. “We were separated a while ago and—” Her voice caught in a way that betrayed her fear. “We haven’t seen her since.” 

Ed couldn’t just stand there and see someone else in pain, not if there was something he could say or do that might help, even just a small amount. “Maybe she got out,” he offered. 

With the smallest hint of a smile the woman lifted her head again and nodded. “Maybe.” That nod became a shake as she looked down to her brother again, going on to say, “If anyone could have broken free it would have been her.” With obvious pride in her voice she said, “She’s strong.” 

That made Ed smile. And it made him think of Kelly. “I’m sure your wife is okay.” It was foolish of him to try and give her hope that might have been false but it was obviously hurting her not to have it. He couldn’t not give it to her. 

Drawing in a deep breath the woman gave another nod, lifting her head to turn her attention to him anew. “You said your name is Ed Mercer?” When he nodded she went on, “My name is Caroline. And this is Tommy.” 

Ed crouched again before he said to the man against the wall, “It’s nice to meet you, Tommy.” Speaking to him first felt like the right move. Turning his gaze to the man’s sister he said, “And you, Caroline.” 

When the man spoke it was so unexpected that it actually startled Ed a little. “Caro,” he said. Something about the quality of his voice made him sound like a child. Ed frowned. “Caro,” Tommy said again. “Caro, Caro, Caro—” 

“All right, Tommy. All right.” His sister soothed him as best she could, stroking her hand back through his hair as she turned her gaze to Ed. “He likes to call me Caro.” She frowned as she said, “And he gets confused.” 

Which meant that Ed should call her Caro as well, instead of Caroline. He heard that request without needing it to be put into those exact words. He gave her a nod to show that he understood and looked down at Tommy again. He was shifting his weight back and forth in a tight, repetitive manner that made it look like he was rocking. Ed was frowning deeply when Caro turned her gaze toward him. 

“He was missing for more than a week before Erana and I found him. And time works differently in here.” 

Ed didn’t like the sound of that. “What do you mean?” 

“It’s—” Caro used her free hand to make a kind of circular gesture but Ed thought it was meant to be vaguer than that. “Compounded,” she said at last. “What feels like hours in here, in one of these simulated worlds, can be only minutes out there in reality. They can change it whenever they want.” 

So when Caro said that her brother had been missing for more than a week before she and her wife had found him, it had probably felt like much, much longer than that to Tommy. As quietly and delicately as he could manage, he asked, “What’s wrong with him? Was he always—” He couldn’t think of a way to word it that didn’t come across unkindly. 

She shook her head and Ed saw that even in his attempt to be tactful he had touched on a very sore subject. Caro was making a point of keeping her eyes turned away from him in such a way that made him think tears had sprung to the surface. “The more times it happens to you,” she said, continuing to run her hand over and through her brother’s hair, “the worse it gets. The more it changes you.” 

It?” 

She turned her gaze on him again. “The deaths. Starting over.” Letting out a low breath she said, “Leaving and re-entering the system must have some kind of effect on the mind as well, but the deaths? That’s what does the real damage.” 

Ed frowned again, shaking his head. “But it’s not really happening.” It might have felt like it was, but Ed knew now that it had been fake. That might not have changed how vivid the recollection was but he thought that it would help in the long run. Wouldn’t it? 

Something about Caro’s expression made him doubt that. “But it feels real. Your mind believes it’s really happening, and your mind makes it real.” She touched her free hand to her temple as she said, “And what your mind believes—” her hand went to her chest, “—your body makes real as well.” She was looking him right in the eye as she said, “When you woke up in that lab, how did you feel?” 

He dropped his gaze briefly to the floor, trying to think of the words to describe his thundering heart and the overwhelming scramble of every sense and thought, the hungry burn of his lungs and the all-encompassing shock and disorientation. 

“Exactly,” Caro said to him before he could try to verbalise any of it. His expression must have said it all. “Now imagine going through that same overload half a dozen times, a dozen times, a hundred.” 

Ed’s throat felt dry all over again. A bad taste crept up onto the back of his tongue. “Rambler,” he said, quietly. 

Caro nodded her head. “I dread to think how long that thing has been in this place.” There was a pitying quality to her voice that Ed thought he could sympathise with. “It was a man once, I’m sure, but not anymore.” She regarded Ed thoughtfully. “Is that what happened to you in that place with the woods and the mountains?” 

He nodded and rocked his weight back until he was sitting on the ground rather than crouched close to it. The muscles in his thighs had been starting to complain. All things considered it was such a minor concern that it should have been laughable but in the wake of receiving so much unsettling information Ed felt too tired to find anything like that even close to amusing. 

Caro sighed. “It gets us all at one point or another.” 

Ed wanted to ask what she meant by that but then it felt like a redundant question, easy enough to answer on his own. Clearly that creature now known as Rambler was responsible for a lot of simulated deaths in this place. This system. That was what the aliens had called it. 

“The ones who run this place,” he said after a few moments of quiet. “Who are they?” He hadn’t recognised them which meant that the Planetary Union hadn’t encountered them before. 

“The D’Nari,” Caro told him. “They’re space-dwelling and entirely nomadic, from what we were able to gather before we ended up in here. We tried to learn as much about them as we could before we snuck on board.” 

“On board?” Ed’s brow furrowed. “We’re on a ship?” 

She made a small sound of acknowledgement. “And it never stops moving.” 

Damn. Just when Ed thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse. But there was no point in sitting around feeling sorry for himself. Clearly there was more he needed to learn and this woman was willing to share that information with him. He wasn’t about to waste that opportunity. “What else do you know about them?” 

“They’re technologically advanced,” Caro went on, and then she looked towards him, giving him an almost apologetic smile. “Obviously.” She turned her attention back to her unsettled brother as she continued. “We were lucky to find them as quickly as we did, and it cost us a lot to be able to do that. They’re notoriously difficult to pin down, typically, because they’re always on the move.” 

That also explained why they weren’t in any of the Union files. There was something else that was bothering Ed though and he couldn’t keep from asking the question any longer. “Why do they do this?” With one hand he made a vague gesture to their general surroundings, but he was careful not to exaggerate the motion too much in case it spooked Tommy. It seemed like it wouldn’t take much to set him off. 

“The simulations?” When Ed nodded she went on to say, “For entertainment.” 

Entertainment?” 

Caro’s expression was equal parts grave and disgusted when she turned her head to him and added, “And sport.” 

Ed felt a similar look of disgust cross his own face and he took his eyes from the siblings as he tried to make sense of it. In that moment he was reminded of the time that he and Kelly had spent in that zoo on Calivon, all because the race thought it was their right to put other species on display for their general population to observe. In their natural environment, they had said, but that confined space with no way out had been anything but natural. They might have gone to great lengths to replicate the apartment in which he and his ex-wife had lived together for years but without the option to get out and be away from the space, even if only for short periods of time, it had quickly driven them both crazy. They had been at one another’s throats by the time the Orville had come along. 

This was entirely different, of course, but there were still some similarities. Both races thought that it was their right to do what they were doing, and it was for the purposes of entertainment that they did so. 

“You said sport,” Ed began, turning his attention back to Caro. “Sport for who, exactly?” 

With a shake of her head she said, “For anyone who can afford it.” Her brother had rocked his weight to the side and he was resting against her bodily now. She had adjusted her position to allow him to do so without running the risk of losing her own balance. “Humans may have given up hunting for sport a long time ago but there are still a lot of people out there who haven’t.” 

That bad taste was threatening to creep back up onto the very back of his tongue. Ed swallowed to send it back down again. He was only halfway successful. “Hunting for sport,” he echoed, not because he needed her to confirm that he had heard her correctly but because the words were just so shocking to hear that it was almost like he had to speak them for himself just to make them real. “My God.” 

Caro made a low sound of acknowledgement. Tommy had closed his eyes and looked almost as if he was drifting off to sleep despite the subject being discussed in his earshot. “Disgusting, I know.” 

“And your wife,” he said, trying to latch onto some kind of hope because that was just how his mind worked. He had told Teleya not so very long ago that it was a defect of his species, never giving up hope, but perhaps he had meant himself specifically. “You really think she could get out of here?” 

With a nod Caro said, “I believe she could have, yes.” 

Ed remembered how he had barely been able to move even the smallest amount when he had awoken in that laboratory. Even though the suggestion that the woman’s wife might have gotten out had been his to begin with he couldn’t help but doubt it now, even if only a little. 

The depth of the frown on his face must have tipped Caro off to what he was thinking. She was smiling a little when she spoke, bringing his gaze back up to her face. “Erana is Xelayan. Have you ever met one?” 

After a moment Ed couldn’t help but smile as well. “As a matter of fact,” he said, “yes I have. A couple, actually.” With a tilt of his head he added, “And in my experience? The women are the really tough ones.” 

Caro’s smile grew and she nodded again. “Like I said,” she told him. “If anyone managed to get out of here, it’s her.” 

And she wouldn’t just leave her wife and brother-in-law behind. Ed could see that certainty in the woman’s face and it was such a strong conviction even without words to put behind it that he couldn’t help but believe it wholeheartedly as well. 

“It will be night soon,” she went on, looking towards him and for the first time he saw the weariness in her features. “You should stay here with us. Safety in numbers.” With a nod she concluded, “It will be better if we all stick together.” 

Ed drew in a breath and nodded his agreement and acceptance. 

For all their sakes he hoped Caro was right.

Chapter Text

The files had been open on her screen for what felt like hours now. Kelly had been staring at them for just as long, to the point where she could see impressions of the illuminated data behind her eyelids whenever she blinked. With a sigh she rested back in her seat and rubbed at her face. She pushed her hair back behind her ears as she leaned forward again and tried to renew her concentration. Maybe changing the screen would help. 

She wanted to commit as much of the information available to memory as possible, to better educate herself when it came to their enemy and the organisation as a whole. Perhaps it was putting things in their most basic and black and white terms to refer to the Razers, or this specific crew, as their enemy, but Kelly didn’t think it was unkind or ungenerous to do so. They had made things that way the second they had attacked the landing party. These people had opened fire on members of the Orville’s crew, and in doing so they had turned the attention of the Union in their direction, and not in a positive way. 

These people had taken Ed. 

And they had done God only knew what with him. 

Kelly closed her eyes and drew in a long, low breath, but her lungs felt tight the entire time she was pulling it down. It felt like they were trying to reject the breath as much as her mind was trying to reject the possibility that something terrible might have happened to Ed. 

Try though she might to convince herself that Ed would be absolutely fine and nothing of the sort would have happened to him without her knowing somehow, on some level, she knew deep down that it was foolish to be so blindly optimistic. It was ignorance, plain and simple, and as the commanding officer in their Captain’s absence she had to be pragmatic no matter how much she might want to hold on to the hope that everything was fine. Kelly was in charge now, she had to lead, and to do that she had to face every possibility. If she was going to do a good job, if she was going to be the commanding officer that these people not only needed but deserved, then she needed to be realistic and practical. 

Ultimately it didn’t matter how much it hurt her to be that way. She had told Gordon not so very long ago that the last person a commanding officer thought about was themselves. Kelly intended to hold to that for as long as the crew needed her to lead them. 

God, she missed Ed. So much. Already she felt his absence keenly and it was a building ache that she was painfully aware of as more time passed without any developments as to his location. More than anything she wanted to turn to him and take solace in the steadiness of his presence, the reliability of him. She wanted to be able to look to him to make her smile when things were bleak, something he had always been able to do for as long as they had known one another. Even though their marriage had collapsed they had proven themselves time and time again to be a great team, perfectly capable of overlooking any and all difficulties in their complicated personal lives in order to get the job done. After serving as Captain and First Officer together for as long as they had it felt so strange to be without him all of a sudden. It felt so wrong

Kelly’s eyes opened when her door chime sounded and she had to blink back the first prickle of tears that had risen up in the wake of thinking about Ed and his absence. She took another deep breath, this one coming more easily with a distraction to latch onto, and she called out for whoever was on the other side to come in. 

It was Claire who stepped through and she gave Kelly a small smile as she entered the room and approached the desk. 

“Claire,” Kelly greeted her, hearing the surprise there and wishing she had concealed it more effectively. “Hi.” After a pause she added, “Is everything all right?” 

“Funny,” the Doctor returned, “that’s exactly what I was going to ask you.” 

Kelly glanced towards her screen and then tapped the button on her keypad that deactivated it. “Of course,” she said, bringing her gaze back to the other woman’s after the fact. “It’s just a lot of information to go through. I’m trying to—” 

Claire cut her off with a shake of her head. “That’s not what I meant,” she said, having come to a stop in front of the desk. She lowered herself into one of the seats there before she spoke again, saying, “I’m asking how you are.” With particular emphasis and weight she added, “Really.” 

That meant she wouldn’t be fooled by the sorts of dismissive generic responses they were all prone to giving when they wanted to closely guard their personal feelings about something. Kelly should have known someone would come to her with this, and she should have known that it would be Claire. They had grown close over their time serving together, building a relationship that went beyond professional and into personal. Kelly considered the older woman a friend, and a dear one, and more than that she knew she could trust her with anything that was said between them. Claire was the best confidante anyone could ask for when it came to something like this. 

Kelly was close with most of the senior staff but she wasn’t sure she could have trusted herself to open up about this with anyone but the woman sitting across from her now. Talla was too close to the issue for Kelly to want to burden her with this and Gordon had his own fears and concerns to be dealing with as Ed’s best friend. 

“There has to be something else here that we can use.” She had almost said I instead of we but at the last moment she had caught herself. With a shake of her head she glanced back up from the deactivated console to the Doctor sitting across from her. Something about the tiniest shift in the other woman’s expression told Kelly that she had caught the momentary slip and heard what she had really wanted to say anyway. Of course she had. There was no one aboard the Orville more perceptive than Claire Finn. 

“You can’t force it,” Claire told her with a sympathetic shake of her head. “We’ll find the information we need to get to where we need to go next, and then we’ll find the next clue, but staring at the files Union Central sent over isn’t going to get you anywhere.” 

Kelly couldn’t just do nothing. She couldn’t just sit around and wait for everyone else around her to find the pieces of the puzzle they needed to figure out where to go next. It made her feel useless and helpless and that wasn’t her. 

“The Captain wouldn’t want you to push yourself like this.” 

With a sad smile Kelly said, “If our positions were reversed you know he’d be working just as hard. Harder, probably.” She could imagine him driving himself crazy trying to make those pieces fit together, and driving everyone else just as crazy in the process. It was one of the reasons she kept on telling him they couldn’t be together. 

“And then I would be in his office talking to him,” Claire pointed out, raising her eyebrows. “But that’s not the case, so I’m here talking to you.” Softening her voice she went on, “Bortus came to see me.” 

Kelly frowned. “He did?” She was about to ask why when the other woman went on to explain anyway. 

“He told me you’ve been in here for hours, since our last briefing.” Tilting her head a little with the slightest narrowing of her eyes she said, “And then I had Isaac check the system logs. You haven’t used your synthesiser the entire time you’ve been in here.” 

That frown on Kelly’s face deepened and she glanced momentarily towards the device in question. “No, I—what?” 

“Kelly.” Claire sighed. “You’re not drinking anything, even water, and you haven’t eaten in hours.” With an unhappy shake of her head she added, “That’s not healthy, and you know that. If you’re going to do your job then you need to be at your best, and to do that you need to stay properly hydrated, and keep your energy up. You need to eat.” 

“I’m not hungry.” Kelly had turned her eyes down to the keypad of her computer. In that moment she felt almost like a scolded child. 

“I don’t care.” That brought her eyes up and she met Claire’s gaze. In the other woman’s she could see the determination and unwavering resolution that made her such a fine medical officer and such a great mother. When Kelly averted her eyes first Claire went on, “I know it’s the last thing on your mind right now but deep down, underneath the worry and the frustration and everything else you must be feeling? You know I’m right.” After a moment she added, “And you know Bortus only came to me because he’s concerned about you.” There was another pause. “Everyone is.” 

All of a sudden Kelly felt like a fool, and a selfish one at that. Her voice was quiet and a touch sheepish when she said, “I need to find him, Claire.” She lifted her eyes. 

Claire nodded. “I know.” With the smallest smile she added, “Everyone knows that. And they all feel the same way, every single one of them. You know that.” 

Of course she did. For all his quirks and eccentricities Ed Mercer was a great Captain and the crew adored him. Kelly saw that day in and day out and it made her heart swell with pride and affection every single time. She knew without a shadow of a doubt that there wasn’t a single person aboard who wouldn’t work themselves to the bone to make sure they found Ed and brought him back safe and sound. 

Kelly knew she wasn’t even the only person who would lay down her life in order to make sure that happened. What she did know was that she would fight to be at the front of the line. Whatever it took to get Ed back she would do it even if it cost her everything else. 

When she looked Claire in the eye again she saw in the Doctor’s gaze that the other woman understood that. She also saw that the other woman knew there was no talking her around from it either. 

Good. 

Kelly didn’t want her to try. 

 


 

“Ed?” 

At first the voice felt like it came from very far away, but when it sounded again it was much closer. The third time he realised it was coming from somewhere nearby. Right by his ear, in fact, he realised when he stirred enough to open his eyes and look up to see Caro’s face at close proximity. There was a quiet but very real urgency not only in her voice but in her expression, a tight and tense quality to it that chased what grogginess had been gnawing at him right out of his system. 

She backed off as he sat up, rubbing a hand over his face just to get rid of the last vestiges of sleep. Ed wasn’t sure how fair it was that he felt so tired in what he knew to be a simulation but when Caro started to speak in a hushed tone that contained no small amount of concern and the finest thread of panic all thoughts of fairness went right out of his head. 

“There’s someone coming.” 

Ed started to get up off the ground where he had managed to make himself at least marginally comfortable enough to get some sleep and looked towards the window. “Who is it?” he asked, unsure why he expected her to have those sorts of specifics. 

Caro shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said to him, “but they have weapons.” 

When he had glanced at the window Ed had noticed for the first time, now that it was dark outside, that there was a small patch in the very bottom corner that had been rubbed clean enough to look out of. That must have been where Caro had spotted their visitors from. “How much time do we have?” he asked. 

“To get out of the building?” she asked, already moving back over to Tommy who seemed to be struggling to stir from his own slumber. “Not much. Before they catch up with us?” She looked back at him, her hands on her brother to try and encourage him to get moving. “A few minutes. Maybe.” 

If they were lucky. Ed heard the words even though she didn’t say them. He was all the way to his feet by then and he crossed to the window to cautiously gaze out of the smeared hole in the dirt, just catching signs of movement on the street beyond. Several figures were jogging towards the building in which they were taking shelter. Ed could just make out the shape of a large weapon in the hands of one of them, what looked like a rifle of some kind. “Can’t we try talking to them?” he asked Caro as he moved back around to wait for her and Tommy to get to their feet. 

She had made good progress in getting her brother moving in the time it had taken Ed to look out of the window. “We could try,” she said to him, “but it would be a waste of time. They wouldn’t listen.” She met his gaze and added, “Trust me. I tried it once. It didn’t get me anywhere.” 

Ed would have asked what happened but he suspected he already knew the answer. They didn’t have time for that anyway. Instead he recovered his crowbar from the ground and waited for Caro to lead the way, which she did without needing to be told. Hurriedly she moved out of the room with her brother in tow though she only kept hold of him for the first twenty or thirty feet before she released her grip and trusted him to keep pace and stay close behind her. Ed noticed with no small amount of relief that that was exactly what Tommy did. 

Caro led them to the opposite side of the building, right past the stairwell. As they passed it Ed heard sounds from down below, what he recognised as swiftly moving footsteps. Whoever those people were they weren’t too worried about being stealthy. If they had it was unlikely the three of them would have had enough time to make a break for it. 

Once she reached the last door at the other end of the building Caro led them right through it and all the way over to the far corner, where she threw open the window. After she did so she hung back and counted off several seconds under her breath. It took Ed a moment to realise she was waiting for any signs that that exit was being watched. When nothing happened Caro climbed out of the window onto a metal surface beyond which rattled and creaked in complaint. With one hand she beckoned her brother to follow. He did so without making a sound. Ed had noticed in the brief glimpses he had gotten of the other man in their flight that he and his sister shared the same colouring, though Tommy was noticeably younger by a few years. 

Ed clambered through the window and onto what must have been a fire escape just as the sounds of shouts from the stairwell reached them. Turning back to the window Ed closed it almost all the way but held off from slamming it completely shut so the sound wouldn’t attract their pursuers. He turned and started to hurry down the steps after the siblings then, glancing over the railings and down to the ground and the surrounding area frequently to watch for any dangers below. 

Caro and Tommy had waited for him at the bottom of the steps and he gave the older of the two the smallest nod of his head as a show of gratitude when he joined them. She gave a nod back and then jerked her head to one side before heading off in that direction, along the line of the building. They stayed close to the wall, hugging the shadows and using them for cover as they sprinted from one building to the next. It was just as they were approaching the far corner of that next building that Ed heard the distinct sound of glass shattering and as he looked back over his shoulder and up to the top of the fire escape he saw shards raining down. They were reflecting the light of the moon as they tumbled through the air. 

Just as Ed ducked around the corner after Caro and Tommy he heard an impact against the ground not far behind where his foot had been only moments before. Glancing back showed him dirt and dust settling back down in a distinct enough fashion to tell him that someone had spotted him and taken a shot at them. Damn. 

Caro and her brother were breathing heavily as they crouched down further into the shadows. Ed copied them, looking back at the corner they had just cleared and then the space ahead of where they were hunkered down. It was a large gap between this building and the next one, a wide stretch of land covered in large blocks and chunks of rubble that painted a perfect picture of what had happened to the structure that had once stood there. 

“Around the next building,” Caro said in a hushed voice, indicating the intact one rather than the ruins directly in front of them, “and about thirty feet down to the left, there’s a sewer access. If we can make it down there we stand a good chance of getting away.” 

“Where does it lead?” 

“I don’t know,” she admitted, glancing past him to the corner they had rounded. “I just know we can’t stay up here.” 

Ed could hear raised voices again. Caro was right. They had to do something and fast. He turned his head back to her and gave a nod. Without needing any further encouragement she gave her brother’s sleeve a tug and then together the two of them made a break for it. Ed waited only a second and then followed in their wake. 

The voices were getting louder. 

It didn’t feel safe to look back over his shoulder so Ed just ran, going as fast as he could while still making sure not to lose his footing on any of the broken rubble over which they were travelling. Caro and Tommy cleared the other side and sprinted for the next building. Ed hurried after them, bringing a small cascade of chunks of concrete down with him as he half-ran-half-slid down the last mound of debris, managing to catch his balance again once he hit solid ground and take off running after the siblings. 

Caro and Tommy had almost made it to the corner when a shot rang out and pain blasted through Ed’s leg. He hit the ground hard and rolled, trying to pick himself up and keep going despite the pain but the immediate throb and flare of agony through his leg left him stumbling against the wall and almost collapsing again. 

Tommy was around the corner but Caro had started to come back for him. Ed had glanced back the way they had come, able to make out the distinct shapes of figures approaching at a fast pace. When he turned his head back towards Caro he shook it vehemently. There was no time for that. “Go,” he said to her, reflexively clamping a hand over the wound in his leg. 

She hesitated and looked past him to their pursuers. Ed saw the conflict on her face, and the reluctance to leave him there. There wasn’t even any time to be touched by that and instead he said again, with more emphasis and urgency, “Go!” 

That reluctance hadn’t left her face when she met his eyes. “Thank you.” No sooner had the words passed her lips than she had turned and bolted for the corner, vanishing around it just as a shout rang out from the pursuers. 

Ed turned his head and saw them approaching. Despite knowing it was a terrible idea he fought his way back to his feet, having to support his weight entirely on the left when the right refused to bear any weight. The limb was on fire and blood was oozing steadily from the hole that had been carved through the muscle of his thigh, a couple of inches up from his knee. He realised then that he must have dropped the crowbar in the fall, though as the figures came close enough for him to make them out he realised it wouldn’t have mattered. 

There were six of them. And they all had guns. 

His right one covered in his own blood Ed lifted and bared his hands, managing to balance himself enough on one foot and the toe of his other boot to do so. 

“Where did the others go?” one of them asked. They had bronzed skin and cranial ridges, with jet-black hair woven into several small braids that hung well down past their shoulder blades. Their eyes were so dark that in this setting they looked black as well. Looking the group over at a glance told Ed that they were all the same race. 

“It’s just me,” Ed told them, thankful that whatever access point Caro had mentioned must have been open already and hadn’t given her and her brother away when they had used it. Lifting his hands a little more he said, “I’m unarmed.” 

The alien who spoke regarded him silently for a moment and then said, with disinterest, “I don’t care.” 

And then they lifted and fired their gun. 

The shot caught Ed in the left shoulder and knocked him right off his feet again. This time he gave a yell, as much in shock as anything else, though the pain that settled in quickly after the fact had him gritting his teeth and groaning tightly at least. The force of the shot had spun him enough that he had gone down on his stomach and chest, winding him further as well as blinding him to the fact that the pursuers had approached him as he’d been struggling to recover. 

One of them took hold of him by his wounded shoulder and heaved him up to his knees. Ed tried to bite back the cry of pain that the jarring movements elicited but it caught him off guard. He heard the sound echo back to him from the abandoned buildings around them. It was unsettling. 

They struck up a conversation around him, one of them keeping a tight hold on his shoulder the entire time and holding him on his knees in the process. Whenever Ed tried to summon his voice to speak the fingers of that hand dug in sharply and cut him off with a stab of pain. 

“Who gets it?” 

“You already had a turn.” 

“It wasn’t a kill.” 

“So? It hit.” 

“That means you don’t get it either then.” 

Ed couldn’t keep track of who was speaking. He tried but he was losing blood from two wounds now and it quickly started to effect his ability to concentrate enough to keep up with the fast-paced conversation. Maybe debate might have been a better word. Or argument. 

“What about me?” 

“No.” 

“Why not?” 

“You’ll make a mess of it.” 

What? So what if—” 

No. There’s only one way to settle this.” 

The group fell quiet for several seconds though Ed could hear slight sounds of movement. When he glanced to the side to try and figure out what they were doing the group were lowering their arms with one of them releasing a laugh of what was obviously triumph. The others were grumbling to themselves in dissatisfaction. Ed wasn’t sure what had happened but they had obviously settled the dispute somehow. 

Fine,” one of them spat. “But next time I get it.” 

The one who had laughed let out a harrumph of a sound and then moved closer to where Ed was being held down on his knees. He looked up at them, trying to keep his breathing steady, along with his expression. He suspected he wasn’t doing a good job on either. Even as the alien stood looking down at him Ed felt his weight dip momentarily, his leg wanting to give up supporting him in his current position. The hand gripped his shoulder more tightly again and Ed grimaced, hissing through his teeth. 

In the time it had taken him to react like that the triumphant alien had stepped to his side. Ed only recognised that fact when the pain subsided enough for his vision to clear again and as he turned his head to try and understand what was happening he saw the alien drawing his gun from the holster at their waist. 

They lifted it and levelled it at Ed’s head. 

His heart sank. He gave the smallest shake of his head which was met with a very clear and telling smile from the alien aiming the weapon. 

Ed closed his eyes, turning his head forward and ever so slightly downward. Caro and Tommy had gotten away. He repeated that reassurance to himself over and over again before it happened. 

The gun went off. 

Everything stopped. 

 


 

It was even more jarring the second time, somehow, than it had been the first. When the world came blazing and screaming back it felt like no part of him would be able to handle the sudden overload. His mind was going a mile a minute and grasping absolutely nothing, everything a discordant scramble. His senses couldn’t comprehend or translate a single signal being fed to them, every scent and sound and tease at sight too much for them to handle. His body felt like it was tripping over itself, the sudden rush of air down into lungs that thought they had ceased to function feeling like torture, and his heart skipping and jumping and thundering with no rhythm or real pace to speak of. His left shoulder and right leg were burning like they had literally been set aflame. 

It hurt

Ed was gasping and panting and fighting frantically to get some kind of usable air down into his burning lungs as he tried to open his eyes. Again that too-bright light seared them instantly and he had to wait for them to drop before he could try again. 

This time it wasn’t until that platform straightened and then tilted ever so slightly forward that he dared to try and open his eyes again. The mask had just withdrawn and that sharp pain at the back of his skull had come and gone, leaving only a dull but persistent throbbing ache behind. Ed let out a groan and allowed his head to hang heavily as he fought to catch his breath, the sound of it deafeningly loud in his own ears. 

He didn’t remember dying this time. He remembered the deafening thunder crack of the shot so close to his head that he was sure it must have blown out his eardrum, and he thought he might have recalled a flash of an instant of blinding pain. But then nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

To go from that to such a sudden and complete sensory overload was almost more than he could bear. Nausea rolled and simmered up from somewhere deep down inside of him and he let out another groan, this one low and long, a sound of reluctance and struggle. 

“Well, well.” The voice sounded from his right. “That was interesting.” 

Ed opened his eyes, blurred and strained though his vision was, to see one of the uniformed aliens from before standing at the same station they had occupied during his first awakening. Instead of trying to speak to them right away he worked to focus on watching and listening instead. He didn’t trust himself to speak yet anyway. 

“I thought the female was going to kill him.” That was the other one. They were off to his left, like last time. 

Could they somehow see and hear everything that was happening? Had they been present the entire time he was in the simulation? How long had he been in it this time? Ed couldn’t see anything in the immediate vicinity that gave any clues that might help him work that out for himself. It had felt like hours but Caro had said time could work differently inside the simulations. 

“As did I.” The first one again. “Was it a positive response?” 

Ed glanced to the other one as they checked something on a screen and replied, “For the most part, yes. Very much so.” 

“Hm. Very interesting.” 

Ed still felt nauseated but he no longer felt like he was going to lose his battle with it, thankfully. His body was trembling slightly now though, he realised, but his attempts to ease or stop it altogether were met with repeated failure. He had to ride it out. Adrenaline, most likely, he thought. That made sense. 

“What are you thinking?” 

The one to his right looked to the one on his left. “If it tested favourably, why not repeat it?” 

Ed was about to turn his head to the other alien as they uttered an intrigued sound when the first one actually looked at him. Just for a second he stopped trembling, his body shocked into stilling as their eyes met. There was no doubt about it, no mistake on his part, and the alien didn’t look immediately away either. 

It was too good an opportunity to waste. “Why are you doing this?” His voice obeyed him enough for him to ask that question, though it broke up a little on the last word. His mouth felt dry. 

The alien didn’t have any eyebrows to speak of but their brow still quirked upward in response to Ed’s question. It made his heart jump a little, having that confirmation that he had been heard. Emboldened by that small signal, he kept going, “You don’t have to do this.” If he could get through to them then maybe he could end all of this. Not just for himself but for Caro and her brother, for Rambler, and for anyone else trapped in this horrible system. 

The alien’s eyes narrowed a fraction. 

Please,” Ed said, holding their gaze. “There are other ways to do this.” 

They blinked, drew in a breath. And then they turned their head back to their screen. “Heart rate and blood pressure are a touch elevated.” 

“Rest period?” 

“Even if only a short one.” 

Ed looked between the two, settling his gaze back on the one who had looked directly at him. “Please, just listen to me.” 

They didn’t. They continued to work the monitor against the wall. 

His heart sank. 

After tapping a final key that lowered the illumination in the room even further they signalled to their companion and started to head for the far wall. It slid open at their approach, barely making a sound as it did so. 

Ed thought about calling out to them as they went but by the time he had gathered himself enough to form one word, wait, it was too late. They were gone and he was alone in the dark.

Chapter Text

The commissary had a large one-way window looking down upon the main floor of the public-access areas of the ship. A glance through that huge sheet of glass showed dozens of individuals from just as many races milling around, moving this way and that, some of them on their way to viewing areas while others were clearly readying themselves for participation of a more direct sort. J’Ron recognised the enthusiasm and tight anticipation in the frame of a first-time player, several of which he could spot as he looked down while K’Mor acquired himself a beverage and something to eat. 

His associate came to a stop at his side for a brief moment to get his attention before they claimed seats by that window. K’Mor started to eat but J’Ron wasn’t interested in anything of the sort. Instead his attention had gone back to the window and the figures moving around below. Observation was such a huge part of his work that one would think he tired of it during the hours he spent at his station but the truth was he was so skilled at his job because it came so naturally to him. Even as a child he had watched, he had listened and learned and taken things on board even if they had had nothing to do with him. When asked about what he had seen he had always been able to recall details with what most would consider impressive accuracy. 

It just came naturally to him. 

“So,” K’Mor said after taking a short while to work on his food, “what are your impressions so far?” He was reaching for his beverage as he went on to add, “You sounded impressed.” 

Allowing his surprise to show on his face despite the fact that it was marginal at best J’Ron returned, “You weren’t?” 

K’Mor tilted his head but said nothing. 

“Reserving judgement?” J’Ron knew that his colleague was more guarded with his opinions than he was. It was due to a fear of being wrong, he knew, but K’Mor would never admit to anything of the sort. 

“Our superiors went out of their way to acquire the human,” K’Mor went on, setting his cup down on the table. He had his hands in his lap now, a thoughtful pose for him. J’Ron knew that his hands were restlessly shifting on his lap, an unconscious habit that he had never been able to control, let alone cease. “Have you ever known them to resort to measures like that before?” 

J’Ron had considered that fact for himself. “O’Lar is an old friend,” he said to his companion. “I’m sure she knows what she’s doing.” 

“Hm.” K’Mor looked down at his food as though he was thinking about continuing to eat but ultimately he nudged the bowl aside. “I won’t deny,” he began, “that the human has shown potential. Promise, even.” 

J’Ron narrowed his eyes. “But?” 

Shifting a little in his seat his companion went on, “Will the risks outweigh the reward?” 

For just a moment J’Ron had a hard time not laughing. “Risks?” he echoed back at his companion. 

K’Mor appeared doubtful then, almost smiling himself before he sobered again. “I know they pose very little in the way of a threat, truthfully speaking, but we have seen for ourselves how stubborn humans are in particular.” 

“Yes,” J’Ron agreed. “That’s part of what makes them such good candidates for the system in the first place.” 

“Even if they do have a tendency to fail rather spectacularly in the long run.” 

“In the long run,” J’Ron echoed back, putting emphasis on the words. K’Mor wasn’t wrong, of course, and he could no sooner deny that than he could any other black and white fact that they had recorded over the years, but it was not a real point of concern in his opinion. Leaning closer to the table and supporting the weight of his arms upon it he went on, “O’Lar and her associates must have believed that the pros of this acquisition far outweighed any cons, and I’m inclined to agree.” He knew his companion had picked up on the intrigue and first threads of excitement in his voice because he had leaned forward as well. “As far as that risk goes, if there is one, I believe it’s minimal and ultimately worth it.” 

K’Mor watched him and then once again showed the beginnings of a smile. “The human does have quite the reputation.” 

“Precisely.” J’Ron nodded his head. “For such an unassuming specimen they’ve achieved some incredible things in a relatively short space of time.” 

“Defeating the Kaylon in battle, securing the beginnings of an alliance with the Krill, championing the pursuit of equal rights for Moclan females.” K’Mor sounded amused but looked suitably impressed by the list of accomplishments. For a human to achieve more than one such feat was quite impressive but this one male had surprised everyone, it seemed. And while it was true that they were only one individual in a crew numbering several hundred they were the leader of that company and therefore at the head of all of those achievements. 

In the silence that followed as the two of them considered those accomplishments K’Mor’s eyes narrowed and he gave his head a small shake. “It keeps trying to talk to you. Why?” 

J’Ron lifted his narrow shoulders in a shrug of uncertainty. “It does have that reputation.” 

“It didn’t defeat the Kaylon with talk.” 

After a small chuckle J’Ron shook his head, conceding that point. “No,” he said, “but it is known for trying to talk its way out of its problems before resorting to violence.” 

“Hm.” K’Mor retrieved his cup from the table. “We might have to see what we can do about that.” At J’Ron’s questioning tilt of the head he went on, “It will only be entertaining to guests for so long, all this attempt at talk.” Gesturing towards his companion with his cup he added, “You know they want to be entertained. They want a real show.” 

“True.” J’Ron had to concede to that point as well. This was why he and K’Mor worked so well together. They balanced against one another perfectly. Early on they had shown this quality and they had been paired together for a good long while now. “Did you have something in mind?” 

Once again K’Mor’s eyes were narrowed. He was giving something, or possibly more than one something, a great deal of thought. “Perhaps,” he said, before taking a drink. “Let me think on it for a while.” 

J’Ron gave his companion a nod and a smile. That was something he was more than happy to do. After all, K’Mor’s creativity had never steered them wrong so far. 

 


 

“Isaac, you said you had something for us. What is it?” Kelly sounded steady and focused but Claire could see in the other woman the first hints of impatience and perhaps even desperation. It was no surprise, given what they were attempting to do, and the timeframe with which they were working. Having a ticking clock looming over their heads wasn’t doing anyone’s nerves any good, in her opinion, but she knew the Admiralty would never see it that way. They had their schedules and expectations and more often than not it was the case of the rest of them be damned. 

Claire had never approved of that way of doing things but she was a medical officer, high-ranking and an expert in a number of fields though she might be, and whatever thoughts she shared with those at the very top of the chain of command would likely fall on deaf ears. Still, after all of this, perhaps she would give it another try. Admiral Halsey might be more willing to listen to her than the others. 

Their resident Kaylon rose from his seat and strode to the head of the room, taking a moment to call up a screen of information on the viewer there before turning back to address them collectively. 

“While Chief LaMarr and his team were unable to successfully uncover the ion trail of the Razer crew we are attempting to pursue, I believe I have information that could provide us with a clue as to their whereabouts.” 

“What is it?” Kelly asked again. Claire looked across the table at her and noted again that the younger woman’s colour was a little better, at least. She still hadn’t slept, Claire knew, but she had at least convinced the Commander to eat a good half of a decent meal and rehydrate herself to an acceptable level. There was still some work to do on those fronts and she knew sleep would be a much bigger challenge but it was progress all the same. 

“As I suspected,” Isaac went on, “the device that neutralised our landing party did indeed carry what Chief LaMarr called a manufacturer’s mark. Upon dismantling the device and scanning its many components I was able to identify this mark along with several other indicators that have helped me to deduce its origin.” 

Kelly leaned forward. She wasn’t the only one, Claire noticed. “You have a location?” 

“I believe so, Commander. Yes.” 

“Well what’re we waiting for?” Lieutenant Malloy asked, sweeping a hand towards the windows to indicate the vastness of space beyond. “Let’s go!” 

“Wait, hang on.” 

Their Helmsman was very obviously surprised by the fact that it was Kelly herself who said that, holding up a hand in his general direction to show that she was addressing him. The Lieutenant let his mouth hang open for a moment, his brow furrowing, and then he settled back a little further into his seat. Claire turned her gaze to their superior officer and waited, trusting that Kelly was at least attempting to listen to her head instead of her heart. 

That was never easy. 

“Isaac,” Kelly went on, turning her head back to the Kaylon, “what else can you tell us?” 

Much like everyone else the Commander had sensed that there was more to what their Science Officer had been telling them before their Helmsman had jumped in the way that he had. Lieutenant Malloy probably knew that as well but none of them could fault him for his drive to get on the move. Claire took a moment to direct a small smile in his direction, an expression filled with as much understanding as she could muster. 

“The location is beyond Union space, Commander,” Isaac went on, having waited silently at the head of the room during the brief interruption. “It is a known trading outpost on a secluded planet in the Mavaris Star System.” 

“Do we know the name of the planet?” Talla asked from her seat between Kelly and Gordon. 

“Yes, Lieutenant. The planet where the device was manufactured is known as Jarona II.” 

Bortus spoke up then, saying, “I have heard of this planet. Many traders go there in order to acquire items that they would struggle to obtain elsewhere.” 

Their Chief of Security had figured out why. “Because they’re illegal?” 

“More often than not,” Bortus confirmed. “Yes.” 

Chief LaMarr gave a sigh. “Great. So we’re on our way to a rogue trading outpost on a remote planet where the Union has no jurisdiction?” 

“What choice do we have?” That was Lieutenant Malloy again, and he was leaning forward once more, gesturing with his hands in his usual animated fashion. “This might be our only chance to figure out where those bastards took Ed.” He looked towards the Commander on those last words, and Claire recognised the look as imploring. 

Kelly was quiet for a few moments, considering their situation rationally, and then she turned her head towards their Science Officer. “Isaac, report to Engineering and work with Chief LaMarr to fortify the deflectors any way you can. See if you can both do the same with one of the shuttles as well.” They acknowledged her. To Bortus she said, “We’ll need weapons to take down there with us. Make sure the inventory is up to date.” Their Second Officer acknowledged accordingly. “Talla, assemble a team and brief them using any information Isaac can give you on the outpost.” The Xelayan nodded her head with an affirmative. 

When Kelly said their Helmsman’s name he leaned forward on the table even more and looked right at her. 

“Set a course for Jarona II. We’ll leave as soon as I update Halsey on our situation.” 

“Aye, Sir,” he acknowledged eagerly, clearly already poised to spring out of his seat the moment Kelly gave the word. 

She didn’t keep him waiting long. “Dismissed.” 

Lieutenant Malloy was out of his chair and practically sprinting for the door, having to halt for a second so it could open enough for him to duck through it on his way back to the bridge. Claire watched as everyone else filed out swiftly as well, waiting until it was just the two of them before she addressed Kelly again. “It’s a good plan.” 

The other woman took a beat and then nodded her head. “I hope so,” she said, rising to her feet and moving around the end of the table. Isaac had left the information up on the screen and she stood with her hands on her hips examining it with the focus of someone who didn’t want to miss a thing. 

Claire rose from her own seat and moved over to join her. “The Admiral will agree.” Before the Commander could say anything to the contrary she went on, “I know it can’t be easy to try and be objective about this. It’s an impossible situation and no one envies you for being put in the position that you’re in, but in my opinion, professional and personal?” She turned her head to regard the younger woman. “You’re doing an incredible job so far.” 

It took a moment but Kelly actually showed the beginnings of a smile. It was faint and short-lived but it was there and it was touched with gratitude. With a nod Kelly said, “I just hope it’s enough.” 

Lifting a hand Claire set it in the space between Kelly’s shoulders. The younger woman had become a dear friend in their time together on the Orville and for Claire it was easy to offer the support and guidance that the Commander obviously needed in that moment. She would continue to offer it for as long as it was needed as well. “Just remember,” she said to Kelly, “you’re not alone.” 

The Commander turned her head and looked down at her. 

“We’re with you,” Claire reminded her, holding her gaze. “Every step of the way.” 

Drawing in a breath Kelly said with gratitude, “Good.” Turning her eyes back to the screen she added with gravity, “I’ll need that.” 

 


 

Ed was pretty sure the skin around his wrist was starting to split. That or he had made it so raw already that it just felt like it had. 

Maybe that should have been enough to get him to stop but if anything it only made him redouble his efforts. 

He should have tried to sleep, he knew. Both his body and mind felt heavy with exhaustion but it felt wrong to waste what little time he might have to himself doing something like that, no matter how necessary it felt. Rest could come later, when he was out of here and back aboard the Orville, even though thinking about that was allowing his brain to get about twelve steps ahead of itself. In order to get back to his ship and his crew he had to get out of the restraints holding him to the platform. From there he had to hope he could get out of the room with the same ease his captors had displayed. Then he had to determine if any more of his people were being held aboard this ship. After that he had to get through God only knew how much unfamiliar territory on an unknown ship to any communications equipment he could access. That or he could try and find a shuttle and hope beyond hope that he could pilot it. If, and only if, he accomplished all of that, he had to hope these people didn’t give chase and come after him. 

It was a long list. Almost dauntingly long, actually. 

One thing at a time, Ed told himself, turning his gaze from that wall panel that doubled as a door and back down to his wrist. It was starting to ache furiously now, every single movement made the joint burn and throb but he didn’t stop. He couldn’t. Ed also couldn’t let himself think about the fact that that wrist restraint was just one of several and if it took him this long to get through just one then he didn’t have a hope of getting out of the rest before his captors returned. 

If he gave in to negative thoughts like that then he was screwed. So he refused to. What he was telling himself instead was that if he got one arm free he might be able to reach that console off to his right that one of the aliens was constantly hovering around and if he was really lucky he could trigger some kind of release. It was a huge if, an almost laughable maybe, but Ed had to try. 

Somewhere in this ship, however big it really was, Caro and her brother were similarly trapped. Was her wife somewhere aboard, sneaking around in the hopes that she could get her family free? Just as Ed was choosing to believe he could make progress with just one arm free he was choosing to believe that Caro’s wife was still alive and well and hatching a plan of her own to liberate her loved ones. If that really was the case then maybe they would come for him as well. It was a good hope to hold on to, among all the others he was keeping a tight grip on. 

There was a sharp pain around his wrist that made him suck in a hiss of breath between his teeth and when he looked down he could see that, sure enough, there was now a small trickle of blood showing below the joint and the cuff holding it. In twisting and straining it the way he had he’d rubbed the skin raw enough to bleed. 

But the restraint didn’t feel any looser. 

Ed closed his eyes for a moment, resting his head back against the flat of the platform behind him, and slowly let out the breath that he had sucked in a moment ago. The skin around his wrist continued to burn dully. 

He couldn’t stop. He couldn’t give up. 

When he opened his eyes he drew in a deep breath and looked down at his trapped limb before going back to it. Even if he ended up splitting the skin all the way around his wrist and doing himself harm in the long run he had to keep trying. And so he would. 

 


 

“We know it’s risky,” Kelly said with a small shake of her head. “I know it’s risky,” she corrected, bringing her gaze up then to meet that of the Admiral on the other end of the line. “But right now it’s all we have.” And they had already wasted enough time piecing together this much of the puzzle. They couldn’t stay here any longer, not without risking the crew going stir-crazy. If Kelly was honest with herself she was at risk of losing her mind if they didn’t take some sort of action, and at this rate even if it didn’t really lead anywhere they had to try. What else could they do? 

Halsey was quiet for several moments, his gaze dropping down and to the side as he considered the proposition Kelly had laid out for him. When he straightened with an audible deep breath and dipped his head in a simple but significant nod Kelly felt her heart skip. Her lungs opened up and she felt like she could breathe again. Relief wasn’t a strong enough word for what she felt then. 

“All right, Commander,” he said to her. “But be very careful.” He leaned forward on his desk. “As your Chief Engineer pointed out you’ll be beyond Union space, and therefore Union jurisdiction. You don’t have any real pull out there and you’ll be on your own.” 

Kelly had been hoping Halsey would have been able to convince the rest of the Admiralty to send at least one more ship as backup but evidently that wasn’t the case after all. She was quiet as she nodded her acknowledgement. 

“You have a good crew at your back, I know,” Halsey went on, “but the sorts of people who frequent these planets don’t care about good people, and even less about good intentions.” After a moment he persisted, “And they probably won’t be at all welcoming of Union officers.” 

Kelly heard him loud and clear. “So we ditch the uniforms?” 

He gave the smallest smile of approval. “Exactly.” His expression sobered. “Undercover is the only way to do this.” 

“What about the shuttle?” They would have no other means of getting down to the planet and it wasn’t like they could borrow another vessel to get down to the outpost. 

“They shouldn’t look too closely at something like that,” Halsey said with a fair amount of confidence. “But it might be worth seeing if your Engineering team can—” he paused to find the right words, “—rough one up enough to make it look like it’s salvaged.” 

Kelly nodded her head. John and his team should be up to a task like that, she thought. Some of them might actually enjoy the chance to blow off a little steam by defacing one of the Orville’s shuttles with Admiral Halsey’s blessing. The thought was almost enough to make her smile. Almost, but not quite. 

“Communications might be spotty that far out,” the Admiral went on, and she could hear the concern in his voice. Given how long she had known the man now it would have been impossible for her to miss it, she thought. “Don’t take any unnecessary risks while you’re out there.” She heard the please that he chose not to say out loud. 

She straightened in her seat. “With all due respect, Admiral,” she said to him with unwavering confidence in her voice and the words she was saying, “there’s no such thing with a mission like this.” Every risk was acceptable and necessary in her mind and anyone who said otherwise could sit this one out as far as she was concerned. 

Halsey considered her for a moment before he sat back in his seat and nodded, accepting what she had said without offering any sort of argument. 

Good. She was glad. Kelly knew he wouldn’t have been able to talk her out of it anyway but she was still relieved that he didn’t try. 

“Contact me as soon as you have any more news,” Halsey said to her and she gave him a nod. When his brows raised the way they did she recognised the quiet plea in the expression as he said, “Good luck, Commander.” 

Be careful, he was really saying. Again. He had already told her to take care but in his mind it was obviously worth repeating even if he disguised the words. 

“Thank you, Admiral.” Her gratitude was sincere and she let it show in her expression just as much as she let him hear it in her words, simple though they were. 

“Halsey out.” 

Kelly drew in a breath and rose from her seat in the same moment, taking long swift strides to cover the distance to the door to her office. She didn’t miss a beat as she strode through it and right onto the bridge. Moving around the command chairs to stand in front of them she summoned her voice to ask clearly, “Lieutenant Malloy, is our course set?” 

When Gordon glanced back at her she could see the hope in his eyes. “Locked in, Commander. Ready on your order.” 

She gave a nod of approval, feeling the eyes of every officer on the bridge firmly fixed on her. Making sure to speak clearly and with confidence she said to their Helmsman, “Engage quantum drive.” She felt the buzz of anticipation sweep through the bridge, the way the air changed just enough for her to know that everyone present was relieved and pleased that they had a plan in place and they could begin to act on it. 

With Gordon’s satisfied acknowledgement ringing in her ears Kelly lowered herself into the Captain’s chair. It wasn’t her chair and she was only keeping it warm for its rightful occupant’s return, but they were all counting on her to do the best job that she could in that man’s absence. Ed was counting on her too. 

Kelly wasn’t planning on letting him down.

Chapter Text

The driving rain was making it almost impossible to see but he kept on running anyway. Even half-blinded and deaf to everything but the thunderous downpour all around him Ed kept on running because if he didn’t then someone or something out there would catch up to him and that would be that. Game over. Reset. Start again. 

Soaked to the skin with his hair plastered all around his head he ducked around a corner and under what meagre shelter the old structure in the grey and miserable landscape could provide. It was a wasteland, another one, and Ed was starting to think that a good number of these people’s simulations shared a lot of the same features. It was more thrilling for them that way, he supposed, if their entertainment didn’t have any real refuge to turn to. Ed would have thought that would get dull and repetitive after a while but what did he know? He was just the entertainment. 

There was a leak about a foot over in the old overhang that had once been part of a roof for a small shack that had long since given in to the elements that seemed to relentlessly batter it from all sides. Ed raised a hand and swiped it over his face, trying to clear it as much as he could from the streams of water that trickled endlessly down from his drenched and flattened hair. His lungs were aching and his legs were burning but he wasn’t ready to stop yet, turning his head and leaning out into the deluge just enough to try and see if there were any shadows giving pursuit. 

There was something out there. Ed just didn’t know what

Turning his gaze downward he considered the weapon in his hand, his expression grim. The metal weight in his grasp was familiar and yet alien at the same time and he drew no real comfort from its presence. It had been half-buried less than five feet from where he had awakened in a half-ruined shack very similar to the one under which he was shielding himself now and he had hesitated to even reach out for it for a good few minutes before his survival instinct had kicked in properly. 

Ed didn’t really want a gun, but he knew want and need were two very different things in a place like this. If he had had a gun during the last simulation he might have stood more of a chance, but then again maybe he still would have ended up at the end of one of that group’s weapons. 

As he listened to the crashing rain, fighting to hear past the relentless hammering, he remembered trying to engage with the aliens again when they had returned. Once again the one to his right had glanced in his direction but refused to actually interact. That hadn’t stopped Ed from trying though. Where are my people? They hadn’t answered that one. Are they here somewhere? Nothing there either. He had tried right up until whatever they had been pumping into him had re-entered his system and made him too drowsy to talk. And then the flash of pain had pulled him under again and he was back inside. 

He had woken up in one of those leaking, crumbling shacks and found the gun. It was loaded as well. He had checked. It was an old fashioned thing, like the weapons that had once been so popular and problematic back on Old Earth, but Ed was trying to convince himself that it was better than nothing. Even if it would always be a last resort it was better than having no way to defend himself at all and hopefully it would be a heck of a lot better than that crowbar which had ultimately amounted to nothing. 

Ed would have stayed in that shack if he hadn’t heard—he didn’t know what. Something. Some terrible sound ringing out from the darkness and the gloom and sending an icy chill of instinctive fear up the length of his spine. He had held out until the fourth cry of that unseen something and then he had agreed with his instincts that taking his chances out in the downpour might be a better idea than sitting and waiting for whatever was making that awful noise to come crashing down on him. 

There was a rumble, an ominous and rolling growl from the heavens, and just as Ed turned his gaze upward into the black sky it lit up with a great fork of electric blue lightning. It streaked right overhead and he followed those arcs and it was as he was bringing his eyes down and closer to the ground once again that he saw it. Saw them. Shadows. Several of them. And they were heading right for him. 

“Dammit.” Ed didn’t even glance down at the gun in his hand, let alone consider using it right then. Instead he turned his head in the other direction and considered the darkness there before reminding himself that he didn’t have much of a choice. He didn’t have any choice at all, in fact, at least not if he wanted to avoid death. 

Another death. 

So he started running again. As quickly as he could he pushed the gun into the back of his waistband and then took off into the torrential rain once again. His lungs and his legs hadn’t had much of a chance to recover but he quieted their complaints as best he could and just kept running. The thunder cracked and boomed with increasing urgency overhead and the lightning flared just as frequently. It wasn’t long before the two were overlapping chaotically, the horrendous storm directly overhead now. The rain continued to hammer and flood down. Ed just kept running because there was nothing else for him to do. He ran until he could hardly breathe anymore and until his legs threatened to drop him to the ground, and then he ran even further still. 

At first Ed thought the dark shapes that reared up ahead were more predators of some kind but he quickly realised their proportions were wrong. Too boxy and angular, and they didn’t move even the slightest. They were structures. And so he adjusted his course accordingly and carried himself with as much speed as he could gather in their direction. He couldn’t keep running forever. His body wouldn’t allow it. If nothing else the structures might provide a small respite from the storm even if his pursuers caught up with him. 

He couldn’t hold them off out here anyway. There was no cover and nothing to use to his advantage. He was vulnerable and exposed and they would have an easy time surrounding and overwhelming him. Maybe in that place that was looking more and more like an abandoned town he stood a chance of outsmarting them. 

It was a town, he soon discovered, and it called to mind the Old West program that he, Gordon, and John were so fond of. Wooden structures with slatted rooftops and covered porches. There was a wide main thoroughfare and several narrow branches leading off between the buildings that had likely served all sorts of purposes. Or they would have if any of this had been real, Ed reminded himself. That was something he was having to do a lot, he had noticed. 

Going inside one of the buildings would have provided better cover from the elements but it also came with the risk of cutting himself off from any real avenues of escape, he knew, and for a few moments he hesitated on the edge of that main thoroughfare before he decided to chance it. Getting out of the driving rain for even a couple of minutes would be a relief, and one that was worth taking the risk for. Ed ducked to the right and through a yawning opening that had once been sealed by a door that had long since collapsed off its hinges. There was a staircase immediately to the right again but he didn’t go up it, at least not yet. Instead he waited the few seconds it took for his eyes to adjust after the newest flash of lightning so he could take a look around at the interior. 

It had been a store at some point. There was a counter, several tables dotted around with dusty odds and ends scattered across them, and there was even an ancient looking register on the ground between that counter and another dark opening that he assumed was a storeroom of some kind. 

Something moved inside. 

Ed paused, holding his breath as he listened. Something scuffed quietly, a boot moving over a wooden floorboard, and then everything went quiet again. As silently and smoothly as he could he slipped the gun from the back of his waistband and inched towards the door, keeping his eyes glued to the opening so that he wouldn’t miss any signs of movement from within. 

For a few moments more he hesitated to one side of the doorway, gun in hand, before he reminded himself that lingering any longer would only give whoever or whatever was on the other side the chance to make the first move instead. So he stepped to the side and around on the ball of one foot, bringing the gun up in the same motion so that it was aimed roughly at chest height through the opening. 

Caro was standing on the other side, in an almost perfect mirror of his own position, but in her raised arm she grasped a long-bladed knife instead of a gun. Once she laid eyes on him she let out a rush of a breath and he saw the way her shoulders dropped as relief mixed with recognition. “Ed,” she breathed, lowering the knife and stepping a fraction closer to him. With no reason not to Ed lowered the gun as well, looking back over his shoulder to ensure the entrance he had used was still clear. 

“Caro,” he returned by way of acknowledgement, bringing his eyes back to her face before he tilted his head enough to look past her and into the shadows of the room beyond. “Where’s Tommy?” 

She was quiet as she looked back at him for a moment before she dropped her gaze and averted it. When she shook her head Ed thought at first she was going to tell him that he had already been killed in this scenario before she said in a small voice that made her sound at least ten years younger, “I don’t know.” 

First her wife and now her brother. Ed’s heart ached for her. 

And then the terrible sound rang out from the darkness. That chill raced up Ed’s spine again as he turned on the spot and looked at all the windows. There were too many windows. 

“Upstairs,” Caro said right before she darted for the staircase and he followed after her without hesitation. They both took them two at a time, far more brazenly than they perhaps should have, but none of them gave way under their weight or the urgency of their movements, and soon they found themselves on the second floor. Ed moved to one side of the window that looked out into the blackness of the open plain he had managed to cover and peered out into the gloom. Caro took the other side. 

It wasn’t until the newest flare of lightning that they saw the approaching threat. Several shapes were hurrying towards the town, many of them humanoid but some of them distinctly not. They were lower to the ground even if they were not particularly small, but Ed could see even at a distance that they moved on four legs. 

As he watched one of those four-legged shapes slowed, halted, and threw back its head. It let out a baying yowl that made Ed’s blood run cold as his heart rate quickened. That was the thing he had been hearing all this time. Some kind of animal. 

“Hounds?” Caro asked, turning her head to look at him even as he was shaking his own. 

“Something like that.” He looked in her direction and saw for the first time that while she wasn’t dripping wet like he was she had clearly been soaked to the skin, and recently at that. Her hair was a damp mess around her head. “We can’t stay here.” The stairs would be no obstacle at all for whatever those things were. Ed moved to the window on the opposite side of the building and found it hanging slightly ajar. With his free hand he managed to shove it open to reveal a porch overhang that was mostly flat. Leaning out of it Ed judged the distance from one building to the next. “I think we can make it,” he said even as Caro came over to join him. 

She was nodding as he looked at her. “Only one way to find out.” She was wearing a simple black belt, much like he was, and it was through that that she slipped her knife so she could have her hands free to climb out of the window and onto the ledge beyond. Ed watched her, listening to the small creaks of the ledge as she inched across it. When she reached the edge she stood there for a moment, judging the distance to the similar building that neighboured the one in which they had briefly taken shelter, and then she launched herself across the gap. 

Ed’s heart was momentarily in his throat as she jumped. It was only when she caught her weight securely on the ledge of the open window across the alley that he let out the breath he had been holding. Once she was safely through the gap he tucked the gun back into the waist of his pants and followed her across. The porch’s roof creaked louder under his weight than it had Caro’s, but he didn’t linger long enough to let it become a serious concern. When he pushed himself off and over the gap between the two buildings he didn’t let himself look down. 

Caro was ready to help him through the window and she pulled him through as quickly as she could. It was just in time, too, from the sounds of it. No sooner had Ed’s legs finished clearing the window than one of those baying yowls rang out from just beyond the town’s edge, right under where they had been only moments before. They couldn’t stay still. They had to keep moving. 

“Where now?” Caro didn’t speak the words aloud but she did mouth them distinctly and clearly enough for Ed to understand perfectly what she was asking. With one hand he gestured to the next window. 

And so they repeated their treacherous journey across the buildings, from one to the next, until they were about two thirds of the way down the line of structures that formed the town. By the time they realised they could go no further Ed’s whole body felt exhausted and his arms and legs were trembling enough for him to know he needed to take a break. Caro was similarly out of breath and as he tried to think of their next move she braced her hands on her knees, bent over at the waist to collect herself. 

Ed saw it when he rocked his head back to try and clear his thoughts: a hatch in the ceiling. Caro must have caught sight of the frown on his face because she came to stand directly beside him, looking up at the same thing that had caught his eye. He lowered his gaze to meet hers and she shrugged. It’s as good a place as any, that shrug said, and he had to agree. They had nowhere else to go. If they went down those hound-like creatures would likely make short work of them and Ed couldn’t think of a worse way to go. 

So he cupped his hands and gave Caro the boost she needed to knock the hatch out of its housing overhead and reveal an opening leading out onto the roof. Given that she was already up in the air thanks to his support she grabbed the ledge and pulled herself up. Ed managed to quickly step back out of the way so that her swinging legs wouldn’t strike him. Once she was all the way up and through the square opening she turned and laid her weight flat on the roof, holding her arms through. Ed didn’t waste any time jumping up and taking her outreached hands. 

He weighed quite a bit more than she did and the effort she had to put into pulling him up was written all over her face, and audible in the strained breaths and grunts she elicited as she heaved him high enough so that he could grasp the ledge instead. Rain had been steadily streaming down onto him as he’d been rising up through the hole and he was soaked through again before he had even set his feet back on solid ground up there. But he didn’t take any notice of it, instead turning and moving the hatch cover back into place as quickly and quietly as he could. 

There was a raised voice from down the street. Ed and Caro had the same reaction, instinctively, and lowered themselves to crouches as close to the rooftop as they could without going fully horizontal. The storm was still rolling and snarling overhead but the lightning was not so frequent now. They couldn’t see where the shout had come from and the driving rain and frequent rumbles of thunder made it all but impossible to pinpoint directions. 

Ed was trying not to think about how exposed they were up here. The edges of the roof were high enough that they would both be able to take cover behind them but if their pursuers followed them up onto this rooftop in particular? It didn’t really bear thinking about. 

Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all. 

They inched their way to the edge of the roof and peered over the ledge. Caro ducked back down immediately and Ed followed suit. 

The hunters were right out front, only a few metres away. 

Ed took a slow, deep breath, his back pressed flat to the inner ledge of the roof. Caro was right beside him, doing much the same. She had drawn the knife from her belt. Ed reached around to retrieve his gun. 

They were just in time. 

If lightning hadn’t streaked overhead just as Ed finished retrieving his gun they might have missed the dark shape that came slinking over the opposite edge of the roof. Its eyes caught the light from the fork that lit up the sky and gave the creature an even more hellish appearance. It was all black oily fur and sharp teeth, each large jaw housing two rows of the things which trailed as much saliva as they did streaming rainwater. Its ears were short and almost spiked, much like its stub of a tail. The yellow eyes were narrow and almost reptilian rather than anything recognisably canine. The wide paws sported hooked claws, five of the things, and as Ed watched in awestruck disbelief they dug gouges in the surface of the roof. 

The thing had climbed the building

“Jesus Chr—” 

Caro didn’t have time to finish letting that curse spill out of her lips before the thing came hurtling towards them, at least three-hundred pounds of bloodthirsty mindless rage, all snapping jaws and slavering fury. 

Ed was going to take a shot at it but there was no time. If he didn’t move it was going to smash straight into him and the size of the thing was unbelievable. It would have shattered his entire ribcage on impact, he was sure. It was bigger than any Earth dog he had ever seen, even the wildest hybrids humans had ever conceived and bred into existence. And it was the meanest, ugliest thing he had ever set eyes on. 

He managed to throw his body to the side and over in a roll just in time to avoid being slammed by the beast, which instead crashed headfirst into the edge of the roof. There was an almighty crack and when Ed turned his head he saw that the skull of the thing had fully split the wood of the roof’s ledge from top to bottom. Instead of letting his disbelief and horror take over he raised the gun, quickly took aim, and then squeezed the trigger. 

The shot hit the beast in the rear flank and had enough power to spin its hindquarters around and knock it off balance. It let out a snarling, howling cry and snapped its jaws furiously. 

Go!” Even as Caro bellowed the word she was running for the edge of the roof and Ed scrambled to his feet to do the same, fuelled by a very rational fear of getting caught in close quarters with the thing he had just fired a bullet into. One after the other they hurled themselves off of one roof and through the air onto the next one in the line. Ed lost enough of his balance on landing that he had to roll if he didn’t want to fall and he felt a jarring in his knee as well as one shoulder but adrenaline quickly muted the aftershock. 

“Oh Christ.” That was Caro again and there was real fear in her voice. Ed lifted and turned his head to see why. 

The thing was barrelling after them. 

Panic spiked in Ed’s system and he scrambled to his feet to keep running, jumping after Caro to clear the next gap. Something struck the ledge of the building less than an inch to his left when he caught himself awkwardly halfway over it. If Caro hadn’t turned back and physically hauled him over then whatever those hunters were firing at their quarry might have hit him. The next shot took a chunk out of the rooftop right where he had been struggling only a moment before. 

They were almost all the way back to their feet when Caro let out a sound of very real alarm, and justifiably so. A second beast had just finished heaving and clambering its way over the ledge between them and the next building in the line. Ed turned his head to look back. The first creature was coming up fast behind them. As he looked back the second was preparing itself to leap, hunching its weight back on its haunches distinctly. 

“Go,” he hissed to Caro and gave her a small shove towards the back of the building. When she gave him a wild look of uncertainty he said it again, more desperately. “Go!” Even as the word left his lips he was lifting the gun to aim it once again at the first creature. 

Caro took off running for the rear edge of the roof, her breathing loud and frantic, right as Ed squeezed off his shot. It took a sizeable chunk out of the first beast’s shoulder and knocked it off balance enough that when it leapt across the gap between buildings its trajectory had been thrown off. Ed hurled himself after Caro, hearing the sound of the second beast launching its weight forward and into the air. 

Ed reached the edge of the roof and swung himself over and into a blind drop beyond just as the two creatures smashed violently into one another mid-leap. They crashed down in a messy tangle of scrambling limbs and snapping jaws and as Ed plummeted down he heard vicious sounds of what had to be bloody and frenzied combat from overhead as the two things unleashed their aggression on one another instead of their original prey. 

There was a sloped overhang at the back of the building that slowed his fall. He managed to bend his knees when he hit it but the angle was steep enough that he slid and toppled right off the edge before he dropped like a stone the rest of the way to the ground. If it had been bone dry he probably would have broken something when he landed but instead he just knocked the wind out of himself and became distantly aware of a dull ache through his arm. Ed didn’t let himself take too much notice of it as he pushed and heaved his way back to his feet. 

Caro hadn’t gone far and he waved a hand at her to go, run, just as she raised an arm to alert him to something off to his right. Ed didn’t think before he turned with the gun and fired a shot. 

It was one of the hunters this time, an alien with mottled green-and-grey skin and a ridge of spikes crowning their skull. Ed’s shot caught it dead in the chest and knocked it right off its feet. When it hit the ground it stopped moving. 

Ed didn’t stop to see what happened next, or to think about what he had just done. Even before he had finished lowering the gun he was running again, quickly closing the gap between himself and Caro who had turned on her heel to take flight as well. 

They kept pace with one another well enough for a good thirty feet before Caro let out a sudden and unbridled yell in the split second before her legs buckled underneath her and she dropped to the ground. She hit hard, knocking the air right out of her lungs, and as Ed was turning, skidding in the sodden ground despite his best efforts not to, he saw what had knocked her down. Even in the driving rain he could see the bloody mess of her shoulder, the smaller entry wound at the back and the larger hole at the front where the projectile had cleaved right through her flesh. Her arm was hanging uselessly at her side. The knife she had been holding was gone from sight, dropped during her fall and God only knew where now. 

Run,” she gasped at him, pain thick in her voice as she cradled her ruined arm but Ed was already hurrying back towards her. It was hypocritical of him, he knew, after he had made her leave him behind last time but she had had her brother to take care of. Here and now it was just the two of them and Ed couldn’t leave her. He wouldn’t

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said to her as he came down by her side, looking her in the eyes in the moment before a shout from their pursuers brought his attention back up. In that momentary shared look he had seen regret and heartache and despair in her eyes. Ed hoped she had seen defiance and determination in his. 

As he rose to his feet, planting his weight firmly to position himself in a shielding position in front of Caro’s dropped frame, Ed brought the gun up in his hand. He could see the shapes of the hunters approaching now and a brief flicker of lightning illuminated them enough for him to see that he was badly outnumbered. But still he didn’t waver, standing his ground and keeping Caro covered with the gun moving from one figure to the next. 

“Stay back,” he called to the hunters and to his surprise they actually slowed their approach and came to a halt about ten feet away. In their hands he could see various weapons, from firearms to blades. One of them was lightly bouncing what looked like a hammer in their grasp. With a shake of his head Ed said, while he apparently had their attention, “You don’t have to do this.” 

One of the hunters, the one with the hammer, showed a toothy smile and chuckled. At least Ed assumed they did. A roll of thunder swallowed the sound almost completely. “None of you have to do this,” he went on, looking around at them, keeping the gun moving as well just in case any of them decided to try and rush forward. “For God’s sake, we have the technology to do this without using real people.” That was what Ed couldn’t wrap his head around, what he couldn’t get past. “Please, just—” He paused while a fresh roll of thunder rumbled overhead. “Just leave us alone.” They all just stared at him. Could they even understand him? Ed had to hope that they could. “Just let us go.” 

They remained quiet. The one with the hammer didn’t just smile then, but grinned

Ed had enough time to be unnerved by that before a shape exploded out of the darkness to his left and smashed into him with such force that he was pretty sure he blacked out for a couple of moments. He came to with the sound of Caro’s voice crying out a denial and a burning pain flooding his left side, limbs and all. More than one bone was broken. Something hot washed over his face and Ed realised with a rush of horror that it was breath from a large mouth that was looming over him. As his vision cleared he saw the rows of teeth. His heart jumped in panic and he tried to move but he wasn’t fast enough. 

The jaws snapped closed. Those wickedly sharp teeth punched through flesh like hot knives through butter and Ed all but choked on the scream of pain that that bite ripped out of him. One hand was free to clutch frantically and wildly at first wet dirt and then the beast’s muzzle as it locked its jaws around his side and arm, pinning the limb to his body as it gripped and squeezed. Ed let out another desperate cry as he felt the teeth tear through him and free blood into the beast’s mouth and across its tongue. When he smashed at the thing’s muzzle in desperation all it did was give him a vicious shake and then toss him aside like a discarded toy. 

Ed choked on a wet cough as he lay trembling and gasping pitifully in the dirt. Was it still raining? He couldn’t tell anymore. 

A hand touched his back and his hair and he almost whimpered and shied away before he heard Caro’s voice trying to tell him it was okay. Was she crying? He couldn’t tell that either. 

The beast snarled and grumbled as it padded closer and Ed did try to shy away then. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t move. 

At all. 

In a sickening moment of clarity Ed realised that the beast had severed something in his spine. When he coughed again it was as much a sob as anything else and he squeezed his eyes shut as Caro’s hand touched to his hair again, her voice a quiet and constant stream of breathless and shapeless reassurances that he wasn’t alone. 

The hunters came closer, forming a tight circle around them. Ed heard their footsteps in the wet dirt as they closed in and he prayed, silently, for it to be over. 

He didn’t have to wait long.

Chapter Text

There was a brief but definite flicker of a physical alert in the moments before the simulation disengaged and the subject’s mind was released. J’Ron called the alert up and scanned it with his usual swift precision, taking in all the details of the human’s vitals before he turned his head to watch the rig release from its lock and shift positions. As he watched he could see the human’s chest heaving and another glance at the monitor showed that it was having trouble breathing. With a frown J’Ron tapped a couple of controls to keep the mask from disengaging to aid the human in regulating its breathing and getting it back to normal. They couldn’t have it hyperventilating and causing itself more distress than it could quickly recover from. 

Even through that mask he could hear the ragged and laboured breaths and another glance showed him that the human was trembling. Its whole body was shaking. Another glance at the monitors showed an elevated heart rate. That wasn’t the only high level either. Blood pressure, along with the readings for adrenaline and several other hormones were what they would consider to be increased far beyond the norm as well. They were the hormones associated with fear, he knew. After this long in his current position he recognised them easily, no matter the species. As J’Ron worked the monitors to skim through the results he heard the human making low but almost constant sounds of alarm and disorientation. Even before their release had been triggered by their simulated demise their levels had been similarly elevated, if not more so. In the moments before it had perished it had experienced very real terror, evidently. 

J’Ron shook his head and glanced across at K’Mor. His companion was, not surprisingly, untroubled by the subject’s condition. 

Before he could say anything the door slid open and he turned his head to see none other than O’Lar herself striding into their workspace. He straightened before he could catch himself and said her name with no small amount of surprise. 

She greeted him with a smile, giving K’Mor a dip of her head in acknowledgement. “I hope I’m not interrupting,” she said to them both, her tone professionally pleasant but genuinely hopeful at the same time. 

J’Ron knew she would have wanted to come down here at some point, especially given her interest in this human particularly. “Of course not,” he told her, shaking his head, before he turned to check his monitors again. 

“Is something the matter, J’Ron?” She was striding closer, her movements smooth and calm as always. Coming up beside him she looked at the monitors as well but said nothing about the readings. 

During the short interruption J’Ron had taken the time to consider the readings. “Given the nature of the simulation the subject just experienced,” he said, “it’s nothing to be overly troubled about.” He gave O’Lar a reassuring smile but she was moving around him to consider the human properly. 

It was still struggling to catch its breath and J’Ron could see that it was having difficulty fully returning to consciousness in the real world. That happened sometimes, especially after a particularly jarring end to a simulation. Being crippled and then literally bludgeoned to death with a hammer, of all things, certainly qualified as jarring. The rig had come to a halt at a slight tilt, as was normal, and the human’s head alternated between hanging and lifting up again, almost as if it were dozing off but trying to fight the call of sleep. 

“We were watching,” O’Lar said to them then, taking her eyes from the subject to turn them in his direction. She didn’t look displeased but J’Ron couldn’t help but be concerned about whether or not she approved. “Everyone was very impressed.” Looking back to the human she said, “Interesting, really, that this one decided to forego an attempt at escape alone in order to try and protect the female.” Tilting her head momentarily to the side O’Lar went on, “Futile, ultimately, and very costly, but it did make for a good show.” She was smiling when she turned to look at J’Ron anew. “Nice work.” 

“Thank you.” K’Mor had taken the opportunity to step in on the conversation. As pragmatic and detached as he could be he was not one to shy away from praise. 

O’Lar granted him a smile that was his alone and then turned her attention back to the human. “The responses have been very favourable, we noticed,” she said, speaking like a businesswoman now, an individual who concerned herself with such things even during her off hours. “The human has only been through, what? Three environments so far?” When K’Mor answered in a positive as J’Ron nodded she dipped her own head and went on, “And already it has performed not only surprisingly well but in a manner that’s highly entertaining for our clientele.” She turned her head from the human, who had dropped his own in an obvious show of exhaustion. “If we want to keep those numbers up and keep the traffic flow as high as it is right now, then we need to press on, and without delay.” 

Part of J’Ron had expected she would say something along those lines but even taking that into account he was surprised. “Rest periods are usually advised between runs,” he said to her, taking care with his tone because no matter how long they had known one another she was still his superior and an individual in very high standing in their society. “Without them we have noticed, in the past, that there’s an elevated risk of a subject’s mind beginning to deteriorate.” 

O’Lar tilted her head in acknowledgement before saying, “True though that may be, we believe this human will last longer than others we have acquired over the years. It’s showing considerable resilience and resolve for such a primitive being.” She was smiling as she went on to say, “It’s everything we hoped it would be.” 

When neither J’Ron nor K’Mor said anything she glanced between the two and persisted, “You know very well what this human has achieved during its time as a commanding officer within its organisation. Unorthodox though it might be for us to resort to such measures to acquire one subject, neither of you can argue with the results.” Her eyes were a fraction wider as she looked between them again. “Am I wrong?” 

K’Mor shook his head with an obedient and prompt negative. J’Ron took the time to regard the human. Its head had rocked back again and it was fighting to keep its eyes open. O’Lar was watching him, waiting for his response, and he brought his gaze back to her instead so that he could give her the answer she was hoping to hear. “No,” he told her, “you’re not wrong, O’Lar.” 

She smiled. “Good.” With a small tug on the hem of her jacket she straightened the material and said to them both, “Use whatever means necessary to keep the human’s vitals within acceptable levels but we don’t want it out of the system any longer than absolutely necessary. The demand for this one is higher than even we anticipated. We don’t want to disappoint our clientele.” She looked between them. “Do we?” 

They both shook their heads, as expected. 

O’Lar gave another smile. “No, we don’t,” she agreed. She looked back up to the human again. “Let’s get our money’s worth, hm?” When she turned away from the human she was still smiling. As she passed J’Ron she touched his shoulder approvingly and then continued on without another word until she had left the lab. K’Mor watched her go. 

J’Ron had turned his gaze back to the human. It was looking at him again, its gaze somewhat unfocused but undoubtedly fixed on him. How much of the conversation had it heard? How much had it actually managed to absorb? Its vitals were beginning to ease and level out again but they were still above the norm for a member of its species. It was entirely possible that it had heard everything. 

Drawing in a breath J’Ron told himself that that mattered very little. They had their directions and it was not their place to challenge them, especially if they were getting favourable results. “We’ll give it a very short rest period,” he said to K’Mor, “and then put it back in.” 

The human’s eyes closed and J’Ron thought it had made a low sound as well. A groan? Possibly. He did his best not to glance in their direction, instead turning his focus solely upon his monitors so that he could do his job. That was what was expected of him, and therefore that was exactly what he would do. 

 


 

“Commander, we’re approaching the Mavaris Star System.” 

“Drop to sublight.” Kelly straightened in her seat with her eyes fixed on the viewer as the Orville dropped out of quantum and their destination came into view. If their mission here hadn’t been so time-sensitive and serious she might have appreciated the beauty of the location, the mottled colours of the planets and their natural satellites and the gloriously unique layouts of the stars all around them. But as it was her mind was fully consumed by the severity of what they had come here to do and so she did a cursory sweep of the view from the bridge and rose to her feet, summoning her voice as she did so, “Bortus, Talla, you’re with me.” Pressing the comm button on the arm of the Captain’s chair she said, “Chief, how’s it coming?” 

John’s voice came back through the system loud and clear. “We’re ready to go, Commander.” 

“Good. Report to the bridge,” she told him. “You have the conn.” 

“Aye, Sir.” 

She closed the line, noting that the Second Officer and Security Chief were already on the move. Talla had selected a small Security detail to accompany them and briefed them accordingly. They would meet them in the shuttle bay once they were dressed for the mission. 

“Gordon?” 

He turned in his seat to look at her. She could tell from the expression on his face that he wished he could accompany them on the mission but he wouldn’t challenge her orders, she knew. True to his word on that first day into her role here as First Officer he was a professional and never questioned orders unless he believed they were well and truly out of line. When she and Ed had been taken by the Calivon he had done just that, she had heard, and if she was honest with herself part of Kelly was sorry that she had missed it. 

“Maintain position and keep the Orville out of sight. We don’t want any of Jarona II’s regulars spotting us and figuring out they have company.” 

Gordon dipped his head in a nod. “You got it, Commander.” As she was turning to leave he added, “Good luck.” 

She paused and met his eyes, giving him the briefest smile before taking her leave from the bridge. John would be up soon and she trusted him and their Helmsman to keep the ship out of sight while they were gone, just as she knew that she could trust every single other person aboard to be at their best. This mission meant a lot to all of them, without exception, and as she, Bortus, and Talla moved through the ship they were met with nods of respect and approval and other wishes of good luck and Godspeed. Kelly carried them all with her to the shuttle bay and right into the shuttle, which had been suitably defaced and dirtied to look more like a salvaged vessel than anything currently servicing a Union Starship. 

John and his team had even convincingly changed the serial number along the hull, Kelly noticed. She would have to remember to commend him on that later. 

With her hair pulled back into a high ponytail she strode to the front of the shuttle and took the pilot’s seat. Bortus settled himself into the co-pilot’s position. Talla and her team filled the cabin behind them and without a word they departed the Orville shuttle bay and headed directly for Jarona II. Bortus engaged the shuttle’s cloak once they were clear of the ship because they had decided it would not be out of character for scavengers and traders to utilise such technology if they had it in their possession. It wouldn’t appear suspicious to anyone who would frequent an outpost like the one they were headed towards, they had agreed, and if nothing else it would give them a little bit of an edge. Kelly planned to use everything they had to their advantage. They couldn’t afford not to. 

 


 

The skies above the outpost were busy enough that they had had to resort to setting the shuttle down about a half mile away from the settlement’s outer edge if they didn’t want to navigate the mess. Talla had watched the way the various ships and crafts had weaved and ducked haphazardly around and over one another, shaking her head softly in disbelief. It was a miracle none of them had collided, she thought, but also a testament not only to the unruly nature of the place as a whole but, she supposed, the skill of the pilots in command of those vessels. 

None of them could hold a candle to Gordon Malloy, of course, but under the circumstances she didn’t think it wholly inappropriate to be at least a little impressed. 

Once the shuttle was down and they were suitably geared and prepped Talla led the way out and into the open. The air was thick with a muggy heat that she instantly found oppressive and when she glanced back at her companions she wasn’t surprised to see that the only one not obviously discomforted by the conditions was Commander Bortus. Compared to Moclus, with its harsh climate and near-toxic atmosphere, this place was fairly pleasant, she supposed. 

Commander Grayson didn’t object to her taking the lead, she noticed, but the taller woman kept close to the forefront of their party as they made their way towards the outpost. The structures that came into view were ramshackle and rundown but functional all the same, with odd and uneven rooftops and mismatched panels that gave the impression it was populated solely by the poor and the otherwise homeless, those who would have used anything and everything at their disposal to craft shelters. The closer they got, however, the more they could see that there was nothing poor or downtrodden about the people who populated or frequented this place. The individuals themselves were so wildly varied that at first Talla found herself hard-pressed to spot any two of the same race. Many of them were carrying baskets and boxes and crates, or bags and satchels. And most, if not all of them, were armed. 

Talla advanced into the thick of the throng as confidently as she could, with Kelly directly behind her and the rest of the team trailing after them. Bortus was at their six, a suitably imposing figure to give potential troublemakers cause for concern. With a Xelayan at their head and a Moclan at their rear the hope was that they would present enough of a challenge that most people here wouldn’t bother to engage. 

They walked further into the busy and bustling heart of the outpost, voices ringing out from all sides as individuals haggled and bartered for wanted goods and services. Talla kept her eyes peeled for a likely candidate that would suit their needs, someone who looked ready to part with information that could steer them in the right direction. Isaac had dismantled the concussion device and they had brought several of the components along with them, namely each and every single one that had carried what they believed to be the mark of the manufacturer. Talla had one in a small pouch hanging from her belt and as she fixed her gaze on a promising individual she resisted the urge to raise her hand to touch it, not wanting to give away the presence of something valuable to anyone who might be skulking around with the intention of picking pockets. 

“What about him?” She kept her voice low enough that only Kelly would hear her and the other woman considered the individual in question before making a low sound of approval that anyone outside of their little party would have struggled to overhear. 

With the Commander’s approval Talla approached the individual, an alien with wide-set eyes in a similarly broad face that was a dusky off-purple in colour. When they blinked a second set of lids passed over their eyes a split second after the first and they turned their hairless head in the group’s direction as they approached. He reminded Talla a little of a shark she had seen images of once, but thankfully he seemed to be missing the teeth that had made those Earth creatures so infamous, a fact she noted when he addressed them directly, “Newcomers, are we? Well, welcome to Jarona II. Perhaps I can help you find something?” 

Maybe his purpose here was to direct people where they needed to go, Talla thought, but that seemed a little too innocuous for a place like this, and how could anyone make a living from such a thing? 

“Maybe you can,” Kelly said, coming up level with Talla. “We’re looking to acquire a very specific piece of equipment, and we have it on good authority that we can find a maker here.” 

The alien blinked his dark eyes at them, tilting his broad, smooth head to one side. “Oh? And what might that be?” 

With only a glance from the Commander to encourage her to do so Talla retrieved the small shell plate from the pouch and stepped forward to show it to the alien, turning it in her gloved hands so that the mark was plain to see. 

It didn’t seem possible for the alien to smile but when he made a low sound it reminded Talla of a chuckle and his eyes appeared amused as well. “Tarvos,” he said, bringing his gaze up to them anew. “I would know his mark anywhere.” 

“Where can we find this Tarvos?” Kelly asked. Bortus had stepped up behind her, Talla noticed, as if he believed the Commander might have need of his assistance soon. 

The alien regarded the Moclan with what appeared to be indifference for a few moments before he settled his attention back on Kelly. “He isn’t far. Keep walking along this path—” at which point he smoothly gestured down a passage between structures leading in a westerly direction, “—and you will come across his mark soon enough. You simply cannot miss it.” 

Talla waited until Kelly had voiced her thanks before moving to slip the plate back into her pouch. She was stopped when the alien made a sound similar to the clearing of a throat. 

“If I may?” he said to her, bringing his hand up and out, the movement just as smooth as his gesture moments before had been. He looked from Talla to Kelly as he said, “As payment?” 

Hesitating, Talla looked to Kelly, who seemed similarly reluctant if only for a moment before she gave a nod. They had no more use for the piece, now that it had it had been broken down, and they had other fragments if they needed them. If the plate was all this alien asked for in payment then they could afford to part with it. So Talla stepped a fraction closer again and gently laid the piece down in the alien’s outstretched palm. 

That soft amusement touched his dark eyes again and he dipped his wide head in a show of gratitude. “Luck to you,” he said before breaking his attention away from them entirely, his focus going down wholly to the small piece of branded metalwork that Talla had gifted him. She hesitated for a moment but when he didn’t show any signs of acknowledging them further she turned and broke away with the others. 

She kept pace with Kelly easily and once again adopted her position at the head of their group, leading the way through the press of traders and various other individuals whose intentions were as varied as the races populating and visiting the outpost. Talla kept from letting her gaze linger on any of them for longer than a few moments, not wanting to provoke or invite anything they didn’t have time for, and instead kept her eyes peeled for the mark that had led them here in the first place. 

“There.” It was Bortus who spotted it first, not surprisingly as the tallest of their party, and he didn’t need to indicate what he had seen after announcing it. As the guide had said it was impossible to miss, really, painted on the outside of a reasonably sized structure just ahead and to one side of the dirt track they were traversing. They picked their way towards it and lingered on the threshold as a pair of cloaked and shrouded individuals stepped out. With only a glance at the Commander to get her go-ahead Talla stepped through the doorway, such as it was, and entered the structure. 

Tarvos was an unassuming looking individual, at first glance, appearing mostly human with his back to them as it was. It wasn’t until he turned towards them and revealed the existence of a second set of arms that he revealed himself as another race entirely. Upon closer inspection though, Talla noticed the larger-than-normal pupils that gave him a decidedly alien appearance, and when he spoke there was a strange quality to his voice that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. It was both melodic and stilted at the same time, almost mechanical in its structure. 

“Travellers,” he said to them. “Greetings.” Knitting both sets of his fingers he watched them with his too-large eyes. “How may I assist you this day?” 

Talla turned her head to watch as Kelly stepped forward again, taking the lead as she had with the informant further back in the outpost. “You’re Tarvos?” 

“That is how I am known. Yes.” 

Kelly didn’t give her name. “We’re here because we came across a device that we believe originally belonged to you.” When Tarvos tilted his head, a curious motion, Kelly retrieved the piece she had been carrying from the pouch at her own belt and offered it forward to him. 

Tarvos took it in one of his four hands and turned it over, nodding his head. “Yes. Yes,” he said to them. “This once was mine. It was made by me.” Bringing his gaze up he asked, “Why is it that you have returned it here?” He didn’t ask why exactly it had obviously been disassembled, Talla noticed. 

“We’re looking for the people who acquired it,” Kelly told him. “And we were hoping you might be able to help us with that.” 

“Hm.” Tarvos looked down at his work again, cradling it now almost as if it were a living thing that he needed to take care with. “Dangerous types. Yes.” His large eyes scanned them all in turn. “They come and they go. It is better when they go.” 

Talla frowned, noting that Kelly had done the same. “Why is it better?” she asked when the Commander didn’t speak first. 

“Razers. Raze. Destroy, demolish, wreck and ruin. A fitting name, I have heard.” 

Bortus spoke up from the rear of the group. “You fear them.” 

“It is wise to fear that which is dangerous,” Tarvos said in his odd melodic-yet-mechanical voice, regarding Bortus levelly. “The one who is like you and yet not? Very dangerous indeed.” 

Talla glanced back at Bortus, meeting his gaze just for a moment. 

“Do you know how we can find them?” Kelly tried again, pressing the issue. Talla could hear the first, finest threads of impatience in her voice, so subtle that most would miss them. 

Tarvos made a low sound, turning the piece of his creation in his fingers delicately and deftly. “They come and they go,” he repeated. “We do not know when. Rarely do we know why. The where? That is the true mystery.” 

Kelly’s eyes closed, just for a moment but long enough that Talla recognised it as a show of disappointment and frustration. 

“A nomad has no home other than the one he makes,” Tarvos went on. “Those with the fitting name make theirs among the stars.” When the group all looked his way he added with finality, “And they are always on the move.” 

Kelly lingered, obviously hoping for more, and Talla waited as well, but when the alien before them said nothing further they got the message loud and clear. He had told them all that he knew and it hadn’t helped them in the least. It was no fault of his own, of course, but Talla couldn’t help resenting him just a little if only because he had made the device that had landed them in this situation in the first place. It was entirely possible that they would have ended up here anyway, that the Razers would have subdued or overpowered the team some other way and the Captain still would have been taken, but Tarvos’ creation had made it that much simpler for them. 

As the rest of the group filed out Talla lingered long enough to say to him, “A word of advice?” His large eyes focused on her face. “Find a new line of work.” And then she turned and left the shack. She had meant to say something else, something about being more selective about his clientele, but she wasn’t sorry she had said what she had. It didn’t do a damned thing for the frustrated tension that was simmering inside of her, made that much worse by the dead end they had just come up against, but it had made her feel a little less wretched at least. 

“Now what?” she sighed out heavily as she rejoined the group. Bortus looked as though he had been on the verge of asking the same question. 

Kelly was looking down at her hands, almost as if she expected something useful to materialise in one or both of them, shaking her head minutely. Talla felt guilty staring at her the way she was and opted instead to give the Commander a moment to collect her thoughts by turning her gaze out to the market in general. Market was as good a descriptor for this place as anything else, she supposed. She busied herself by letting her gaze roam over the individuals coming and going, allowing her mind to wander in the hopes that some kind of idea would come to her. 

What she got instead was a glimpse of something that she almost didn’t believe. It stilled the air in her lungs and had her mouth dropping open just a fraction in disbelief. It was enough of a change in her demeanour that Bortus noticed it. 

“What is it, Lieutenant?” He kept his voice quiet enough that no one passing by would have heard his use of her rank. 

“Just ahead, over there,” she said to him, her own voice hushed. Part of her didn’t dare to speak any louder, as if in doing so she would spook everyone around her and the unexpected chance that had presented itself would slip through their fingers. “Back the way we came, about forty feet.” 

Bortus turned his head and Kelly stepped in to do the same. “Oh my God,” she breathed in disbelief, actually touching a hand to Talla’s arm, just below the elbow. At her other side Bortus’ posture changed. His whole body tightened, tensing in preparation. 

That was enough for her to know she hadn’t imagined it. Talla had almost not dared to believe it, fearing that her eyes were playing a cruel trick on her, but with both of her superiors seeing the same thing and reacting the same way she was reassured enough to spring into action. 

Without waiting for the order to be given Talla moved forward as swiftly and stealthily as possible to close the gap between herself and Blake.

Chapter Text

The music was what the others would have described as far too loud and thoroughly obnoxious but with the whole place to himself he was free to blare it from every speaker without fear of any sort of backlash or complaint, just as he was free to sing along without anyone telling him to knock it off. Bopping his head along to the beat he kept an eye on the readings on the various monitors fixed all around him. 

There was never much going on in the air above Jarona II if you took all the comings and goings of other traders and prospectors out of the equation and truth be told it was dull and a little mind-numbing to just sit around and wait but for Lowell it was preferable to actually being down on the planet. Being in the air had always felt more natural to him but beyond that it was the place itself that he didn’t care for, the hectic crush of it and the overall vibe: greed and hostility and God only knew how many seedy types that would just as soon skin you as they would make a deal. 

Maybe that was a little hypocritical coming from someone in his line of work but he was a pilot. A wingman. He kept his butt in his seat in the cockpit and got them where they needed to go, and he was well compensated for it. Shelton got his hands dirty down in the guts of their bird and Lowell pointed her in the right direction. The Reed brothers kept her in the air and they were good at their jobs. 

Lowell knew what he was good at and he stuck to it. Everyone else could take care of the rest. 

Just as he was reaching up to tap a control over his head to check on the ship’s coolant system he caught sight of something on the main monitor in front of him. Bringing his hand down from over his head he adjusted the cap he’d perched atop his unruly hair and squinted at the reading. “What the—” He actually turned in his seat then, almost as if he expected to be able to look back behind them, and then shook his head with a muttering of, “Idiot,” before going back to the monitor. 

Working the controls quickly and shunting his whole seat forward, further into the cockpit, he called up the region of space that had flashed the alert. The sensors had picked up on something out there, at a heck of a distance from the planet itself but that was what made it stand out, at least to Lowell. “What are you picking up out there, baby?” he asked the ship in a hushed voice, using his other hand to lower the volume of the music he’d been listening to. With the first he was zooming in even further, narrowing the field of focus on the sensors, just about pushing them to their limits. 

Frustratingly it wasn’t clear just what it was. Lowell huffed a breath out through his nose, considering the surface of the planet through the viewer for a few moments before he gave a decisive shake of his head. Whatever it was the Captain would want to know and Richard Blake wasn’t a man who liked to hear I don’t know in any shape, way, or form. He liked answers and certainty. Lowell wanted to be able to give him that. 

Besides, there was no one else on board to tell him not to do it. 

So he swung the ship around, practically pulling a one-eighty, and got her moving towards that sensor blip, coming around towards it at a wide arc because if it turned out to be an unfriendly of some sort he needed room to move to get himself the hell out of dodge. 

The music was still playing as he went and unconsciously he hummed and half-sung along with it as he went, using the controls without even having to look at what he was doing most of the time, working on muscle memory and familiarity so deeply-rooted that there were times when he felt like he and the ship he was flying were one and the same. He brought her comfortably around the outermost planet in the system and the small moon that orbited it, half-expecting to see a meteor or something similar that had drifted into range. 

He was wrong. 

What he did see had him bolting upright in his seat with a curse beginning to form on the tip of his tongue. His brain screamed two different priorities to him at once and in his shock he tried to do both of them at the same time, accomplishing neither properly in his desperation. 

“Goddammit, Lowell, one thing at a time, you moron.” He smacked the button overhead to open the comms and said as swiftly and clearly as he could, “Boss, you guys got company!” Slapping the button again he shut off the link before anyone down on the planet could respond and turned both hands to the controls so he could wheel the ship around in another sharp one-eighty to begin his evasive manoeuvres. 

 


 

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Gordon was well aware of the fact that he made that exclamation far too loudly, his voice carrying throughout the entire bridge and into the corridor beyond as he half-bolted out of his chair and pointed off to port through the main viewer. “Look!” 

Behind him John stood and moved forward, coming up close to the helm to get a better look at what had caught Gordon’s attention. There was no mistaking the ship that had poked out from behind the moon that was orbiting the outermost planet of the Mavaris Star System, just as there was no mistaking the way it ceased its forward momentum so abruptly it was almost impossible not to imagine the sound of brakes screeching. Even as they watched the ship began to reverse and wheel around. 

“Is that what I think it is?” 

Gordon nodded and looked back at John. “It’s the Razer’s ship. It’s a Razer ship, anyway. I can’t believe it!” Did the landing party know? 

“Get after ‘em,” John said, clapping one hand on Gordon’s back just before he turned and quickly covered the distance back to the Captain’s chair. “Open a channel to the landing party.” When the officer manning the Security station called out to say that the channel was open John went on, “LaMarr to Commander Grayson. We have Razer activity up here.” 

 


 

Kelly was running when the call came through and she managed to duck her body to the side and around a small group of short individuals at the same time as she reached up and tapped the hidden comm nestled in her ear. “Same here, Chief,” she called back to him, thankful for her long legs and runner’s build which allowed her to keep pace with Talla and their quarry with relative ease. The Xelayan was still ahead of her but Talla was shorter and had an easier time weaving through the crowds. 

Blake had been tipped off before they had reached him. Before Talla had gotten within ten feet of the bastard his head had turned with a sneer forming on his face and then he and his men had made a break for it. Obviously whoever it was up on that ship was part of Blake’s crew and had alerted him to their presence after catching sight of the Orville

If they hadn’t been in the middle of a chaotic and desperate chase Kelly might have been thanking their lucky stars but until they had Blake and his men in custody she wasn’t going to start counting her blessings. It was unbelievable that the Razers had returned here at the same time that the Orville had come sniffing around but it would only mean something if they could catch the sons of bitches. 

Kelly was trying not to tell herself that Ed might be within their reach, that at this very moment he might be up on that ship. If she started to let that hope have too much of a hold on her then she would lose focus and give in to desperation. She might make a mistake. 

“We’re in pursuit,” John’s voice came through again and she felt a rush of gratitude. 

“Don’t lose them, Chief,” she called back and then had to break the link if she wanted to be able to keep her attention on their own pursuit. They couldn’t afford to lose sight of Blake. 

 


 

“You heard the Commander,” John announced as he turned back to the viewer, still standing in the heat of the moment with such an unexpected development. None of them could have predicted that they would encounter any Razers here and ultimately it didn’t really matter which crew they were dealing with. Through one they could get to another, or at least that was the hope. 

Gordon was already working the Orville’s controls furiously. “Yes, Sir,” he announced with determination, his eyes fixed on the viewer as he got the ship moving. She was a quiet vessel, like all Fleet ships, but John could almost imagine the sound of her engines firing as their Helmsman got her going. Spending as much time in Engineering as he did it was easy for him to hear that powerful hum in his ears even as the view before them pitched and pivoted out of sight. 

“Stay on their asses, Lieutenant,” John said as he reclaimed the Captain’s chair, gripping the arms as if he would need the support in the pursuit that was about to unfold. As the rest of the bridge crew around him worked furiously he kept his eyes fixed on that vessel as it wheeled around and shot forward in an attempt to get clear of its pursuers. 

 


 

If Blake had had the opportunity then he would have cursed, and viciously, but as it was there wasn’t time. After Lowell’s urgent message had come through they had had to make a break for it, and immediately at that. No sooner had the younger Reed brother’s message come over their comms than they had caught sight of the company their pilot had warned them about. 

It wasn’t an especially large group, they had noticed, but they were Union officers, every single one of them, and more than that they had brought the Xelayan with them. They had their Moclan officer as well. That was enough of a concern that Blake couldn’t risk engaging them face to face, loathe though he was to turn and run. If word of this got out to the Razers at large, that he had fled from the sight of Union officers, then his reputation would take one hell of a hit. 

They would just have to make sure they all got out of here in one piece, right down to the last man and possession. If Lowell hadn’t broken the comm link Blake would have instructed him to recall the rest of the crew but there wasn’t time for that either. If the pilot had broken the link then he had to have had good reason to do so, and the best explanation was that the ship those officers had travelled in was up there somewhere. Lowell must have spotted it. 

The Orville was here. 

Damn them all to hell. 

They rounded a sharp bend and cut to the right, Blake leading the way with Shelton and Maykor following in his wake. Their own Moclan was at the rear, a much larger figure than his two companions but also the heaviest hitter their crew possessed, and the one the Orville crew would least like dealing with if things did come down to a face to face confrontation. Blake would unleash Maykor on the little Xelayan bitch first, that much he had already decided. Once Maykor was done with her then he could tear their Moclan to pieces, if he liked. 

Shouts and protesting cries were starting to spring up all around as they charged through the crowds but Blake tuned them all out. He couldn’t afford to be distracted. They had to get back to their shuttle, alert the rest of the crew, and get back up to their ship so they could leave. They had no time for anything else. 

They could worry about settling scores later, after they got off this rock. 

 


 

“Aww, hell—come on, man!” Lowell’s hands moved over the controls with as much speed as he could get out of them, though his arms were already starting to ache from the strain he was putting them under. Their ship wasn’t a fancy design like the one giving chase right now, it didn’t have all the shiny bells and whistles and state-of-the-art tech that the Union were known for installing in all their vessels. A lot of their bird was cobbled together from older bits and pieces that they recovered and salvaged or traded for and some of her controls were so old-fashioned as to be almost archaic compared to ships like the Orville. She still had a few buttons, switches and levers, for Christ’s sake. 

But Lowell loved her, every inch of her, and he would be damned if he was going to let the Union get their hands on her. 

“C’mon, baby, work with me.” He had to cross one arm over the other to reach the control he needed to perform the sudden and sharp veer to port that he was aiming to achieve, cutting in around the back of one of Jarona’s moons so harshly that most pilots would have considered it too risky to even attempt. He was hoping to intimidate his pursuer into backing off a little, especially given the greater size of the Orville, but to his dismay and disbelief the larger ship actually cut in just as close to the moon as he had. 

Lowell allowed himself just a moment to be suitably impressed. “Damn, that bird can move.” And then he dropped his gaze back to his controls, his mind going a mile a minute to try and think five steps ahead so he could outrun the Union bastards hot on his heels. 

 


 

“Son of a bitch.” It was muttered under his breath but the Navigator working the station beside him still glanced in his direction. Gordon shook his head absently and took a moment to adjust the Orville’s course accordingly so that he could wheel her up and around to follow the smaller Razer vessel. Whoever they had flying that thing was good, he had to admit. 

But they weren’t as good as him. Gordon told himself that clearly and confidently as he worked the controls, setting his jaw and gritting his teeth with drive and determination, fixing his gaze on the viewer and the ship beyond. They thought they could use their smaller ship’s manoeuvrability against him but obviously they had never seen the Orville move before, not really, not the way she could when Gordon was at the helm at least. 

There weren’t many people who could get the most out of a ship like the Orville and the only other person capable of pushing her to her limits and getting the best out of her was sat in the Captain’s chair at that very moment in time. John’s true talent was in Engineering, obviously, but he was a hell of a pilot and Gordon knew the Orville wouldn’t have made it through the Battle for Earth in one piece the way she had if his friend hadn’t been at the helm. 

“Isaac, as soon as we’re within range, you know what to do.” 

Their Science Officer responded to their Chief Engineer without turning from his station. “Yes, Commander.” 

Gordon didn’t ask for clarification because he didn’t need it. He knew what his job was. It was his job, his responsibility, to get the Orville within range for whatever John and Isaac had planned. Drawing in a deep breath to prepare himself for another round he worked furiously at the controls and fought to close the gap, watching with subdued satisfaction and unwavering focus as the Razer ship grew larger in the main viewer. 

 


 

“No, no, no.” The music was still playing. Lowell hadn’t noticed but it was still droning along in the background. All he could hear was the furious groan and roar of the ship around him as she fought with every ounce of power she had to obey her pilot’s commands. Faithful as always she ducked under one ship and then around another, no doubt scaring the living daylights out of whoever was still aboard those vessels as they lingered in orbit over the trading outpost. 

Lowell almost didn’t dare check his monitor but when he did he felt his bottom jaw drop. The Orville had kept pace with them, and perfectly at that. “No freakin’ way, give me a break.” 

As much as he hated to admit it he was starting to feel the first threads of concern. Blake had been sceptical of him at first because of his age and inexperience at the helm of a ship like this one but Shelton had gone to bat for him, fighting his corner, and after the Captain had given him a shot in the pilot’s seat he had proven himself in next to no time at all. It was with moves not unlike the ones he was using now that he had really impressed and ultimately convinced Blake. They had run afoul of a party of marauder-class Krill fighters and it had been Lowell’s quick-thinking and intuitive capabilities at the helm that had gotten them clear, and in one piece at that. 

Blake hadn’t looked back ever since then. 

Lowell couldn’t disappoint him now. 

If he didn’t get the Orville off his tail long enough to scoop up the shuttle once it cleared the surface of the planet then he was screwed because they would all be screwed, and Lowell didn’t want to think about what that would mean for him. It was no secret that Richard Blake didn’t tolerate failure. 

There was open space ahead and he already had his hand poised over the command to unleash one last boost from the engines. He had his breath held as well, he realised. He pushed the ship, demanding everything she had to give, as he ducked her around one last vessel and into the beginnings of that expanse that would give him the window of opportunity he so desperately needed. 

He was about to trigger that release when suddenly, without warning, the whole ship jarred violently forward. 

 


 

Talla had never wished to be taller. If anything she had always found her modest size to be a benefit to her work, it gave her an advantage that others often overlooked and failed to anticipate. That was definitely the case on Jarona II. She was able to duck and dodge and weave her way around and through the crowds of traders and prospectors in pursuit of the Razers without so much as stumbling once. It helped more than a little that most of those people didn’t want to get between her and whoever she was chasing. The types of people who would frequent an outpost like this didn’t want to get caught up in someone else’s business, especially if it looked like things might get messy. 

Kelly and the others were still following in her wake. As she rounded a sharp bend she caught sight of the Commander’s blonde hair and Bortus’ distinct frame out of the corner of her field of vision. Knowing that they were still with her and trusting that they would continue to follow after her she kept on running as fast as her legs could carry her. 

There were three Razers in the party they were pursuing. They were all male and she recognised two of them. She thought she might have recognised the third as well but she couldn’t be sure, he was nondescript enough that she couldn’t be certain but one was their leader and the other was the Moclan that Bortus had heard of as well. Talla made a note to be mindful of him in particular but she wasn’t about to underestimate any of them, not given the Razers’ reputation in general. 

Something crashed down in front of her, she thought as a result of one of the Razers spilling it intentionally as they passed it, but she saw it fall in enough time to leap right over it. She didn’t hear any sounds of shouting or crashing from behind her so she assumed the rest of the landing party cleared the obstacle as well. Talla would have looked back if she wasn’t genuinely worried about losing their quarry and she recognised that they were approaching the edge of the market. There were shuttles dotted about all around the marketplace, she had noticed when they came in, and the Razers’ would be among them. If nothing else she didn’t doubt that they would resort to stealing someone else’s in order to make a hasty retreat. 

She lost sight of the trio for just a moment and as she rounded a small group of traders she saw that the nondescript one had turned just long enough to hurl something back at her. Instinctively she ducked under it and rolled along the dusty path, using her momentum to continue to carry her forward. She was just about to bolt forward again when she heard something go off behind her, like a dull blast, and when she looked back she saw a cloud of dust and debris scattering outward from where the launched object must have landed. 

Talla skidded to a halt, feeling a flash of panic and frustration, able to make out the sounds of Commander Grayson’s coughing before the dust cleared enough for her to see that one of her men was down even if he wasn’t out completely. Kelly took her arm from across her mouth and waved furiously at her. “We’re okay!” she shouted, before she started to cough again. “Go!” 

And so Talla went, turning and sprinting off anew, heading right for the edge of the market and the haphazardly parked shuttles beyond. People jumped and hopped back out of her path and when they weren’t quick enough to do so on their own she barked clipped commands at them to get out of the way. Shoving people was out of the question, given her strength, even if half of the people down on Jarona II would likely deserve the sorts of injuries it might cause. 

She had just ducked around a pair of extremely tall aliens when she heard the distinct sound of a shuttle’s engines firing up. With panic spiking and causing her heart to leap up into her throat she kept running, pressing towards the sea of vessels, but she hadn’t gone far before one of them rose into the air, and therefore into plain view. 

It was the Razer ship. 

Talla cursed and clambered up and onto the closest shuttle, jumping agilely from that one and then on to the next in the hopes that she could reach the Razer craft before it got out of range. 

She was too late. 

With a rush of acceleration that almost blasted her right back off her feet and clean off the roof of the shuttle she had just landed on the Razer craft went rocketing upward, well and truly out of range. As she watched, despair starting to sweep through her, she heard the sounds of footsteps hurrying closer. When she turned her head she saw Kelly and the others coming over to the parked shuttles, all of their eyes turned upward to watch the shrinking vessel as it climbed higher and higher. 

Within moments the shuttle was gone from sight completely. 

 


 

Kelly could see the disappointment and frustration written all over Talla’s face as their Security Chief hopped down from the roof of the closest shuttle to join them on the ground. Even before her friend’s boots had hit the dirt she was tapping the comm in her ear. 

“Grayson to Orville. We lost Blake,” she said, looking to the others and seeing in their faces the same feelings that were rising up inside of her at that very moment. Kelly couldn’t believe it. They had had Blake within their grasp and he had slipped through their fingers. Kelly couldn’t even bring herself to face what that really meant, the gravity and therefore the ultimate cost of the defeat they had just suffered. 

“Acknowledged, Commander.” 

There was something about John’s voice that gave Kelly pause. She looked to Bortus, and then to Talla, even as the Xelayan was checking on the member of her team who had taken the brunt of the blast of that small grenade. His arm was broken but it was nothing Claire couldn’t easily patch up once they were back on the ship. “Chief?” She met Talla’s eye and saw the hope in her friend’s gaze. “Did you get the shuttle?” Maybe the Orville had managed to catch it on its way up. 

“No, Commander,” LaMarr responded, and yet despite that negative Kelly could have sworn she could hear a smile in his voice. “But we got something better.” 

 


 

It was taking every ounce of restraint and control that Blake possessed not to slam his hand into the main console of the shuttle, and repeatedly at that. His breathing was tight and his chest felt hot with that barely contained rage as he focused instead on getting them clear of their last location, and as quickly as possible at that. He was clenching his jaw so tightly that his teeth were starting to hurt. 

“Goddamn sons of bitches!” Shelton, on the other hand, was not controlling or containing his emotions at all. “Filthy rotten bastards!” And something crashed. Loudly. 

Blake turned from the helm and fixed his engineer with a stare that had the younger man freezing on the spot. Shelton’s chest was heaving and his breathing was as loud as it was ragged, his shoulders lifting and dropping in an exaggerated fashion with each angry gulp of air that he pulled down. His hands balled into fists, released, and then balled again. Blake waited. Shelton didn’t keep him waiting long. “That’s my brother,” he exclaimed, pointing back the way they had come, off towards the rear of the shuttle and beyond. “They’ve got my brother!” 

The shuttle had gone to quantum as soon as they had seen their ship seized in the bright blue tractor beam of the USS Orville, well and truly trapped and beyond their capabilities to retrieve. 

Blake kept his voice low and level as he responded, “You think I don’t know that?” 

The younger man slowly lowered his arm, some of the fight going out of him. 

“You think it doesn’t bother me that those Union scum have not just my pilot but my ship?” On the last word he let his volume increase suddenly, and without warning. 

Shelton started visibly, shrinking back and ducking his head. For just a moment he looked like a whipped dog flinching away from the threat of a fresh strike. 

“Because if that’s what you’re thinking right now,” Blake went on, rising from his seat and trusting Maykor to keep things controlled at the helm, “then you would be sorely mistaken.” He approached Shelton and stood only a few inches away from him, essentially crowding his space. The shuttle was large enough to fit several of the crew but that didn’t mean it was spacious. It didn’t take much for it to feel claustrophobic. That was very likely how Shelton was feeling then. 

“They have my ship,” he persisted, his voice no longer raised given how close he was to the younger man, “and they have my pilot. And as for the rest of my crew?” Blake let out a bark of laughter that carried absolutely no humour. “They’re being rounded up as we speak, for all I know. The three of us—” he motioned with his hand to take in the pair of them and Maykor, “—we’re the only ones left.” He let those words hang in the air for a moment before going on, “You think that isn’t driving me crazy right now? You think that isn’t boiling my blood?” 

Shelton hesitated before he brought his head up enough to glance in Blake’s direction. “I—” He paused to clear his throat. “I didn’t mean it like that, Boss.” 

Usually it was Lowell who called him that. Sometimes he forgot just how alike the brothers could be. “No?” 

“No, Sir.” Shelton shook his head, pulling in a breath and bringing his head up a little more. 

Blake narrowed his eyes at the younger man. “Hm.” He watched Shelton for a few moments, waiting for another ridiculous outburst of some kind, but when it didn’t happen he nodded his head. “Don’t let that anger get the better of you,” he told him, holding his gaze when Shelton had gathered himself enough to dare to meet it. “We’ll find a good use for it but until then you keep a tight hold on it. You hear me?” 

Shelton dipped his head in a short nod. “Yes, Sir.” 

“Good.” Blake nodded back at him. “That’s more like it.” And then he turned back for the helm. “Maykor,” he said as he reclaimed his seat, “take us to the rendezvous coordinates.” 

“They will not be there anymore.” 

“I know that.” Blake heard the shortness in his own voice and trusted Maykor to pick up on it as well. “But they’ll have left a sign.” He looked to the Moclan beside him. “We know what to look for now.” 

The Moclan narrowed his eyes and then, as understanding dawned on him, he showed his teeth in a smile. 

Blake nodded his head. “They have my ship and my crew,” he said, his voice low and rough with that barely-restrained anger, “but we know what they’re really looking for.” And Blake intended to make sure that they would never get it back.

Chapter Text

His head was pounding. Or maybe that was just the raucous and disconnected thoughts bashing about on the inside of his skull. Loudly. Harshly. Relentlessly. It was almost nauseating. 

Ed groaned, low and long. The taste of bile began to tickle at the back of his throat, creeping up towards the rear of his tongue. 

It was nauseating. 

Slowly, ever so slowly, he took as deep a breath as he dared. His eyes were already closed but he squeezed them shut, pressing the heels of his palms against the closed lids more forcefully, almost as if he could shove the wretched feeling back down, and maybe the taste along with it. A futile hope, he knew, but one he gave in to all the same because he couldn’t clear his head long enough to think of anything else. 

With his hands pressed firmly against his closed eyes and that deep breath held in his lungs as he waited, waited, waited for the grip of nausea to pass, he pushed his fingers into the roots of his hair. Seconds passed, one after the after, and just when he thought the feeling was never going to relent and he was going to suffocate himself right into unconsciousness it began to recede. He almost didn’t dare believe it. 

As the last threads of the rotten taste ebbed away Ed let out the breath he had been holding. It shuddered on the way out, and it was chased by another low groan. 

The taste had relented but the pounding showed no signs of letting up. 

How long had it been? How many times? What cycle was this? Where was he this time? 

Ed dragged his hands down his face, catching at his hair on the way but not even feeling the snag of pain as he did so. His vision was blurred and strained as he dared to open his eyes at last and he winced against the disorientation of it. For just a moment it felt like the world tipped and he had to slap one hand down against the ground, groggily, to keep himself upright. Without it he was convinced he was going to topple over. 

In the moment when his eyes were shut once again the teeth of that huge beast flashed through his mind and startled him into opening them fully again. There was no hulking, slavering creature. As he lifted his hand to wipe the back of it over his mouth he heard the splintering crack of his own bones, the sound filling his skull. Both hands rose to cover and press over his ears. Phantom pain pulsed through his abdomen, his back, his skull, his chest, his neck— 

Ed’s groan was more desperate then, a wringing and strangled sound. “God.” The single word clawed its way out of him in what was essentially a plea, his fingers digging into his scalp for several long moments, only releasing their pressure when the pain of it finally registered. He brought his arms down, slapping his hands to the dirty ground heavily, his chest heaving as he gasped for breath as his whole chest tightened unbearably. 

He hadn’t had an anxiety attack since he was a child, so many years had passed between his last and the one threatening to seize him in that moment, but even in his disoriented and unsteady state Ed recognised it easily enough. It felt like his lungs were going to give out on him, like the world was closing in around him, like the centre of his being was folding in on itself. His mind was abuzz with panic and confusion. All of a sudden he became alarmingly aware of his own heartbeat and its quickening thunder in his chest. 

“Jesus.” Ed shoved his weight back, flattening his shoulder blades against the wall with a thin and thready gasp. “Jesus Christ.” 

Breathe. He had to breathe

Ed squeezed his eyes shut and clamped his mouth closed as well, fighting to draw air in through his nose. As clearly as he could he counted in his mind as he did it: one, two, three. He held it. When he opened his mouth the breath came racing out desperately. He tried to make it last the same three-count as the inward draw. 

Again, he told himself. He had to keep on doing it. 

One, two, three

He remembered Rambler and the knife. 

One, two, three

He remembered the gun to his head. 

One, two, three

He remembered the hound and the hammer. 

One, two, three

The way the ground had rushed up to meet him. 

One, two, three

The blast of the grenade and the blinding pain. 

One, two, three

The brutally simple wrench of his neck and the almighty snap. 

One, two, three

The fire. 

Without warning the nausea roared back upward and he couldn’t fight it. Ed managed to lurch forward onto his hands and knees as his stomach heaved and emptied. It heaved until there was nothing left and he was just coughing up bile and spitting out as much of the foul aftertaste as he could. His body was trembling and his eyes were streaming but he was breathing again. Raggedly and loudly but in gulps and shaky threads. 

Ed didn’t even have the strength to be relieved. All he could do was rock his weight back and slump against the wall again, letting out yet another groan as he brought his knees up as high as they would go, wanting to hug them against his chest but finding out the hard way that he lacked the energy to do even that. He got halfway and then gave up on the idea, letting his head thump back against the wall. 

He couldn’t remember what it was like outside of this place. Or what this place was. The weather, just where he’d woken up after being plunged back in, how much distance he’d covered, whether or not he was alone—none of it. Ed tried but he couldn’t grasp any of it. 

What he did know was that they kept putting him under. Again and again with barely any relief. Almost as soon as he was out of the system and in the real world in that lab he was being forced back into it. It was a blur, a tangled mess, and he couldn’t even begin to make sense of it. 

Ed brought his hands back up to his face, rubbing wearily at his eyes and then pressing the heels of his palms to them again. It didn’t help but it didn’t make him feel worse either. It was the best that he could hope for. 

Another groan worked its way weakly up into the back of his mouth, practically a whimper by the time it passed his lips. 

Ed didn’t know how much more of this he could take. 

It was too much. 

 


 

All things considered the ship’s brig was pretty nice. As cells went it could have been a lot worse. Lowell wasn’t sure what he had been expecting but what he actually got didn’t match up with it in the slightest. As he sat on the edge of the modest but not uncomfortable cot he thought about the way the Captain and everyone else sounded whenever they spoke about the Union. The disgust, the snide mockery, the barbs about the attitudes and elitism. 

And it was impossible not to think about their parents. Shelton had been older than him when they’d died, he remembered them much clearer than Lowell did, but even at a young age he remembered the vibrancy of their uniforms whenever they’d returned home at the end of the day. He had always liked the orange of his mother’s uniform. Their dad’s green jacket had so often hung over the back of his chair at the dining room table. 

One day they had stopped coming home altogether. He had never seen the orange of his mom’s uniform again. Their dad’s jacket was never again seen hanging over that chair in the dining room. 

Lowell was snapped out of his reverie by the sound of someone entering the room beyond. The officer keeping watch looked off out of his line of sight but he didn’t have to wait long before he found out just who it was that had come to speak with him. 

Blue meant command. Neither Mom nor Dad had ever wanted to wear blue, he remembered. Orange and green were good enough for them. The desire to lead didn’t run in the blood of the Reed family, apparently. He and Shelton were much better at following too, as it turned out. 

The woman looking in at him was pretty. More than pretty, actually, but her face would have been much softer and much fairer if she had been smiling. She wasn’t smiling then. Lowell suddenly wished they had left him his hat so that he could tug the peak down over his eyes and not have to meet her gaze. 

God, if the Captain could see him now. Blake would have torn him a new one for even daring to think about averting his eyes from a Union officer, of all people, but Lowell couldn’t help it. 

There was another woman with her, but she wasn’t human like the first. She was Xelayan, he noticed quickly, and he figured she must have been the same Xelayan that the Captain had mentioned during the crew’s briefing on the retrieval mission. Watch the Xelayan, he had said. Make sure she goes down. Blake hadn’t wanted her to get a chance to interfere with the job. Lowell guessed everyone must have followed orders pretty well, since they’d managed to grab what they’d gone in for. 

Not what, he reminded himself. Who

He cleared his throat, feeling uncomfortable under the weight of the gaze of both women, and brought his legs up onto the bed, crossing them under him. He tried to make the motion look as natural and casual as possible but he probably did a poor job of that. 

“What’s your name?” asked the first woman, the blonde in blue. She had three bars on her shoulder. A Commander. The Commander. 

For just a second he thought about refusing to answer but then he looked around at his surroundings. He was in a brig and he was well and truly out of his depth. Besides, it was just his name. They couldn’t do much with it, and even if they could then they would be able to get it some other way soon enough. So he gave it to them freely himself. “Lowell Reed.” 

“How old are you?” That was the Xelayan, the woman in red with her hair pulled into a tail to one side. She was pretty too, actually. Her pale eyes were narrowed as she watched him but he couldn’t read the expression properly. 

The answer to that question, like the first, was harmless enough to be offered freely, he decided. “Twenty-four.” 

The Commander’s eyebrows rose. “And you’re the pilot?” 

Lowell felt a flash of indignation at the implication that he was too young to do that job. “Yeah,” he said with a frown that bordered on offended. “Why?” 

She didn’t answer that question, instead she just turned a glance to her companion. When she looked back his way the Commander’s expression had levelled out again to the point where it was back to being almost unreadable. “We have some more questions for you,” she said to him. “If we ask them, are you going to answer?” 

Lowell wanted to hang on to his indignation, or at least the front of it, but that was easier said than done. “Depends on the questions,” he said, trying not to fidget. 

“Your crew took our Captain,” the Commander said, and the words were heavy with accusation and resentment. Lowell felt the force of them even from where he sat, the anger that went behind them. It became harder to keep from fidgeting then. “We need to know where he is now.” 

He looked from one woman to the other. They were both watching him expectantly but he kept his mouth shut. Without a word he pushed himself back on the bed until he was resting against the rearmost wall of the cell, and then he crossed his arms over his chest. 

“Who hired your crew?” the Xelayan asked. 

Lowell continued to hold his tongue, hoping that Blake and his brother and the others would appreciate that he was keeping quiet on the important things, the things that they would withhold as well. Whether or not he even had the answers that they were looking for mattered very little, ultimately. It was the principle of the thing. 

He didn’t know if they would come back for him, or if they even could, but he would hold out either way. If nothing else that was what was expected of him. 

 


 

Kelly had to bite her tongue to keep from saying something that she might regret and either betraying her personal investment in this line of questioning or giving up on her professionalism entirely. This guy was practically a kid and the way he sat there with his back to the wall, arms crossed over his chest, made him look like one as well. As much as a part of Kelly wanted to threaten him she just couldn’t stoop to that level. 

Ed wouldn’t want her to do that. 

So she drew in a deep, steadying breath, and said instead, “We’ll be back soon.” And then without another word she moved around Talla and left the brig. The Security Chief followed after her and it was only when they were several feet down the corridor that her friend said anything. 

“If he doesn’t give us any information—” 

“I know.” Kelly heard the tightness in her voice and regretted it almost instantly, turning an apologetic look in Talla’s direction after the fact. “Sorry, it’s just—” 

Talla shook her head. “It’s okay. I get it.” 

And Kelly believed that she did. She gave the other woman the briefest glimpse of a smile and then let out a sigh as they walked. “John and Isaac were working on tracking the Razer shuttle. If they managed to isolate the ion trail then we might have another lead we can pursue.” 

“Literally,” Talla offered. 

“Exactly,” Kelly said, trying not to get her hopes up. 

After a few moments spent walking in silence Talla glanced her way again. “And if they haven’t?” The question was asked hesitantly, as if the other woman didn’t really want to face that possibility herself. 

With a shake of her head Kelly admitted without words that she didn’t know what they would do then. “We have their ship,” she went on at last, as they reached the Orville’s spiral staircase and started to ascend. “We’ll have to hope that we can find something in their computer that can point us in the right direction.” 

Talla didn’t say anything else. Part of Kelly was sorry for that, that the subject was so grave that her friend felt compelled to hold her tongue, but another part of her was glad for the silence. It gave her a chance to think, or at least try. The longer they went without any solid leads the more aware she became of the fact that they were on a schedule, and a tight one at that. 

 


 

Everyone wanted to feel reassured by the fact that John and Isaac had confirmed that they had managed to get a lock on to the ion trail for the Razer’s shuttle. Their resident Kaylon had managed to isolate the signature as the shuttle had been fleeing Jarona II while everyone else on the bridge was focused on the fact that they had successfully snared the larger vessel in the Orville’s tractor beam. 

Gordon was suitably impressed by the fact that Isaac had managed to activate said tractor beam and then identify the ion signature, but what he wasn’t was brimming with confidence as a result of the small victories they had managed to claim. Perhaps he should have been but he was all too aware of how much time they had left, or more to the point how much time they didn’t have, and as he, Kelly, John, and Talla moved from their shuttle to the main body of the Razer’s ship beyond he could feel his brain trying to do the math on that deadline again. 

He silenced it and shut down the efforts by focusing instead on their surroundings. After the announcement that they had an ion trail to follow it had been decided that they would explore the Razer ship. Gordon had volunteered to go over with Talla, John, and the Commander, in part because he wanted to see what this ship was made of, and what their pilot had been working with. Even with that deadline looming over them all he couldn’t help but be curious about that. Part of him was ashamed for the curiosity, given the circumstances. 

The pilot was the only member of the crew that they had managed to get their hands on. Talla believed that only three people had been aboard the shuttle when it had left Jarona II and Isaac had confirmed that with scans. That meant Ed hadn’t been aboard the shuttle when it had made its escape. After scanning the ship at large they had confirmed, with no small amount of disappointment, that he wasn’t there either. And as for the rest of the crew? They must have been down in the trading outpost, and no doubt they had scattered as soon as they had caught wind of the fact that the Union were sniffing around. If nothing else they would have wasted very little time in making their escapes once they realised their ship, shuttle, and their leader, were all gone. 

So even though they had the main ship and its pilot, to Gordon it still felt like they didn’t have much, especially since said pilot apparently wasn’t talking. Kelly was trying to figure out how they could get more information out of the young man and she was planning to confer with Doctor Finn on that front after they took a look around the ship. Maybe Isaac should have been here with them too but they could cross that bridge when they came to it: if John couldn’t get anything from the computers then the Kaylon could come in and do his thing. 

Talla led the way into the ship, as was to be expected, and even though they had confirmed with scans that there were no life signs aboard they were all armed anyway. Gordon was opting to leave his PM-44 holstered at his side, trusting to his eyes and other basic senses instead of putting his comscanner to use. The other members of their little group had theirs out and active. Gordon didn’t think he would pick up on anything that they would miss. Sometimes it was better to do things the old-fashioned way, to rely on one’s own tools instead of something technological. 

They passed through the bowels of the ship, with John breaking off to get a look at the engine room, which at a glance looked far more chaotic and haphazard than anything any Union ship would permit. Even when parts of the Orville were dug out from their casings as part of a refit or upgrade it didn’t look anywhere near that cluttered and hectic. They left their Chief Engineer to it and pressed on. 

Many of the ship’s outer compartments were small cabins and they scanned their way through those for anything that they thought might be of interest only to come up empty. There was a small sensor room packed with equipment that looked like it had been sourced from a dozen different places, cobbled together and made to work through whatever means necessary. John would want to take a look at that too, Gordon thought. Kelly let him know over the comms. 

At the centre of the ship was a larger space with hatches leading off at several points, reminding Gordon for a moment of the face of a clock. At its centre was a large table, over which several items were strewn seemingly at random. One of them caught his eye immediately and he stepped forward to reach out and lay a hand on it. 

“This is Ed’s,” he said, closing his fingers around the material and turning to show Kelly and Talla. He lifted the jacket from the table as he did so, holding it in both hands now, glancing between the item and the Commander as she stepped closer. She raised one hand and touched the jacket as well, her expression hardening as she did so. With a frown she reached down and took hold of the sleeve that had been hanging down out of his grip, bringing it up into view. Gordon spotted the reason for her confusion immediately. “Where’s the comm?” He didn’t know why he thought she might have the answer but there was no mistaking the fact that the small attachment that adorned every Union jacket had been removed. A quick scan of the table showed it to be nowhere in sight. 

What they did see was Talla beyond the other side of the table, closer to the wall. With one hand she was almost-but-not-quite touching something hanging down from the ceiling. Still holding the jacket in his hands Gordon rounded the table with Kelly in order to better see what their Security Chief had discovered. The Razers weren’t big on bright lighting for their ships, apparently, and there were pockets of shadow in every corner where the basic illumination couldn’t reach. 

When Gordon understood what he was looking at he felt tension creep through his shoulders as well as his jaw as he unconsciously clenched it. He glanced to Kelly and saw the same tightness in her. Turning his eyes back to the discovery Gordon traced the length of chain all the way up to its housing in the ceiling and then back down to its end, where it was clear that it could be attached to something in order to keep it secure. 

Not something, he corrected himself silently. Someone

Ed wasn’t here now, but he had been, and if the chain was any indication then the Razers had made damned sure that they weren’t going to lose their grip on him. 

Gordon was glad when Kelly spoke his name close to his side, snapping his attention away from Talla’s discovery and the fierce anger that the sight had caused to boil up inside of him. When he turned his head to look at her he tried to soften his expression but something in her eyes told him that he hadn’t been successful. “Go check out the helm.” It was a suggestion rather than an order, he recognised that much, and he nodded his head gratefully at the opportunity to do something constructive. As he passed her he felt her fingers catch on the jacket he had been holding. He released it to her, not even having to look behind him as he left the room to know that she was keeping a tight hold on it. 

It wasn’t far to the helm, though as soon as he passed through the hatch into the space occupied by the pilot Gordon realised it was more accurate to call it a cockpit. There wasn’t much room to move and while there were two seats in the space it was clear that one was far more dominant to the other. This was the seat the kid had been sitting in when he’d tried to outfly the Orville. Gordon approached it and touched his hand to the top of its high back, feeling the worn material of the seat as his eyes roamed over the cockpit at large. 

The controls were as varied a mix as anything he had ever seen, with touchscreens like what dominated any Union vessel but a fair number of older workings as well. Dotted here and there throughout the cockpit were trinkets and odd bits and pieces of what were obviously personal possessions. Gordon half-expected to see a pair of dice hanging somewhere but there was nothing like that. There was a fine chain hanging to one side of the pilot’s seat though, he noticed, and he had to actually slide into the chair itself to get a better look at it. Tracing the delicate links all the way to their end he saw that there was no real pendant there, but instead a pair of rings. 

Gordon didn’t need to look at them for long to figure out that they were wedding rings. 

With a frown he looked around the cockpit from the main seat. Through the main viewer ahead all he could see was the back of the Orville and the glow of her tractor beam as she pulled the Razer ship in her wake. They had left the Mavaris Star System and started to head in the direction that the Razer’s ion trail was leading them but they hadn’t gone to quantum yet. Kelly had wanted to check out the ship first and Gordon recognised how tough a decision that must have been. 

Somewhere out there her ex-husband was in the hands of some unknown individual or organisation and every instinct in her body was probably demanding that she race out after him and save him from whatever was being done to him. Gordon knew that because that was what his instincts were telling him. Ed was his best friend, he had been for years now, and the thought of losing him— 

Gordon swallowed against the bitter dryness in his throat and returned his focus to his investigation. He needed to concentrate. 

After studying the controls around him for a few moments he got to work. 

 


 

There was so much shadow in the building that it was almost impossible to see entire sections of it. Despite the fact that hours had passed since her arrival there was no sign that whatever sun this setting possessed would rise and she was starting to lose hope that it ever would. It wouldn’t have surprised her in the least to learn that this was a wholly dark setting, made all that much eerier and more unsettling by those pockets of shadows and the odd creaks and groans from the building around her as she made her way through it. 

Someone was in one of the rooms upstairs. She had heard sounds from the first floor after slipping inside and though she had been hesitant to seek out the source at first there was something about the vague shuffling and low groaning sounds that told her there was no real threat awaiting her. 

Still, she was cautious. And with good reason too. In the time it had taken her to travel from the lakeside location where she had awoken hours before to here she had already encountered a hunter. 

Their gun was nestled in her palm now. 

Caro had fought with every scrap of strength she possessed in order to overpower and ultimately eliminate them. The rock she had used had dug fiercely into her palms with its rough edges and by the time she was done crashing it down onto the hunter’s head there wasn’t much left in the way of a skull and the flesh of her hands had been suitably torn. They were stinging now but she had ripped the excess material from the bottom of her shirt away to serve as crude bindings for the tattered wounds. It would have to do. 

She was halfway up the second staircase when the floorboard under her creaked. Freezing in place she waited, listening to her surroundings and half-expecting to hear something else scurrying around. The place called to mind the old horror movies that she and Erana had enjoyed watching together back when they had been dating. They had teased the suitably spooked and jittery protagonists as they’d grown bolder with their physical contact with one another, slipping more not-quite-so-accidental touches into their interactions. 

Caro wasn’t comforted by the memory for long. It was like this place, this old and looming house, was poised and waiting, like the whole thing was holding its breath for some reason. If she was honest with herself she had been reluctant to enter the building at all, as foreboding and ominous as it had looked sitting all alone in the middle of nowhere, but with no other options and the possibility of more hunters lurking out in the darkness somewhere she had decided to take her chances. 

The sounds from upstairs had stopped. 

She took a deep breath and continued her ascent. It was impossible to watch every direction at once but she turned her head frequently to keep an eye out for any movements that didn’t belong. Part of her expected to see a shadow slip back around an open doorway, or some other sign that something otherworldly was lurking nearby. 

What she saw instead made her pause, if only for a moment. 

It was the edge of a boot. 

Tommy. He was her first thought, her fear for her brother escalating once again and causing her heart to beat faster. She hadn’t seen him in—God only knew how long it had been now. The last time she had seen him he had been crying her name. She had died before him that time. She hadn’t seen what had happened to him. 

Cautiously and quietly she inched towards the doorway. One of the floorboards threatened to creak underneath her but didn’t quite go all the way, allowing her to approach the opening almost silently and peer covertly around the edge of the door. 

It wasn’t Tommy. Her heart sank. 

Ed looked terrible

Caro stepped into the room further and cast a cautious glance back over her shoulder, examining the corners of the space as she entered it properly. She noticed the puddle of vomit on the floor before she accidentally stepped in it and softly spoke the man’s name. When he didn’t respond she tried again, just as softly. She still didn’t trust that they were the only ones here. 

Ed was awake, sitting up against the wall, but he hadn’t reacted to the sound of her voice. She crouched, putting herself directly into what would have been his line of sight if he wasn’t so seemingly fixated on something right in the corner. With the beginnings of a chill tickling at the bottom of her spine she followed his gaze, half-expecting to see something unnatural staring back at them from the darkness there, but instead it was a web. Rather a large web, to be fair, with a suitably sizeable spider sitting at its centre. 

“Ed?” She ducked her head further into his line of sight, frowning. When he still didn’t react she reached out with her empty hand and touched his arm. 

He started, and a little more violently that she had expected. It spooked her as well. She managed to bite back the curse that threatened to come crashing out of her and watched the shock and confusion play over Ed’s face as he gathered himself. His brow creased and he looked around the room as if he didn’t know where he was or how he had gotten there. 

When his eyes came back up to her face he said uncertainly, “Caro?” 

She nodded, still frowning. “Yeah, it’s me.” 

“I—” Ed looked around the room again and then back over at the spider. Something like fear passed over his face, just a flash of it before he averted his gaze. “I don’t like spiders,” he said to her, looking up at her briefly, and she recognised that he had tried to smile at her, even if only for a moment. It was a failed attempt. 

Caro was trying not to think about her missing brother but looking at Ed in that moment it was almost impossible not to because the hints of likeness were alarmingly striking. He had been pulling at his hair if its state of disarray was any indication. There was a huddled and hunched quality to his posture that spoke of uncertainty. It had taken her far too long to get his attention. It was like he was there and yet not

“Hey,” she said to him, touching a hand to his knee. “How many times?” Because she knew what it was that had pushed Tommy too far. She knew what had broken her brother’s mind. 

Blinking several times and deepening his frown Ed seemed to come back to himself a little. He cleared his throat and rubbed one of his hands over his face. Caro noticed then that there was the beginnings of a shadow of stubble becoming visible around his mouth and jaw. It was almost impossible to gauge time while they were stuck in the system but she knew from experience that physical changes like the growth of facial hair were direct reflections of a person’s state in the real world. If Ed’s facial hair was beginning to show inside the system then enough time had passed outside of it for the change to occur in reality. 

“I-I’m not sure.” 

Ed Mercer hadn’t struck Caro, in the short amount of time that she had known him, as the type to hesitate or doubt like that. He seemed to her to be a man of facts and certainties. If he didn’t know how many times he had been reinserted into the system then it was happening frequently and rapidly enough that it was wreaking havoc on his mind, and obviously so. 

She was going to sit on the ground in front of him before she remembered that would put her back to the room at large and she still didn’t trust it. If Ed was as disoriented as he seemed to be then she needed to be their eyes and ears until he had collected himself a little more. So she shifted her weight and settled herself down against the same wall he was using for support, and she made a point of putting herself between him and that spider that he had been so fixated on when she had entered, effectively blocking it from view. 

“Well,” she said to him, keeping the gun within easy reach against her hip on the floor between where they sat side by side. “Then it’s a good thing I found you when I did, hm?” She smiled at him. 

Ed paused and then nodded his head, looking across the room. He wiped not just one hand but both over his face then. When he spoke again he sounded a little more like himself. “Yeah,” he said, and brought his eyes back to her face. When he tried to smile that time he actually managed it. 

“Yeah,” Caro echoed back at him, nodding as well. She knew from experience that it was easier to get through these things if you weren’t alone. For whatever reason she and Ed kept landing in the same settings together, even if it wasn’t at the exact same time. Caro wasn’t going to look what she was choosing to see as a gift horse in the mouth because this way they could work together and try to keep one another not only alive but sane.

Chapter Text

When Commander Grayson stepped into the briefing room she was all business. She took her seat and didn’t waste any time reminding them all of the circumstances, saying instead, “I’ve updated Admiral Halsey on the situation. Obviously, true to their word, the Admiralty has given us the green light to follow the Razer’s trail and see where it leads. We’ll be rendezvousing with the Sagan on the way and they’ll take the Razer ship off our hands so we can go the rest of the way unhindered.” 

John knew the Orville could handle travelling with the Razer ship in tow but Commander Grayson and the Admirals weren’t wrong that they would get where they were going a lot faster without being weighed down by being a glorified tow truck. Maybe calling them a tugboat would have made for a better analogy. Either way they would all be glad to be rid of the burden. 

“I have copied the entirety of the ship’s files to our own database in order to further analyse the information they contain,” Isaac told them, taking the Commander’s announcement as an invitation to give his own update. “There are a number of encryptions and firewalls in place but I believe I will be able to overcome and bypass such measures easily.” 

“Good,” the Commander said, her fingers knitted on the table in front of her. “Chief, did you find anything of value?” 

“Just that whoever was running the ship was doing a hell of a job keeping her in the air,” John said with a small shake of his head. “They should call that thing the Frankenstein or something.” 

“Technically, Commander, it was not Doctor Frankenstein who—” 

John waved his hand in Isaac’s direction. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I read it.” He’d seen the movie, actually, but that was beside the point. He went on, “It takes a hell of an engineer to throw all that together and make it work, that’s what I meant.” After a moment he said, “I know it doesn’t feel right to give any credit to these guys but—” He shrugged his shoulders. “Credit where it’s due all the same.” Looking around the table he added, “Other than that there wasn’t much. Just a lot of junk and tools. Whoever’s running the engines spends a lot of time in there. They’ve even got a bag in the corner.” 

“Like a sleeping bag?” Talla asked. 

“Punching bag,” John corrected. He shrugged his shoulders again. Such things weren’t commonplace anymore and it probably wasn’t really important or noteworthy but it illustrated his point, he thought, and so he had shared it with the group. He had already told those collected about the dismantled comscanner that he had found, along with the missing comm from Captain Mercer’s jacket sleeve. At this point maybe no detail was too small to be considered unimportant, not when they still had so many unanswered questions. 

“What about the pilot?” Bortus asked. “If he is not being forthcoming with information that could aid our investigation, what will we do?” 

The Commander leaned forward to look down the table. “Gordon, did you find anything?” 

The Helmsman shook his head but he was frowning. “Not really,” he said, looking around at them all. “He’s like their engineer though, he spends a lot of time in that cockpit. There’s personal effects all over the place.” 

“What kinds of personal effects?” Doctor Finn asked, knitting her brow. 

Gordon paused, shaking his head, and then shrugging his shoulders as he said, “Just a bunch of stuff. Souvenirs and knickknacks, that kind of thing.” 

John thought that there was something Gordon wasn’t telling them but they had all noticed the change in their Helmsman’s behaviour since all of this had started. Given his close bond with the Captain it was no surprise really. So John didn’t say anything to challenge his friend. If it was important he would share it when he felt the timing was right, and he would never keep anything vital from them, not considering what was at stake. 

“Claire,” the Commander went on, turning her head to glance across the table. “Do you think there’s anything you can do? In regards to the pilot, I mean.” 

The Doctor hesitated before she said, in a reluctant tone of voice, “If you’re asking if there’s anything I can do to make him talk—” 

Commander Grayson shook her head, closing her eyes for a moment. “No,” she interrupted, “nothing like that.” 

But John suspected the thought had crossed her mind, even if only for a second. 

“Good,” Doctor Finn breathed. “Because regardless of just who we’re dealing with here, that’s a line we shouldn’t even consider crossing.” 

“Agreed.” The Commander nodded her head. 

Bortus made a low sound from his seat further down the table. When they all looked in his direction he said, “I doubt these Razers would concern themselves with being so—” he paused to find the right word, “—moral.” 

“Maybe not,” Commander Grayson said, holding her gaze steady on the Moclan, “but that’s the difference between us and them.” 

Everyone was quiet for a few moments, the weight of those words hanging heavily around them. It was Gordon who broke the silence and when he did he managed to surprise everyone enough that they all turned to look at him. “Let me take a crack at it.” 

“What?” John frowned. 

“Let me talk to the pilot,” Gordon clarified, leaning his crossed arms on the surface of the table and looking around at the faces of the senior staff. “Maybe I won’t get anything out of him but—” He hesitated, shaking his head. “He’s just a kid.” 

John looked down the table to watch Commander Grayson’s face. She turned and shared a look with Talla, and then glanced across at the Doctor before nodding her head, obviously conceding. “All right,” she said, turning her attention back to Gordon. “It can’t hurt to try,” she added. 

She was right about that, and as John brought his own gaze back to regard Gordon anew he couldn’t help but wonder if their own pilot might have been on to something. He could relate to the Razer in the brig in a way that no one else could, maybe, and if not? Then at least he would have tried. 

“John,” the Commander said, “make sure our course is laid in. We’ll rendezvous with the Sagan as ordered and then follow the trail at maximum speed.” 

He gave a short nod. “Aye, Commander.” 

When they were dismissed everyone headed off at a brisk pace to do what needed to be done. 

 


 

“Did you hear that?” 

Ed’s eyes had been closed when Caro’s voice had broken the quiet. He opened them again instantly and blinked back the grogginess that had settled in anew, needing to take a moment to actually register what the woman beside him had said. When he did he strained to listen, halfway through shaking his head in a negative when he realised he did hear it. 

A creak. And then silence. The slightest groan of some surface in the house shifting under the application of pressure. 

“There’s someone here.” Ed kept his voice low as he turned his head to look at Caro. 

She was nodding her head and he heard the sigh that slipped past her lips as she retrieved a gun from the space between them. When had that gotten there? Had she brought it with her? Ed hadn’t seen a gun but he was awake enough now to acknowledge that his mind hadn’t been particularly clear when she had arrived. It had gotten easier to think in the time that she had been here, he had noticed. 

What did that mean? And what would happen when they were separated again? 

Ed didn’t have the answers and he didn’t particularly want to find out, either. 

That meant staying alive. 

Pulling down a breath that he hoped would steady the first rattling of his nerves he got himself up onto his haunches in a crouch, waiting to follow Caro’s lead. She had the weapon, after all, and the clearer head. He would trust her judgement. 

She was on her feet already and tilting her head to listen. “I think it’s coming from downstairs,” she said in a low whisper. “From the back of the house.” 

Ed hadn’t even really noticed that the building they were occupying was a house but as he looked around he took in the small details that betrayed it as such. There was a closet in the corner and an empty bedframe against the wall. Beyond the open door he could see a hallway and what he thought was the top of a set of stairs. “Is there another floor?” he asked, his voice as hushed as her own. 

She nodded but there was a reluctance there. Ed remembered the town and the beasts that had effortlessly climbed the buildings. Despite himself he shuddered. “Right,” he mumbled, shaking his head. “Bad idea.” He looked back over his shoulder. 

Caro followed his thinking and moved closer to the window, shifting her weight as carefully as she could in order to try and prise it open without making any sounds that would betray their location. When it didn’t budge she sighed again and opened her mouth to say something else but held her tongue when something creaked, and loudly. 

It was directly above them. Not below. 

With a motion of her hand Caro indicated the other side of the house and Ed nodded, understanding what she was saying. The windows on that side might open. If they were only on the first floor they might be able to drop or climb down and make a break for it. She started to lead the way and he followed her, moving as carefully as he could so that he wouldn’t disturb anything and make a noise that would attract the attention of whatever it was skulking about downstairs. 

Moving lightly on her feet Caro hurried down the hall as swiftly as she dared, pausing at doorways to glance into the darkness there. Ed slowed whenever she did, letting her judge whether or not it was safe, and he moved along after her whenever she was satisfied that there was no threat. She passed the staircase and he slowed to let her go first, watching where she laid her feet in the hopes that following directly behind her would save him from making any noise. 

Ed looked briefly down the staircase as he passed it. Even though the last sound they had heard had come distinctly from overhead they still thought that they had heard sounds from below as well. It was stupid to take anything for granted. 

Caro slipped through the door at the end of the hall and Ed slowed, waiting for her to signal that it was safe. Once again he was all too aware of the beating of his own heart. It felt like it was loud enough that it could be heard beyond his own body, as absurd a thought as that was. 

Too late he realised it hadn’t been his heartbeat after all, at least not entirely. Far too late he realised something had sprinted up the stairs behind him. 

He turned, expecting to be met with an unfamiliar face, but instead he realised that all he could see was the top of a head. He dropped his gaze. 

The child was looking up at him, not making a sound, their entire body almost unnaturally still. 

Ed was so stunned by the sight that he didn’t know what to say, or do. So he just looked back at them. 

They moved so quickly and so quietly that he didn’t even register it had happened until afterwards. 

The blade buried in his side, sliding in effortlessly, driven expertly by the small hand wielding it. 

Ed gasped and stumbled back. The blade slid from his side as soundlessly as it had gone in and as he lifted his eyes from the wound he saw that the child was smiling. 

They were smiling at him. 

“Ed?” Caro’s voice had been quiet but she must have stepped back into the hallway and seen what had happened. “Oh my God,” she gasped and then Ed heard the sound of a gun being primed to fire. 

“No!” He turned to grab for the gun to wrench it downward. He couldn’t let her shoot a child

Ed!” She grabbed hold of him and yanked him towards her so forcefully that they both almost lost their balance. 

Behind him Ed heard the shout of the child, a cry of frustration and determination, moments before he heard the sound of the blade hitting the wood of the banister overlooking the house’s foyer. They had tried to stab him again. 

His horror at that realisation almost blinded him to what he caught out of the corner of his eye. Almost

At the top of the second stairway leading up a dark shape was streaking down towards them. They were halfway down and gaining speed when Ed recognised those wild, wide eyes and discoloured teeth. 

It was Rambler. 

Ed didn’t think, instead he just hauled Caro towards him and threw his own body to one side as quickly as he could, dragging her with him. The railing buckled under their combined weight with a splintering crack and they spilled through the hole with twin yells of alarm. They covered the distance quickly and Ed landed first, hard, with Caro coming down moments after him. She managed, somehow, not to land directly on top of him. Splinters and shards of wood rained down around them. 

As Ed was fighting to get his breath back he saw that the child had stepped up to the hole with their bloody blade in their hand and was looking down at them. 

They hadn’t seen Rambler. 

Before Ed could raise his voice in a shout of warning Rambler was on the child. Together they too toppled through the air and to the ground floor, landing only a few feet from Ed and Caro. Being driven by Rambler’s larger frame the child had hit the ground first but they survived the fall. As Ed and Caro watched they fought and thrashed from their place beneath Rambler, who seemed to effortlessly pin their smaller frame to the floor. 

The child’s blade had slipped from their grasp in the fall. 

Rambler snatched it up from the ground and wasted no time in putting it to work. 

Caro’s hands yanked and heaved at Ed’s jacket and hauled him up from the ground and it was a good thing too, or he might have simply remained there sprawled on the ground, watching in horror as that mad ruin of a man hacked and slashed and clubbed at the small body trapped underneath them. He wasn’t sorry that he had to turn his eyes away from the sight, or that the sounds of the vicious attack grew increasingly distant as they bolted through the back of the house and out through its rear door. 

Ed ran after Caro until he simply couldn’t run anymore and one knee gave out on him, dropping him to the ground with a cry. It felt like someone had set a very real fire in his side and he touched a hand to the wound there even as Caro whirled back and returned to where he had dropped on his knees. 

“Oh, Christ,” she panted as she bent to get a good look at the wound. 

Ed didn’t need to ask how bad it was. All he had to do was look at Caro’s face. She had actually paled and as he watched she gave the smallest shake of her head. The blade had gone in from the side, just under his ribs, and it had been several inches long. He had seen it when the child had been staring down at them from above, moments before Rambler had tackled them. The entirety of the blade had been coated in blood. The blade had gone all the way in and Ed knew that there was no way it hadn’t hit something important. Something vital. 

“We need to move,” he said, trying to push up from the ground. 

“Ed—” 

He met her gaze. “We can’t stay here.” Whoever that child had been they couldn’t have been alone. There were other people here and they weren’t safe out in the open. They had to find somewhere to take cover and hide. He pressed his hand against his side more firmly and said again, with increased urgency, “We need to move.” 

Caro hesitated for only a moment before nodding her head, getting one hand under his arm to help him back to his feet. He had to grit his teeth to keep from crying out. The less sound they made the better, and he could give in to the pain once they found a safe place. 

There was nowhere safe, he knew, not really, but at that point anything with walls behind which they could hide would do. 

 


 

“Come in, Lowell.” Claire indicated the sofa underneath the window at the rear of her office. “Why don’t you take a seat?” 

The young man in the doorway hesitated, glancing back over his shoulder at the Security officers who had escorted him here from the brig. He looked as though he expected the doorway to snap shut on him like some great hungry maw, but at the same time he looked equally reluctant to go back. In the end, and perhaps only after Claire gave him a small smile, he crossed the threshold into the office. 

When the Security officers moved to follow Claire held up a hand. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” she said to them and before they could protest she closed the door. Turning back she saw that Lowell had spotted the room’s other occupant and was once again hesitant. Gordon was leaning against the very edge of Claire’s desk, his posture casual enough to anyone who didn’t know him well but she could spot the small signs of tension through the line of his shoulders. 

“Sit down, Lowell,” she said again, lowering herself into her own chair. 

Gordon straightened and moved across the room to claim a chair for himself as well, the two of them sitting opposite the Razer pilot. 

“You’re Gordon Malloy.” 

The Orville’s Helmsman had been halfway into his seat when the younger man made that declaration. He paused, looked at the Razer, and then said, quite simply, “Yeah. I am.” And then he finished lowering himself into his seat. It was only then that he furrowed his brow in a frown. “You know who I am?” 

Lowell lingered in front of the sofa for a few moments more before he obviously realised he might as well sit on it. He perched on the edge of it at first, Claire noticed, not willing to let himself get comfortable. “Yeah,” he said. “You’re kind of a legend, man.” The younger man shook his head and looked down at the floor for a second. “I forgot this was your ship. It makes sense now.” 

Claire decided to introduce herself back into the conversation. “What makes sense?” 

“How this ship kept up the way it did. The way it moved.” Lowell actually sounded impressed, and just for a moment there was a wonder in his expression that made Claire think of a child discovering something incredible. It reminded her very much of the way Ty had looked at Isaac whenever the Kaylon had told him some remarkable fact about himself. 

Gordon didn’t rest back in his chair properly, instead opting to prop his elbows on his knees with his weight bent forward at the waist. “You gave me a run for my money, kid,” he said to the other pilot with a small shake of his head. “And I saw what you were working with. That can’t have been easy.” 

The wonder dropped out of Lowell’s expression and he frowned, almost as if Gordon’s statement had wounded him. “She’s a good ship.” 

“I’m sure she is,” Gordon allowed, raising his brows. “Must take some work to keep her in the air the way you do.” 

“My brother’s good at what he does.” 

And as soon as those words were out of his mouth Lowell paled a fraction and Claire actually saw him swallow. He glanced towards the door, and back at the window behind him. 

“Your brother is your ship’s engineer?” Claire ventured, keeping her tone soft and level. Gordon’s assessment of this young man had been right enough. He was just a kid, and he looked so skittish and out of his element now. It was almost difficult to imagine him in the pilot’s seat, controlling God only knew how many tonnes of ship. When Lowell wet his lips nervously and dropped his gaze to the carpet once again she went on to say, “This conversation is just between us. Nothing bad is going to happen to you here, Lowell.” 

There was a momentary crease in his brow that told Claire he was having trouble believing that and she couldn’t help but wonder just how ruthless these Razers really were. If this young man was genuinely afraid of telling them anything as opposed to being too stubborn or proud to share information then what the hell had happened to put that fear into him in the first place? 

They waited until he responded at last and when he did it was only in a nod, his eyes still lowered from theirs. More than a little self-consciously he lifted a hand and pushed some of his unruly blonde hair away from his brow. 

“What’s his name?” Gordon asked. His voice was quieter now. He too must have recognised the apprehension in the other man for what it really was. 

Lowell was obviously reluctant but after several seconds he said, “Shelton.” It was so quiet that Claire almost missed it but she just managed to catch it. 

“Shelton Reed,” Gordon said, nodding his head a little, glancing in Claire’s direction. She recognised that he was asking her wordlessly if she minded whether or not he took the reins for a bit. With the smallest dip of her chin she allowed it. When the Helmsman turned back to their visitor he said to the younger man, “He must be pretty worried about you.” 

Lowell stayed quiet. One of his shoulders quirked slightly upward. 

“I’m sure he is,” Gordon went on. “That’s how it is with brothers, right? With families, I mean.” He glanced towards Claire and said, “Doctor Finn has two kids of her own on board. She’s a great mom, and her boys are great too. Ty and Marcus, that’s their names.” He didn’t wait for Lowell to say or ask anything. For all intents and purposes it was like the Helmsman was having a one-sided conversation. “I know the lengths she’d go to for her kids, and I know that works both ways. Family is important.” 

When Gordon shifted in his seat Claire noticed the way that Lowell tensed but the Helmsman had dropped and turned his head to concentrate on retrieving something from his pocket. He pulled it free and returned his elbow to his knee, letting the retrieved item dangle gently from the fingers of his slightly raised hand. 

It was a delicate metal chain with two rings threaded through it, hanging side by side at the bottom of the loop. Despite having never worn one for herself Claire recognised them for what they were instantly: wedding bands. She looked at Lowell. 

The young man was sitting up straighter in his seat and there was a wounded expression on his face that carried no small amount of concern. He was frowning as if he didn’t understand how Gordon had come to be in possession of the rings and as Claire watched he wet his lips nervously again. He fidgeted on the edge of the sofa and lifted one hand to fuss at his hair again. Claire thought he was hoping that the pair of them would miss the way he used the action to swipe at one eye. 

“Can—” He stopped to clear his throat. “C-Can I—” He gestured uneasily towards the chain and the rings hanging on it. When he finally managed to speak the sentence in full he really did sound like a child. His voice was small and timid, almost as if he didn’t dare to ask the question at all. “Can I have that back, please?” 

Claire turned her gaze towards the Lieutenant. 

Gordon was quiet for a second and then he dipped his head in a nod. “Sure.” And then he leaned forward that little bit more in order to bring the chain and the rings close enough to Lowell that he could reach out and take them. 

The younger man hesitated for several moments but finally summoned the courage to reach out and accept the proffered item. He gently pooled and cupped it into one palm and lightly closed his fingers over it, bringing it into his lap and keeping it there. 

“The man your crew took from us,” Gordon said, and still, remarkably, his voice was level. “His name is Ed Mercer.” 

Lowell’s eyes were down on his hand and the precious item within. 

“He’s my brother.” 

The Razer pilot frowned. Claire could see it even with his head bowed the way that it was. His shoulders hunched inward just a fraction. 

“And I need your help to find him again.” 

When Lowell raised his head there was an obvious uncertainty there, a hesitation and a sense of confliction that Claire recognised instantly. He didn’t say anything but he did look right at Gordon, meeting his fellow pilot’s eyes in a surprising show of courage. 

Gordon held his gaze, raising his brows to emphasise the plea in his voice as he said, “Will you help me?” 

 


 

The pain was unbearable by the time they reached the barn and Caro had helped him to stumble inside. His hand was completely covered in blood and the sleeve of his jacket was soaked through with it where he had held his arm around his side. Ed could feel the warmth coating the limb, and how that same wet heat had spread down his side and well past the waistband of his pants. 

“Here.” Caro eased him down against the wall. “Gently, slowly—that’s it.” She crouched in front of him and shook her head, sighing. “Ed, it’s—” 

“Bad,” he breathed roughly, “I know.” He couldn’t think clearly enough to remember with any real certainty what must have been damaged by the knife. His liver, maybe. A kidney, possibly. All he knew was that it hurt like hell and he was losing a lot of blood. Ed suspected it wasn’t just externally, either. He was feeling dizzy and lightheaded again, and it was getting increasingly difficult to breathe. 

“You probably have internal bleeding.” 

Ed laughed breathlessly. “You read my mind.” He sobered and looked down at his side. With a groan he nodded his head gently. “Yeah.” 

Caro took in a deep breath and shook her head. “Ed—” When he managed to lift his gaze to meet hers she went on, albeit not without difficulty, “Maybe you should just let me—” 

It took Ed a moment to figure out what she was trying to say and why she might have cut herself off that way but when he did he shook his head. In the hopes that he was wrong he dropped his gaze, and obviously, to the gun in her hand. 

Caro had dropped her gaze as well. She nodded silently. 

“No,” he said. 

“Ed, you’re in pain, and—” 

“Caro, no.” 

Just from the simple act of putting that much force behind his words Ed felt thoroughly exhausted. With a grimace he tried to sit up a little straighter against the wall only to be rewarded by a pulse of agony through his side that swept eagerly in all directions. Through gritted teeth he let out a tight groan. One of Caro’s hands settled on his shoulder before she used both to help him accomplish the small task. 

“We can’t stop the bleeding,” she said to him while her hands were still on him. 

She was close enough to him that when he opened his eyes her face was right there. He could meet her gaze without having to strain in order to do so. “I know,” he said to her, having to work to catch his breath. With a small shake of his head he told her, “But I don’t want to die.” Ed tried not to hear the fine threads of fear in his own voice. 

Caro dropped her gaze and hesitated before she rocked her weight back, taking her hands from him in the process. She rested on her haunches and with one elbow on her knee she balled her fist in front of her mouth. 

Despite the difficulty he had in doing so Ed kept talking. “I know it’s going to happen anyway,” he said, “but—” Briefly he dropped his gaze to his sodden side. “When you came to that house back there? I didn’t even know you were there. I didn’t hear you.” It hadn’t struck Ed at first just how alarming that was. “And it’s only going to get worse.” He dropped his voice, sounding sorry when he said, “You know that.” 

Caro closed her eyes. She did know that. Her brother had been hurt by this place, possibly permanently damaged, and now he was nowhere to be found. 

Ed shook his head. “I don’t want to end up like that.” His voice was little more than a whisper. 

She was quiet for a while, staying almost perfectly still. When she broke the heavy silence between them it was with a sharp sniff that she did so. With a hard shake of her head she let out a rush of breath and settled her weight down on her knees. As Ed watched she shrugged her jacket back from her shoulders and then pulled it all the way off. When she moved closer to him again she was already balling the material tightly, looking around on the ground for something before she set the wadded jacket down and removed her belt instead. 

Without saying a word Caro used her belt to bind the roughly bunched material to Ed’s side, tightening it as much as she dared and with a wince of apology when Ed let out another of those hissing groans between his teeth. Only when she was satisfied that it wouldn’t slip did she say, “It won’t do much but—” 

“It’s enough,” he told her, giving her a nod of gratitude. “Thank you.” 

Caro touched her hand momentarily to his arm and then settled herself down beside him once again, much as she had in the house. The gun was still within easy reach, Ed noticed, but he trusted her not to use it on him if he passed out, as he suspected he would shortly. It was getting harder to keep his eyes open and his body felt so heavy already. 

Maybe, if he was really lucky, he could sleep away the rest of this simulation. All things considered dying in his sleep seemed like it would be a blessing.

Chapter Text

The rings were an oddly heavy but reassuring weight in his hand and once again he found himself staring down at them with Malloy’s words ringing in his ears. 

Will you help me

Lowell shook his head and let out a sigh that he had been holding back for several minutes. He didn’t let his shoulders drop all the way but he stopped hunching them. He wasn’t sure when he had done that, actually. When he lifted his gaze he noticed that the Doctor was watching him and he had a feeling that she hadn’t missed a thing during this whole conversation. There was something about the steadiness of her gaze that told him she never missed a thing. And yet it wasn’t frightening. In a weird way it was almost comforting. Why that was exactly Lowell couldn’t even begin to understand. 

“I can’t,” he said at last, opening his fingers and looking down at the rings in his hand. With his thumb he moved them just a little, nudging his father’s against his mother’s and then back again. 

It was the Doctor who spoke then. “Why not, Lowell?” 

He brought his head back up and looked at her. In Malloy’s expression he saw too much of what he was feeling himself as a result of being separated from his brother. It was too much like looking in a mirror. “Because I don’t know,” he said. 

“You don’t know what?” 

“Anything.” Lowell shrugged his shoulders then and finally let them drop all the way. He kept his eyes on their Doctor. “I don’t know where they went, or where they’re gonna go after that.” 

When Malloy spoke again the wounded expression had slipped from his face. Part of Lowell was jealous that he could do that as effortlessly as it seemed like he had but he supposed that was the benefit of Union training. “What about Ed? Where did they take him?” 

Again Lowell shook his head, looking down once again at the rings. “I wasn’t there.” With more confidence he said, “I stay on the ship.” He lifted his eyes to meet the gaze of his fellow pilot. “That’s where I belong. In the pilot’s seat.” 

The two Union officers shared a look and as Lowell watched he saw it dawn on them that they weren’t going to get what they had wanted out of him. And perhaps the most amazing thing of all was that Lowell realised he was actually sorry for that. He hadn’t expected it and Blake would likely throw him out of the nearest airlock if he ever found out, but watching their expressions in that moment he saw that what he had always told himself about the Union might not be true after all. 

With a frown he looked down at the rings again. This time he kept his eyes down. 

 


 

It was still dark outside. 

Caro sighed as carefully as she could, not wanting to disturb the man whose head had come to rest in her lap. It had dropped lightly onto her shoulder at first but when she had realised that the leaned position might have ended up putting more of a strain on his side than his body could take she had shifted in her own place enough so that she could ease him all the way down instead. As pillows went her thigh was a poor substitute, she thought, but Ed didn’t seem to mind. She doubted he would care. 

The main thing was that he was still breathing, and audibly so. It was almost painful to listen to, actually, but she tried to take some small sense of comfort from it despite the pain he had to be feeling, perhaps even in his unconsciousness. While he was still drawing breath neither one of them were alone and Caro couldn’t deny that that thought, the idea of being alone again, was almost more daunting than any hunters the D’Nari could accommodate. 

Tommy might still be out there somewhere, alone again, and the thought of her brother once again being all by himself in environments just like this one was enough to literally turn her stomach. She had to forcefully swallow down the taste of bile and squeeze her eyes shut against the sensation. 

Maybe Erana had gotten him out. 

Caro was able to let out the breath that she had been holding and open her eyes again. It was a good hope to hold on to and as she had told Ed if anyone could have gotten out of this place it was her wife. Her beautiful, fierce, force of nature of a wife, the strongest and bravest woman she had ever known. 

Dropping her gaze to her hand Caro found herself hating, and not for the first time, that her ring had not carried over into the simulations with her. Without it she felt naked and in the real world whenever she had doubts or uncertainties she could turn or rub that ring on her finger and draw strength from its solidity and what it represented. In order to distract herself from the absence she touched that same hand gently to Ed’s head while he slept, unconsciously moving her thumb back and forward over the close-cropped hair by his ear. 

How much time passed with her repeating that simple but soothing action she couldn’t be sure, not with the endless night and no other way to gauge any sense of time. Her eyes had slipped closed and her own breathing had levelled out by the time the loud sound carried with shocking clarity through the darkness beyond the barn and made her start physically. 

It was jarring enough that Ed stirred in her lap. She muttered an apology, not even looking down at him as she strained to listen. 

A guttural and blood-curdling scream rent the night air. Despite herself she tensed again, abruptly, startled by the sound. Ed had actually managed to jolt up from the ground, at least halfway, looking suitably alarmed as well. 

“What the hell was that?” His voice sounded rough, like his throat was dry or overused. 

Caro had been about to shake her head when the sound tore through the night a third time only to be cut off by repeated echoing cracks that they both recognised as gunfire, and lots of it. 

“That was close,” she breathed, feeling a spike of fear flash through her, meeting Ed’s gaze. 

He looked pale. Very pale. “Too close,” he agreed. 

She looked down at his side where she had bundled her jacket. Could he even move? Could he run

Ed was already working to get himself to his feet. Caro cursed under her breath and snatched up the gun. 

They were about to find out. 

 


 

It had been a brief rendezvous with the Sagan and Kelly hadn’t been in the mood for conversation with her Captain. The other woman had promised to get the Razer ship back to Union Central as quickly as possible and Kelly had thanked the higher-ranking officer, literally counting off the seconds in her head. The conversation, brief though it was, had lasted entirely too long for her liking. 

No one in the briefing room was seated. There was no time for that. 

“He really doesn’t know anything?” She looked imploringly between Gordon and Claire. 

“I believe that he doesn’t,” their Doctor said with a shake of her head. “At least not that he’s aware of. It’s entirely possible he has information that might be useful but he doesn’t realise that for himself.” 

“Would it not be prudent to make an exception—” 

Claire turned her head towards Isaac and said, quite simply and very firmly, “No,” before she returned her attention to Kelly. Isaac fell quiet. That, it seemed, was that. 

Kelly chose to turn her narrowed gaze upon Gordon. “Do you still think you can get through to him?” 

The Helmsman considered the question and then tilted his head with the slightest hint of a shrug. “I think so,” he said. 

“Lieutenant Malloy did get him to open up once already,” Claire reminded everyone present. 

Kelly nodded her head. “All right,” she said, thinking things through as quickly and clearly as she could so that everyone could get back to work. Sleep probably should have been near the top of everyone’s priority lists but she suspected that she wasn’t the only person not even so much as considering it right then. “Gordon, check in on the bridge and make sure our course is set correctly. Collaborate with John and Isaac.” If their Helmsman could get the Razer pilot to open up about anything that might help them then they couldn’t afford to waste that opportunity. They could get someone else to keep his chair warm for him on the bridge for the time being. Until they had something more challenging for him to do than point the Orville in the right direction this was a much better use of his time. 

“Yes, Sir,” he said with a nod of his head. 

“Should I keep a Security detail on him?” Talla asked, looking between Gordon and Kelly. She was genuinely asking whether it was a necessary course of action. Kelly recognised that the Xelayan wanted to be cautious but she also wasn’t known to overreact either. So she was putting out feelers. 

But Kelly didn’t think that she was the best person to answer that question. “Gordon?” 

The Helmsman appeared momentarily surprised that it was ultimately coming down to him to make the decision but he remained quiet until he had thought it over. When he spoke at last, shaking his head as he did so, he sounded confident about his response, “I don’t think that’s necessary.” Looking around at everyone present he went on, “Even if it’s just the two of us I don’t think he’ll try anything. And if he does?” 

“You’ll take care of it,” Talla said, giving him a small nod and a knowing smile. 

Kelly looked between the two and then at everyone else gathered. “Okay,” she said, “the clock’s still ticking and we have work to do. Let’s get to it.” It didn’t occur to her until everyone was already filing out of the room that she had used Ed’s words to dismiss everyone. 

 


 

They had no idea where they were going. They had no idea if there was even anywhere to go, Ed reminded himself as he tried to ignore the pulsing and piercing agony through his side that made every breath feel like he was gulping down fire. Sweat was making his shirt stick to his back and chest and his head was pounding mercilessly. His legs felt like jelly, his knees on the verge of giving out on him every time he took another step. But he had to keep going. 

Adrenaline was the only thing keeping him moving, he knew. Or maybe it was fear. They worked hand in hand, he knew, a big part of the fight-or-flight reflex that he was getting all too familiar with in this place, and it was only a matter of time before he exhausted the reserves of strength that it permitted him, especially in his current state. 

Every time he stumbled Caro turned frantically back to help him. 

The sounds of pursuit were getting louder. 

When Ed finally dared to look back the way they had come he could see shapes in the darkness, bobbing swiftly along as they gave chase. Caro gave his arm a desperate tug and he managed to drag himself up again but it wasn’t without effort and he paid for it dearly. The pain was so fierce, so sharp and overwhelming, that it just about blinded him. If it hadn’t been for Caro’s hand clamped around his arm he would have fallen to the ground and stayed there, he thought. 

There was a drumming sound that was getting louder and louder. At first Ed thought it was his heartbeat, much as he had in the house before the child had snuck up on him, but when the two sounds began to clash and overlap harshly he realised that it was something else. It was something outside of his body. 

Caro let out a shapeless sound of denial and frustration and gave Ed’s arm another tug that actually pulled him to the side rather than simply forward. He felt his body collide with hers and one of her arms went around him as something rushed by him close enough that he felt the air shift suddenly against his ear and the side of his face. Something large had just passed him at speed, and far too closely for comfort. 

There was a harsh sound, like a bellow, and as Ed’s vision cleared and he looked ahead to where that large something had come to a stop and wheeled around he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. It was like a horse and yet it wasn’t. There was something about it that looked off and his already struggling brain couldn’t properly figure out what that something was. 

It didn’t have any hair, he realised belatedly. That was it. 

Caro tugged him a little closer to her and moved him around as if to put herself between him and the horse-that-wasn’t. Ed realised then that the creature was carrying a rider. They looked like the child in the house, only larger. His vision swam for a moment and he had to clutch at Caro’s arm and shirt for balance as his own wavered horribly. 

She gave him a light shove and he went along with the motion, recognising that she wanted them to make a break for it in another direction. There was more thunderous drumming before Caro could properly get them moving that way though and she pulled him up short as another large shape and then a third barrelled into their path, cutting them off. 

Ed stumbled and went down to one knee. Caro lost her grip on his arm and he put a hand down to the ground, feeling the cool dew on the grass and thinking for a moment how nice it would be to buckle down into it all the way. 

Before he could follow through on the impulse something had hold of the collar of his jacket and pulled him back. He thought for a second that it was Caro and was about to ask himself why she was being so rough but then he saw that it wasn’t her at all. She was a few feet away from him now, the arms of one of the riders wrapped around her waist to pull her back. 

Hey—” He actually managed to pitch his weight forward in the beginnings of an attempt to intervene but that hand in his collar yanked back all the way. They let him fall to the ground this time and it was a jarring enough impact that it stole what little breath he had in his lungs, and painfully at that. Ed tried to cough and failed, only causing himself more pain in the process. His whole mouth tasted like blood. 

Caro made a snarling sound, and then she yelled. It was an angry cry, shapeless and bordering on wild. Ed lifted his head just in time to see her jab her elbow back into her captor’s ribs, if they had any, before she threw her head backwards violently and abruptly. The back of her skull cracked loudly against the rider’s face and they staggered away with a hiss and a cry. They clutched at their face. Pale liquid had spattered all over their smooth features. Ed guessed it was blood. 

Ed mouthed go at Caro as clearly as he could but she met his gaze for only a moment before she lunged for something in the damp grass. It was the gun, he realised, and she brought it up and around frantically, squeezing the trigger before she had even properly lined up a shot. 

The sound of the gunshots was so loud and so close that Ed reflexively hugged one arm over his head, turning awkwardly to shield himself further by turning his face down towards the ground. 

Something wailed in agony, something else gave a yowl, and then Caro herself let out a cry. It was angry and frantic and Ed was about to uncover and turn his head when he was hauled up by the back of his jacket again. Just as he was turning his eyes in Caro’s direction to try and find out whether or not she was all right something went over his head and then around his neck. It only took his laboured brain a moment to realise that that was dangerous and instinctively he grabbed at that something and whoever it was putting it there. 

It was a rope. Panic threatened to flood his system and he was barely able to hold it at bay as Caro let out a cry and shouted, “No!” She shouted it more than once. 

The rope tightened around his neck and threatened to close off his airway completely. Ed had managed to get his fingers underneath it but that wouldn’t stop it from choking him if they increased the pressure and held it, he knew. In his grab back at his attacker he had managed to catch hold of what he thought might have been a sleeve. That arm was holding his jacket and it pulled him backwards roughly, and kept on pulling until it was dragging him across the ground. 

Caro kept on shouting furiously and in the moments when he could focus his vision enough to see her Ed saw that she was struggling frantically. There was blood on her face. Even with the shadow of the large tree nearby falling across her he could make it out clearly. Someone had struck her. He tried to shout for them to leave her alone but nothing came out beyond a ragged gasp. 

Just for a moment the world went black, dropping out of focus on every level, and when it came blurring and stumbling back he realised he was on his knees. The rope was still around his neck and there was still a hand gripping at the back of his jacket. He could hardly breathe but somehow he was still conscious. 

“Our child,” a rasping voice said from behind him. “Mine.” The pressure around his neck increased. Ed fought not to choke. “That one like you? Dead now.” 

Rambler. The shots they had heard. The horrible screaming. 

Ed struggled to make out Caro’s face across the distance between them. She was down on her knees as well, being held there by two of the riders with a third looming directly behind her. 

The voice spoke again. “Now your turn.” 

And suddenly the pressure around his neck was unbearable. Ed didn’t even realise that he was all the way off the ground until he kicked his legs, his body instinctively trying to fight what was happening to it. The force of the motion made him swing in the air and the rope bit into his neck even more harshly. Frantically, blindly, he grabbed at the rope holding him up. Panic blazed through him in full and he didn’t even try to hold it at bay. 

Not again. 

Caro didn’t just shout then, but screamed. 

Ed’s vision cleared just in time for him to watch as the rider looming directly behind her drove a blade downward. It struck Caro in the chest and buried all the way to the hilt. As she gasped Ed tried to shout but all he could do was choke. The rider twisted the knife. 

Caro fell silent and still. When her captors released her she fell lifelessly to the ground and stayed there. 

Please not again. 

Ed’s body kept on fighting even as it was starved of oxygen. His legs kept on kicking and his arm kept on grabbing blindly, futilely, at the rope that was holding him up, strangling the life out of him. 

Oh God, please not again. No, no, nonono— 

Every inch of him fought right up until the last agonising second. 

When it finally came the numbing blackness was a genuine relief.

Chapter Text

“Here you go.” Setting the plate on the table he stepped around it to the other side and sat down. Normally he might have had a beer but he hadn’t felt like drinking anything of the sort since all of this had been going on. Instead he had a cup filled with water, much the same as he had set down in front of the younger man sitting across from him. 

After a few seconds passed in which nothing happened Gordon decided he might as well keep on talking. That seemed to have had a calming effect on the other man earlier, when he and Doctor Finn had been trying to get him to open up. “I thought about taking you to the mess hall for something to eat,” he said to Lowell as he leaned casually on the table, both hands on the cup in front of him as he idly started to turn the container this way and that, “but I figured there might be a few too many people there.” With a shrug he went on, “I mean it’s not like anything would happen—” because the crew of the Orville were professionals, “—but I thought it might make you uncomfortable.” Because even though no one would have said or done anything to harm the young man in any shape, way, or form, they definitely would have stared. There would have been low mutters under their breath and the atmosphere in the mess hall would have soured noticeably. 

Gordon remembered another time when something of the sort had happened. It occurred to him as he sipped some of his water that that incident had directly involved Ed as well. As comforting and reassuring as it was to know that the crew genuinely cared for their Captain it didn’t do much to ease the very real fear Gordon felt at his best friend’s ongoing absence. The longer it went on with no idea of his whereabouts, or his condition, the worse that feeling got. 

When Lowell spoke he didn’t say much. “Yeah.” But then he actually started to pay attention to the plate and the slice of pizza sitting upon it. As offered meals went it was fairly simple, not much at all, but Gordon figured it was along the lines of what the young man would be comfortable with. Once Lowell started eating in earnest Gordon figured his suspicions had been correct. 

“So those rings.” He held up a hand and said, “You don’t have to tell me if it’s too painful or whatever.” He let those words hang before he pressed on, “Where did they come from?” It didn’t take a genius to figure out that they were incredibly personal, and therefore important. They obviously carried a great deal of sentimental value to the young man sitting across from him and Gordon couldn’t deny that he was curious. 

He noticed as Lowell shifted in his seat, all but the crust of the pizza devoured by that point, that the other pilot had slipped the chain bearing the aforementioned rings around his neck. He looked down at where they sat in the opening of the low collar of his shirt and hesitated before he said, “They were our parents’.” Fidgeting in his seat again he reached for his cup but didn’t drink from it, instead sliding it closer to him across the table’s surface and then leaving it alone again. 

“Yeah?” Gordon had figured it would be something like that. When he had made that bold move of revealing the item in Doctor Finn’s office, he had known the reaction could have gone one of two ways. Lowell could have gotten angry and lunged for the rings or he could have been emotionally compromised by them in the exact opposite direction. It had definitely been the latter that they had witnessed. The young man sitting across from him now had regressed a good ten years or more, becoming very much like a child in the lead-up to his recovery of the rings. “They’re not around anymore, huh?” Gordon didn’t really need Lowell to answer that question but he wanted to keep him talking. 

Lowell didn’t say anything. He simply shook his head. His eyes were lowered to his hands where they had come to rest on the edge of the table. 

For a couple of minutes Gordon let the quiet go on before he worried that the Razer pilot would retreat into himself all the way once again. So he took a chance. “What happened?” 

The younger man’s eyes came up but they didn’t hold Gordon’s gaze for long before he looked off across the room. When he shrugged it wasn’t because he didn’t know the answer but instead because he was trying to stall or deflect. “They died,” he said at last, as if that was that. Enough said. End of story. 

But there was more to it than that. Gordon could see it in the tiniest shifts in the other man’s face: the slightest downward turn at the corner of his mouth, the vaguely distant quality of his gaze, the almost self-conscious and defensive hunch of his shoulders as if he needed to protect himself from something. Bad memories had that effect on people. 

“You were just a kid when it happened,” Gordon guessed, narrowing his eyes as he watched the other man. The way Lowell dropped his eyes to a nondescript point on the carpet told him that he had guessed right. “I’m sorry,” he said, and he meant it. Whatever this guy had been involved in no one deserved the pain of losing their parents, especially as a young child. It was obviously a wound that ran deep, in Lowell’s case, and Gordon thought that it had had a profound effect on his life as a whole. 

When the silence settled around them again it was Lowell who broke it and he spoke as if he wasn’t speaking to Gordon but instead to the room in general. Maybe it was easier for him that way. Gordon kept quiet and let it happen. 

“I was like three or four. Shelton was older, he remembers them better than I do.” One of Lowell’s hands was turning his water cup on the table, not too dissimilarly from how Gordon had been doing not so long ago. “They served on the same ship but they thought we were too young to be on board with them. We stayed with our grandma in the city.” He didn’t say which city and Gordon didn’t ask. “Their ship was attacked while they were out on a long-range exploration mission or something. A bunch of people managed to make it to the escape pods and they were picked up by a transport ship a few days later but—” Lowell fell quiet and he shrugged his shoulders again with a shake of his head. He turned his gaze to his hand which had stopped toying with the water cup. 

“But not your mom and dad.” Gordon didn’t need to fill in that blank but he wanted Lowell to know that he understood. 

With a frown the other man said, “They just left one day and never came back.” Shaking his head again he went on, “They were on a science vessel. They shouldn’t have been out there like that. They couldn’t protect themselves.” 

Gordon saw that Lowell’s shoulders had tightened, hunching a little more. 

“And the Union never sent any help out there, like a heavy cruiser or anything. Their ship was attacked and it couldn’t defend itself and the Union just sat back and let it happen.” 

Gordon frowned. This kid had been carrying this anger around with him for years, most of his life, and it was still raw and fresh and powerful. No wonder he had joined the Razers, especially if his brother had done so first. “You blame the Union.” It wasn’t a question. 

“Of course I do!” Lowell didn’t shout it but there was a fire to his words that made it seem like his volume had increased much more than it actually had. When he lifted his gaze and met Gordon’s his eyes were brimming with a mixture of emotions, and near-overpowering ones at that. “They shouldn’t have been out there.” 

As he sat there looking at the younger man Gordon couldn’t help but wonder if Lowell thought he and his brother should have been with his parents on that ship. He couldn’t help but wonder if some small part of this kid sitting across from him blamed himself for not being with his parents when they died, as if he could have done something to help them. There was nothing he would have been able to do, obviously, but logic and reason like that didn’t enter into the mind of a child who had lost his parents, especially not in such a sudden and unexpected way. 

“That’s why you do what you do?” This time it was a question. Even if it was a reasonable assumption it was still a conclusion that Gordon had jumped to. 

Lowell shook his head at first, the furrow in his brow deepening, but then he sighed and said, “Yeah, I guess. I don’t know.” He sat back in his seat. “I followed my brother.” 

“Because he was all you had left.” 

Lowell nodded. 

That made sense. Gordon could understand that, even if he couldn’t really comprehend joining up with what were essentially a bunch of mercenaries and running all sorts of jobs from heists to kidnapping. With a frown on his own face he said, “Don’t you ever wish you’d done something different?” 

With a small laugh that he obviously didn’t really mean Lowell asked, “What? Like join the Union?” There was something hesitant, almost doubtful, about his voice. Shaking his head he went on with as much affected confidence as he could muster, “No way.” 

Gordon knew it was affected because he’d done his fair share of playing at confident when he felt anything but. He could recognise that act a mile off. “Why not?” he challenged, but not aggressively. “You’re a hell of a pilot,” he went on, “and hey, that’s coming from a legend. Right?” 

This time when Lowell smiled it looked genuine. It didn’t last long but Gordon counted it as a victory anyway. 

“Seriously though, man,” he pressed, “you’ve got talent. We could use guys like you.” 

Lowell’s smile had dropped away completely, and his gaze had lowered as well when he said, more quietly, “I couldn’t do that.” 

“Because your brother wouldn’t approve?” The silence that that question was met with told Gordon that he’d hit the nail on the head. “I think I know who would.” 

He didn’t have to explain what he meant by that. Gordon could see that Lowell understood perfectly, his expression shifting and becoming just that little bit more pained. The grief was there and then gone in an instant and his voice was low when he said, “It’s too late for that.” 

Gordon wanted to tell him that he was wrong, that it was never too late, but he didn’t want to push too hard. And besides, that wasn’t what he had been trying to accomplish. So he shelved it for the time being, setting it aside for later, hopefully after they had made some more developments in their mission. And yet— 

“Maybe not,” he ended up saying anyway, before he lifted his cup to drink. As he was lowering it again he saw Lowell glance towards him with uncertainty on his face, and just a hint of what might have been curiosity. Maybe even hope. 

 


 

It took a lot to startle J’Ron. But when the system disengaged and the human was disconnected once again that was exactly what happened. It was a combination of the monitors flashing and signalling alerts and the human itself making a pained and almost strangled sound that J’Ron eventually identified as what could only be distress. Looking from the human to the monitors J’Ron shook his head and quickly sifted through the different notifications that he was getting in regards to vital signs. 

“K’Mor,” he said, having to raise his voice to ensure that it was heard over the sounds that the human was continuing to elicit. Even with the mask still engaged their breathing was troublingly loud and on the exhale of each one there came various groans and near-whines. A glance in the human’s direction confirmed J’Ron’s suspicion that it would once again be trembling, its entire body shaking in the rig even as the whole thing settled into its standby position. 

“What’s wrong with it?” Even K’Mor had noticed that something was decidedly not normal. 

“Contact O’Lar,” J’Ron said instead of answering the question that his associate had asked. He had finished sifting through the notifications and then he moved closer to the human as it fought, obviously, to catch its breath and steady itself. It was a struggle that it was obviously losing. “Tell her that I need to see her immediately.” 

“But she—” 

J’Ron turned his head to look at his companion. “Now, K’Mor.” And his associate hesitated for only a moment more before he nodded and moved off to do as had been requested of him. 

His gaze went back to the human, to its heaving chest and shuddering shoulders, and then to its straining and shaking hands. Even as he watched J’Ron could see that the human was pulling, perhaps unconsciously, against the restraints holding it to the rig. He had not missed the small trickles of blood that had appeared after one of the earlier runs and now as he watched he saw that those same streams were appearing anew. Bringing his gaze back up he watched the human’s eyes, the way they blinked and obviously fought to focus and perhaps even comprehend what was being seen. 

When the door opened and O’Lar stepped in it was with obvious impatience and frustrated confusion that she did so. “What is it, J’Ron?” she asked as she stepped inside. “I am very busy, as well you know. And it’s really not a good time.” 

J’Ron had turned to watch her entry but he directed her gaze, as well as his own, to the human. “I believe we might have the beginnings of a problem.” 

With a sigh O’Lar stepped forward and came to his side, sweeping her gaze over the human and then glancing towards J’Ron’s workstation. “What is it?” 

It was surprising to J’Ron that she needed to ask that question at all. The human was still making those sounds and the physical signs of stress and what he was coming to believe was genuine anguish had not abated in the least. 

“The Hakari are understandably agitated,” O’Lar said to him instead of commenting further on the human’s condition, and before he could answer her first. 

K’Mor commented then, saying, “To be fair, Director, it was not this subject or even the female who—” 

“I know that,” she said, as close to snapping as J’Ron had ever heard her. If she had received a complaint, and a heated one at that, it explained why she was so tense and short-tempered. “But that doesn’t change the fact that they take the treatment of their young very seriously.” 

“Was the child harmed at all?” J’Ron asked, still watching the human. The shaking had not lessened. If anything he believed it had only gotten worse. 

With a short sigh O’Lar replied, “No, at least not that we can ascertain. They were quite angry themselves, as it happens.” Looking between the two workers she added, “They’re demanding compensation.” 

J’Ron did take his eyes from the human then, turning a confused look towards O’Lar. “What kind of compensation?” On some level he believed that he already knew the answer to that question but he wanted to hear her say it plainly anyway. 

She stood for a moment considering just how bluntly to state the demand before she obviously decided to simply throw caution to the wind, saying, “They’re demanding all three humans be delivered to them.” 

J’Ron and K’Mor’s reactions were the same. “What?” 

Standing with her hands knitted before her O’Lar went on, “They believe they have the right to take the humans and—” She paused, considering, and then shook her head. “Well, frankly, I didn’t ask for details of what they would do with them after that.” 

“But—” K’Mor was obviously lost for words, looking between their superior and his colleague. 

J’Ron was shocked as well but less stunned about it, and therefore able to articulate at least. “O’Lar, that cannot happen.” 

She turned her eyes to him and locked gazes with him. “Give me a little credit, J’Ron.” With a tight expression she shook her head, “I can hardly give the Hakari three of our participants. It would damage the whole system. We would be left short and there isn’t enough time to acquire new participants, at least not at such short notice. We have too high a demand right now to take such a loss.” 

Despite himself J’Ron turned his gaze back towards the human. They were still struggling and obviously so. Their head was hanging now but they were clearly still conscious. He suspected that they were trying to balance or gather themselves. From the looks of things it was not having much in the way of success. 

After a stretch of quiet broken only by the human’s ragged and fractured gasps O’Lar went on, “I believe I may have come to an agreement with the Hakari Chief. They’re not thrilled at the prospect of backing down but a small concession on our part seems like it will go a long way towards maintaining a relationship with their people.” 

J’Ron frowned, if only briefly. O’Lar had not been quite so detached in her younger days, consumed by figures and profits and meeting the expectations of others. “What was the agreement?” he asked. 

“I told the Hakari that they could have one of the humans.” 

K’Mor and J’Ron shared a glance before turning their gazes back to O’Lar. She was looking between them expectantly. 

“Rambler,” J’Ron heard himself say and it occurred to him immediately after the fact that he had not even known that he was going to speak at all, let alone to utter that crude and unofficial moniker for one of the system’s participants. 

O’Lar’s eyes narrowed in understandable confusion. “Pardon?” 

“It’s the name of one of the participants,” K’Mor explained, trying to sound amused by the fact but it fell short because it was so clearly affected. “It’s not their real name, of course, but that’s what we call it,” he went on, indicating himself and J’Ron and then making a sweep with his hand that obviously encompassed all the other system operators aboard. “That’s the participant who actually assaulted the Hakari child.” 

“The Chief’s child,” O’Lar corrected. 

“Yes,” K’Mor acknowledged with a small nod, dropping and averting his gaze after the fact. 

“All things considered,” J’Ron interjected, “it would be a benefit to the system at large, ultimately, if that particular human is the one removed.” Before O’Lar could ask for an explanation he went on, “They’ve shown unprecedented levels of instability and, as we’ve just seen, violent tendencies that far exceed the expectations of even the most daring guests.” 

“You once told me that that human added a—how did you word it?” O’Lar narrowed her eyes once again. “I believe you called it a delightful challenge for other participants.” 

J’Ron did, unfortunately, recall making that statement. “Be that as it may,” he conceded, “it is my professional opinion that that time has come and gone.” With a shake of his head, the sounds of the human nearby still troublingly loud, he went on, “I think we can all agree that of the three humans that one is, if nothing else, the least popular.” 

“Hm.” O’Lar turned her head to consider the human nearby. “That is true, I suppose,” she said. “We still have an awful lot of requests for this one.” She was quiet for a few moments before she drew in a breath and nodded her head, her mind obviously made up. “Very well. I’ll tell the Hakari that they can have this—what did you call them? Rambler.” With a sigh she added, “Hopefully they’ll be appeased enough that we won’t lose their business in the long run.” With a glance between the two she nodded her head again and turned to leave. 

“O’Lar.” J’Ron waited until she had turned back. “What about this one?” He somewhat needlessly indicated the human in question. 

“What about it?” With a note of impatience she added, “We have guests waiting.” 

The cool detachment of the statement was not unusual nowadays, J’Ron knew, but it was still strange to be faced with it when there was such an obvious problem that had what he believed to be a very simple solution. “It needs a real rest period.” Lifting one hand he indicated his monitors. “Look at these readings. And listen to it.” 

Almost as if on cue the human started to cough, or a close approximation of it, raggedly and in a decidedly laboured fashion. It was still pulling at the restraints, albeit much more weakly than before. All of its strength, what little it had possessed to begin with, was being taken up by the efforts to draw enough breath to fill its lungs. 

O’Lar looked untroubled, perhaps even a touch irritated, before she sighed loudly and stepped closer once again. This time she actually did consider the monitors in question and turn her gaze more critically upon the human. 

“If we continue to push it at this rate,” J’Ron said while he had the opportunity, “I believe we will damage it irreparably.” 

With a sceptical expression O’Lar met his gaze briefly. Looking back to the monitors she said, “K’Mor?” He made a small sound of acknowledgement. “Is that your professional opinion as well?” 

It bothered J’Ron more than he cared to admit that she had felt the need to seek a second opinion but he held his tongue. 

“Well—” K’Mor had looked up at the human, giving J’Ron a chance to glance back at his colleague. Their eyes met. K’Mor hesitated and then, after a moment, said, “Yes, Director. I agree with J’Ron.” Taking one step closer he went on, “And I believe that a rest period the likes of which J’Ron is suggesting will go a long way towards restoring the human’s resolve. We did see signs of change during this latest run that might ultimately deter high-profile guests.” 

“Such as?” O’Lar was still considering the readings, flicking through them deftly for herself now. 

K’Mor and J’Ron shared a glance again before the former went on, “Until the female entered the environment it was somewhat—” K’Mor paused, considering, “—despondent?” With a nod he decided that he was satisfied with that word. “And this was the first run in which we saw it exclusively defer to someone else when it came to decision-making.” 

“Hm.” O’Lar was obviously done skimming through the readings, turning once again to her subordinates. “That could prove to be a problem, yes.” With a shake of her head she considered the human. “This one is being marketed as bold, decisive, and proactive. If it ceases to display the very traits that make it so appealing in the first place then we might have another problem on our hands.” 

And another Rambler-in-the-making, J’Ron thought. The longer they could avoid something like that, the better. They had already had another near-miss recently. Very recently, in fact. Thankfully they had spotted the warning signs far enough in advance to take decisive action. 

“Very well,” O’Lar said decisively, but not without a sigh, as if she was being coerced into a decision that she was not happy about making. “We’ll give it a proper rest period and start afresh when you believe it is ready to return to the system.” She considered the human. “Do whatever needs to be done in order to get it back to a serviceable condition.” Looking to J’Ron she went on, “As I said, we have guests waiting and a high demand for this participant in particular. We want it back inside as soon as possible.” She lifted her brow expectantly. 

“Yes,” J’Ron said, nodding his head. “Of course. I understand.” 

“Good.” She turned her gaze briefly to K’Mor. “Keep me apprised. I want to know as soon as it’s ready to go back in.” As soon as they had voiced their acknowledgements she was turning to leave. 

J’Ron waited until she was out of the room and the entry had closed all the way again before he said to K’Mor, with a sigh, “Prepare a sedative.” He believed that that was the only way the human would get any real rest, if its current state of ongoing agitation was any indication. It needed their assistance to go under all the way and stay there. They would keep the mask engaged as well, to try and aid it in the ease and stabilisation of its breathing. 

“Anything else?” K’Mor asked, waiting expectantly. 

J’Ron glanced at the monitors. It wouldn’t be such a terrible idea to chemically assist the human’s system in returning to a state resembling its species’ average. If they could get it back within acceptable levels that would hardly be a bad thing. With a nod he approved of K’Mor’s unspoken suggestion and watched his companion get to work on doing what needed to be done. 

As the sedative was being administered through one of the existing lines J’Ron realised that the human was looking at him again. In the moments before it slipped under he met its eyes and actually held that gaze. When the human’s eyes closed all the way once again J’Ron realised that he was relieved, because if nothing else it meant that he didn’t have to face that clear and almost desperate pain anymore.

Chapter Text

The bridge had been quiet for some time before Ensign Han spoke up clearly from the helm. “Commander, we’re approaching the end of the trail.” 

“What?” Kelly sat forward in the Captain’s chair with a frown. Still frowning she turned her head towards the Science station. “Isaac?” 

“The Ensign is correct, Commander,” the Kaylon said in response after working his controls briefly. “It would seem that the ion trail we have been following is no longer present.” Gesturing towards his primary screen he went on, “It appears that the signature ends rather abruptly at an uncharted planet just ahead of our current position.” 

Biting back a sound of frustration Kelly turned her head back towards the helm. “Ensign, drop us to sublight and take us into a high orbit above the planet.” 

“Aye, Commander.” Han quickly got to work on following the order, working the controls deftly, and in no time at all the Orville was moving into position over the planet in question. It looked not unlike Earth, only it had much more in the way of landmass and less water coverage, the mottled greens with intermittent streaks and misshapen patches of blue giving it a pleasant enough appearance but it was difficult to draw any kind of enjoyment or comfort from the way it looked given the circumstances. 

And there was no sign of the Razer shuttle. 

Kelly rose from her seat and crossed the short distance to Isaac’s station, resting one hand on its edge so she could lean in closer to get a look at the results of the Kaylon’s scans. “Why didn’t we notice this before?” she asked their Science Officer. 

“It is a matter of distance, Commander,” Isaac informed her, angling his head briefly in her direction. “Our scans were unable to reach this point on our plotted course ahead of time and so we had no reason to believe that the trail would end so abruptly.” 

“Goddammit.” Kelly couldn’t help but let it out, hearing the unbridled frustration in her own voice. It was a conscious effort to get it under control after that, to rein it in and keep it from spilling out any more than it already had. She pulled in a deep breath and said to the Kaylon, “I want a full-spectrum analysis of this entire region of space. They can’t have just disappeared.” The Razers had to have left some trace behind and she was determined to find it. 

When Talla spoke up from the other side of the bridge the words that left her mouth almost stopped Kelly’s heart in her chest. “Commander, I’m picking up a biosign on the planet’s surface.” The Xelayan turned in her seat to meet Kelly’s gaze properly. “It’s human.” 

Her heart started beating again, but not before it just about leapt up into her throat. She had to take another breath to keep her reaction steady and keep from letting her emotions get the better of her. Until they knew for certain that they had any good news she had to be rational and clear-headed. That was easier said than done, of course, but she managed to keep her hope on a tight leash and say steadily and professionally, “Isaac, continue scanning. Talla, you’re with me. Bortus, you have the conn.” She tapped her comm then and said, “Claire, meet us in the shuttle bay.” We might have found something, she wanted to add, but she stopped herself at the last moment. 

After a brief hesitation she turned to leave the bridge with Talla and then tapped her comm again. “Gordon, meet us in the shuttle bay.” She turned a glance briefly in the direction of her companion and added, “And bring our guest with you.” 

Maybe that was a bad idea but something in her gut told her that it was the right choice to make. And Kelly Grayson made a point of listening to her gut as much as possible. 

 


 

As they rose from their seats to depart the shuttle as the rear hatch lowered Talla cast her eyes once again across at the young pilot they had taken into their custody. She wasn’t sure that it had been such a good idea to bring him along but if the Commander thought that it was then it wasn’t really her place to question it. And maybe it would amount to something. They would have to wait and see. Kelly had to have a good reason for bringing the Razer along with them and just because none of them could understand just yet what exactly that reason was that didn’t mean it was the wrong thing to do. Ultimately Talla trusted her friend and that was enough for her, but she still wasn’t about to let her guard down around someone who was, at this point in time, still very much the enemy in her mind. That was a very black and white way of looking at things, perhaps, but there was no denying the fact that this other pilot had worked with the crew who had attacked them and kidnapped one of their own. 

It was dark on the surface, at least where they needed to be in order to investigate the source of the biosign that they were all trying to be pragmatic about. Talla understood, even as the newest member of the senior staff, that that was a difficult thing to do given how concerned everyone was. They were all on edge and wanted more than anything to believe that this human they had found was the one human that they were searching for. 

With their deadline ticking ever closer it was difficult not to feel at least a little desperate in that hope, she thought, and that was more than understandable. 

As had been the case back on Jarona II she led the way through the trees and shallow underbrush. Those trees didn’t have much in the way of limbs or foliage and there was something almost eerily skeletal about them. The more Talla looked around the more hopeless the place seemed to her, and there was a chill in the air that added a sense of despair that she just couldn’t shake no matter how hard she tried. 

With her flashlight in one hand and her comscanner in the other she moved cautiously forward, following the signal ever closer to its source. Commander Grayson was bringing up the rear with Doctor Finn in front of her, behind the two pilots. Given that they hadn’t detected any other humanoid lifesigns on the planet neither Talla nor the Commander had felt the need to bring any additional Security. If their guest, as Kelly had called him, decided to cause any problems then Talla would take care of them quickly and easily enough. 

Talla slowed her pace as a sound reached her ears and Gordon sensed the change in her with enough time to spare in order to avoid bumping into her from behind. “What is it?” he whispered, close to her back. 

“I heard something,” she muttered in response, bringing the comscanner up to check the readings. Unless she was mistaken then the sound she had heard had come from the same direction as the human biosign they were here to investigate. 

“I hear it too,” Kelly said from the rear, keeping her voice hushed as well. Soon enough the entire party, save the Razer pilot, had voiced their agreement as they too picked up on the sound. 

It sounded almost as if someone was crying

Talla got them moving forward again and the closer to the reading and the sound they got the more convinced she became that it was crying. There were moments when it sounded as if whoever it was couldn’t catch their breath, and then they were letting out long and low moans that could only be described as mournful. It was such a sad sound that Talla couldn’t help but feel compelled to get closer but she knew better than to throw caution to the wind so recklessly. 

Slipping her comscanner back into its place at her belt she retrieved her PM-44 instead. Only then did she close the last of the gap between them and the source of the biosign. 

It wasn’t the Captain. 

Talla tried not to let her disappointment take too tight a grip on her as she approached the figure who was most definitely not Ed Mercer. Perhaps it should have been easier for her not to let it have too much of an effect on her, as the newest member of the senior staff, but even with that being the case she already considered the Captain a friend and she couldn’t deny the very real ache through her chest when she realised that they hadn’t found him after all. 

It wasn’t just the fact that they hadn’t found someone she had come to consider a friend, Talla knew. It went much deeper than that, she was all too aware, and no matter how staunchly she tried to keep all of that deep down under the surface she couldn’t help but blame herself completely for what had happened to the Captain. In her mind this entire situation could have been avoided if she had been better at her job, if she had sensed the danger sooner and taken more decisive action. As Chief of Security it was her job, and no one else’s, to ensure the safety of everyone not only aboard the Orville but in whatever group she happened to be part of at any given point in time. If she had been doing her job properly on that planet then the Captain never would have been taken. As far as Talla was concerned that was on her and no one else, and she would be damned if anyone could ever convince her otherwise. 

The man they had found was sitting on the ground with his back to them and as Talla watched she could see that he was rocking his weight back and forth repeatedly. His hands were in his lap, his legs crossed untidily beneath him, and his head was bowed. The brown hair atop that head was messy and appeared as though it hadn’t been washed in some time, let alone combed through. They were on the slender side, perhaps even a little underweight, but Talla couldn’t be sure of that without seeing him at his full height. 

She was less than ten feet from the man when she realised that there was something else, just in front of the man. It didn’t take her long to figure out what that something was either. 

It was a body. 

With bated breath Talla approached, coming around to the side of the man who had his back turned to them. She didn’t want to startle them, whoever they were, but she also didn’t want to leave herself open to attack either. She couldn’t help the way her gaze locked on to that body as she rounded the rocking figure, and it was only when she got a good look at it that that ball of dread that had formed in her stomach eased and abated. 

That wasn’t the Captain either. 

Even so Talla frowned, looking back towards the rest of her party. There was something about this whole situation that struck her as wrong, obvious reasons aside, and it was troubling to her that the Razers’ signature had led them to a planet where they would find one lone human seemingly weeping over the unmoving body of someone whom they could only assume was at the very least an acquaintance. 

Everyone else looked just as troubled as she did, including the Razer. There was a nervous energy about the young man that Talla recognised easily and she thought that that was curious but they had more pressing concerns. Turning her head back to the man on the ground she noticed that he wasn’t paying them any attention whatsoever, almost as if he hadn’t even realised that they were there. “Hello?” she ventured, wanting to get closer but unable to ascertain whether or not that was wise, at least not yet. 

The man started, visibly so, and with shallow snuffling breaths he lifted his head in a manner that could only be described as skittish. Instantly his body language became fearful and alarmed and Talla quickly judged that the PM-44 was not necessary. Holstering it she eased herself down closer to the ground and showed her now-empty hand to the man. “Hey,” she said to him, her tone soft, “it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.” She shook her head gently as she said that and then gestured lightly towards her companions, “None of us are going to hurt you.” Managing to just about lock gazes with the man she said, “We want to help you.” If they could, at least. 

He made a low, tight sound of apprehension, his attention flicking unsteadily and almost frantically between the faces of those gathered. His whole body was trembling and he started to breathe more rapidly. 

“Hey,” Talla said, speaking even more softly, “it’s okay. It’s okay.” Using her hand to indicate herself she went on, “My name is—” 

He spoke across her, cutting her off. “Erana.” His voice was shaking but he was looking right at her now. 

Talla frowned. “No,” she said, a little uneasily, and then regained her composure. “I’m Talla. Talla Keyali. This is—” 

Again he interrupted her, sitting up a little straighter and still looking right at her. “Erana.” He sounded steadier this time. A little confused, perhaps, but noticeably less fearful. 

“What’s your name?” Doctor Finn had approached slowly and she too crouched down so as to appear less threatening. “My name is Claire.” 

To Talla’s surprise the man looked at her as if for permission. After a moment she gave him a nod, along with a small smile. 

“T-Tommy,” he said, and there was something about the way he said that that made him sound so much like a child that Talla’s heart literally ached for him. “I’m Tommy.” 

“Hello, Tommy,” Claire said softly, smiling at him. “Is it okay if we help you? I don’t think you should stay out here all alone like this.” 

Tommy made a low sound, an anxious noise, and looked at Talla again. “Don’t know this place,” he said in a small voice and as they watched fresh tears spilled from his eyes and tracked down his already damp cheeks. 

“That’s okay,” Claire said to him, extending a hand but not bringing it too much into Tommy’s personal space so as not to spook him. “We can help you,” she reminded him with a small nod. “We can take you somewhere much nicer than this.” With a small frown, the sort one would give to a frightened child to show understanding and sympathy, she added, “It’s not very nice here, is it?” 

Tommy hesitated, bringing one hand up close to his mouth and beginning to chew on his thumbnail. Wordlessly he shook his head in a negative. 

Claire gave him another smile, an encouraging expression, and moved her hand just enough to draw his attention back to it. “Come with me, Tommy. It’s okay. We’ll make sure you’re safe.” 

Again he looked towards Talla and she had to fight not to frown in confusion, or look to Kelly for guidance on what she should do. Instead she managed to give him another small smile and nod her agreement. And then, just like that, he raised his other hand from the ground and reached out, albeit tentatively. Claire let him come to her, not moving so much as an inch until he had settled that uncertain hand in her own, at which point she gently closed her fingers around his in a light hold rather than a firm grip. With gentle coaxes and reassurances she managed to get him up from the ground and while she didn’t head back for the shuttle she did move them both away from the group a little way. Talla could hear her continuing to speak softly to Tommy as they waited for the rest of the party. 

They hadn’t seen or heard anything to be concerned about on the way here, but they knew from experience not to take anything for granted and even though Tommy might have seemed helpless enough they all remembered Orrin Channing and the young woman posing as his daughter. She had been anything but helpless, and far from the broken wreck of a girl that she had been posing as upon her arrival. So they would be cautious, and remain vigilant until they could be sure. 

Kelly moved closer once the Doctor had stepped clear and after sharing a glance with Talla the two of them approached the body. It wasn’t the Captain, and obviously so, given that it was a woman first and foremost. In the entire time that they had been soothing and reassuring Tommy they hadn’t heard a sound or seen any signs of movement from the body but Kelly still retrieved her comscanner from her belt and confirmed their suspicions with a small shake of her head. 

The figure’s face was covered by their dark hair, which looked as though it might have been braided at some point if the loose waves were any indication. Talla reached out and gently moved that hair back, doing so as respectfully as she could. 

“Oh my God,” Gordon mumbled from close behind them. He and the Razer had stepped closer in order to get a better look at their discovery as well, apparently. 

Talla understood the reason for their Helmsman’s shock, and all too well at that. From the pointed ears to the subtle ridges along the brow and the bridge of the nose it was plain to see that the dead woman was a Xelayan. 

She couldn’t take her eyes from that face as she said, “Gordon?” When she heard his soft acknowledgement she went on, “Can you grab a blanket from the shuttle?” He gave her another acknowledgement and moved off without delay. The Razer, she noticed, remained behind, just as transfixed as she was herself, if not more so. Taking her eyes from the body for only a moment she saw, even in the low light, that he had paled, and if she didn’t know better she would have sworn that there was something not unlike remorse in his expression. 

But that would have to wait. Now was neither the time nor the place. Luckily for him they had more pressing concerns right then. 

As soon as they got back to the Orville, Talla decided, she would ask her questions. And one way or another she would get some answers. 

 


 

Real or not real? 

The thought was like a cloud of fog that drifted and coiled evasively through his mind as consciousness teased at his overworked and exhausted mind. Reality and the simulations swirled and tangled together and even as he struggled to open his tired eyes and make sense of what he was seeing Ed didn’t know if any of it was real. He couldn’t grasp the tiny clues that would tell him one way or another and the finest threads of panic began to work their way into the confusion. 

But they never really took hold. 

Everything was too heavy, weighed down by something that he couldn’t understand. Every inch, every fibre of his being, felt like an unbearable weight. The exhaustion that had wrapped and woven itself around and through him was absolute and almost unbearable. Ed couldn’t remember a time when he had ever felt so thoroughly drained and hollowed out. He just wanted to sleep

But something told him not to give in, that sleep was the last thing he should do. Ed didn’t know what that something was, if the voice he could hear telling him to fight was real or imagined, just as he didn’t know if it was his addled mind making it sound distinctly feminine. 

He knew that voice. Didn’t he? 

“It’s awake again.” 

The voice was close but still it sounded as if it came to him through some sort of barrier, like a pane of glass. Ed blinked groggily and tried to focus, eventually able to make out the shape of a pale face with strangely bright eyes. 

D’Nari. It flashed through his mind before he had even connected the dots in any sort of conscious manner and he remembered, albeit sluggishly, that it was one of the aliens who had been holding him. They were standing in front of him now, much closer than they had done before. At least he thought they were. Ed’s brain still hadn’t deciphered whether or not what he was seeing was real or some kind of fabrication. 

Another voice sounded from off to the other side but Ed couldn’t make it out. It was too far away. 

Something touched him, just under his jaw. Despite the whole-body exhaustion making him feel as if all movement was well and truly out of reach Ed flinched and tried to shy away. There was a small sound that his brain belatedly identified as almost pacifying and then the touch came again, more firmly this time. It lifted his head enough for some kind of unbearably bright light to be shone into his eyes as they struggled to stay open. 

Ed flinched again, this time with a shapeless groan of protest, and tried to pull his head back anew. It was aching fiercely, horribly so, and the movement made him feel thoroughly nauseated and unsteady. He stopped. The grip re-established itself just under his jaw and held him still. 

Moving was a terrible idea. But could he speak? Even if this wasn’t real it would be something. And didn’t he have to try? That voice that was strangely feminine and almost painfully familiar told him that he did. 

Please

It was only when the face before him stilled and angled up towards his own that Ed realised he had actually managed to speak the word aloud. His eyes, unfocused and straining though they were, met with those of the D’Nari and he fought to keep them there. The alien looked right back at him. 

“Please—” he managed again, just able to hear the rough and worn quality of his own voice that time, “—stop.” He almost sounded drunk, Ed realised, the words coming out strangely slurred and sluggish. That was odd. Wasn’t it? 

The D’Nari looked back at him with those too-green eyes and was quiet for a while. Ed had no way of knowing how long. And then when they spoke at last the words that they uttered quietly, in little more than a whisper, were almost enough to make Ed’s heart stop. 

“I can’t.” 

Ed’s vision cleared enough for him to make the alien’s face out properly. It was Right, the one who always stood to that side of him. They were looking right at him. They had spoken to him. Ed was overcome suddenly and forcefully by a rush of desperation that quickly overpowered the disbelief that had settled in amidst the fatigue and confusion. This was his chance. His one and only chance. 

Take it

“Help me.” Ed heard the strangled quality of the plea, the frantic tremor of the words as they left his lips. Was his breathing faster? His heartbeat as well? Ed couldn’t be sure of anything anymore. 

The D’Nari hesitated and then shook its head, bringing its hand away from Ed’s jaw. When its gaze dropped from his own Ed thought he saw something pass over its face that might have been regret. Or was he imagining that? 

It said something that might have been a name, and then, “Put it back under.” 

“No—” It escaped him in a ragged breath and he tried to summon the energy to fight the restricting bands holding him back but it was too much to ask of his exhausted body. If the alien had heard him they showed no sign and then the world started to cloud and fog and drift again. Ed felt his head drop as his grip on the world, real or imagined, slipped through his fingers once more. Everything went black and silent and still and then he felt nothing. 

No pain, no exhaustion, no fear or confusion or desperation. 

Nothing at all. 

 


 

No

J’Ron had heard it. He had been standing so close that there was no way he could have missed it, and in spite of all his training and experience he couldn’t help but not only hear that word but feel it as well. It was still ringing in his ears when the newest dose of sedative took the human under completely and only then did he turn his gaze back in its direction. 

He should not have spoken to it. He shouldn’t have engaged even for a moment. It went against everything that they were taught, and beyond that it was against everything that they represented. They were the impartial, the unbiased, the programmers and operators who kept the system running smoothly. It was their responsibility to ensure that the participants were inserted into and removed from the system at the right times, as automatic and pre-programmed as the latter was. It was their jobs to keep the participants stable and maintained. Under their watchful eye those like this human were kept sustained with fluids and medications administered intravenously. But they did not engage. Never. No exceptions. 

All told it was a simple enough job. Or at least it should have been. 

As J’Ron managed to break his gaze away from the unconscious human at last he realised for the first time that perhaps it wasn’t so simple after all.

Chapter Text

Talla had had every intention of speaking with the Razer pilot as soon as they got back to the Orville but her plans had been waylaid by the fact that the young man they had rescued from the surface wouldn’t go anywhere without her. It had taken them a moment to notice that that was what was happening but when Claire had connected the dots she had requested that Talla accompany them to sick bay. 

She had conceded. 

The carefully wrapped body of the unknown Xelayan had been taken to sick bay as well, carried by one of her team when it was clear that Tommy was too rattled and unnerved by his surroundings to go more than a couple of feet without having Talla right beside him. At one point he had reached for her hand, practically lunged for it, and after only a moment of hesitation and tense preparation on her part she had recognised that he meant no harm with the gesture. He was just frightened. And so she had let him take her hand, closing her own around his in return. He had calmed almost instantly. 

Tommy was sitting on one of the beds in sick bay now, his legs drawn up and crossed underneath him much as they had been when they had found him down on the planet. Idly he tugged at a loose thread at the hem of one of his pants legs with the fingers of one hand, his eyes down on the task. Talla had settled herself at one side of the bed, where he had practically implored her to stand with large pleading eyes, and she couldn’t help but notice how much calmer he was when she was standing there. 

It made her feel uneasy, but more than anything it made her feel sad. The fact that they had found the body of a Xelayan female who bore an undeniable likeness to Talla herself had not escaped any of them, nor had the fact that this young man was treating her as if they had known one another for years. 

He thought Talla was that other Xelayan. 

It brought a lump to her throat just to think that and she had to distance the fact from her mind just so that she could remain composed. When he glanced in her direction she gave him a small smile, wanting to do whatever she could to ensure that the Doctor was able to run her scans without too much in the way of disturbance. Her presence was helping to keep Tommy calmed and soothed enough that he was allowing Claire to do her work without any trouble at all, remarkably, so it was a small price to pay to play along with his confusion and misidentification in order to get some answers on what had happened to him. 

“This is strange,” Doctor Finn said, her eyes on her medscanner as she gave a small shake of her head. 

“What is it?” Kelly was standing beside Claire and able to look down at the scanner’s screen even if the readings wouldn’t have made perfect sense to her. 

“He has a small incision at the base of his skull but it doesn’t appear to be a random injury,” Claire told them, frowning and lifting her gaze to look at Tommy. “Talla,” she said softly, lowering her voice as if to keep something private, “do you think you can get him to turn his head and keep it turned?” 

Talla was a little thrown by the request but she ventured not to show it, nodding her head. “I can try,” she said and then drew in a breath before turning her gaze to the man on the bed. “Tommy?” Almost immediately he turned his attention her way, making a small sound like an acknowledgement. “I just need you to hold still for a minute, okay?” She gave him a small nod of her head and went on, “This won’t hurt. I promise.” And then she lifted her hands, wanting to support his face on either side in order to hold his head steady, but she hesitated at the last moment. She didn’t want to frighten him. 

But Tommy didn’t even so much as flinch. He stayed exactly where he was until Talla had overcome the momentary wave of doubt and placed her hands to each side of his face. The way he let her hold his head steady like that was enough to make her heart ache fiercely all over again. 

When the Doctor was done she gave Talla a nod, at which point she lowered her hands. “See?” she said to Tommy. “Piece of cake.” 

He showed her a smile. “Cake,” he said and nodded, still smiling as he dropped his attention once more to the frayed hem of his pants. 

Talla had to draw in a deep breath and blink her eyes a few times to get herself levelled out again. By the time she felt steady enough to look in the Doctor’s direction the other woman seemed to have drawn a few conclusions based on her examinations. 

“It’s not a random injury at all,” she said, this time with certainty. “It’s precisely shaped, with no torn edges whatsoever.” 

“Some kind of surgery?” Kelly ventured. 

“It looks that way,” Claire said, and Talla recognised the hints of a frown on the older woman’s face that told them she had found something else. But she didn’t keep them waiting long enough for either one of them to need to ask what it was. “Commander, that’s not all,” she said, looking up at Kelly and then across at Talla. “The edges of the wound have been lined with some kind of metal. I’ll have to get Isaac to check my readings but it seems to be some sort of alloy we’re not familiar with.” 

Lined?” Kelly looked in Talla’s direction, sharing her confusion. 

“Yes,” the Doctor confirmed. “I think—” She paused, drawing in, holding, and then releasing a deep breath. “I think it’s some kind of entry point, like a jack or a port of some kind.” Even as she spoke the words she didn’t seem convinced by them, and it was easy to understand why. It didn’t make any sense why someone would do something like that to a human, or any biological creature. 

“But why?” Talla couldn’t help but ask. 

“I’m not sure,” the Doctor said, and she gave another sigh. “But given Tommy’s overall condition it makes a sick kind of sense.” 

Talla looked to Tommy and then back towards their Chief Medical Officer. “What do you mean?” 

Claire looked from Talla to Kelly, and then down at Tommy as he distractedly fussed with his pants. “According to my scans, he’s suffered a good deal of neurological damage, and fairly recently at that.” With a shake of her head she looked between her two fellow officers again, concluding almost regretfully, “I can try to repair it, but honestly? There’s only so much that I can do.” 

Meaning that it might very well be permanent. Talla dropped her gaze to the young man on the bed, watching him toy with his own hem not unlike a child entertaining themselves when there was nothing more captivating to be found. What had he been like before? And what the hell had been done to him to make him this way? 

Talla needed answers. And she needed them now

 


 

Gordon turned one of the cards on the table, showing its face, and then looked with quiet expectation towards the other pilot sitting across from him. Lowell reached for the deck and turned a card of his own before giving a small smile and scooping the pair into a growing pile on the table in front of him. 

It felt strange to be sitting there like that when there was work to be done. Gordon felt like he should have been on the bridge helping the rest of the crew figure out where to go next but he knew that Isaac and the others would contact him as soon as they had some sort of development to work with. Distracting himself like this might have been the best idea, ultimately, or at least it felt like it would have been if it had been managing to distract him at all. 

So far it wasn’t working too well. 

He was about to open his mouth and ask Lowell if he wanted another drink when the door to his quarters opened without the chime going off. Turning his head with a frown he saw Talla stride in and instantly he recognised that something was wrong. She was moving with such clear purpose that his eyes widened in a mixture of surprise and concern as he pushed up from his seat. “Talla?” 

If she had heard him then she showed no sign, passing him completely and bearing down on the room’s other occupant instead. Lowell quickly realised that he was being charged, for all intents and purposes, and scrambled out of the seat, backing away as swiftly as he could without tripping over his own feet. With nowhere else to go he backed himself right up against the window beside Gordon’s desk and reflexively held up his hands. 

“You’re afraid of me?” Talla’s voice was tight and so was the rest of her. As Gordon rounded the table and approached the pair he saw the tension in her shoulders and how her hands were balled into fists at her sides. “Good,” she went on, pushing the word out past clenched teeth. “That means you know what I can do.” 

“Talla!” Gordon had come around far enough that he could see her face and he was struck by the aggression on her features. And the pain. He was hard-pressed to remember a time when he had seen her so upset. 

She didn’t even so much as glance in his direction. “That woman is dead,” she ground out furiously, jabbing a hand back behind her as if the body were laid out on the floor of Gordon’s quarters. “And that man? Do you know what the Doctor found?” Lowell had nothing to say but he shook his head desperately anyway. “He’s brain damaged. Whatever was done to him is permanent.” 

Gordon blinked, shocked, focusing his gaze squarely on Talla now and all but forgetting that the other man was even present. “What?” 

She looked in his direction at last. “He’s neurologically damaged,” she told him, “and Claire doesn’t think she can fix it.” With a bitter expression she turned her attention back to Lowell. “And the Xelayan we found? She had the exact same scarring.” With a furious shake of her head she went on to add, “We scanned the planet’s surface again. There are hundreds of bodies down there. Maybe even thousands.” Narrowing her eyes in a fashion that Gordon instantly recognised as dangerous she said accusatorily, “We found all of this right where your shuttle’s signature disappears? I don’t think that’s a coincidence.” 

“I-I don’t know anything about any of that.” Lowell was actually shaking. Gordon could see it from where he was standing. “I swear!” 

“You swear?” Talla stepped closer to him, right into his personal space, forcing him back against the wall. “And I’m just supposed to take your word for it?” Gordon could see the way that her expression soured further as she went on, “You’re one of them, one of the bastards who took our Captain, and I’m just supposed to believe that you don’t know anything?” 

Gordon had never seen her like this, so close to losing her temper that he was genuinely concerned about her doing someone else very real harm. She looked like she was considering whether or not she could get away with shoving Lowell right through the wall and out into the vacuum of space. Part of him wondered if he shouldn’t tap his comm and call Bortus, or maybe even Kelly. 

“I don’t! I swear!” 

“You’re lying!” Talla pressed closer still and actually raised a hand, setting it against Lowell’s chest and effectively pinning him back to the wall now. Gordon tensed and inched towards them but didn’t close the gap all the way. “You must know something,” Talla said to the young pilot, shaking her head. “You have to!” 

And then Gordon realised that it wasn’t purely anger that was motivating Talla and pushing her to act so aggressively. It was fear. 

Lowell looked imploringly towards Gordon with a frantic shake of his head. “I-I—” He was afraid of Talla, that much was obvious, but Gordon thought he saw a different kind of desperation in the face of the other pilot as well. “I don’t think I know anything,” he said at last, still shaking his head. “I-I’m sorry. I’m not sure!” 

This wasn’t getting them anywhere. This was only making things worse. 

Talla.” He said her name with emphasis as he stepped closer, coming up to her side and actually daring to lift a hand and lay it on her arm. “Don’t do this,” he said to her, giving his own head a small shake. “Not like this,” he went on, waiting until she had turned her head and met his gaze before he said anything further. “We can figure this out. We will figure this out.” Lifting his brows and giving her a small nod he added, “Right?” Not so long ago he had asked her if they could do this and she had assured him that they could. Now it seemed like it was his turn to give her that same reassurance. 

For a long time, close on a minute, she didn’t move, and then finally she relented, bringing her arm away from Lowell’s chest and stepping back to free up his personal space. Her breathing was heavy and tight with bristling anger. Her expression hadn’t softened and she fixed the younger pilot with a hard and challenging stare. Gordon was reassured that she had stepped back, at least, and he trusted that she wouldn’t do anything else for the time being. Turning his gaze towards Lowell he tried to assure the younger man of that much without saying a word that might ultimately make things worse somehow. 

What he did say was the other pilot’s name, bringing the younger man’s attention over to him and keeping it there. “I think it’s about time you met the rest of the crew.” 

 


 

Being in the collective company of the ship’s entire senior staff, with one very obvious exception, was more than a little daunting. Lowell couldn’t deny feeling uneasy and not just because their resident Xelayan had come alarmingly close to doing God only knew what in Malloy’s quarters a short time ago. He was still rattled by that encounter and despite himself he couldn’t help but think back on Blake’s warnings about the woman. Obviously they were far from unfounded. Lowell had never had a face to face encounter with a Xelayan before and after what had just happened he was in no rush to repeat the incident. 

No one took a seat, he noticed, as they entered what had to be the ship’s briefing room, a place not wholly unlike the large central space aboard Blake’s ship. Or what had been Blake’s ship, he supposed. She was gone now, he had noticed. Lowell couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to her but after the close call with the Xelayan he couldn’t find the courage required to ask such a question. 

The presence of the Moclan didn’t help. 

Lowell had met a few of those in his time but they were always clipped and gruff and far from pleasant. Maykor was, hands down, one of the most legitimately terrifying individuals he had ever met in his entire life. He had always made a point of avoiding close proximity with their Moclan crewmember, Blake’s right-hand-man, and he had always refused to be left alone with him. Reputations meant a great deal to the Razers and Maykor’s was about as grim and rotten as they came. 

And this ship had a Kaylon. Everyone knew what those things were capable of now and the sight of it standing across the room had made Lowell feel genuinely anxious almost instantly. 

Honestly he didn’t know who or what he was most concerned about. Xelayan, Moclan, Kaylon. God, why had they ever tangled with these people? 

The Orville’s crew had kept him out of the room for a few minutes, under the watchful gaze of a couple of members of the Security team, and he had waited quietly with his hands shoved into his pockets until Malloy had come out and escorted him inside. The Security officers stayed outside, Lowell noticed, and it had been at that moment that he had recognised the fact that the entire senior staff of the Union Starship had gathered together in one space. 

What had they discussed while he was out of the room? He could only wonder. 

“Lowell.” It was the woman in blue who spoke. Commander Grayson, Malloy had called her, the ship’s First Officer and what was more, the Captain’s ex-wife. Lowell couldn’t bring himself to meet her gaze directly for more than a second. “Is there something you want to tell us about this place?” She gestured to the line of windows along the wall and the view of the planet beyond. 

He followed the gesture of her hand and after a moment of hesitation moved closer to those windows and looked out, feeling the tightness in his shoulders as he looked out at the view of the planet below. Malloy had followed him and when the other pilot spoke it was quietly that he did so. 

“You know something about this place,” he said. “Don’t you.” It should have been a question but the way the other man intoned the words made it a statement rather than a query. 

Lowell hesitated, doubting whether or not to respond at all, and then he dropped his gaze to the smooth interior ledge of the window and nodded his head wordlessly. 

“What is it?” Malloy went on, a touch imploringly now. “Come on, man. What do you have to lose?” That could so easily have been a mocking or scathing remark given Lowell’s circumstances, the fact that he was separated from his crew and isolated from the organisation he had been working as part of for years now. But it wasn’t. It didn’t even come close. 

What would Shelton think? What would Blake think? 

Lowell looked out of the window again, frowning, and stared at the planet. Shelton wasn’t here, he reminded himself. Neither was Blake. Or Maykor. None of them were here and it was just him. He was the only Razer surrounded by Union officers and— 

And they hadn’t done a single thing to hurt him, or make him even so much as uncomfortable. That wasn’t the first time that thought had struck him but when it did then it was with more force and gravity than any of the times before. He gave his head a small shake, thinking about how they had actually offered him food and drink and spoken to him calmly and with decency, at least for the most part. Yes, a few of the random members of the crew whose paths he had crossed while being escorted around the ship had given him what most would describe as filthy looks but could he really blame them? The point was that with the exception of the Xelayan’s outburst a short time ago no one had so much as laid a finger on him since his—well, he supposed he should call it his arrest. Razers were outlaws, after all. 

“I know this place.” He almost surprised himself with the announcement, the straightforward and no-nonsense delivery of the words, and as he turned to look at all those gathered he couldn’t help but notice the way that Malloy was looking at him with surprise on his face. 

Everyone was watching him with different versions of that same surprise, though in most of the faces he saw only the slightest indication of such a feeling. The Kaylon was the obvious exception. 

“How do you know this place?” their Moclan asked, and his voice was level and deep, but lacking the fierce and threatening quality that Maykor’s usually possessed. 

Lowell pushed his hands even deeper into his pockets. “This, uh—” He glanced towards Malloy who gave him the tiniest nod. “This was our rendezvous point.” 

“Rendezvous point?” The man who echoed those words was wearing the same colour uniform jacket as Malloy, Lowell noticed. 

“The contact,” he went on, shaking his head a little and shrugging his shoulders, looking over towards the Doctor who was watching him quietly. “The people who hired us for the job. This is where we met them. Their ship.” 

The Xelayan narrowed her eyes a fraction. “Who were they?” 

Lowell glanced momentarily in her direction. “I-I’m not sure.” This time when he shook his head it was in earnest. “I’m sorry, I really don’t know.” He looked to Malloy and said to him directly, “I just flew the ship where Blake told me to go, y’know? I didn’t ask who we were meeting or why. That’s what I do. I fly the ship.” When he turned to look at everyone else again he noticed that the Commander and the Doctor were exchanging a glance, which concluded with the latter giving the former a small nod, as if of approval or something similar. 

The Commander sighed tightly. “So you didn’t know anything about all those bodies on the surface?” 

“Not a thing, I swear.” Lowell even brought his hands out of his pockets and held them up at his sides, hoping to emphasise his innocence. Or maybe his ignorance. 

“Doctor,” the Commander went on, “do you think it’s possible all of those bodies share the same scarring as what we found in Tommy and the Xelayan woman?” 

“It’s possible, Commander, but without going down there to check I can’t be sure.” 

“And we don’t have time for that,” the other orange-clad man said, shaking his head. “We’re running out of time as it is.” He turned his dark eyes in Lowell’s direction, looking understandably unhappy. 

“So now what do we do?” Malloy asked and Lowell heard the quiet hints of desperation there. He was struck once again by the memory of Malloy calling the missing Captain his brother. It hadn’t taken Lowell very long at all to figure out that the two men weren’t literally brothers, not like him and Shelton, but instead they had forged a bond that made them akin to siblings. In his mind it was the same thing as being biologically related. If anything maybe it made them even closer than if they had been. 

When the Kaylon spoke Lowell was struck by the odd softness to its voice, and the distinct masculine quality of it. “If I may,” it said, “I believe I have an idea.” When it moved its hands the movement was so smooth. It was both fascinating and unsettling at the same time. 

“What is it, Isaac?” the Commander asked. 

Isaac? Lowell didn’t think he had known that the Kaylon had such a normal sounding name. Had it chosen it for itself or had someone else picked it out? 

“Doctor Finn,” it said, turning its head in the woman’s direction. “With your permission, I would like to access the results of your medical examination of the Razer pilot.” 

The Doctor paused for only a moment before crossing the room and working a screen that had only moments before been a pleasant enough painting of a space station. Lowell watched her and then looked at the scans for himself even though they didn’t make any sense to him. 

“Thank you, Doctor,” the Kaylon went on and then approached the screen before going on to work the controls smoothly and deftly. Lowell couldn’t help but watch, fascinated by the movement of its hands, no longer paying any attention to the data being displayed. “Ah.” The Kaylon turned back towards them all and gestured smoothly with one hand towards the screen. “It is as I suspected, Commander,” it went on, addressing the ranking officer directly. “Our visitor has been fitted with a small implant. I believe it may be a tracking device.” 

Lowell felt as though someone had slapped him in the face. “What?” 

He wasn’t the only one to utter that simple shocked response, he noticed. At least three other people in the room had had the exact same reaction, including Malloy and the Commander. 

“He’s got a tracker?” Malloy looked at Lowell and then back to the Kaylon. “And it’s been there this whole time?” 

“I-I—” Lowell didn’t know what to say, or even what to think. He simply stood there shaking his head, mouth slightly agape as he looked around at everyone. 

“I believe so, Lieutenant. Yes.” The Kaylon went on, “We did not detect the device sooner because it did not occur to us to search for it, and according to my analysis it is clear that the tracking implant would not have registered as anything abnormal during a routine medical examination.” 

The other man wearing orange had to be the Chief Engineer. It hadn’t occurred to Lowell before the moment in which he said, “It’s only when we were actually actively looking for it that we noticed it.” He had moved closer to the screen. “The thing’s so small it never would’ve flagged. Damn.” He almost sounded impressed. 

When the Xelayan spoke again she addressed Lowell directly to ask, “And you honestly had no idea that you were carrying that?” 

No!” Lowell shook his head. “I sw—” He realised then that he had been saying that a lot, to the point where it had lost a lot of its conviction. “Honestly, I had no idea that thing was in there.” He screwed up his face, gesturing at himself. “In here.” With a frown he asked, “Where is it?” 

“It is in your neck, embedded beneath the surface of your skin,” the Kaylon told him, and even as it spoke those words the point in question was highlighted on the screen on the wall. 

Lowell’s hand went to the back of his neck reflexively. 

“If he has been fitted with such a device,” the Moclan said, “then perhaps he is not the only one.” 

“That was my thinking as well, Commander,” the Kaylon responded, dipping his head down just once in a clear nod of agreement. 

“Oh my God.” Malloy looked at Lowell. With a deep frown that furrowed his brow he said, “You seriously had no idea that thing was in there?” When Lowell shook his head he said, more levelly and gravely, “So that means your captain put it there without your knowledge. Or your permission.” 

“He tagged you,” the Xelayan added grimly, “like some kind of animal.” 

Lowell felt sick. It hadn’t even occurred to him to think of it like that but as soon as the Orville’s officers worded it in that way it was impossible to think of it as anything but wrong. It was a violation, in a way, and Lowell couldn’t help but wonder if Shelton had known about it. Surely his brother wouldn’t have agreed to it, and even if he had then surely he would have told him about it. He wouldn’t have kept it from him. 

Would he? 

Bringing his hand down from his neck slowly, a little reluctantly at first, his throat dry and an odd feeling of disappointment washing over and through him, he said, “What do you need me to do?” 

 


 

Richard Blake did not like to be kept waiting. 

The office in which they had been asked to wait had seats but he didn’t feel like sitting down. Shelton had perched himself on the edge of the desk facing the door and Maykor was looking out of the window at the far wall. Blake was pacing. The office was bland and almost antiseptic, with no personal effects or touches whatsoever. It felt elitist in a strange way, superior in its clinical cleanliness, and he was overcome with the sudden urge to make as much of a mess as possible. 

But the door opened before he could so much as nudge anything out of place. 

The D’Nari female strode in and glanced at them each in turn before she moved around her desk. As she passed Shelton she cleared her throat distinctly. With the smallest crooked smirk the engineer rocked his weight back onto his feet and moved over to stand just behind Blake himself. Maykor remained by the window but he turned to give the room and its occupants his attention at least. 

“Gentlemen,” the female said but Blake heard the stiff quality of her voice when she spoke the word that told him she didn’t believe any of them to be anything of the sort. 

Bitch. 

“What is it that I can do for you?” Noticing that all three of the Razers had opted to remain standing she chose do the same, knitting her long fingers in front of her. “I was informed of your arrival but I was under the impression that our business was concluded.” 

“Mm.” Blake gave her a smile and he didn’t care in the least if she figured out that it was fake. “Not quite, Director,” he said to her, and he added just enough weight to her title to tell her that he didn’t think much of her position and he certainly wasn’t intimidated by it, or the authority that it was intended to represent. “It was but circumstances have changed.” 

“Oh? How so?” 

Blake glanced to his men. Shelton had crossed his arms and Maykor was watching the D’Nari, his gaze unwavering. “With all due respect, ma’am, that’s our business and not yours.” He gave her another affected smile. “So let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?” Without waiting for her to say anything else he went on, “We want to go in.” 

She blinked. “Pardon?” 

“Don’t play coy, Director,” he said to her. “You know exactly what I mean.” But he rephrased it anyway. “We want a run.” 

With the slightest tilt of her head she narrowed her bright eyes. “And how exactly do you plan to pay for your time?” she asked them, looking between the three, though Blake noticed how her gaze passed over Maykor only fleetingly. “If I understand correctly the three of you arrived in your shuttle and your ship was nowhere in range.” It was her turn to affect a smile. “So I will ask you again, Captain—” she even had the nerve to apply the same inflection on his title as he had hers, “—how exactly do you plan to pay for the privilege of entering the system?” 

Blake narrowed his eyes right back at her and approached her desk. To her credit the bitch stood her ground, just as she held his gaze. “My boys and I brought you something pretty damn special,” he said to her, touching his fingertips to the surface of her desk and leaning his weight towards her just enough for the motion to be unmistakable. “You hired us to do a job and we did it, no questions asked and no problems.” 

“That is true,” she agreed, but somewhat indifferently. 

“But let’s not kid ourselves, Director O’Lar,” he said, opting to use her name that time so she wouldn’t think of him as ignorant. “What we do, and what you do?” He chuckled at her then as he shook his head. “None of it is legal, or moral, and I can think of plenty of people who’d just love to get their hands on a ship like this.” 

Her expression didn’t shift much but it did sour, even if only subtly. Blake still noticed. He grinned at her. “See? You know that as well as I do.” Bringing one hand off the desk he wagged a finger at her. “Something tells me you’d prefer that the means to track your ship remain a big secret. Am I right?” 

“Captain Blake,” she said, and with an obvious tightness in her voice, “may I remind you that you are aboard my ship, and—” 

“Oh,” Shelton interrupted, “if you’re about to threaten us right back, don’t bother.” He had taken one arm from across his chest and waved a hand dismissively at her. “We made sure that a message will get out on a broad subspace bandwidth if we’re not around to deactivate it from a specific location within a certain space of time.” That smirk was back on the younger man’s face as he added, “And that message? It has everything.” 

The D’Nari’s eyes narrowed again. “You’re bluffing.” 

“Are we?” Blake challenged, and then he shook his head. “We’re Razers, Director. Bluffing just isn’t our nature.” With a shrug of his shoulders and a cock of his head to one side he straightened. “But if you’re willing to take that risk then you just go right ahead and detain us.” Tilting his chin upward in a manner that was distinctly triumphant he added, “But you just remember, when you start getting all sorts of unwelcome visitors, that we gave you a chance to keep your little organisation quiet.” 

She was silent for a while, obviously contemplative, looking between the three of them. Blake saw the moment when she realised that Maykor had managed to move several inches closer to her desk without her realising he had moved at all. There was a definite instant when very real alarm passed over her face, no matter how fleetingly. 

When she drew in and released a surrendering sigh it was like music to his ears. “Very well,” she said, bringing her gaze back to Blake. “I believe we can waive the fee just this once.” 

Blake actually clapped his hands together and delighted in the way he startled the D’Nari with the action. “Great.” This time when he smiled there was nothing fake about it at all. “The sooner the better, Director. Let’s get this show on the road, hm?” 

“I can show you to the directory—” 

“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Blake told her with a dismissive wave of his hand. “We already know which participant we’d like to engage with.” 

She had the slightest frown on her face as she asked, “And which one might that be?” 

Blake chuckled and looked back at Shelton who was shaking his head. “Which one,” he echoed to his engineer, and then he looked to Maykor. “She’s asking which one.” And then he dropped his smile completely in an instant as he turned his gaze back on the D’Nari. “I think you know which one.” 

She actually had the nerve to shake her head. “I’m afraid that that won’t be possible, Captain.” 

Blake didn’t even have to make a single motion or gesture in order for Maykor to pick up on his cue. With only a few huge strides he crossed what little distance was left between him and the D’Nari. She realised that she was being charged and quickly scurried backwards until she had effectively cornered herself. Blake and Shelton moved into her path to the side of her desk to cut off her escape that way but they didn’t need to close the gap any more. The looming presence of Maykor was enough to suitably intimidate, or just plain terrify, even the most rational of individuals. 

“I’m sorry, Director,” Blake said with narrowed eyes and a false expression of confusion, “what were you saying?” 

Her breathing had shallowed and quickened and she looked up uneasily towards Maykor, who stood more than a full foot taller than her. His head was actually tilted down to look at her. Blake allowed himself to be amused by that. 

“I—” She had to pause to gather herself and clear her throat. “W-we can move some things around,” she said at last after a few more stumbles and false starts. “I’ll make it work.” Bringing her bright eyes away from the Moclan completely she settled them on Blake. “I believe we have an agreement, Captain.” 

Blake showed a broad, toothy smile. “Wonderful,” he said to her, and reached out his hand for her to shake. When she accepted it with her own, his smile became a grin.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure about this?” Not once in their entire time serving aboard the Orville together had Gordon ever given her cause to doubt him but they were dealing with a lot of unknown entities here and Kelly didn’t think that they had time to take wild and reckless chances that might not amount to anything. 

With a shake of his head Gordon turned his gaze up into her own. “You saw it for yourself,” he said to her and sighed. “The kid’s completely out of his depth. And he’s scared.” 

Kelly had seen that, and Gordon had told them as much in the briefing room before they had brought Reed in to try and get the truth out of him. Their Helmsman had believed, and rightfully so, that the company of the entire senior staff might give the Razer enough of a nudge to encourage him to tell them what little he had known about the planet. In Gordon’s quarters Reed had been too intimidated by Talla and her unexpected outburst to even be able to think clearly. Gordon had done the right thing in bringing him up to meet everyone else. 

“Put yourself in his shoes,” the Helmsman went on, giving a small nod in the other pilot’s direction as Claire, John, and Isaac went about their work while the young man sat patiently and obediently on the medical bed. “He’s cut off from the only family he’s had for God knows how long and thrown into this world that he’s grown up thinking is full of selfish, terrible people. In his eyes the Union killed his parents.” Gordon was making sure to keep his voice down so that Reed wouldn’t hear them. “And then he finds out that maybe we’re not so bad after all, and the people he’s been putting his trust and faith in all these years aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.” With another small gesture towards the younger pilot he concluded, “I mean, come on, for all he knows his own brother has abandoned him.” 

Kelly couldn’t help but frown at that and she nodded her head with a small sigh of her own. “Not a nice feeling,” she said softly and Gordon made a quiet noise of agreement at her side. She supposed, if she detached herself from her emotional investment and bias, she could understand the apprehended Razer’s confusion and disorientation. It was like his whole world had been turned upside down in what was only a short space of time and now the kid didn’t know which way was up, or even who the enemy was. Anyone would be completely thrown and unsure in those circumstances. 

“Commander,” John spoke up from Isaac’s primary workstation. “I think we might have something.” 

That was all Kelly needed to hear in order to break out of her reverie and cross the room so that she could see the screens. Gordon followed her. For her part Claire remained close to the side of the bed that they had been using for their analysis. 

“Is that what I think it is?” she asked, almost disbelievingly, bringing her eyes up from the screen and its readings and meeting first John’s gaze and then the twin points of brilliant blue on Isaac’s face. Before either one of them had responded she was turning her gaze down again and starting at the sequence of digits that had been displayed clearly in a box that had popped up on the screen. There were waves displayed behind it and they were in motion, streaming constantly from one side to the other. 

“It is a signal, Commander,” Isaac announced as John nodded his head in an enthusiastic confirmation. “I believe that we have successfully isolated the tracker’s frequency and will now be able to scan for traces of this same signal, or one very similar to it.” 

“So you can track the Razers?” Gordon asked, sounding just as stunned as Kelly felt herself. “We can actually find these bas—” His gaze darted over towards Reed. “These guys. We can find these guys?” 

“Yes, Lieutenant. I believe so.” 

Gordon actually laid his hand on Kelly’s arm then and she turned to look at him, unable to keep the smile from flashing across her face as her previously dwindling sense of hope rekindled inside of her. She almost didn’t believe what she was seeing, and what she was being told, but she knew that this was their chance, the one shot they had been so desperately waiting for, and if they didn’t take it then that window might slam shut forever. 

Kelly wasn’t going to let that happen. 

 


 

When the alert sounded it wasn’t coming from the human’s monitors for a change. It took J’Ron a moment to notice that much but when he did he quickly deduced that it was a message coming through on the ship’s internal communications network. With a slight frown he turned his head towards K’Mor who had crossed to the rear of the room and the stations there in order to read that very message. 

“It’s from O’Lar,” K’Mor said and J’Ron turned to look at him once again, waiting silently for something more. “I—” The confusion in K’Mor’s voice had him turning once again. 

“What is it?” he asked, his frown deepening. 

With a shake of his head K’Mor dropped his gaze back to the screen. “She wants us to ready the human to re-enter the system immediately.” 

“But we had an agreement.” J’Ron actually unleashed a frustrated sigh, shaking his own head as he turned fully, taking his focus completely from the human’s monitors and looking to his companion. “We told her that we would inform her as soon as it was—” 

K’Mor interrupted him. “I know that.” Of course he did. He had been present during that very conversation and had gone a long way towards securing the agreement. “But that’s what it says.” 

“Why would she change her mind like that?” J’Ron crossed the room, silently appreciating how his associate stepped out of the way so that he could see the screen clearly. His frown only deepened further as he read the communication for himself. 

Prepare human for immediate reinsertion into system. Participant is to enter specific simulation environment listed below. Further instructions to follow. 

And then, sure enough, there was a code for one of the simulated environments along with a note underneath that requested that O’Lar herself not be disturbed or questioned on the matter. She knew J’Ron well enough to know that he would have questions but she had effectively cut him off from asking them. Her people would have been given the same instruction and there would be no way for him to get through to her via those channels either. 

“Why is she ignoring our recommendations now?” J’Ron wasn’t expecting K’Mor to have any answers, obviously, but the question came spilling out of him before he could help himself. 

“And why would she disregard the queuing system?” K’Mor returned, equally baffled. 

That was as good a question as any. O’Lar had been so concerned about the guests that were waiting for the human’s availability during her last visit but now, according to her message, that no longer seemed to be the case. She had specified a particular environment and in doing so she had circumvented the system’s automatic insertion of participants into the next one in the queue. 

“A high-profile guest, maybe?” K’Mor ventured with a shake of his head. 

J’Ron didn’t answer, still staring at the message. The short tone of it, the sudden and unexpected change of course when it came to the participant’s status, none of it made any sense. 

But they had their orders. And if they didn’t obey them and do their jobs then there were plenty of operators on board who would happily do so instead. 

With a heavy sigh J’Ron gave his head one last shake. “She must have her reasons.” That was his hope at least. Turning his head to look at his companion he said, “Get the environment cued up.” 

“At least it’s already sedated,” K’Mor offered, glancing across the room to the human. J’Ron didn’t follow his gaze because there was no need, instead wordlessly crossing the room back to his own station and inputting the command sequence for the human’s reintroduction into the system, albeit more than a little reluctantly. 

 


 

The black numbness dropped away like someone had torn down a heavy curtain. Suddenly, without warning, there was light and sound and scent, all sorts of signals that assaulted his unprepared senses and made him jolt awake with a thoroughly disoriented sound catching at the back of his throat. He squinted against the light and touched a hand to the back of his head where the phantom ache was still lingering, and he tried to recall the last thing that had happened. 

Everything was a hectic jumble, a mass of knots and tangles that he couldn’t even begin to sort at first, and he had no idea just how long he sat there trying to make sense of the various signals and thoughts and sensations coursing through him. He had to wait until the nausea and dizziness had passed before he opened his eyes again, keeping them closed for what felt like several minutes. 

When he opened them at last there was no vast wilderness or sprawling metropolis waiting to greet him. 

It was a junkyard, of all places. 

Ed frowned uncertainly, his eyes moving around the uneven and jagged piles and mounds of assorted items of all sizes and shapes. There was a heavy acrid scent in the air that made him grimace for a moment as he sat up and then pushed his way into a crouch. For a couple of moments his balance wavered and he had to take it easy, take it slow, keeping one hand down to the rough dirt-strewn ground, scattered with small stones and fractured shards of debris as it was. 

His mind was still reeling, trying and failing to make sense of where he was or why as he crouched there and took another look around. For one alarming moment in the beginning he hadn’t even been able to properly recall his own name. A sickening sense of dread took root deep down inside of him. But he didn’t let himself panic. 

Kelly. He thought of Kelly. Her hair, her eyes, her voice, her laugh and her fire and her strength. He thought of the way that she would say his name when she was frustrated with him, the way she made it sound almost like a curse when she was particularly displeased. 

He thought of the Orville, her clean lines and bright and inviting warmth. He thought of the hum of the ship, her engines and various other systems. He thought of her crew and how dedicated and driven and loyal they were. 

Ed let out a low breath and opened his eyes again, taking one more look around. It was still a junkyard but it felt a little less overwhelming this time, at least. His legs still felt a touch unsteady as he straightened them and rose to his feet but he took his time rising and only turned on the spot to get his bearings once he was certain he wasn’t going to wobble like some kind of new-born baby deer and spill himself right back into the dirt. 

Real or not real? The thought bubbled up in his mind and took shape solidly right near the forefront until Ed actually paid attention to it. For a few seconds he felt rattled enough by the thought that he didn’t know how to shake it but then he took a moment again and really thought about it. 

Why would he be in a junkyard? Why couldn’t he remember getting here? Why was he not wearing his uniform, or at the very least carrying his gear? Where were the rest of the crew? 

Not real. It wasn’t real. Another simulation. Yet another one. 

And that meant that somewhere out there, he reminded himself, there was one or more individual intending to do him harm that, while not real, would feel real enough to fully and thoroughly jar his physical mind and body once he awoke. After his death. Those people out there, whoever they were, whatever race they were part of, were here to kill him because they thought that it was fun and exciting. Entertainment. Sport. 

“Make them work for it,” he mumbled to himself, dusting his hands off at last on the upper legs of his black pants and taking in a few more deep and steadying breaths. He had to make them work for it, whoever or whatever they were, and that thought, once it had anchored itself in his mind, made him turn his gaze around at the heaps and piles and slopes of garbage in search of something with which to defend himself. 

Ed lost track of just how much time he spent searching, taking care not to travel too far up the various mounds for fear of tumbling right back down or sinking into one. That would be a particularly crappy way to go, he thought, not to mention a terrible disappointment to whoever he was up against this time. The thought brought a fleeting humourless smile to his face along with the very beginnings of a chuckle that sounded just a little bitter to his own ears. “Wouldn’t want that,” he muttered, tossing aside the remains of what might have once been some sort of scanning device, its inner workings poking out all over the place and its screen cracked and dusty. 

At first he didn’t notice the sound with the movement of the junk around his own booted feet but when he paused to investigate the protruding end of something that might have been promising he heard it. And it wasn’t coming from him. 

Footsteps. Someone was approaching. 

Ed twisted to look around, trying to properly pin down the direction that they were coming from but all the heaps and piles and mounds made it difficult to orient himself or anything else accurately. It was like a maze in here, he thought. Cautiously and as silently as possible he shuffled and slid his way back down the slope he had been a quarter of the way up and once back on solid ground he froze and listened. 

Definitely footsteps. 

“Caro?” It only occurred to Ed after the name had left his lips that that might not have been the wisest idea, but then he hadn’t even planned to speak in the first place. He didn’t know why he had done that. 

Why the hell had he done that? 

A figure rounded the corner up ahead, emerging between two looming heaps of misshapen and broken items. 

It was a Moclan. And a huge one. 

Definitely not Caro. 

“Crap.” Ed took one step back before he could stop himself, keeping his eyes locked on the unfamiliar Moclan, unable to shake his disbelief at just how big they were. At least seven feet tall with the broadest shoulders Ed had ever seen in his life, they had a barrel chest and a grim expression that would have put most other Moclans to shame. Ed hoped never to see an expression that stormy on Bortus’ face. 

“Hey,” he said, taking another involuntary step back and trying to keep his voice steady, lifting one hand in the hopes that the figure in front of him meant no harm. Maybe they were trapped as well, like him. “Let’s just—” 

And then with a grimace and a sneer that bared their teeth the Moclan charged towards him. The ground practically shook under his colossal weight as he barrelled towards Ed. 

With another curse, this one fuelled more by panic than shock, Ed turned and took off running as fast as he could. With no idea of where to go or how to get out of the labyrinthine junkyard he just ran because his instincts told him, loudly and clearly, that letting that Moclan catch up with him would be a terrible idea. It would take them no effort whatsoever to kill him, Ed knew, and he just had to hope that their immense size meant that they would be a lot slower than he was. 

He rounded corners blindly and wildly, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t run into any more of his pursuer’s companions, trying to scan the erratic paths ahead for any signs of dangerous movement but that was much easier said than done at his frantic and desperate pace. He ran until his legs and lungs burned and then he just kept on running, only daring to glance back in the rare moments when he had a long stretch of straight path ahead of him. 

The Moclan was falling behind. 

And then Ed saw the huge gates. His heart almost dropped like a stone and then it leapt up into his throat instead because at the last moment before he wheeled away from it he saw the gap between them. And it was a gap that he could fit through. Piling on as much of his remaining speed as he could Ed hurled himself towards the gates and then right on through them, having to catch himself on the edge of one so that he wouldn’t spill through it instead. 

Without pausing to think about it he turned and shoved against the gate, ramming his shoulder against the thing until it creaked and groaned to a thudding, clanking close. It made such a solid sound as it clattered shut that Ed thought that it had locked on closing and he almost let out a laugh of relief. 

That was until he heard the crunch of a boot behind him. 

Again Ed didn’t pause to think, instead taking one look at his own shadow cast ahead of him onto the discoloured surface of the gate and the one growing behind that. It was a man and that was good enough for him. Too tall for Caro, too straight for Tommy. 

He turned and threw a punch, as hard and fast as he could. 

It hit a roughly stubble-strewn jaw and threw the man around and down to the ground, the swing catching him well and truly off guard. Ed didn’t take any time to study the fallen, cursing individual, just as he didn’t take any time to strike again. He had to run. 

And that was exactly what he would have done if he hadn’t lifted his head in preparation to bolt and seen the gun levelling at his chest. The sight stopped him short instantly. “Ah-ah,” the wielder said steadily with a shake of their head. “That’s enough of that.” 

Dammit. Dammit. The rush of frustration and disappointment was so overwhelming that at first Ed didn’t even think to raise his hands in a show of surrender. Part of him was actually thinking about rushing the bastard in front of him. A human. The recognition and the realisation to go along with it actually made him angry, he realised belatedly, but the thought was derailed by the sounds of the gates shaking and rattling behind him. The Moclan had caught up but the sealed gates were in his way. 

The figure that Ed had punched picked themselves up off the floor, angrily swiping at their assaulted jaw with one hand as they came around to join their companion. “Son of a bitch,” they spat, and Ed saw then that it was another human. They were younger than the man wielding the gun, with paler hair, and the expression on their face was tighter as well, more displeased and aggravated. 

Without warning there was an almighty thud behind him and Ed actually started, pulling his body down reflexively into the beginnings of a defensive crouch, turning to look back over his shoulder at the source of the sound. 

It was the goddamned Moclan. Ed traced his gaze up to the top of the towering gates. Had he climbed over

Dammit, dammit, dammit. A bad taste rushed up onto the back of Ed’s tongue as he turned his head forward again, looking at the man holding the gun. His disappointment and frustration must have been obvious, judging by the self-satisfied smile on the other man’s face, and Ed shook his head, hating himself for what he was about to say but knowing that he would only be delaying the inevitable otherwise. 

“Just do it,” he said, spreading his hands outward a little more at his sides as if to emphasise just how unarmed and therefore helpless he was. He remembered then, quite without warning or invitation, when Caro had offered to put him out of his misery and he had refused, only for the inevitable end to come in a much worse way than he ever could have imagined. God, how long ago had that been? 

“Do what exactly?” the man returned, raising his brows. 

Was the bastard mocking him? Ed actually allowed himself to narrow his eyes in an obvious show of disapproval and dislike before he said, “You know what. Just get it over with.” Because if nothing else dragging this out was only going to make it worse. Ed was in absolutely no rush to meet yet another end but he would rather take the bullet than endure whatever smug superiority this man, this human man, looked ready to unleash on him. 

The man affected a look of sudden understanding. “Ohh, you mean kill you. Right?” 

Ed just stood there and stared at him. He wasn’t going to take the bait. 

When the man smiled, slowly and steadily, it was much more unnerving than it had any right to be. “Oh, we’re not going to kill you,” he said, and he started to step towards Ed then. If the Moclan hadn’t been standing somewhere behind him he might have backed up an equal distance but instead he was forced to stand his ground. “Well,” the man went on as he approached, the gun still held out in front of him, aimed directly at Ed’s chest, “we will eventually, I’m sure, but we’re going to make it last as long as we can.” 

Ed frowned, the defiance slipping from his face as the man came closer, his confusion taking centre stage instead. He gave the smallest shake of his head, betraying the fact that he didn’t understand even as a ball of dread was starting to form in the pit of his stomach. 

The man lowered the gun then, and actually winked at him. “You’ll see.” And then he lashed out, gun and all, landing a solid blow across Ed’s temple. Everything erupted in a burst of blinding light. He didn’t even feel himself falling.

Chapter Text

Kelly felt far too restless to sit but standing behind her desk and speaking to the Admiral not only betrayed her desperation but it was awkward for both parties, especially if she started to pace, as she strongly suspected she might have. So she sat even if she couldn’t really bear to do so, and prayed that this wouldn’t take long. 

“And you’re absolutely sure that this signal is authentic?” 

“One-hundred-percent, Admiral,” she said, knowing that she was exaggerating because how could they know something like that? Isaac and John seemed confident but ultimately they might be flying right into a trap that had been laid for them by the Razers. At this point Kelly knew that she didn’t care in the slightest if that was the case, as much as she would regret such flippancy later, because they were getting down to the wire and the thought of running out of time and having the plug pulled on their mission was more than she could bear. 

Something told her that Admiral Halsey could pick up on that desperation. There was a faint sense of sadness and sympathy to his expression and while part of Kelly really didn’t want the latter she couldn’t help but appreciate, once again, that she was dealing with her father’s old friend. He was quiet for a few moments, a short period of time that felt like an eternity in Kelly’s mind, before he gave a small nod of his head. “All right, Commander. If you’re sure about this then I’ll back your decision and see what I can do about sending another ship to support you.” 

She could have cried, or hugged him, perhaps even kissed him. Instead she nodded her head and held her composure as she said, “Thank you, Admiral.” 

“But, Kelly—” He paused to make sure he had her undivided attention. “At the first sign of trouble—” that this might be a trap, he meant, “—I want you to get the hell out of there. Is that clear?” 

It was, and she understood the command perfectly, but she wanted to tell him that there was no way in hell that she would be able to obey such an order when it came right down to it. If they got to the end of their trail and Ed was actually there? All bets would be off. Wild horses wouldn’t be able to drag her away. But she nodded again anyway. “Yes, Sir.” 

She had a sneaking suspicion that Halsey wasn’t completely convinced by her remark but the words were on official record now and he had no just cause for questioning her sincerity. “Godspeed, Commander,” he said to her then, and she heard his plea for her to take care, taking it to heart and feeling a rush of near overwhelming gratitude for the sentiment even after the communication had closed. 

In next to no time at all she was striding back onto the bridge. Kelly passed by the Razer pilot who was standing close behind Doctor Finn who had taken up her usual place of observation not far back from the command chairs. “Lieutenant Malloy, engage quantum drive.” That was all she needed to say to tell everyone present that they had the green light from the Admiralty. 

“Aye, Sir,” the Helmsman responded promptly, making short work of getting them underway to their destination. 

“And Gordon?” Kelly waited until Gordon had turned his gaze back towards them. As she said her next words she heard them in Ed’s voice, but chose to take comfort from that instead of feeling any sense of panic or dread. “Run every red light.” 

 


 

It felt like his skull was about to split in half. The throbbing pain was so intense that it didn’t take long for the inevitable waves of nausea to rise up from the pit of his stomach. Ed couldn’t help but groan, a thick and groggy sound that knotted at the back of his throat. He grimaced as that all too familiar bad taste tickled at the back of his tongue and crept upward and forward to invade his mouth properly. 

His shoulders were hurting. 

Ed hadn’t even begun to take stock when that realisation washed over him and he grimaced again, another one of those groans bubbling up his throat into the back of his mouth. Why did his shoulders hurt? He couldn’t remember why they should. Maybe he should fight to open his eyes and take stock properly but the idea alone was almost enough to chase him right back into unconsciousness. Ed couldn’t think of anything he wanted to do less. 

Something cracked against the side of his face, hard and sharp, and then again. “Come on, Mercer, rise and shine.” On the third smack Ed pulled his head up and back with a shapeless grunt of protest. 

Up and back? That didn’t make any sense. The wrongness of it actually made him feel dizzy almost instantly and his disorientation reached new heights as he opened his eyes at last and blinked them into a focused enough state that he could see he was already upright. And when he tilted his head back once again and his vision cleared even further it suddenly made so much sense just why his shoulders were hurting. His neck too, now that he thought about it. 

His arms had been pulled up over his head, bound at the wrists by heavy metal cuffs that were already biting into his skin. When he thought about it he could feel that dull burn and it was strangely familiar but he couldn’t think why exactly. Beyond the cuffs were equally heavy chains holding him up. He had been hanging from his arms for God only knew how long, his weight supported primarily by his shoulders. Of course they were hurting. 

“Might want to support your weight properly now that you’re awake,” the man in front of him said, as if reading his mind. “Bad things happen to the human body when it hangs like that for too long.” 

Not because the stranger had suggested it but because he had been planning to do it anyway Ed planted his feet, his wavering gaze dragged downward by the distinct metallic rattling sound that the movement caused. Cuffs identical to the ones closed about his wrists had been clamped around his ankles and they too were attached to chains, but these ones were much shorter. There was almost no room at all for him to move his feet before the restraining anchors stopped him short. And even now that he had his feet under him there was next to no give in the chains holding his arms up, almost as if they had been pulled tauter somehow as soon as he straightened. 

Don’t panic. It wasn’t his own voice that filled his head with those words. Ed took a tight hold on it and maintained it as he steadied his breathing, pushing the shock of his situation to pass so that he could connect the rest of the dots. 

The man in front of him was the same one who had been pointing the gun at him, the very same man who had struck him with that very same gun. If Ed thought about it, if he really focused on it, he could feel the uncomfortable warmth along the left side of his head and face. It was a good bet that it was covered in blood. Looking past the first man he saw the second one, the blonde he had caught with the right hook, sitting tensely on what looked like a crate with his arms crossed over his chest, watching Ed intently. And then there, off to the left and further back, was the Moclan. He was focused on something in his hands, some kind of strange-looking device that he was clearly toying with, and purposefully, but there wasn’t enough light in the room for Ed to make out just what that something was. 

The room itself was poorly lit by only three naked bulbs hanging from old cords that looked well on their way towards shorting out. Conventional electricity, if Ed had to guess, which was perfectly in keeping with the junkyard in which he had awoken. Such things had long since gone out of style on Earth as technology had advanced in leaps and bounds. There were a few heavy-looking crates scattered around, identical to the one the blonde man was perched upon, but there were no clues as to their contents scrawled or printed along their sides anywhere that Ed could see. 

There were no windows anywhere in sight. 

That thought struck Ed as strange until it occurred to him just why a space like this would have no windows. 

They were underground. 

As soon as the realisation stuck him he recognised the vague chill in the air and the slightest damp sensation that went along with it. From somewhere off behind him something was dripping intermittently, a faucet or a pipe of some kind most likely. Ed couldn’t twist enough to look back and make sure either way. There were plenty of pipes running along the ceiling, he noticed when he looked upward once more, snaking their way overhead and leading in all directions. At first Ed thought that he had been chained to one of those pipes but then his vision adjusted enough to the patchy lighting and he could see a solid anchoring ring directly above him instead. The exact same anchoring points were responsible for keeping his legs held down. 

Ed couldn’t help but be at least a little unsettled by the realisation that those anchoring points had been designed for this exact purpose. 

His final realisation came when he realised that he could see the black jacket that he had been wearing tossed carelessly over another crate off to the right. At some point while he was unconscious these people had stripped him of it and Ed didn’t think he wanted to find out why they had done such a thing. 

“Who are you?” he asked, not failing to notice that the man before him had allowed him to take the time to orient himself and take in his surroundings. A power play? Probably. He knew that Ed couldn’t actually go anywhere so why not let him take a look around? 

“Oh, of course,” the man said, “where are my manners? I know you, but that doesn’t go both ways.” Indicating himself he went on, “My name is Richard Blake. This—” he gestured to the blonde, “—is my engineer Shelton Reed.” And then he indicated the distracted Moclan. “And that is my second-in-command, Maykor.” The Moclan didn’t even so much as glance up from his work. 

Ed was trying not to think about the steady, incessant pounding in his skull. “How do you know me?” 

Blake let out a laugh and the sincerity of it actually managed to make Ed feel foolish for not knowing the answer. “He has no idea,” the man said, looking back at the one he had called Reed. Bringing his gaze forward again he locked eyes with Ed and said, “We’re the ones who brought you here.” Stepping closer again, having backed off to let Ed come around properly, he went on, “Not just to this place right now, but this ship. I’m assuming you know by now, one way or another, that you’re on a ship.” 

Ed didn’t feel the need to answer. So he just waited. 

“Right,” Blake said with a small smile, “of course you do.” The other man had come to a stop a little over a foot away from Ed, which he quickly decided was far too close for comfort, but as incapable as he was of forcing Blake back he schooled his expression to cover that discomfort and held that steady gaze. “My crew were hired by these people, the ones who run this whole organisation, to find you specifically and bring you here to be part of their little game.” 

With narrowed eyes Ed shook his head and asked, “But why?” 

“You really don’t know?” Blake let out a huff of a laugh. “Because of your reputation, Mercer. Reputation is everything.” 

Reputation? Ed didn’t even know that he had a reputation of any kind, and certainly not one that would have made him any kind of figure of interest to a people like the D’Nari. 

With a sigh Blake went on, “If I really need to dumb it down for you, then I will.” And then he brought up a hand, Ed initially thought to lash out in a strike, but instead he counted off on his fingers as he said, “You overthrew the Kaylon at the Battle for Earth; you sealed the deal on the beginnings of a peace treaty with the Krill; you managed to successfully infiltrate the Krill and not get yourself brutally murdered; and let’s not forget the fact that you continue to champion the Moclan females’ pursuit for equal rights.” 

At the last point the Moclan in the corner actually growled

Ed couldn’t help the way his gaze was drawn in that direction. The Moclan, Maykor, was looking directly at him now. It was such a heavy and hateful gaze that Ed couldn’t help but be the one to break eye contact first, bringing his attention back to Blake. “You say that like I was the only one who did all of those things.” 

“As far as the D’Nari are concerned you might as well have been,” Blake told him. “You’re the Captain, Mercer. The successes, and of course the failures, of your crew are all down to you, ultimately. You really think these people care about all the random nobodies beneath you who pushed this button or ran that scan? Of course they don’t.” With one hand he jabbed Ed square in the chest. “It’s you.” 

It was insane. Ed knew for a fact that none of those victories were his alone and he had never been even remotely arrogant enough to begin to claim otherwise. The Krill had signed the treaty primarily because of the threat of the Kaylon, he had been just one of countless commanding officers during the Kaylon Conflict, his mission with Gordon had been a whole lot of dumb luck and chance, and as for the Moclan females they hadn’t even managed to secure any real victories there. Not yet, anyway. And even if they had he had been little more than a supporting figure to Heveena, the real champion of her people’s plight. 

“So why are you here now?” Ed asked the man in front of him. “You say you brought me here, fine, but now what? What do you want?” 

Blake’s expression soured, and noticeably so. Part of Ed wondered if he had been wise to ask that question after all but it was too late to take it back. When Blake answered there was a tightness to his voice as he said, “Because like I said, reputation is everything.” 

Ed frowned, his brow furrowing. “What?” 

Suddenly Blake had closed that gap between them and one of his hands was around Ed’s throat. With nowhere to go to escape the grip and no way to fight back Ed could only meet the other man’s gaze up close and hold it with as much defiance as he could muster. “You and your people have pissed all over my reputation, and that’s not something I intend to let slide.” Tightening his grip just a fraction he went on, “They just couldn’t let it go and now I’m down a ship, a pilot, and just about every other member of my entire goddamn crew. All because they wouldn’t give up on you.” His hand tightened again. Ed closed his eyes, fear bursting through him suddenly as he remembered all too clearly how it had felt to be strangled to death. “That bitch Xelayan and your whore of an ex-wife—” 

Ed’s eyes opened then and he met Blake’s gaze. Talla. Kelly. They were both okay. They were out there and they were looking for him. 

Blake’s smile was cold as he said in a low, quiet voice dripping with menace, “Maybe if they do catch up with us we’ll bring them in here and let you watch what we do to them.” 

It was a stupid idea but Ed fought against the chains anyway, trying to kick at the man in front of him as he struggled to yank down on the chains holding him up. Instantly his shoulders burned in protest and that biting sensation around his wrists went from subtle to sharp. The chains rattled loudly as he pulled against them but otherwise nothing happened. 

Blake released his throat and smacked his palm against the side of Ed’s face again. “Oh-ho, he didn’t like that one,” he laughed as he stepped back, obviously taking a great deal of pleasure from the way Ed breathed heavily and unevenly in an effort to recover from his fruitless struggle. It was anger as well, hot and fierce and more forceful than anything he had felt in a very, very long time. 

God, Ed wanted to hit him. More than anyone he had ever hit in his life he wanted to smack the bastard, as hard as he could, and more than once. Knowing that he couldn’t was borderline maddening. 

“But that’s enough out of me for now, I think,” Blake said, backing up a little more until he was almost in line with the man he had introduced as his engineer. “Oh, did I mention that the pilot your people took from me is Shelton’s little brother?” With a feigned expression of thoughtfulness he looked at the blonde man and said, “Maybe I should have mentioned that.” And then he gestured with one hand, motioning his companion forward. 

Ed watched as the younger man stood from the box he had been perching on and strode confidently towards him. Now that he was really looking at the engineer he could see the clear definition of toned muscle through his torso and upper arms and even before the man was within striking distance Ed suspected he knew what was coming. He drew in a breath and closed his eyes, trying to brace himself. 

As soon as the first hard blow landed, catching him fully across the face and whipping his head clean to the side, he realised just how wrong he had been. No amount of bracing would have prepared him for what would follow. 

 


 

“How is he, Doctor?” 

Claire had been standing not far inside sick bay when the doors had opened to permit Talla entry, allowing her to ask that question without running the risk of the man in the corner either seeing or overhearing her before she was ready to face him. It had taken her a while to summon the courage to come down here and if it hadn’t been for the fact that it would take them a few hours to catch up with the signal they had managed to lock onto she might not have come at all. Talla didn’t want to leave the bridge short-handed but after considering it for a good while she had recognised that there was nothing significant that she could do as they travelled that couldn’t be just as effectively and efficiently handled by a substitute. 

So she had excused herself, with Commander Grayson’s permission, under the guise of grabbing something to eat. That wasn’t wholly a lie either, as evidenced by the containers she had balanced in one hand as she looked to the woman beside her, who had been reviewing some sort of scan result when she had entered. 

Claire took one brief look at those containers but didn’t ask about the contents, instead responding to the question that had been asked of her. “A little better, I think,” she told Talla, giving a small nod. “It’s going to be a long road to recovery,” she went on, “and I mean long, but—” With a sympathetic expression she glanced off towards the bed in the far corner around which the curtain had been mostly drawn. “At least he should get better and not worse.” 

Talla had wanted to hear better news and she couldn’t help but show her disappointment in a fleeting frown, but then she nodded her head. “That’s something,” she conceded, looking Claire in the eye. After a moment of quiet she asked, “Is it okay if I sit with him for a little while?” 

The Doctor held her gaze and Talla had the distinct impression that she was being studied. Claire Finn was an expert in several medical fields, they all knew, and one of those fields was psychology. Talla knew that she would have to be a fool to think she could hide anything from the woman beside her and so she didn’t waste any precious time or effort trying to do so. Instead she waited until Claire seemed satisfied with her silent analysis and gave a small nod of her head, saying as she did so, “I think he would like that.” 

Something about Claire’s expression made Talla think that the man in question might have even been asking for her but the Doctor didn’t state as much plainly and she didn’t feel the need to seek confirmation. Instead she gave Claire a small smile of gratitude and made her way across sick bay to the bed in the corner. 

“Hey, Tommy.” She kept her voice soft and pulled as convincing a smile onto her face as possible the second she was within his line of sight, stepping around the edge of the curtain. 

He was sitting up on the bed, leaning forward a little and somewhat hunching over what she quickly realised was a book. An honest to God book. Talla had seen them in simulations of Old Earth, not to mention Captain Mercer’s office, but it surprised her to see one here, of all places, and when she noticed that Tommy appeared to have been deeply engrossed in its contents she almost felt guilty for interrupting him. Someone had given him a fresh set of clothes as well, she noticed, and somehow they had managed to encourage him to change into them. Talla was glad. It had to have been a relief, no matter how subconscious, to get out of the dirty ones that he had been wearing for however long. 

Tommy lifted his head and fixed his eyes on her, studying her face for only a moment before he smiled at her. “Erana.” 

Talla’s whole chest ached and she wanted to tell him no, she wasn’t who he thought she was, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. Looking at his face, at the genuine happiness he was showing at the mere sight of her, she realised almost instantly that she just couldn’t do that to him. So she managed to broaden her smile and say, with warmth, “Yeah.” It made her feel wretched to play along, to maintain and prolong this heartbreaking fantasy of his, but her only alternative was forcing him to come to terms with the fact that the woman he was mistaking her for was dead and he would never see her again. It was just too cruel and, somewhat selfishly, Talla didn’t think she could take that pain either. 

And so she would play the part. She might not be able to do it justice but it wasn’t forever and if it kept Tommy calm and balanced then it was something she was willing to do. Talla ignored the small voice in the back of her mind that told her she was using this little façade in order to punish herself for her recent failures and instead approached the bed, lifting the containers she held a little in order to draw Tommy’s attention towards them. 

“I thought you might be hungry,” she said to him, and after a moment spent standing beside the bed she decided to test his boundaries by perching on its edge instead. 

He didn’t even so much as bat an eye. “Food?” His brows had quirked up and he looked from the containers to her face and back again. He seemed intrigued. 

“Yeah,” Talla confirmed, setting the containers down, one in front of Tommy and one in front of herself even though she had little intention of eating more than the bare minimum. Her appetite was next to non-existent but she knew, rationally and logically, that she needed to eat in order to keep her strength up. And Tommy definitely looked as if it had been a while since he had eaten a decent meal. Claire had confirmed that he was underweight. Even though there was evidence that his system had been provided with basic nutrition it had only been enough to keep him alive and out of danger. 

Tommy hesitated and then touched the container. When he lifted his gaze to Talla she gave him another smile and then nodded her head in what she hoped would be an encouraging motion. It had the desired effect and he opened the lid to reveal the food inside. It had been a gamble on her part to synthesise primarily Xelayan foods, the sorts of things she ate on a near-daily basis, but something in her gut had told her that it would be just as appealing and satisfying to Tommy as it usually was to her. 

When he smiled it confirmed her suspicions. When he needed no further encouragement to reach into the container and actually start to eat she was reassured that she had made the right call. 

Whoever this Erana was, or had been, she had been important enough to Tommy to not only bring him comfort and reassurance with her mere presence, but she had clearly influenced his life in other ways as well. A Xelayan diet was not to everyone’s liking. 

For a while they sat in companionable silence, Tommy eating with genuine interest and Talla picking intermittently at her own portion, namely whenever he looked her way to see if she was enjoying the food as well. She was just finishing chewing a small mouthful and thinking about asking him about the book that he had been reading upon her arrival when he surprised her by speaking first. 

“Caro misses you.” It was said simply, a statement of fact, with his eyes down on his meal. The book that Talla had been poised to ask him about was in his lap now, tucked close to his stomach as if for protection. 

Talla’s instinct was to ask just who Caro was but of course Erana would know. If she wanted to keep Tommy balanced and steady she had to maintain the lie, no matter how wrong it might feel. “She does?” 

Tommy nodded without a word and continued to pick at his meal for a while. Talla watched him and waited before she realised he was waiting as well. “Well I miss her too,” she said then and was rewarded with another nod and a brief moment of eye contact. 

“She looked for you.” His eyes were back on the food. “Kept on looking but couldn’t find you.” 

Talla frowned. Where had they looked? If their suspicions were correct and Tommy had been held in some kind of captivity then how could he and this Caro, whoever that was, look for anyone? The questions continued to pile up in her mind and it was frustrating not to have any way to get answers, at least not without making the young man in front of her extremely uncomfortable, not to mention upset. 

“Found Ed instead.” 

It felt like her heart had stopped. She felt like she had forgotten how to breathe. It was only for a moment but the mention of that name just about made the whole galaxy come to a screeching halt all around her as well and she had to fight to bring herself back to full focus. “Ed?” Talla was actually proud of herself for the steadiness in her voice. 

Tommy nodded and didn’t say anything else. 

Talla had to keep him talking. “Who’s that?” 

“Man,” Tommy said simply enough and at first that was all he said. It was almost a whole minute before he said anything else. “Caro likes him.” After a pause he met Talla’s eyes and shook his head. “Not like that. Never like that.” He gave her what Talla realised belatedly was meant to be a reassuring smile as he said, “You first always.” And then, just like that, he was back to it, saying, “Came out of nowhere and found us. He stayed.” 

He had given her answers and yet not really much information at all and Talla felt dizzy for a moment, having to actually shake her head to collect her thoughts before she could ask, “He stayed with you guys while I was gone, huh?” 

Tommy gave a nod, picking through the container as if he was looking for something specific before he realised that he couldn’t find it. Talla nudged her own container towards him and he gave a small smile, plucking his prize from the contents. “Got separated,” he said before taking a generous mouthful. Talla had to wait until he had swallowed the food before he went on, “We ran. He stayed.” Tommy was shaking his head as he said more quietly, “Loud bang.” 

What did that mean? What did any of it mean? All Talla knew for certain was that Tommy had been wherever the Captain was now, and presumably so had the woman he was continuing to mistake her for. Was the Captain still there? And what did Tommy mean by a loud bang

“Then what happened, Tommy?” she asked gently after he had fallen quiet and remained that way for a while. She bowed her head a little to bring his eyes up to her face and she kept her face soft and encouraging. “Do you remember?” 

A frown came over his face and he was still for a little while before he shook his head. “Dark and quiet. And then the trees.” His eyes had dropped as he said that but then they came up and met hers again. “And then you came.” He smiled. “You found me.” 

Talla’s mind was reeling, her thoughts going at a maddening pace, and more than anything she wanted to bolt back up to the bridge and tell Kelly everything that Tommy had told her but as she looked into his dark eyes and he gave her that smile she realised that she couldn’t do that to him. She couldn’t use him like his captors must have and then discard him just because she had gotten something useful out of him. That was exactly what those people had done, the same people who had the Captain. 

So she stayed where she was and reached out with her hand, laying it gently and with silent gratitude on top of Tommy’s where it rested on his knee. When he didn’t flinch away she gave his hand the slightest squeeze as she smiled back at him, trying to tell him without words that he wasn’t alone anymore, he didn’t have to be scared, and most importantly of all, there was no way in hell she was going to let anyone else hurt him.

Chapter Text

Ed had been beaten up before. More than once. A lot of times, actually. As a child he had been about as far from popular as it was possible for someone to get and it hadn’t helped that he had never been particularly large when he’d been growing up. The other kids hadn’t needed much in the way of encouragement to prey upon what they saw, not inaccurately, as disadvantages. 

So he’d been beaten up a fair few times as a kid. 

But this was different. This was a beating, plain and simple. Hard and heavy and landed with a blunt and aggressive kind of precision these hits weren’t frantic and frenzied, and they were far from clumsy. They were designed to hurt. And they did. 

Reed knew what he was doing, or he at least knew enough to land strikes that he was sure would be felt, the pain of them lingering. When he landed blows it wasn’t just to wind or disorient like most people’s punches. They were intent and purposeful, and he took his time between the majority of them. And he didn’t just strike from the front. The young man took full advantage of Ed’s forced vulnerability to lash out from behind, landing solid jabs under the ribs at his back more than once, and never in the exact same place. 

Ed coughed, practically choking on the pain of one of those blows from behind, tensing and jerking in the chains involuntarily and fighting to catch his breath afterwards as he listened to the sound of Reed’s footsteps coming around to the front once more. He paused halfway and landed another hard jab under Ed’s ribs at the side. The shock of it stole the breath from his lungs and had him straining to even so much as groan from the agony of what felt suspiciously like a freshly cracked rib. It wasn’t the first. Ed feared it wouldn’t be the last. 

The wound across his temple had reopened to spill fresh blood down the side of his face. Every breath he was able to take felt like swallowing fire. His whole body felt like one gigantic bone-deep bruise. His jaw was throbbing along with his skull. The vision in his left eye was becoming increasingly blurred. Blood had been trickling steadily from his nose for a while now. His mouth kept filling with it, the insides of his cheeks having torn open against his teeth from blows to the face. 

He still barely had enough breath to groan when he realised he didn’t have the strength to spit the freshest mouthful of blood onto the ground, instead forced to just let his head hang and open his mouth. Ed squeezed his eyes shut against the sight of the lazy spill of it, unable to block out the sound of it spattering wetly to the floor in front of his feet. When there wasn’t much left but coppery spittle he did spit then and proceeded to cough raggedly, fighting to drag his head back up again. 

Reed was waiting for him. The punch landed harshly and with full force across his cheekbone and threw his head to the side. Ed gasped against the pain of it, feeling fresh blood pulse over his tongue and around his teeth, and actually kept his head turned against his arm. As protection went it was weak and futile, nothing at all really, but the hope was that Reed wouldn’t be able to get in another proper blow to his face if he stayed that way. 

“That’s enough, Shelton.” 

The voice startled Ed and reminded him that the blonde engineer, someone with very real and obvious fighting experience, was far from the only enemy in the room. Not without trepidation he turned his head from where he had crudely hidden it against his own arm and opened his eyes, stinging and struggling though they were. Reed’s arm was pulled back for another strike but he wasn’t looking at Ed. His attention was turned back over his shoulder and fixed on the older man. 

Blake. He was sitting on one of the crates. The bastard had been watching, Ed realised. 

“But, Boss—” 

Blake cut him off. “I said that’s enough, Shelton.” The sharpness in his voice actually made Ed shrink back a little, at least as much as he was able to with his current position. Reed dropped his arm almost instantly and it was as he was doing so that Ed noticed, grimly and with a swell of nausea, that the young man’s knuckles were bloody, a good deal of his whole hand spattered or splashed with the stuff. 

As Reed backed off Ed grimaced and let another pool of blood stream out of his mouth and onto the floor. He spat the last of it out, struggling to do so, his tongue sluggishly running along the backs of his teeth afterwards to see if they were all still there. It amazed him to realise that Reed hadn’t managed to smash any of them loose during the beating. Closing his mouth again, trying not to think about how much even that simple action hurt, he rocked his head back and let out another groan. It didn’t do anything to ease the pain or make him feel any less terrible. Ed felt almost cheated. 

“Well.” Blake’s voice cut across the gloomy space easily. “You can take a beating, I’ll give you that.” 

When Ed rocked his head forward again and opened his eyes, having to blink them a few times to get the other man to come into focus, he saw that Blake had risen from his perch and crossed the room once more. He took up the same spot he had occupied earlier, about a foot in front of where Ed hung from his chains, looking him up and down. Part of Ed wished he hadn’t let that last mouthful of blood out onto the floor so he could have spat it in the other man’s face instead. Part of him was relieved that he couldn’t do that after all. 

With his hands slipping casually into his pockets as he stood there Blake said with a small smile, “You look terrible, Mercer.” 

Ed surprised himself by managing to say, albeit not without difficulty, “Thanks.” The single word came out roughly, but at least he had managed to wrap it in a good deal of sarcasm before letting it out at all. Before his voice could give out on him completely he added, with just as much disdain, “You sure know how to make a guy feel special.” 

Blake chuckled, nodding his head. “I’d heard that about you,” he went on, giving Ed the distinct impression that this was a man who was fond of the sound of his own voice. “You can always rely on Ed Mercer to run his stupid mouth. He never knows when to shut up.” 

Another thing that had always turned the spite of his classmates in his direction, Ed recalled, but he lifted his head rather than letting it hang because he had proven not only to himself but plenty of others over the years that he was more than capable of talking his way out of bad situations. This probably wasn’t going to be one of them, Ed knew, but he also knew he could make his points with a surprising amount of eloquence and he was perfectly capable of holding his own in most arguments and debates. Something very much to that effect was listed in his personnel file, as a matter of fact. 

So Blake couldn’t use it against him. Ed wouldn’t let him. 

“You might not be feeling so glib after Maykor’s had a turn.” 

The use of the word turn made Ed’s stomach tighten uncomfortably, threatening to tie itself into a nauseating knot. He couldn’t help but divert his gaze briefly to the Moclan, still sitting in the corner, though Ed noticed then that he was no longer fiddling with whatever he was holding in his hands. When he brought his attention back to Blake the other man was smiling at him. 

Ed didn’t give the bastard the satisfaction of seeing that his threat had had any kind of effect on him. “Why are you doing this?” he asked instead, doing his best to ignore the foul taste in his mouth that made the simple act of forming words unpleasant. “You know it’s not real.” 

Blake’s brows rose and he took another step closer, saying as he did so, “Oh, I know it’s not real. But do you know that?” Another step. “Have you started struggling with that yet? Questioning what’s reality and what’s a fabrication?” One more step, bringing him so close that Ed could have landed a pretty solid kick to a few different places if his legs weren’t chained down at the ankles. “I’m willing to bet that you have.” 

Real or not real? 

It was a struggle to keep his expression from betraying him that time, a very real effort to maintain the hard line of his aching jaw and the steady focus of his gaze. As much as Ed didn’t want the other man to be right or even close to right, he knew that it was a lie to pretend otherwise. Not so very long ago he had been fighting to orient and balance himself for that very reason. Before he could think of a decent retort the other man had taken the opportunity to go on. 

“I’m also willing to bet that you remember every single death you’ve experienced here.” Taking one hand from his pocket he made a vague gesture at their surroundings, obviously meaning to take in the simulations in general rather than this one in particular. “And that means you’ll remember all of this as well. Every last bit of it.” 

Ed didn’t need any time to think about what Blake meant by that rather weighted remark. What he did need was time to gather and hold together the fraying edges of his composure that were threatening to give even more in the face of such an implication. Because Blake was right, Ed would remember this, not just the vicious beating he had already taken but whatever that Moclan was going to do to him, and anything else they were planning. 

“And the best part is,” Blake persisted with an increasing sense of cold enthusiasm, “we can just do this all over again when you’re done.” Ed tried to ignore the cold ball of dread that began to form in his stomach at those words. Blake leaned closer to him, saying in a low voice, “We’ll let you die and then we’ll hit the reset button and just start over.” 

His head was shaking back and forth as Ed said, his voice tighter than he cared to admit, “You’re out of your mind.” 

Blake didn’t acknowledge or respond to those words, brushing them off effortlessly in order to continue his own little speech, “This isn’t going to stop, Mercer, no matter how much you beg for it. We’re going to do this over and over and over again, until there’s nothing left of the man you used to be.” And then his hand came up without warning, closing around Ed’s throat as he concluded in a low hiss of a voice, “We’re going to destroy you.” 

An icy chill raced up the length of Ed’s spine and he wasn’t entirely convinced that he was able to hold back the bodily shudder that it provoked even though he tried to do so. We’re going to destroy you. Those words cycled ominously in his head as he met Blake’s gaze and managed to hold it, recognising that the other man’s hand around his throat wasn’t gripping to choke. It wasn’t an attack. It was a reminder. Blake was underlining Ed’s helplessness by laying that hand on him and keeping it there, knowing full well that there was nothing he could do about it. 

His mouth had filled once again with a good deal of his own blood. 

Was it worth it? 

Blake’s eyes narrowed, obviously reading Ed’s clenched jaw and tight expression for what they really were, and what they actually meant. His grip around Ed’s throat tightened, if only by a fraction, and he said in a quiet but fierce tone of voice, “You spit that mouthful of blood in my face—” and then he actually leaned closer, almost daring Ed to attack him anyway, “—and I’ll make sure you regret it.” 

Damn him. Damn every fibre of his being and everything he represented. 

Eyes still narrowed, grip still just that little bit tighter, Blake held perfectly still. Waiting. Like a cobra ready to strike. 

Not worth it. 

Damn him all the way to hell. 

Ed swallowed the blood. His face twisted in a grimace as he did so, hating every second of it and having to fight the roll of powerful nausea it triggered, but he managed not to even so much as retch. He felt the way his throat moved against Blake’s steady hand as he did it and then when it was gone he parted his lips just enough to raggedly breathe out the last of the foul taste. In doing so he also proved to the bastard in front of him that the blood was no longer in his mouth, at least nowhere near enough to pose any kind of crude threat. 

“Good boy.” Blake’s voice was little more than a growl but there was a scathing and thoroughly demeaning quality to it. He showed a fleeting cold smile and then once again slapped his open palm against Ed’s already assaulted cheek. The contact hurt far more than it had any right to and Ed couldn’t help the very obvious wince or the sharp intake of a discomforted breath that accompanied it. 

It was only then that Ed noticed that Maykor had stepped out from the corner of the room, moving closer. Despite himself he tensed in place, turning his gaze warily in the Moclan’s direction. Maykor approached without a word and when he came to a stop before Ed, just to his left, he couldn’t help but notice the size of the shadow the Moclan was casting across him. Even covered in his own sweat and blood as he was Ed felt suddenly and strangely colder for it. 

“Let’s see how you do with this one.” Blake’s hands had slipped back into his pockets, his posture perfectly casual as he backed off a few feet to give his second-in-command plenty of room. 

The sensation of something cold slipping over and around his left hand startled him at first, it was so unexpected, and Ed turned his attention in that direction immediately afterwards. He had to tilt his head up and back, almost uncomfortably, to see what the Moclan was doing and even when he saw it he didn’t really understand it. 

The thing that Maykor had been toying with all this time was some kind of glove, but it was metallic and skeletal, little more than the frame of one with what looked suspiciously like small circular points marking out all the joints and overlaying all of the major bones. They were an almost perfect match for the size and shape of his hand, Ed realised with a small flicker of concern, and the fact that Blake was smirking when he dropped his gaze to look at the other man didn’t help to ease his worry in the least. 

Maykor finished securing the device at the base of Ed’s hand, just above where the cuff was biting into the flesh of his wrist, and he became instantly aware of a disturbing change in the pressure of the air in the finite space between the frame of the glove and the surface of his skin. It felt tighter, heavier, almost as if the gravity in that small area had been increased. 

Ed didn’t want to find out why. He really didn’t want to find out why. 

The Moclan obviously didn’t care about what he did or didn’t want. Without hesitation or regret he touched his finger and thumb to the circular points at the base of Ed’s little finger and held them there. 

There was no time to brace for it. When it came it was abrupt and brutal and blazing, the explosive burn of the shattering bone shooting down his arm, through his shoulder, and right into his chest. Ed jerked violently in the chains, nearly choking on the crushing pain before he found just enough air left in his lungs to let out a howl of agony. 

 


 

When Lowell had tentatively come to stand just in his peripheral vision near the helm it had taken Gordon a moment to actually notice him. It was only when the younger man had cleared his throat that he’d actually realised he had company. Lowell had gone on to surprise him even further by asking if he could have a word. Gordon had hesitated only as long as it had taken him to glance in Kelly’s direction to seek her approval, which he had received in the form of a nod. 

From the bridge they had travelled the short distance to the briefing room, the closest space that offered any kind of privacy that wasn’t Ed or Kelly’s offices. As soon as they were through the doors Gordon asked, “What’s up, man? Is something wrong?” Maybe that was a stupid question, considering where they were going and whose trail they were following. They had no way of knowing for sure but they had a strong suspicion that it was Lowell’s brother Shelton’s tracker signature that they were following at that exact moment in time. 

“I want to help.” 

Gordon’s eyes widened as his brows lifted. 

“If I can, I mean,” Lowell went on with a shake of his head. “And I know you guys don’t have any real reason to trust me, not really, but—” He shook his head again and looked off across the room, beyond the briefing table to the window and the streaking stars that passed by rapidly. “I don’t know. I can’t really explain it.” 

“Hey,” Gordon returned, “you don’t have to explain it. I get it.” He frowned a little. “Well, not really, but you know what I mean.” Drawing in a breath and moving to the table he gestured at one of the chairs to encourage Lowell to sit down. If the younger man didn’t sit it looked like he might explode with whatever tension and anxiety he was feeling. “You know you’ve already helped us, right?” 

Lowell knitted his fingers together on the table and then freed them again only to unconsciously trace the illuminated stripe along the surface’s edge. “Have I, though?” he returned, only lifting his gaze to Gordon’s when the words were out of his mouth. He was frowning. “The important stuff wasn’t anything I did. Like the tracker? I didn’t do anything.” 

Gordon tilted his head a little to one side. “Maybe,” he conceded, “but you let us examine it and find the frequency. And you told us what you could.” Holding the other pilot’s gaze he said, “That’s not nothing, man.” In his mind it would have been so easy for someone in Lowell’s position to stay silent and uncooperative, as he had been directly after they had apprehended him. Instead he had let them talk to him, he had listened and engaged in conversation, and then when he had finally felt comfortable enough to do so he had opened up and actually shared information not only about himself but the Razers in general. 

Which reminded him— 

“There’s something I don’t understand,” he said, eyes narrowing as his brow furrowed. “About Razers, I mean.” 

Lowell frowned right back at him. “What?” 

Gordon gestured emptily with his hands for a moment, trying to get his thoughts in order and only speaking when he felt he had successfully done so. “Everything we’ve read about you guys—” he hesitated, “—about Razers, I mean—” and then he went on, “—says that crews band together if there’s some kind of greater threat.” Lowell was still frowning and when he didn’t say anything Gordon persisted, “We all thought we’d have run into more of y—more crews by now, but we haven’t seen any traces of them anywhere.” The furrow in his brow deepened as he said, “So what gives?” 

Lowell was looking down at the table as he gave yet another shake of his head. “Reputation,” he said, lifting his gaze. “Blake’s always going on about reputation.” He met Gordon’s eye directly as he went on, “The whole banding together against a greater threat thing is just part of that.” 

Gordon didn’t understand and he supposed it showed. 

“It’s just what people like Blake want everyone to think,” Lowell said with a weary sense of finality, lifting and dropping his shoulders in a shrug. “And honestly? Razers fight among themselves just as much as they fight with anyone else. Maybe more.” 

“Seriously?” Gordon couldn’t believe it. They had been so worried about the threat of the Razers as a whole this entire time only to now found out that there was no danger whatsoever. Well, none that they hadn’t already been facing in the form of Blake and his Moclan follower at least. 

Lowell’s smile was almost apologetic when he said, “Seriously.” Sitting up a little straighter he added, “Besides, Blake’s not exactly anyone’s favourite guy. And Maykor?” 

“The Moclan?” 

“Yeah.” Lowell nodded. “He’s—” After a pause in which he realised he obviously couldn’t find the right word the younger pilot simply exhaled loudly and heavily and gave another shake of his head. 

Gordon frowned again. “That bad, huh?” 

Lowell actually sounded scared when he said, with gravity, “Worse.” 

The tiny ball of dread that had been sitting quietly in his gut since all of this had started grew a few sizes all at once as he sat there watching the very real fear pass over Lowell’s face, and Gordon found himself hoping beyond hope and praying to whatever cosmic powers might be listening that the Moclan in question stayed far, far away from his best friend and brother. 

Ed was tough, one of the toughest people Gordon had ever known, but he didn’t want anyone he cared about anywhere near someone like Maykor. 

“So,” Lowell said softly, cautiously, “do you think I can?” He paused and added, “Help, I mean.” 

Gordon was grateful for the distraction from the dark direction that his thoughts had started to take of their own accord and he gave a nod of his head as he tried to centre himself anew. “Yeah,” he said to the younger man, knowing it wasn’t really his place to say any such thing but wanting it to be true so badly that he didn’t feel anything but confident about the answer anyway. “Yeah,” he said again, meeting and holding Lowell’s hopeful gaze. “I think so.” With a small smile he added, “We’ll take all the help we can get.” 

 


 

Maykor was methodical. Not unlike Reed he took his time but there was no bristling tension or anticipation in his movements, what little he made. There was aggression, and undeniably so, as if his whole body was made up of it, but there was no restless anxiety or heavy breathing that spoke of a private kind of rage and desperation. Maykor had no personal stake in this. He was just doing it. It was for the sake of it. 

Ed wasn’t sure if that made it better or worse. 

That pressure spiked unbearably again and there was another splintering crack, the sound of which was quickly lost under the breaking of his own voice as he cried out against the savage pain of it. Once again his knees tried to give out on him and he had to fight to get his feet back under him properly so his shoulders wouldn’t pull horribly, struggling to catch his breath the entire time. 

His arm was wet. Wet and warm and foully discoloured now as streams of blood worked their way steadily down the upstretched limb. It was trembling too, near constantly and hard enough to send tremors of pain shivering along the arm and into his shoulder. From there they spread outward, each heavy beat of his overworked heart only making it that much worse. 

Gritting his teeth and blinking back the tears that had sprung to his eyes in the wake of the freshest assault Ed reluctantly tipped his head back and looked at his hand. Almost immediately he wished that he hadn’t. It was covered in blood, dripping with it, and even at such an awkward angle and with the partial obstruction of the device Ed could see the torn flesh and the very obvious and sickeningly pale colour of the bones that had pierced the surface of his skin. 

It was a very real fight to keep the nausea at bay and he groaned against the intense roll of it, closing his eyes and turning his head down and away. Ed didn’t know how many bones Maykor had broken with the thing on his hand, just how much damage he had done overall, but what he did know was that the whole thing felt like it had been buried in a furnace and left there, pushed right down to where the flames were hottest. No matter how much he silently prayed for it the hand just wouldn’t numb, even after so much terrible damage had been done to it. It was relentless, and it only kept getting worse. 

He heard the sound of the leather Maykor was wearing creaking as the Moclan moved and his heart skipped. Fear. He was afraid. It hurt so much and he didn’t want to take any more. Ed shook his head, the movement sluggish and exhausted, and actually turned his attention directly on his attacker. 

“Stop—” It was little more than a gasp, a fractured and desperately dry sound. His throat felt raw. “Please,” he managed, breathlessly and shakily, “please, s—” 

Maykor’s other hand moved so fast that it was actually frightening in and of itself. It clamped with dangerous tightness around the bottom of Ed’s face, covering his mouth completely and forcibly turning his head down and away again. Despite himself Ed trembled, unleashing a muffled sound of alarm that became thready and tapered off entirely when the Moclan leaned in close enough to speak gruffly right down his ear. 

“Look at me again,” he growled, “and I will tear out your eyes.” 

Ed closed them reflexively, keeping them squeezed shut. 

Speak to me again,” Maykor went on in his deep warning rumble, “and I will tear out your tongue.” And then he leaned even closer, his hot breath washing over Ed’s ear, his huge hand clamping that much tighter as he snarled, “And whatever I remove, I will force you to eat.” 

Panic spiked through Ed’s system and he couldn’t get a handle on the fear that flooded through him. The power in that hand over his mouth and jaw, gripping tightly in front of his ears, was so fierce and so threatening. The unbridled aggression in the Moclan’s deep voice was unmistakable. 

Maykor would do it. If Ed defied him, if he looked at him or spoke to him again, he would do exactly what he had threatened to do. Ed wasn’t ashamed to feel the terror that such a threat provoked. 

“Do you understand me?” 

The Moclan’s voice was dark and dangerous and Ed actually couldn’t do anything for several moments, caught in the grip of that terror that he was having very real trouble getting under his control. His knees felt weak all over again. His heart was racing wildly. 

Maykor’s grip tightened. Just a fraction, but it was enough. 

With a shallow sound of panic Ed managed to nod his head in the Moclan’s grasp. It was only slight but it had a frantic quality to it that he felt almost immediately ashamed of, even as Maykor slowly released his hold and then dropped his hand away altogether, allowing Ed to breathe again. Those breaths came in desperate and shuddering gasps and it felt as if he would never be able to steady them again even as a voice spoke from across the room. 

“I told you, Mercer,” Blake said steadily and with a calm kind of indifference, “it won’t stop. Even if you beg for it, it won’t stop.” 

Ed opened his eyes, watery though his vision was, and looked at the other man. Had he begged? With a pang in his chest he realised that he had. He had begged Maykor to stop. The pain of his shattered bones and torn flesh had driven him to it and he hadn’t been thinking of doing any such thing but he had done it. It had just happened. Ed hadn’t wanted to do it but he hadn’t been able to stop himself. 

Just as he wasn’t able to stop himself from letting out a fresh scream as yet another bone in his hand was shattered violently. 

 


 

With a slight smile on his face Blake lowered his gaze from Mercer’s writhing form as Maykor methodically went through the motions of not only breaking but thoroughly destroying every single bone in their captive’s left hand. The fingers had gone first, smallest to largest, and then the thumb, before Maykor had moved on to the bones through the back of the hand. 

Mercer’s hand was a bloody ruin. The device Maykor had fitted him with applied brutally amplified levels of pressure through whatever it was clamped around and effectively wrenched the bone not only to the surface but through it. In the real world there would have been no saving it, the only option would have been to amputate altogether and regenerate. That was if you had access to that technology, at least. Razers almost never did. Mercer and the rest of his sorry ilk didn’t know just how lucky they were. 

Arrogant, spoiled, superior, and insufferably holier-than-thou, every single one of them. 

Blake hoped Mercer’s crew did catch up with them. He genuinely hoped they did. The pleasure he would take in systematically destroying each and every one of those wretched ingrates was almost beyond measure and the mere thought brought a smile to his lips even as the chained man across the room let out a pitiful wail of a sound after yet another bone gave under Maykor’s attentions. 

Looking to his side Blake watched Shelton fidget on the crate he had returned to after being called back from blowing off a little steam. The younger man was obviously restless, impatient and dissatisfied, and he was watching the events unfolding across the room with much less interest and investment than Blake himself had been. 

“Don’t worry, Shelton,” he told his engineer, bringing the younger man’s attention back to him. “You’ll get another turn soon.” And he gave the younger man a nod of reassurance before turning his head back to the room’s other occupants. 

When Blake had told Mercer that this would never end he had meant it. As far as he was concerned they had the D’Nari’s balls in a vice and there was nothing that that O’Lar bitch or any of her pathetic subordinates could do about stopping this. Those pale sons of bitches would reset the system for them over and over again if they wanted to keep their whole organisation under wraps, and Blake would make sure they didn’t dare to even so much as think about interfering in what he and his boys were doing. 

They would do this again and again, stripping little pieces of Mercer away every single time, until he was nothing but a hollowed out ruin of his former self. Even if the Union did come for him what they found instead would barely be a man at all. Captain Ed Mercer of the USS Orville would be no more. Blake didn’t much care what happened to him after that. 

But as for right now he and his boys were just getting started. 

 


 

“This is wrong.” J’Ron shook his head with a sigh and looked across at his associate, doing his best not to let his gaze linger on the labouring form of the human in its rig. Even without looking at it he knew very well that it was having obvious difficulty. Its vitals were spiking erratically, and in a tellingly troubling fashion. J’Ron had worked as an operator long enough by that point to recognise very real warning signs when he saw them. 

K’Mor actually sounded just as concerned as he did for a change when he said sceptically, “O’Lar is really sanctioning this?” Perhaps concerned was the wrong word. Disconcerted might have been more accurate. His fellow operator moved across the workspace in order to see the descriptive monitor that could either tell or show what was happening in a simulation. At present they had it set to its descriptive function and J’Ron, for one, was glad for that. The description alone was bad enough. Actually seeing it would be something else. 

Drawing in a heavy and uneasy breath J’Ron responded to his companion, saying, “She must be.” Meeting K’Mor’s gaze briefly he went on, “Remember, she’s the one who specified this environment. She had to know who the guests were, and what they might want to do.” And there was no escaping the fact that, as Director, O’Lar was always aware of every activity taking place in every simulation running at any given point in time. 

She knew exactly what was happening to this human, and beyond that, she knew that the guests had no intention of leaving the system after a single session. That was unusual, highly unusual in fact, and J’Ron wondered what exactly had happened that they were not aware of for O’Lar to endorse such a thing. 

“It’s not against the rules, J’Ron,” K’Mor said then, shaking his head a little and watching the steady stream of information that the system was providing. “Not strictly speaking.” 

J’Ron couldn’t help the slightest hints of disapproval from slipping into his voice as he said then, “There are no rules.” 

K’Mor turned his head to meet J’Ron’s gaze. “Exactly.” There was an accepting sort of finality to the way that he said that and J’Ron had to admit that he didn’t like it. 

“We should stop this,” he said to his associate, holding his gaze. “You know that we should.” What was happening in the environment, and what was going to continue to happen if they were reading the signs correctly, went far beyond the normal activities in the simulations. They both knew what this was, what it really was, and it was not something that J’Ron, for one, could sanction. 

“Whether or not we should,” K’Mor said to him, plainly and clearly, and with no small amount of emphasis, “you know as well as I do that we can’t.” With a small sigh he said by way of conclusion, “You know that, J’Ron.” There’s nothing we can do. That was what K’Mor was really saying and J’Ron heard the words as easily as if they had been spoken aloud rather than merely implied. 

That didn’t make the events that were unfolding before their eyes any easier to watch or accept, though. If anything it actually made them that much worse. 

 


 

With nothing else to occupy her thoughts, no other distractions or work to busy herself with, all Kelly could do was think about what might happen when they reached their destination. They had no way of knowing if this pursuit would end in the recovery of their missing Captain but they were all hoping for it, and Kelly wanted so much to believe that that small ball of tightness she could feel in the pit of her gut was some kind of certainty that that was exactly what was going to happen. 

Why else would the Razers have gone back to that planet? It was a rendezvous point that they had used to deliver their bounty to the people who had made the request in the first place and their ion train had mysteriously vanished over that very same planet. The only explanation for such a thing was that the shuttle had met up with a larger ship and docked with it. When they had left the planet it had been in that larger ship that they had done so and therefore their ion trail had simply stopped. It was the only thing that made sense. 

And if they had gone back to the people who had hired them then that meant that in finding them, they would also find what they were really looking for. 

They would find Ed. 

Had he been hurt? If so, how badly? Had those people started to do to him what they had already done to Tommy and the Xelayan woman they had found? Claire was still investigating what exactly those oddly precise and lined wounds meant, what they could have been used for, but none of them thought that it was anything good. And if Tommy’s mental condition was anything to go by? They really were working on not only very little time, but possibly even borrowed time. 

Their three days were almost up. 

Kelly stopped thinking about that invisible clock that had been looming over them all since they had gotten their official orders from Union Central and instead turned her mind back to Ed. It hurt to think about him while she was sitting in his chair because he couldn’t occupy it himself but there was a steadiness to be found in thoughts of him as well. Even in his absence she could draw comfort from thinking about him and all the things that had made her so fond of him in the first place. 

Not just fond, she reminded herself. She admired him, she respected him, she found him almost absurdly endearing and charming. And she loved him. As much as she had tried not to after their divorce and the time since she loved him with all her heart and soul and she had had to face the reality of the fact that she would never stop. He was as vital to her existence as the blood in her veins and the breath in her lungs and now that she had him back in her life she would be damned if she was going to let anyone or anything strip him out of it. 

There was nothing Kelly would not do for him, no enemy she would not face, no odds she would not overcome, no risk she would not take, and no sacrifice she would not make. She would do whatever it took to get him back and make him safe again. She didn’t care what it cost her personally or professionally. And God help those who might have done him harm. 

But until the Orville got to him Ed had to hold on and hold out. He had to endure and survive until they could come charging in to get him out. He was tough, much stronger than he looked, a survivor to the core, but he was alone and outnumbered and being subjected to God only knew what. 

Hold on. That was what he had to do. Not just for himself and for this ship and its crew, but for her. Because Kelly didn’t know what she would do without him, and she never wanted to have to find out.

Chapter Text

Hold on. He had to hold on. 

No. Holding on meant staying alive and the only way out of this was dying. Wasn’t it? 

Ed didn’t know, he didn’t know which thought to trust and put his wavering conviction in, and thinking with any kind of coherence at all was already beyond difficult and creeping into the realms of impossible. Everything had become clouded and misshapen, a heavy fog of utter exhaustion had settled over him and left him incapable of even keeping his eyes open, let alone holding his head up. Everything felt so heavy, everything hurt so much, and in letting his head hang it provided him with no relief but he couldn’t raise it for himself. It felt like he couldn’t even remember how

So when it lifted he knew it wasn’t by his doing. His neck ached fiercely at the movement and his skull throbbed and he sucked in a metallic-tasting breath that tumbled back out of him in little more than a moan. 

Someone was saying something. They were close but he could only just make out the words, like he was hearing them from a long, long way off. 

“Come on, Mercer,” the voice said, almost impatiently, “don’t give out on us yet.” 

And then that ache in his neck became a sharp, jabbing pain instead. It was fleeting, only momentary, but it made him hiss through his teeth and tense reflexively. That tension awakened all the hurts he had been trying to slip away from and he quickly became aware of the fact that he was recognising them again. And keenly. 

All too swiftly everything came pulsing back in at the edges, his awareness returning seemingly of its own accord. But Ed quickly realised it wasn’t anything of the sort, that his consciousness hadn’t come rushing back. It had been dragged back. 

Blake was standing right in front of him and one of his hands was tangled in Ed’s sweat-damp hair, holding his head back at an uncomfortable angle. When Blake pulled the needle out of the side of his neck Ed felt the pain of it, the chamber empty of whatever drug it had been holding only moments before. That drug had quickly gotten to work in his overwhelmed system and kicked everything back into high gear, lifting the worst of the fog from his brain and all but eradicating what little numbness his battered body had finally granted him in the way of relief. 

It did nothing for the pain. If anything it only made it worse. In sharpening and clearing his mind Blake had ensured he could really feel those hurts all over again, and with renewed focus and intensity. 

“God damn you,” he groaned once the realisation of what had been done and why settled in properly. 

Blake gave his hair a spiteful tug and then released his head, allowing Ed to drop it again so the two of them could lock gazes properly. As best as he was able Ed fixed him with a stare as hateful as any he had ever given anyone in his life, knowing that it was futile but just as keenly aware that it was the only thing he could do. Even with blood soaking his left arm, wrist included, he was unable to even so much as shift the cuff holding him in place and all the efforts had accomplished, whether they had been conscious or reflexive, was further injury in the form of split skin around not just one but both wrists. 

“Can’t have you passing out on us before we’re done, can we,” Blake said, his inflection removing the possibility of the words being a question. He gave Ed a cool and unfeeling smile, going on to say, “I told you it wasn’t going to end, remember?” He held up the now-empty needle. “Just a little something to bring everything back into focus for you.” 

And make everything worse. Ed heard those words even though Blake didn’t say them. He didn’t need to. 

“I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear that Maykor is done for the time being.” 

Ed almost turned his gaze to find the Moclan but the threat blazed through his brain just in time to keep him from making what likely would have ended up being a terrible mistake and instead he kept his eyes fixed on Blake. 

But,” the other man went on, “if you’ve been paying attention, you should realise what that means.” When he smiled then it was more genuine, and yet somehow it was an even colder expression than the one he had been wearing moments before. 

That ball of dread that had settled in the pit of his stomach hadn’t gone anywhere but it grew again then, hardening as well. Ed did know what the end of Maykor’s brutal attentions meant and he couldn’t help but feel as if things had been steadily building. Reed’s beating had been bad, the worst Ed had ever experienced in his life, but Maykor’s systematic and ruthless mangling of his hand had been that much worse. 

Ed had to swallow against the sudden increased dryness in his throat as he said, “Your turn.” 

Blake’s smile grew and he nodded. 

It was going to be worse. Ed knew it before anything had even happened. He couldn’t see anything in the other man’s hands other than the empty needle but he knew it as surely as he knew any other indisputable fact. Whatever Blake was going to do was going to be worse than what Maykor had done. It was as simple as that. And he had made sure Ed was going to feel every single second of it. 

Every curse he knew, in more than one language, fired through his brain then but he couldn’t give any of them voice. Blake had turned away before he could form any of them and by then the moment had passed and it felt small and sad and desperate and Ed didn’t want to give the other man any more disadvantages or weaknesses to prey upon. He couldn’t exactly make things any harder for them, but that didn’t mean he had to make them any easier either. 

Blake retrieved something from a case that had been set behind one of the crates in the room and walked calmly and confidently back across the room. Ed couldn’t see what he was holding, not clearly enough to get any kind of idea what it might be, and the other man started to speak as he approached, effectively distracting him as he said, “You know what shocks me more than any of the other stories I’ve heard about you? More than the Krill and the Moclans—” Maykor made a low sound, “—and the Kaylon.” 

Ed knew that the other man wasn’t really waiting on an answer, so he didn’t give one. 

“It’s the fact that you were married.” 

He should have known it would have been something like that. Ed had heard Blake clearly when he had used the words ex-wife and that couldn’t have just been a guess. It was no secret within their own ranks that the commanding officers of the Orville had once been married but Ed hadn’t thought for one second that it would have gone further than the Union. He didn’t ask how Blake had known because ultimately it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he did, and he was obviously going to try and use it to cause pain. 

“And I think Reed and I can agree,” Blake went on, turning his upper body just enough to indicate the younger man, “she’s a hell of a woman.” Blake let out a low sound that was impossible to mistake as anything but suggestive, not to mention lewd. 

Ed’s right hand balled into a fist over his head. Unconsciously he started to pull down on the cuffs around his wrists. 

“How the hell did you ever get a gorgeous woman like that?” Blake was shaking his head in genuine disbelief. With a chuckle he went on to say, “Something tells me you weren’t the one wearing the pants in that relationship either.” 

Reed let out a laugh and Maykor made another low sound that was decidedly less aggressive than any other he had made so far. 

Ed tried not to show any reaction but he thought his expression might have shifted just a little, just a twitch, because Blake’s smile took on a cruel and knowing edge. 

“Yeah,” he said slowly. “You know it too, don’t you?” With another shake of his head he persisted, “A woman like that is way out of your league and you got lucky.” Raising his brows he added, “And you obviously blew it.” His smile became a distinctly derisive grin when he said, with finality, “No wonder she started screwing around on you behind your back.” 

Ed didn’t realise he must have yanked on the cuff holding his right wrist until the sound of metal links rattling registered and Blake let out a coolly triumphant laugh. 

“Don’t worry, Mercer,” he went on, still sounding amused, “women won’t be a problem for you anymore when we’re through.” The amusement dropped out of his voice and he said, “And I’ll take real good care of your ex-wife for you.” 

His reaction was immediate, both of his legs jerking violently against the chains holding them down, hard and fast enough that his muscles and joints burned in protest not only against the sudden movement but the equally sudden jolt of being stopped. “You son of a bitch,” he snapped, the frustration at being unable to lash out adding volume and force to the words, his breathing heavier and more ragged as his anger fired anew. 

Blake just smiled at him. 

“If you touch her,” Ed ground out, “I’ll kill you.” 

Blake laughed. “Oh, is that right?” He looked Ed up and down. “You’re still not getting this, are you?” And then he cracked the back of his hand across Ed’s face, a hard and fast strike that actually stunned him for several long seconds before he could drag his head up again. “You’re going to die here, Mercer. Again and again. I already told you that.” He was holding Ed’s gaze unwaveringly, with a cold determination, as he went on, “But you’re going to die out there as well. Your mind?” And then his hand was catching in Ed’s hair again, trapping his head rather than yanking it back but the discomfort was just as sharp. “Is going to shatter. And you’ll be gone. Everything that makes you the person that you are? Will be gone.” Tightening his grip he added with a cruel sense of satisfaction, “For all intents and purposes, Ed Mercer will be dead.” 

Tommy. Ed couldn’t help but think of Caro’s poor brother. And—Rambler

It was a combination of fear and defiance that had him trying to wrench his head out of Blake’s grip and the other man let him do it, but not before his fingers caught painfully in Ed’s tangled hair. “I would say you’re going to make this worse for yourself,” he said with obvious irritation, “but—” With a huff of breath past his lips he popped open what he had been carrying and said, “Well, you’ll see.” 

Ed couldn’t help but drop his gaze to that case and its contents. It wasn’t particularly large and it had no markings, and the contents themselves looked innocuous enough at first. Several plain pale discs were stacked atop one another in two compartments, and there was something black that looked not unlike a remote in the other side. Ed brought his eyes back up to Blake’s face and said, “They’ll find you.” Me. That was what he really wanted to say but he didn’t want to sound desperate or afraid, even if he felt both. “You know they will.” 

“Hm.” Blake wasn’t looking at him, instead focused down on the case’s contents. “Honestly?” he said, taking one of the discs from the case. “I’m counting on it.” 

When Blake reached for him Ed tensed before he could help himself, more or less every inch of his body protesting to the motion afterwards. Instead of landing a strike though Blake hooked a finger in the front of Ed’s shirt and gave it a tug upward, lifting it high enough to expose his waist. Blake actually grimaced, almost sympathetically, but he ruined it by smiling, lifting the shirt even higher as he said, “That looks like it hurts.” 

Ed didn’t plan to look down but he did anyway, immediately catching sight of the dark and ugly bruises that mottled his skin. They would be scattered all around his torso, he knew, souvenirs from Reed’s beating. Ed caught himself wondering just how badly bruised his face was before he stopped himself and defiantly met Blake’s gaze again, thinking back to what the other man had said about the crew finding him. “They’ll stop you.” 

With a low sound that might have been a dismissive chuckle Blake caught Ed off guard by pressing that disc he had removed from the case to the left side of his abdomen, above his hip. Where Rambler had driven the knife into him. The coincidence sent a cold chill up Ed’s spine and he pulled in a breath despite himself. As Blake repeated the motion on the other side, mirroring the first disc with a second, he said, “Oh, they’ll try, I’m sure.” Once the second disc had adhered he let the front of Ed’s shirt drop again. The material rucked and didn’t fall all the way down but Blake left it like that. 

As he went on Blake moved around to Ed’s back, causing him to tense again. He couldn’t help it. “I’m actually hoping they’ll put up a fight. More than you, at least.” Ed felt his shirt tugged up at the back, another pair of those discs being pressed to his skin at either side of the small of his back, just above the waistline of his pants. Blake stayed at his back, saying, “It’ll make it all the more satisfying when I destroy them.” 

Ed winced when Blake yanked down on the back of the shirt’s collar, tugging the front up so much that it pressed firmly around his throat. Another of those discs was pressed to the upper left of his spine, just at the edge of his shoulder blade. Blake pressed its twin to the other side moments later. He came back around to Ed’s front then, standing and looking at him with his brows raised, almost as if he was impatiently awaiting a response. 

Determined not to give it to him Ed simply stared at him. 

“And here I thought you were going to tell me that I’d fail, or I’d never get away with this. Something like that.” 

Ed narrowed his eyes. “I’ve seen enough classic movies to know which clichés to avoid.” 

Blake actually chuckled at that one, nodding his head. “Fair enough,” he said, and then he pulled down the front of Ed’s shirt, yanking it with enough force for some of the stitching to give audibly. Ed winced again, biting back a sound of discomfort, and tried to keep his breathing steady as the other man pressed another pair of those discs to his upper chest, right below his collarbone on either side. “But you’re thinking it, aren’t you.” Blake brought his eyes up to Ed’s again. 

“Two-hundred and ninety-nine to three,” Ed said after several moments of tense silence. “I like their odds.” 

The smile on Blake’s face was back to being cool and unfazed. He retrieved another disc from the case and reached up, applying it under Ed’s ear, just behind the hinge of his jaw. Ed couldn’t pull his head back far enough to keep Blake from doing so successfully. He repeated the process on the other side without saying a word. When he did speak again he stood very still in front of Ed as he did so, saying almost dryly, “Oh yes, all those children and civilians. All the teachers and technicians and scientists.” With a smirk he said, louder, “We’re quaking in our boots, right, boys?” 

Reed and Maykor repeated their same sounds of amusement from before. 

God, Ed hated all three of them. 

Blake slipped the black item from the case and then the case itself was pushed into one of his pockets almost nonchalantly. He looked down at the device in his hand, showing it to Ed, revealing it to be a simple enough item, nondescript save for the very obvious pair of buttons on one face. One was smaller than the other but otherwise there was nothing remarkable about it. “I’ve been dying to try one of these ever since I heard about it,” he said to Ed. “It looks pretty plain, right? You’d never know who made it just by looking at it.” He turned the device in his hand, dropping his gaze to it as he said, “It’s Kovorian. They’ve been using them for years, and very effectively from what I understand.” 

Ed frowned, only briefly, and Blake saw it. 

“Oh, Kovorians? They make the Krill look like puppy dogs,” he said with a smile turning up one corner of his mouth. “And speaking of dogs,” he went on, “their hounds are enough to give anyone nightmares. The teeth on those things.” And he affected a shudder. 

Ed’s shudder wasn’t affected in the least. His blood was suddenly like ice in his veins. 

Blake noticed it. “Ohh.” His smile started to grow. “You’ve met them, haven’t you?” He showed his teeth as he grinned as he said, “What, one of their hounds got you?” Ed couldn’t help the way he flinched slightly at the memory of those vicious teeth slicing through his flesh. Severing his spine. Paralysing him. He closed his eyes as Blake laughed in earnest. “What’re the odds?” 

When Ed managed to open his eyes again, having just barely managed to shake the memory of that awful creature out of his mind, Blake was holding the device up again. “This?” he said, having obviously waited until he could catch and hold Ed’s attention. “It’s an interrogation tool.” 

He pressed the smaller of the two buttons. 

Ed felt the sharp jabs of pain, like hot pinpricks, at the centre of every single one of those discs that Blake had pressed to his skin. His breath caught and he grimaced, gritting his teeth against the intense discomfort. It felt like tiny blades piercing into him and rooting there. Like the teeth of those hounds. 

Blake chuckled again. “And that’s just me switching it on.” 

When Ed opened his eyes it was with reluctance because he didn’t want to see the smug satisfaction on the other man’s face. But he had to hold on. He had to hold out. Just as he had told Blake that his crew were coming he had to believe that that was true for himself. He had to hold on to that belief as tightly as he could. 

They were coming. They had to be. They wouldn’t leave him here. 

Kelly wouldn’t leave him here. 

This is what it really does.” And then Blake pressed the larger button. 

It was like being ripped apart from the inside out, like being stripped away at the core by scorching electricity that seared every nerve ending and set every inch of his skin ablaze. The shock and power of it rendered him mute at first, tearing all sense and reason away from him before he had sucked just enough burning air into his seizing lungs to let out what he thought was a scream but in reality was little more than a choking, strangled retch of a cry. The assault convulsed and tensed every muscle in his body and held him gripped like that, horribly and excruciatingly, until Blake released the button. 

Ed collapsed in his chains, gasping and panting and making shallow sounds of shock and distress. His entire body trembled as his heart raced madly, and Ed felt the muscles through his back and chest and stomach twitching erratically of their own accord. It was agony. 

With eyes flooded with pain he looked disbelievingly to Blake who was simply watching him, his head tilted almost curiously to one side. As Ed struggled to breathe and gave his head a shake, trying desperately to clear it, the other man obviously took that as a refusal or a challenge of some kind. And then he pressed the button again. 

He screamed that time. Even though he didn’t hear it he felt the way it raked and shredded its way up his throat, his head thrown back by the torturous arcs of energy that crackled through him. It fired at every mapped point on his body and then those points linked and spread ruthlessly outward in every direction. There was no relief and no respite save for when Blake released the button. 

A fresh coat of sweat had broken out all over his body as he hung trembling desperately, fighting to breathe and feeling like he would never be able to fill his lungs again. It triggered a spark of panic that he couldn’t get enough of a grip on before it had his heart racing even faster, adrenaline kicking in to try and numb the pain and give him enough energy to fight or flee. 

But Ed could do neither one. All he could do was shakily meet Blake’s gaze and try to prepare himself for the next wave. 

He couldn’t. 

By the fifth press Ed would have done anything to make the pain stop, to end the agony, but Blake didn’t want anything from him other than exactly what he was getting. There was nothing for Ed to do but scream, and cry, and struggle to endure. 

Hold on

 


 

“Commander.” 

The sound of Isaac’s voice turned Kelly’s head in the Kaylon’s direction immediately. Gripping the edges of the armrests that little bit more tightly she waited for him to continue. 

“According to scans, we are approaching the tracker’s location.” 

Kelly turned her gaze to the front of the bridge, towards the helm, and sat forward in the seat. “Gordon?” 

“He’s right, Commander,” the Helmsman confirmed, working his station attentively. “We’re coming up on it now.” 

“Drop to sublight,” she commanded and watched as the order was carried out, the viewer showing the shift in the stars as the Orville dropped out of quantum, reducing speed drastically. “Isaac, where is the tracker exactly?” she asked, turning her head back towards the Science station. 

“It is approximately forty thousand kilometres from our current position, Commander,” the Kaylon reported. “I believe they are aboard a large vessel.” 

“That is correct,” Bortus spoke up from his station, turning Kelly’s attention in his direction then. 

“Can we magnify?” she asked and within moments the viewer was filled with the image of a ship. 

It had an elegance to it, she supposed, but the size of the thing made it less appealing than it would have been otherwise. A medium grey in colour with green lights pinpointing the engines and other key areas, it was long and tall, and the view provided showed that it was broad as well. If she had to guess she thought it probably housed at least two thousand people, if not more. It was in motion, and clearly so, but it appeared to be in no great hurry to get anywhere in particular. 

“Are they alone?” she asked then, studying the ship further. 

“It looks that way,” Talla reported from her place on the bridge. “I’m not detecting any other ships in the vicinity.” 

“Lieutenant Malloy?” When she knew she had his attention she said, “Take us closer.” 

“How much closer, Sir?” 

“Close enough that they know they have company,” she told him, hearing the seriousness in her own voice. It was a hell of a risk to take, she knew, but they couldn’t afford to hang back and wait. They were so close to the wire they had practically no time to spare and if Ed was aboard that ship then there was nothing that could keep her from approaching and at least trying to make her way on board somehow. “Lifesigns?” she asked no one in particular. 

There were a few moments of silence before Talla said, “I can’t get any clear readings, Commander.” 

“Our scans cannot properly penetrate the vessel’s hull,” Isaac confirmed. 

Damn. 

“But we can pick up the tracker’s signal?” Gordon sounded confused, and rightfully so. “How’s that possible?” 

“That is unclear at this time, Lieutenant,” Isaac said. “But it is, as you would say, very lucky that we were able to do so.” 

“You’re right about that,” Kelly said, still watching the vessel. It wasn’t long before there was no need to magnify and the sheer size of the thing became clear. It was still nowhere near as sizeable as the Dorahl bioship but it dwarfed the Orville easily, and Kelly could be sure of that without having to ask their Kaylon Science Officer for the vessel’s dimensions. She wasn’t interested in details like that, honestly, even though she knew she should have been. At a guess she thought the unfamiliar craft was at least ten times their size overall, give or take. 

“Bortus, can you get any idea of their defensive capabilities?” 

The Moclan worked quietly for a few moments before saying, “The vessel is in possession of plasma weapons, Commander, but I see no evidence of any torpedoes or similar ordinance.” 

That was something. But they were still armed and that meant they would have to tread carefully. “Could we outgun them if it came down to it?” she asked the Second Officer, breaking her gaze from the viewer to look towards him at last. 

“I am uncertain, Commander,” he said. “It is possible, but the Orville could take heavy damage in the process.” 

“And if they take out our engines, we’re screwed,” Gordon pointed out from the helm. 

“So what are our options?” Talla asked, turning in her seat, first to regard the ship in the viewer and then to sweep her gaze over everyone else present. John was sitting at the Engineering station and Claire had taken up her usual place back from the command chairs with the Razer pilot standing close by her. That meant everyone was here. 

Except Ed. 

Kelly drew in a breath and shook her head. “John, Isaac.” She turned towards them. “Is there any way we could get a shuttle aboard without getting clearance on their end?” 

“That is unlikely, Commander,” Isaac responded, doing so before their Chief Engineer could say anything but John looked like he was considering the matter carefully anyway, one elbow propped on the edge of his station with his loosely balled fist close to his mouth. “According to our scans the ship’s shuttle bay is sealed shut at this point in time, and we would be unable to penetrate the hull by any other means without being detected.” 

Kelly looked to John, hoping for some outlandish suggestion. They could always count on their Chief Engineer to be creative in a crisis. Thinking outside the box came as naturally to him as breathing. But instead he shook his head with a sigh and said, “Isaac’s right. They’d see us coming a mile off. We wouldn’t even get close before they opened fire.” Or stopped them by some other means, at least. Even if the ship didn’t immediately go on the offensive they could employ a tractor beam or some other measure to keep the Union shuttle from getting too close. 

They were quickly running out of options. Kelly knew what meant. “Talla?” She turned to the Xelayan as the Security Chief twisted in her seat. “Can you open a channel?” 

She gave a nod and worked her station. “They’re responding,” she said, “but it’s audio only.” Turning in her seat she gave Kelly a nod to tell her that she was on. 

“Unknown vessel, this is Commander Grayson of the USS Orville—” 

“Yes, Commander,” a voice that sounded vaguely feminine said, “we are aware of your identity. We are currently outside of Union space and therefore beyond your jurisdiction. May I ask why you have approached us?” It sounded polite enough but Kelly knew a cool professionalism when she heard it. She had fallen back on it enough times herself in the past. 

Rising from her chair she went on as if she hadn’t been interrupted, “We have reason to believe that one of our crew is currently aboard your vessel.” The next part tasted bad on her tongue but she had to keep things cordial as much as possible. “We ask that you permit one of our shuttles—” 

“Out of the question, Commander Grayson.” 

“Pardon?” Kelly couldn’t help her reaction, the disbelief that went hand in hand with a hot flash of anger. She narrowed her eyes as if the other speaker could see her displeasure and went on, “If you won’t permit one of our shuttles to dock then we at least ask that you either confirm or deny the presence of a Union officer—” 

“You seem to have missed the part where I informed you that we are beyond the borders of Union controlled space,” the voice said, and firmly. “You have no authority here, Commander Grayson.” And the way in which they said the word Commander made it sound as if they thought next to nothing of the title. 

Kelly’s eyes narrowed further. “Who am I speaking to?” 

“Someone with authority,” the voice returned. They said nothing more. 

“Unknown vessel, if you refuse to cooperate we will have no option but to open fire,” Kelly said then, sensing more than seeing the eyes of nearly everyone on the bridge turning in her direction. She was dimly aware of the fact that Gordon actually turned in his chair to look at her. 

“That is your choice, Commander Grayson,” the voice said, almost dismissively. “I don’t doubt that you have already ascertained the offensive and defensive capabilities of our vessel and found them to be far superior to your own, but—” there was a brief pause, as if for effect, “—as I said, that is your choice.” 

Talla spoke up then, saying, “They’re gone, Commander.” 

Kelly turned her head, feeling another flash of anger and letting one hand ball into a fist before she got herself properly under control again. “Bortus,” she said gravely, “charge all weapons.” Turning back to the command chairs she resumed her seat as she said, “Raise deflectors.” She drew in a breath. “And take us to Red Alert.”

Chapter Text

J’Ron was shaking his head as he worked the monitor, unable to keep up with the various different alerts and warnings that the system was delivering to him. At the other side of the rig K’Mor was busy as well, doing all that he could to keep the human’s condition stable by any means necessary. It was entirely possible that they would soon reach a point where no amount of chemical assistance would keep the human from having some kind of extreme reaction to the events unfolding in the simulation and it had occurred to J’Ron that the medication they were administering might only make things worse as well. There was, after all, a fine line between enough and too much. He suspected they were approaching that line, and far too quickly for comfort. 

“This is absurd,” he uttered irritably under his breath, forcing himself to actually regard the descriptive monitor in order to see what was happening in the simulation. He was not in the least bit reassured by what he saw there and gave another shake of his head. He turned his gaze towards the human then, watching as it trembled and perspired and breathed raggedly. Its features were twisted into a pained expression as J’Ron dropped his gaze to the human’s hands, specifically the right one, watching how the fingers shook as they curled inward, almost as if in a perfect mirror of what they were doing in the simulation. The left hand trembled but otherwise moved very little, perfectly reflecting its condition in the environment. 

They had to do something. 

There had to be something that they could do. 

J’Ron looked back to the monitors, to the cautions and then to the account of the simulation, and then across to his fellow operator. 

He let out a small curse. How had it not occurred to him before? 

“K’Mor,” he said, loudly enough to be heard over the various sounds in their workspace. “Put me through to T’San and U’Rol.” 

“What?” K’Mor paused in his work and regarded him with surprised disbelief. Blinking, he looked from J’Ron to the human and then back again, giving a small shake of his head as he said, “Tell me you aren’t thinking of doing what I think you are.” 

J’Ron waved a hand, dismissing the remark because there was no time for it. “Just do it, K’Mor.” He fixed his associate with a level stare and waited, standing perfectly still with an expectant expression. When the other operator didn’t move immediately he said, with insistence and urgency, “Now!” 

That got K’Mor moving, albeit not happily, but J’Ron could apologise later. 

 


 

Another impact jolted everyone in their seats and Kelly glanced to Talla as the Xelayan reported minor damage on Decks D and E, before Isaac announced that deflectors were already down one third. With a shake of her head Kelly told everyone to keep at it, even as Gordon continued with his evasive manoeuvres, speeding and wheeling the Orville around its opponent in order to avoid as much of the weapons fire as possible. Bortus reported that their own attacks were having minimal effect on the enemy vessel. 

“We can’t keep this up for long, Commander,” John called from his station and Kelly glanced back at him, wanting to curse but biting it back in order to maintain an air of controlled professionalism. She tightened her grip on the armrests and turned her attention back to the viewer, trying to think of what they could do. 

Another impact. Everyone gripped their stations to keep their balance and Kelly twisted to look back at Claire and Reed, relieved to see that they were using the console directly behind her to keep themselves steady. “They must have some kind of weakness we can use,” she said, primarily to Isaac and John but she would take any suggestions. 

“We can target their engines and keep them from going any further,” their Chief Engineer suggested, “but we’d still get our asses handed to us in a pounding match.” 

That was what Kelly was afraid of. They wouldn’t be any good to Ed if they got themselves blown up and she wasn’t keen on the idea of any of the crew getting seriously injured in a head-to-head fight either. They needed options, and they needed them fast. “Target their engines,” she commanded. “At least that way they can’t go to quantum.” 

“Aye, Sir,” Bortus responded and proceeded to follow the command, unleashing a barrage of fire on the designated area. Kelly waited with bated breath as Gordon kept the ship moving in order to outfly as much of the return fire as possible. It felt like an impossibly long time passed before the Second Officer announced with his usual severity, “Their engines have been disabled.” 

“Ha!” Gordon’s triumph was short-lived as another series of shots from the enemy vessel strafed the side of the Orville and set the whole ship shuddering violently. “Crap.” 

“Reports of damage in Engineering, Commander,” Talla announced. 

“Hull integrity is weakening,” Bortus added. 

“Deflectors are down to one third power,” Isaac concluded, turning Kelly’s head his way in frustrated disbelief. Angling her attention forward again she watched as the ship pivoted and pitched in the viewer, Gordon keeping up their swift movements to the best of his ability, but the enemy vessel was keeping up with them too well. 

Kelly’s heart sank. They were losing. 

 


 

“Done.” K’Mor still sounded extremely unhappy but his mood shifted dramatically when the ship rumbled around them and they felt a subtle but very real tremor shudder along beneath their feet. “What was that?” 

J’Ron moved to the rear station where communications was housed, saying as he did so, “I don’t know,” even though he suspected he had some idea. It felt like some sort of impact, an attack perhaps, but there was no time to enter into a discussion about such a thing with his associate when he had other matters to tend to. 

“J’Ron?” It was U’Rol who was waiting to speak with him and she regarded him with the same sort of confusion that K’Mor had been wearing directly after the shudder. “Did you feel that as well? It felt almost like—” 

“Yes, U’Rol, I did,” he said, cutting her off and adding another name to his list of apologies to give later. “Is T’San there with you?” 

“J’Ron?” The other operator’s voice could be heard off-screen before he stepped into view as well. “Was that a—” 

This time it wasn’t J’Ron who interrupted but another shudder. “Listen to me very carefully,” he said to both of them now that he had an opportunity to speak. “I know this is unorthodox—” 

K’Mor huffed disapprovingly. “Highly unorthodox.” 

“—but I need you both to do me a favour.” 

T’San and U’Rol exchanged a glance and then turned their gazes back upon him, sceptically and with no small amount of confusion. But they waited and when he spoke they listened. That was more than he could have hoped for, honestly. When they went on to concede and accept his proposal, highly unorthodox though it was, it was nothing short of a miracle, and one he was beyond grateful for. 

 


 

“Commander?” 

Kelly almost didn’t dare look towards Talla as the quake from the latest impact finished rocking the ship, fearing that the Xelayan was about to report some significant damage or loss on their part but instead the Security Chief went on to say, “Three more ships just dropped out of quantum.” 

“What?” She rose from her seat despite the unsteady conditions and crossed to Talla’s station. “I thought you said they had no more ships in the area.” 

With a shake of her head Talla said, “It’s not more of them, Commander.” She lifted her gaze to meet Kelly’s with the faintest show of a smile and said, “They’re Union ships. One Exploratory-Class and two Heavy Cruisers.” 

What?” Gordon exclaimed from the helm before he let out a laugh of disbelief but there was a good deal of grateful relief there as well. “All right, here come the cavalry!” 

Kelly turned her head towards Bortus as he confirmed Talla’s report, saying, “It is the Olympia, the Earhart, and the Eisenhower.” After only a moment more he added, “They are opening fire on the enemy vessel.” 

Turning her head to look towards the viewer Kelly watched as the ship in question was struck by the bright blue bursts of plasma fire from the three additional Union vessels, from multiple angles. She couldn’t help the smile that touched her face, hoping that whoever she had been speaking with upon their arrival was feeling a lot less superior now that the tables had been turned against them. With their engines already down and in need of repair before they could make any kind of escape they were now outnumbered and outgunned, especially with two Heavy Cruisers weighing in. 

“The enemy ship’s deflectors are failing, Commander,” Isaac informed her from across the bridge. 

Another flurry of Union fire struck the large vessel and Bortus considered his scans before declaring, “Their weapons have been disabled.” 

Gordon clapped his hands together once in an obvious show of victory from the helm but he remained quiet otherwise, working instead on getting the Orville into a good position in relation to the rest of the Union vessels that had joined them. Soon enough Kelly could see the other ships in the viewer, each one positioned at a compass point with the enemy vessel at their centre. They had her well and truly surrounded and boxed in. 

“The Olympia is hailing us,” Talla said with gratitude in her voice. “It’s Admiral Ozawa.” 

Letting a breath of a laugh of relief all her own tumble past her lips Kelly finally straightened and moved back towards the middle of the bridge, saying as she did so, “Put her through.” And then only a moment later the Admiral in question popped up on the viewer, giving Kelly a small smile and a nod of her head. “Admiral,” Kelly said, “are we glad to see you.” 

Ozawa had a knowing look on her face as she said, “We heard you might need a little help.” 

Halsey. Kelly couldn’t help but smile, dropping her gaze for a moment and making a mental note to call the Admiral as soon as they got through this. She owed him. Actually if this paid off she would more than owe him. In fact she was pretty sure she would never be able to repay him for going to bat for them like this. Sending one ship was a big deal, but three? And two Heavy Cruisers? It was beyond incredible. 

As she stood there looking at Ozawa she noticed, curiously, that Gordon turned in his seat and looked towards the rear of the bridge. Kelly thought he might have been looking at Reed but without twisting to follow his line of sight she couldn’t be certain, and she didn’t want to take her attention from Ozawa and the matter at hand. “You heard right,” she told the other woman with a nod of her head. 

“What’s the situation, Commander? Details are a little sketchy,” Ozawa said, all business now and Kelly was actually grateful for that. Ozawa’s presence meant that she wasn’t in command here anymore, strictly speaking, but the Admiral was still deferring to her in this matter anyway. It was a sign of respect that she appreciated. 

“We followed a Razer tracker signal to this location, and we’ve been able to confirm that it’s originating from somewhere within that vessel,” Kelly told the other woman, indicating the viewer with a nod of her head and trusting Ozawa to follow her meaning. “When we arrived we requested permission to dock in the hopes of pursuing a peaceful resolution but—” She shook her head. 

“They weren’t having any of it,” Ozawa concluded and at Kelly’s nod she narrowed her eyes a touch with the slightest show of a smile. “I suspect they’ll be feeling more cooperative now.” 

Kelly couldn’t help but smile as well. “Here’s hoping,” she agreed. 

“Get your clearance, Commander,” Ozawa said, “and take a party over to the ship. We’ll send teams of our own to provide support once you head out.” 

With an acknowledging nod of obedience, Kelly said, “Yes, Sir. Thank you, Admiral.” And then Ozawa dropped out of view, clearing the line for the Orville to renew communications with the enemy. 

Because that was what they were now. In refusing to cooperate and proceeding to open fire on the Orville they had branded themselves as such. Hopefully that would change in the very near future but that all depended on how things unfolded from this point on. “Talla.” She spoke clearly and with authority, preparing herself for another round with the faceless figure from the other ship. “Hail the enemy ship.” 

“Aye, Sir.” After only a couple of moments she said, “Channel open.” 

This time there was visual as well as audio, presenting them all with a view of a single figure with pale skin, no hair to speak of, and impossibly bright green eyes. Kelly was reminded vaguely of the stories of alien visitors from Old Earth but there were no exaggerated proportions in the alien before her now like there were in those depictions from centuries ago. Still, the resemblance was somewhat uncanny. 

“Commander Grayson, I presume,” they said, and again Kelly was inclined to think that the figure she was speaking with was female. It was definitely the same individual from before. She recognised the voice. “My name is Director O’Lar.” They drew in a breath, and obviously so, their slender chest expanding visibly. “It would appear, now, that you have us at something of a disadvantage.” 

“It looks that way,” Kelly agreed, maintaining her position on her feet in the middle of the bridge, literally standing her ground before the alien on the viewer. “Director,” she continued, keeping her voice firm but reining in her aggression almost completely, “there is no need for any further hostilities. Allow us to send shuttles over to your ship and our vessels will hold fire.” 

“But maintain their positions, I presume,” Director O’Lar said and sighed again, dropping her gaze to something off-screen and keeping it there for a few moments. When she lifted her head again there was a quiet kind of resignation there as she said, “Very well, Commander Grayson. Send your shuttles. They will be met with no resistance.” 

Kelly dipped her head in a nod of approval before saying, “Thank you, Director. We’ll see you soon.” As much as she disliked having to be any kind of cordial with this individual after the resistance and aggression they had been met with the Planetary Union had a reputation for maintaining professionalism and respect at all times. It wasn’t Kelly’s place to break those rules, no matter how much she might want to. She kept her face impassive until the connection broke, only then allowing the frown of disapproval to show. 

She made short work of assembling her team and getting them underway. Chief LaMarr had the conn and she moved swiftly and with purpose towards the shuttle bay with Gordon, Talla, Bortus, Isaac, and Claire in tow. They were about to make their way down to the bay when a voice called out from behind them. When they turned they saw Reed sprinting towards them, having obviously hurried to catch up to them. 

“Let me come with you,” he said and Kelly recognised the imploring quality to his voice. She turned her eyes to Gordon first and foremost, wanting to see his reaction before she made any decision. He had told her that the younger pilot wanted to help, just as he had shared with her the truth about the rumours surrounding the Razers banding together against anyone who threatened any of their kind. Kelly still wasn’t entirely convinced that they could trust the young man but had he really given them any reason not to trust him? 

Gordon turned his eyes up to meet hers and after a moment he gave her the smallest, subtlest nod. A glance towards Talla showed no signs of reluctance on the Xelayan’s part, at least nothing out of the ordinary, and after a final glance to Claire that was met with no disagreement she regarded Reed levelly. 

“All right,” she said, seeing the relief and the gratitude pass briefly over his face. “But,” she went on, “you follow orders and don’t get in the way. No matter what.” If his brother really was over there Kelly didn’t want him to have any kind of crisis of conscience or conflicting interests that could put the whole mission at risk. She saw the way Talla straightened just a fraction at her side. While not the tallest person in any group the fact that she was a proud and confident Xelayan was enough to give anyone second thoughts about crossing her and after Reed had already had a close encounter with her she suspected he was in no rush to have another one. 

Reed nodded his head. “You got it.” And then he said, “Yes, Sir.” 

Kelly hadn’t been expecting that but she didn’t show her surprise, even as Gordon allowed himself the faintest smile. She gave the young pilot another nod and then turned to get them back underway. There was no time to waste. 

 


 

“I grow weary of his mewling.” 

Ed didn’t even have the strength to be offended, let alone the presence of mind to register the words as demeaning or derogatory in any sense. The agony that was still crackling and searing through him even though Blake’s finger had already released from the button was keeping him from thinking with any kind of clarity. Ed had lost count of how many times the other man had pressed it now. Could he even count that high anymore? He was struggling to remember more than a few numbers. 

Real or not real? 

How had he gotten here? Where was he? How long had Blake been hurting him? 

Blinking the sweat out of his eyes, wincing at the stinging sensation, Ed turned his head as much as he could in order to look at the owner of the deep voice that had spoken those words. The Moclan in the corner stared back at him and as Ed watched their expression soured and their teeth bared in a snarl that he went on to give voice to. With a decisive shove he stood from the crate that he had been sitting on and with a swift motion he yanked a blade from his belt. The sound of the metal against the leather of the sheath was almost impossibly loud. 

Look at me again and I will tear out your eyes

Ed’s heart jumped, panic flaring anew and quickening his breathing, shallowing it even more than it already had been. 

Whatever I remove, I will force you to eat

Oh God, no. Ed tried to back away as the Moclan tightened his grip on the wicked looking blade and made to approach, forgetting that he had nowhere to go and no means to get there, stopping himself short, and painfully so, when the chains held fast. It made him gasp in pain but he couldn’t drag his eyes away from the furious Moclan. 

The excruciating energy ripped through him again without warning. Ed’s gaze left the Moclan at last, his eyes squeezing shut reflexively as his head wrenched back again, the fresh scream that tore out of him actually hurting his throat on the way up. It felt raw, it left a distinctly bloody taste in his mouth, and when there was no more air left in his laboured lungs the sound became little more than a fractured and hollow sob. When the wave dropped away Ed couldn’t remember how to breathe, or open his eyes. He could hardly remember his own name. 

Fingers twined in his sweat-soaked hair and pulled his head forward and down. Something struck the side of his face once, twice, and then a third time. The fourth strike was harder, sharper, and it brought the splintered edges of Ed’s straying awareness back together enough that he remembered how to open his eyes. The hand that had been slapping his face gripped under his jaw, his skin feeling unpleasantly hot and slick in contrast to the cool dryness of the other man’s palm. For several seconds the man held his head there, meeting his gaze and holding it until Ed’s vision had managed to focus enough for him to make out features, and with them a name. 

Blake

The other man saw the recognition and nodded his head. “There you are,” he muttered quietly, almost approvingly, before he turned his head, breaking his gaze from Ed’s to speak to the Moclan instead. “Not yet, Maykor.” 

Maykor. That was it. 

The Moclan made a low sound of disagreement and disapproval, as if considering arguing, before he let out a heavy rush of a breath, obviously conceding. Ed heard the sound of the blade sliding back home into its sheath before Maykor said in his throaty voice, “Very well.” And then he added, roughly, “But I wish for him to be silent.” 

Blake gave a chuckle, saying as he turned his gaze back to Ed, “I think silent is a big ask. Huh, Mercer?” He gave Ed’s head an unnecessary shake, making him groan pitifully, releasing his jaw but maintaining the hold on his hair. With narrowed eyes Blake considered him for a while more before he tilted his head and said, “What do you think? Any objections?” 

It took Ed a moment to realise that the other man was actually addressing him. His eyes had almost slipped closed again but he managed to pull them back open to meet Blake’s maddeningly steady gaze. What did Blake want from him? An argument? A protest? Sarcasm? Ed didn’t know but he thought he would have given it to him if he had known. Anything to keep him from pressing that button again. 

“No? Nothing?” Blake’s brows had lifted and he turned to look back over his shoulder at Maykor. “All right. You win.” 

The Moclan let out a low sound that Ed belatedly realised was the same pleased noise that he had uttered earlier when Reed had been laughing along with Blake’s taunts. He almost turned his eyes to look to Maykor but Blake twisted his fingers in Ed’s hair instead, making him wince fiercely and gasp sharply. “Ah-ah.” When Ed opened his strained eyes to look at him again he said, in a low voice, “I won’t stop him next time you break his rules.” 

Ed shuddered. He couldn’t stop himself. It only got worse when Maykor approached, setting something in Blake’s outstretched hand as he did so, and Ed had to close his eyes to keep from turning his gaze on the Moclan and risking incurring the huge male’s wrath as a result. He could never think of Blake’s torturous assault as any kind of reprieve or rescue but it had kept the Moclan from following through on the threat of what he would do if Ed looked at him. 

The grip in his hair changed, dropping away for a moment before being replaced by a tighter, more forceful one. Ed gasped again, his eyes opening to find Blake in front of him, still staring at him. Maykor had stepped behind him and was gripping his hair now, effectively trapping his head with his large hand and mercilessly strong fingers. It was a struggle to get his ragged breathing under control and regain any semblance of composure, taking a frantic and desperate hold on his hatred for the man in front of him in order to do so, using the power of that resentment to steady himself as much as possible. 

Blake smiled at him. “There you are,” he said, and once again there was a twisted kind of approval in the words. When he moved closer it was decisively that he did so, bringing both hands up. He was holding something long and dark. Ed tried not to attempt to shrink back, knowing it would be fruitless and would only cause him more pain, but the instinct to do so was too strong and he felt Maykor tighten his grip fiercely. He clamped his jaw shut, sucking in a strained breath through his bloody nose, and sounded a shallow groan. 

Something was pressed firmly over his mouth and then around either side of his face, all the way to the back of his head where it was closed off tightly. Blake brought his hands away and gave Ed a smile as he said, “You didn’t object, Mercer. Remember that.” With a shrug he added, “It’s too late to take it back now.” 

Maykor’s fingers pulled free of his hair and Ed winced, flinching, the grunt of pain that the sharp tug triggered sounding muffled. He could feel the pressure of whatever Blake had covered his lower face with, the unrelenting tightness of it, smothering any sound he tried to make and effectively gagging him. Ed tried not to show the fear that such a simple thing never should have provoked but it only added to the sense of powerlessness and helplessness that had already overcome him. He had to squeeze his eyes shut again to try and hide the shame and despair that reared up inside of him, trying to tune out the sound of Blake’s low laughter. 

When he managed to open his eyes again he suspected he had only subdued a fraction of the fear and anguish that were threatening to take full control. Blake was watching him. He lifted his hand. He was holding the remote again. His finger hovered over the button. 

Ed fought the chains weakly but desperately, a cry of pleading protest smothered into little more than a frantic moan by the gag. No. Not again. Please not again. He gave the smallest shake of his head, closing his eyes again in the hopes that shutting out the sight would keep it from being real. 

Real or not real? 

Blake pushed the button. Ed couldn’t even scream as the agony consumed him yet again. 

Hold on—  

I can’t.

Chapter Text

True to her word Ozawa authorised the dispatch of shuttles from each of the ships that had arrived to assist the Orville. As promised by Director O’Lar those shuttles were met with no resistance when they approached the bay, the doors of which opened smoothly to permit them entry, and when they touched down on the deck there was no ambushing assault or even the faintest indication of one. 

Talla kept her guard up all the same, following Commander Grayson out of the shuttle and sweeping her gaze around the huge bay as she did so, taking in their surroundings as swiftly and completely as possible. Something caught her eye just as she was finishing that sweep and she spoke her friend’s rank, bringing the other woman’s attention her way before she added, “Look,” as she brought her hand up to indicate one of the vessels nearby. 

It was the Razer shuttle. 

“Is it the same one from Jarona II?” Kelly asked her and Talla nodded with certainty. She recognised those distinct markings. She would recognise them anywhere. Even so the Commander waved their unexpected guest forward and asked him, “Is that your ship’s shuttle?” 

Reed considered it for only a moment before he nodded. “Yeah. That’s it.” 

Talla glanced to the young man and saw the same certainty in his face that she knew was displayed on her own. By that point the entirety of their party had cleared the shuttle, the majority of the ship’s senior staff along with two of Talla’s Security team moving around the small vessel towards the front end where the rest of the Union officers were congregating. 

The alien with whom the Commander had been speaking was waiting for them, her three-fingered hands knitted neatly in front of her. There were other figures scattered all around but most of them looked confused and uncertain, clearly thrown by the sudden appearance of so many uniformed visitors, and serious looking ones at that, not to mention armed. Talla’s team members had weapons, a Titan and a Longbow respectively, and as she glanced at those who had joined them from the other ships she noticed the same models being brandished by several of their number as well. 

They weren’t here to make friends and obviously they all wanted to make that perfectly clear. Talla approved. 

“Director O’Lar,” Commander Grayson said, skipping any pleasantries and not even so much as offering her hand forward in formal greeting. “I trust we can expect your full cooperation going forward?” 

The female standing before them was quiet for a moment before she dipped her head in a small nod. “You can,” she confirmed, sweeping her bright gaze over those gathered before her. “There was no need to send so many of your people, Commander,” she added. 

“You gave us good cause to think otherwise,” the Commander countered and the Director paused before dipping her head once again, obviously conceding the point. 

“Very well.” 

Talla kept her eyes fixed firmly on the Director as the Commander went on, “We’re here searching for one of our people. Something tells me you knew exactly what we were looking for when we arrived.” 

The Director didn’t pause this time before confirming with a simple, “Yes.” 

“We have it on very good authority that you, or someone on your crew, employed the services of a mercenary group known as Razers in order to abduct one of our people.” Kelly didn’t waste time wording it as a question. 

“That was me,” Director O’Lar confirmed and Talla narrowed her eyes at the complete lack of remorse in the other woman’s voice. “Yes.” 

Lieutenant Malloy shifted his weight on his feet, a little restlessly, but otherwise remained silent. 

“Whatever for?” Doctor Finn asked with a shake of her head that betrayed the fact that she couldn’t understand why anyone would do such a thing. 

“Perhaps we should discuss this somewhere more—” the Director’s eyes moved from side to side, “—private?” 

“No,” Commander Grayson objected firmly, “we’ll discuss it right here, right now. Answer the question.” 

Obviously sensing that she was backed into a corner with no options and no way out the Director let out a sigh that was decidedly resigned. “This ship is the only home my people have had for a very long time, and as such it is our only source of revenue.” 

Revenue?” Gordon’s brow had furrowed. 

“Supplies are not without cost,” the Director said, briefly meeting the Lieutenant’s gaze. “Running this ship and supporting the vast number of people who call it home is far from inexpensive.” She turned her gaze back upon the Commander. “We have to support ourselves.” 

“That still doesn’t explain why you had one of our crew abducted,” Talla pointed out, and not particularly patiently either. She heard the sharp edge to her own words but couldn’t bring herself to be sorry about that. 

Director O’Lar met her gaze briefly, saying as she did so, “Our ship’s primary function, outside of supporting our kind, is to provide recreation and entertainment for any who can afford to pay for the privilege.” 

Kelly’s brow had furrowed now, her head shaking a little from side to side as she said, “I don’t understand.” 

“It would be easier to show you,” the Director said then, turning her gaze from one member of the Orville party to the other, more or less disregarding the teams from the other ships altogether. “If you’ll follow me, I can explain things more clearly.” 

“We do not need explanations,” Bortus interjected gruffly. “You will return our Captain to us at once.” 

Talla appreciated Bortus’ straightforward approach and she glanced approvingly in the Moclan’s direction, even though he wasn’t looking at her right then. His gaze was fixed firmly on the alien standing before them, his jaw set grimly and his posture tense. 

The Director hesitated under the weight of that gaze. “That won’t be possible just yet,” she said at last, giving a small shake of her head. 

Doctor Finn frowned, concern slipping into her voice as she asked, “Why not?” 

“Please,” the Director said, taking her hands from in front of her to gesture off behind her with one of them, “if you’ll follow me, I will explain everything.” 

Talla glanced to Commander Grayson, whose lips were drawn in a thin line of frustration. It felt like this woman was wasting their time, stalling for some reason, and Talla didn’t like it one bit. It made her feel uneasy and on edge and she had to assume Kelly felt the same way. It certainly looked like she did. 

But they had little choice but to play along. It was that or commit to what was essentially a hostile takeover of an alien ship and despite the fact that she had no personal qualms with doing so, given the circumstances, she knew it wasn’t the Union way. Having to play nice and follow along, knowing the Captain was somewhere aboard and still in need of their help, was more than a little maddening, but right then it was the only thing they could do. 

 


 

The woman who had identified herself as Director O’Lar led them through several large well-lit corridors, past innumerable members of not only her own race but a myriad of others as well, all the way to an upper deck that overlooked a large open-plan space below through several angled clear panes of what Gordon assumed was some kind of shatterproof glass. He had taken in other random details on their way up to the place where Director O’Lar came to a stop but he hadn’t been particularly interested in the path they had taken to get here or the layout and overall design of the ship enough to commit any of those things to memory. 

All of this just felt like a distraction, and one he wasn’t particularly in the mood for. 

“Why have you brought us here?” Bortus asked, giving voice to the impatience that Gordon could tell they were all feeling. 

“As I told you,” O’Lar said, turning her gaze to the Moclan. “It would be easier to show you.” She swept her gaze over the group collectively. “What it is that we do here. How we support ourselves.” Gesturing with one hand for all of them to move closer to the larger full-wall window, she then swept the same hand out to take in the floor down below. 

It was a huge space, milling with people moving in all directions, and Gordon could identify more than a dozen different species at a single glance. At the centre of the massive floor was a large rectangular desk area, manned by at least a dozen of O’Lar’s people, all of whom were busy dealing with members of other races. There were screens projected at each individual space around that desk, double-sided so that the individual on the outer edge could tap buttons while the worker dealing with them could respond accordingly from their seat. To Gordon it looked like the individuals on the outer edge were making selections but he couldn’t see exactly what it was they were selecting, or why. 

Before he could turn his head to O’Lar and ask, the upper walls around the space below illuminated and shifted to displays. Each panel along the outer wall was a different screen, Gordon noticed, and after a brief widespread message in a language that he couldn’t read the words disappeared to be replaced instead by unique images. They were faces, men and women alike of several different species, and beside the images more information was displayed in that same alien language. They looked almost like statistics. 

“Oh my God.” Gordon’s heart just about jumped into his throat. “Commander, look.” He pointed. 

Kelly uttered the same words that had passed his own lips and touched one hand to the angled glass as she fixed her gaze on the image almost directly across from them. 

It was Ed. There was no mistaking him. 

“What have you done to him?” Kelly asked heatedly, turning her attention to O’Lar. “What is all this?” 

The Director seemed unfazed by the Commander’s tone and said calmly enough, “The people down there are paying guests. What you see below is the reservation and specification process. There are more than ten thousand different combinations when all factors are taken into account.” She sounded almost proud of that, whatever it meant. 

“What are you talking about?” Talla let her impatience show, shaking her head with no small amount of frustration. 

O’Lar looked between them all, blinking her eyes then as if surprised that they didn’t understand what she was talking about. “It’s for entertainment,” she said simply enough, as if explaining something obvious to a child. “Guests pay to interact with the participants in a variety of settings.” When she said participants she took in the screens displaying the faces and information, Ed’s included. 

“Director O’Lar,” Isaac began, drawing her attention in his direction. “What exactly is it that your people do here? Please clarify what it is that you do with these participants, and how it entertains your guests.” 

Drawing in and releasing a breath, as if they were intentionally failing to understand her, O’Lar knitted her hands before her again as she started to speak. “We have the largest network of simulated environments in which our guests can carry out any number of scenarios. The majority of our guests choose to use our environments and our wide variety of participants in order to indulge in activities that they cannot carry out elsewhere.” With a slight tilt of her head and an upward quirk of her hairless brow she said, rather plainly, “Simulated activities are not illegal or immoral the way the same acts would be in the real world, after all.” 

Gordon’s jaw dropped. “What?” He looked out of the window to Ed’s image, noticing for the first time how it was somewhat desaturated and displaying a large banner across its bottom. A few other screens were tinted and labelled the same way but not all of them. What did that mean? 

“What kinds of activities?” Doctor Finn asked, her voice almost uncharacteristically firm. 

With another contemplative tilt of her head O’Lar said, “Most of our guests hail from cultures that enjoy hunting.” As if she had said absolutely nothing even remotely shocking she went on, “The kinds of game found on their native planets cannot provide the same sorts of challenges and thrills that our participants can.” 

Talla moved before anyone could stop her, wrapping one of her deceptively strong hands around the Director’s slender throat and lifting her clean off her feet. She held the woman there and demanded, in a tight voice, “Where is he?” 

“What does that mean?” Gordon added, indicating Ed’s image across from them. “The colour and the message. What does it say?” 

O’Lar wasn’t choking but she was clearly uncomfortable, holding on to Talla’s arm with surprise evident on her face but she didn’t seem entirely shocked by the Xelayan’s strength. “It shows guests that that participant is unavailable.” 

“Because he’s already in one of these simulated environments?” the Doctor asked, adopting a troubled expression when the Director gave a small nod of confirmation. 

“You will take us to him,” Bortus said, issuing the demand when no one else raised their voice to do so. 

Gordon turned his gaze to Kelly, recognising the anger and the concern there, looking across to Talla afterwards. The Xelayan’s shoulders were tight with tension and aggression and her jaw was set fiercely. Unsure of what else to do, knowing that their Chief of Security would only respond to voices of real authority when she was fired up like that, Gordon touched one hand to Kelly’s arm, just above her elbow. When she blinked to tear herself out of whatever had come over her he nodded towards Talla. 

“Talla,” she said, more sharply than she otherwise would have. “Put her down.” 

With no small amount of reluctance the Xelayan lowered O’Lar to the ground but she didn’t take her hard-eyed gaze from the woman’s face the entire time, even after her feet were back on the ground. 

“Take us to him,” Kelly said, repeating Bortus’ demand and letting her aggression come through at last. “Now.” 

Director O’Lar rubbed one of her long-fingered hands around her throat for a few moments, casting her gaze about the group as if confused by the hostile reaction to the information she had given them, before she seemed to think better of challenging the command she had been issued. “Follow me,” she said, her voice actually sounding a little rougher then than it had before she had been lifted from the ground. Maybe Talla’s grip had been closer to choking than he’d first thought. 

Good. Gordon probably should have been ashamed of that thought, but as he took one last glance at the wall of screens and the static image of his best friend he couldn’t muster anything of the sort. Part of him wished Talla had actually done some sort of real damage. 

 


 

“Boss?” 

Blake turned his head to find Shelton watching him, arms crossed over his chest, his weight shifting restlessly from one foot to the other. “Soon,” he told the younger man, toying idly with the remote in his hand. “I promised, didn’t I?” 

With a shake of his head Shelton said, “It’s not that.” 

Narrowing his eyes a little Blake turned his gaze momentarily back towards Mercer and then crossed the space to join his engineer. There was something on his mind, and clearly so, but at a glance he couldn’t figure out what that something was exactly. “What is it then?” he asked, still holding the remote just in case Mercer needed a reminder of why he ought to stay quiet. The chained man was quickly learning to fear the simple black device and Blake couldn’t deny that he was taking a great deal of pleasure in the panic that crossed Mercer’s face whenever it came into view. 

“What he said.” Shelton nodded towards Mercer. “You think it’s true?” Glancing to his side as Maykor moved over to join them he went on to add, for clarification, “What if his crew really does find us?” 

“I’m a man of my word,” Blake said steadily, holding Shelton’s gaze as he lifted his brows. “Aren’t I?” 

The younger man nodded without hesitation. Maykor made a low noise of assent. 

“I’m not afraid of a few Union officers. What about you, Shelton?” 

The engineer shook his head, uncrossing his arms as he said, “No, Boss. No, nothing like that.” 

“Good.” With a nod Blake glanced to Maykor and then back to Shelton. “If they come, then they come. I’ll take as many of them with me as I can before they bring me down, and I expect both of you to do the same. Is that clear?” 

Shelton nodded his head after a moment while Maykor bared his teeth in a predatory grin. Blake had known the Moclan would have no complaints about such an order and likely would have gone ahead and done so even if he hadn’t been directed to. Knowing Maykor he was already looking forward to it. 

“The main thing,” Blake said, “is that they don’t get what they came for.” Glancing across the room to where Mercer hung in his chains, still struggling to catch his breath after the last assault, he went on, “Whatever happens, I want the job finished. You hear me?” He turned his gaze back to his men then, regarding them each in turn. “Whatever happens, he—” Blake jabbed his hand towards their captive, “—needs to be destroyed.” Taking his focus from Shelton he directed it primarily at Maykor as he said, with emphasis and gravity, “Ruin him.” By any means necessary and however whoever was left standing saw fit. Blake didn’t need to dumb it down for them that much, he knew, and if nothing else his Moclan friend understood perfectly. That shark-like grin spoke volumes. 

With his free hand he reached out and clapped Shelton on the shoulder, saying as he did so, “Everything’s going to work out. You’ll see.” 

And then he turned back towards Mercer, noticing the way the man tensed slightly, having obviously been watching the three of them across the room while they were talking. Exactly how much he had overheard Blake didn’t know and it didn’t matter. There was absolutely nothing Mercer could do about what was happening, or what would happen from this point forward. They had made sure of that. 

Blake stepped closer to him, hearing the obvious hitch in the other man’s already laboured breathing, smiling at just how much of a mess he was. Battered and bruised and bloody, practically dripping with sweat and trembling uncontrollably. It was the fear in Mercer’s eyes that made Blake smile more than anything, and the immediate and drastic jump it took into panic as soon as he brought the remote up into his line of sight. 

Mercer whined like a trapped animal and Blake chuckled, approving of the pathetic sound and the fact that he was causing it. Holding the other man on the edge was almost as satisfying as pushing him all the way over, his thumb hovering near the button but not quite pressing it. When Mercer’s panicked eyes met his, desperately and frantically, Blake grinned. And pressed. 

 


 

It was all Kelly could do to keep from demanding that the woman leading the way go faster as she led them through the massive ship. They passed countless closed doorways and any number of members of O’Lar’s pale species but Kelly ignored each and every one of them, reassured that they wouldn’t interfere with the Orville team thanks to their obvious weaponry and the physical threat they posed otherwise with the presence of a Xelayan, a Moclan, and a Kaylon in their party. The teams from the Olympia, Eisenhower, and Earhart had remained in the cavernous shuttle bay, on standby until they were needed and providing a very real reminder of why it would be a bad idea to interfere with the Union officers and shuttles, if anyone got it in their minds to do so. The pair of Talla’s team that they had brought with them had been directed to stay behind as well, adding their numbers to the already large and imposing group in uniform. 

But Kelly wasn’t really thinking about the other officers back in the shuttle bay. For the most part she wasn’t even thinking about the people trailing behind her as they rounded a wide corner and travelled briskly down another large hallway. Door after door after door they kept on walking until Kelly thought she was going to lose her mind and then, suddenly and without warning, O’Lar stopped and entered a combination on a hidden panel to the side of the entrance to a room halfway down the corridor. 

The panel slid across without a sound and Kelly saw movement from within. Two more aliens of the same species as the Director reacted to the door’s opening with obvious surprise. 

Kelly forgot about them completely as soon as she saw the room’s third occupant. 

Ed.” She couldn’t keep herself from sprinting across the room to close the gap between them, looking up at him supported in some kind of rig that was angled back into a slight recline. “Ed, can you hear me?” The rig was raised a little way off the floor and after only a moment Kelly threw caution to the wind and set one booted foot on the bottom lip to step up so that she could be closer to him. “Ed?” 

“It can’t hear you.” 

She whirled her head instantly to the owner of that voice, the one who had been closer to the door and to Ed’s right side when they entered the room. “What are you doing to him?” 

“We’re not doing anything to it,” the other alien said in a protesting tone, almost defensive. 

It?” Gordon challenged heatedly. “You mean him. That’s a person.” The Helmsman moved closer. “Is he okay?” 

Doctor Finn and Isaac had approached as well, while Talla and Bortus hung back a little way, keeping their gazes fixed on the males who had been present upon their arrival. 

“Answer the question,” Talla said stiffly. 

“J’Ron,” O’Lar said from her place inside the door, “do as they say.” 

The one she had identified as J’Ron paused for just a moment before he waved at the station he had been working when they had entered the room. “See for yourselves.” That was all he said as he backed out of the way and let Doctor Finn take his place. Isaac moved up to join her shortly afterwards, his attention going to a second large screen beside the one Claire was scrutinising. 

“My God,” the Doctor breathed and turned her gaze up to where Kelly had stepped up to be able to see Ed’s face at close proximity. “Commander, we need to get him out of there. All of his vitals are way off.” 

Kelly turned her gaze back to Ed. He looked like he was in pain, his features twisted into a mask of anguish, and his breathing was rough and laboured. His chest was heaving and he was shaking. She could feel it where she had laid one hand against his chest, just as she could feel the thunderous racing of his heart beneath her palm. Just below her hand was a thick restraining band of some kind, and Kelly had noticed almost immediately that it wasn’t the only one keeping him trapped to the rig. 

“Talla,” she said, trying to keep herself calm despite Ed’s obviously distressed condition. “Get him out of there.” And she stepped down from the rig, backing off just enough for the Xelayan to move closer. 

“Wait—” The one called J’Ron moved to intervene but Bortus blocked him off physically, turning a glare on the other male in order to warn them off from trying anything. 

Talla moved to the rig and reached forward, taking hold of that restrictive band across Ed’s chest and bracing to rip it away when Claire’s voice filled the room abruptly. 

STOP!” 

Everyone froze, turning their heads in the Doctor’s direction. 

“Commander,” she said, approaching the rig’s side and angling her gaze up, “look.” Kelly moved over and followed Claire’s gaze and felt the bottom of her stomach threaten to drop out once she saw it, the cause for the Doctor’s alarm instantly becoming sickeningly clear. 

“My God.” It was little more than a gasp of disbelief as she took in the sight of the length of metal tubing tracing up from the rear of the rig, the end of which was buried out of sight in the rear of Ed’s skull. In a flash she remembered the precise wounds they had found in Tommy and the dead Xelayan and turned her head towards O’Lar. “What the hell is wrong with you people?” Calm composure be damned. Kelly couldn’t believe what she was seeing. 

“Commander,” Claire interjected, drawing her attention back to the real problem, indicating the point where Ed had been joined with the rig. “If we remove him from this device in the wrong way we could cause permanent damage.” She met Kelly’s gaze as she added gravely, “We might even kill him.” 

“I was trying to warn you,” J’Ron said from behind Bortus’ blocking frame. 

“What the hell did you people do?” Gordon demanded, gesturing to Ed with one arm. “Get him out of there!” 

“I—” J’Ron shook his head, looking to his co-worker and then to O’Lar before meeting Gordon’s desperate gaze anew. “I can’t.” 

“Then find us someone who can,” Kelly said sharply, having to genuinely work to get her anger and fear under control. Behind her Ed made a low sound, a distressed sound, and she reached out without thinking and laid a hand on his arm above where it was restrained at the wrist. There were small streams of blood that had worked their way down over his hand, she noticed. He had been struggling to get free. 

“I’m afraid no such person exists, Commander Grayson.” Director O’Lar spoke with that same maddening calmness that seemed to be her default setting. 

“What?” Claire shook her head, dismayed. “Why?” 

“The only way for a participant to exit the system is to complete a run,” J’Ron said. 

“And the only way to finish a run,” the other male added, “is to—” He hesitated, as if doubting his choice of words. 

J’Ron picked up where his companion had left off. “It—he has to die.” 

What?” Gordon just about choked on the word. 

“In the simulation,” J’Ron amended, holding up his hands in a placating gesture that was nowhere near as effective as he was likely hoping. “The participants are ejected from the system when they are killed in the simulation.” 

“Oh my God,” Talla said with no small amount of disgust, having turned her gaze back up to Ed with a shake of her head. 

“So we have to wait for him to die in there?” Gordon was shaking his head as well. “That’s insane.” 

“Commander Grayson.” Isaac’s voice was usually level and steady but on rare occasions it carried an urgency that told all those in the vicinity that something was very wrong. Kelly recognised that urgency then and felt her heart jump anxiously. 

“What’s wrong?” she asked, part of her not wanting to hear the answer. 

“We must ensure Captain Mercer’s release from the simulated environment as soon as possible,” the Kaylon continued, still sounding almost uncharacteristically alarmed. 

Kelly looked back at Ed, at the sweat that had broken out all over his face and neck and upper chest, feeling the constant trembling of his arm under her touch. 

Without waiting for any kind of approval to do so Isaac tapped several keys on the monitor he had been analysing and it shifted from walls of text to a visual display instead. The Orville team moved close enough to be able to see what it showed, in full colour and with crystal clarity, and Kelly almost instantly wished she hadn’t looked. 

It was Ed. Chained by the wrists and ankles, gagged, and in obvious agony, his head thrown back and his back arched horribly even in his restrained position. Standing in front of him was a man Kelly recognised instantly, even from such an odd angle, as Richard Blake. A little way behind him and across whatever dimly-lit room they were occupying was the Moclan known as Maykor. The third figure was unfamiliar. 

“Shelton?” Reed had been so silent and such a reserved presence during their time aboard the enemy ship that Kelly had actually forgotten he was with them at all. 

The third figure was Shelton Reed. His brother. 

“They’re torturing him.” Kelly felt sick to her stomach and had to fight to drag her eyes away, even as the screen showed Ed’s body slumping in the chains. She tried to shut out the sounds of suffering that were carried through speakers she couldn’t even see hidden in the walls but it was impossible. 

“My God,” Claire gasped, looking from the screen to the monitor she had been studying, shaking her head urgently. “It’s like it’s really happening to him.” Turning her head to meet Kelly’s eyes she said with obvious severity, “If we don’t get him out of there, and fast—” 

Kelly didn’t need to hear the end of that sentence. Even as she whirled back to the rig and mounted it again she was speaking with an urgency all her own, “Talla, go. Get Blake out of there. I don’t care how.” Blake was the one hurting Ed and as far as Kelly was concerned that meant his life was forfeit at that exact moment in time. Consequences be damned, she didn’t care if Talla tore the bastard into very literal pieces in order to get him out of the simulation and away from Ed. 

The Xelayan grabbed a handful of the shirt of the worker closest to her and said, “Where is he? The one hurting him?” She nodded her head meaningfully at Ed as she said him

“Guest suite two-three-four.” And then he proceeded to rattle off a swift set of directions that Talla obviously committed to memory instantly because in the next moment she was moving. 

“I’m coming with you,” Reed said and there was no time to argue. Talla nodded and then they were gone, out of the door and taking off down the hall at a dead run. Kelly heard their hurrying footsteps retreating down the corridor before the door slid closed. 

Standing on the edge of the rig and balancing her weight as steadily as she could against its side she was able to lift both of her hands to take Ed’s face on either side of where an oxygen mask was firmly settled. She was careful not to disturb it as she smoothed her thumbs back and forth across his cheekbones, saying to him as she did so, “Hold on, Ed. We’re here. We’re coming. Just hold on.”

Chapter Text

Guest suite. The words disgusted Talla almost as much as anything else about this thoroughly screwed up organisation and as she hurtled herself around a corner and sprinted flat-out down its length to get to her destination as quickly as possible she couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to this ship once they had gotten the Captain out of danger. Would the Union send more ships to ensure this one shut down its operation? She hoped so. 

But there was no time to trouble herself with such thoughts for long, they were fast approaching their destination and she could hear Reed barrelling along behind her, keeping pace surprisingly well. Admirably so, actually, given that he was a human. 

People darted out of their way as they moved with obvious urgency and purpose, rounding corners and taking smooth, wide flights of stairs two or three steps at a time, covering the distance as quickly as they could before Talla recognised that they were coming up on the right place. It was just ahead. 

This door wasn’t locked like the one behind which they had found the Captain under the watchful gaze of two workers, and this room contained only one of Director O’Lar’s people. That alien started visibly and violently at their sudden arrival and jumped back against the wall of screens that they had been monitoring, holding up their hands in an obvious and immediate show of surrender. 

One side of the room was taken up with three pod-like beds with curved hood-like lids through which Talla could see the Razers they had been tracking from Jarona II. The figure she was looking for was laid far too comfortably in the central bed and she moved towards it with swift and aggressive determination. 

“No, you can’t—” 

To Talla’s surprise it was Reed who stopped the alien worker, stepping between them and saying seriously as he did so, “I wouldn’t do that, man.” And then he added, “You’ve heard of Xelayans, right?” 

She might have been amused by that under any other circumstances but right at that moment she had a singular focus and he was resting as peacefully as if he was sleeping in the pod-bed. Talla moved close enough to its side to hook one hand under its lid, which was closed most of the way but not completely. And then she ripped the whole thing upward. Metal and glass and any number of other materials cracked and groaned and splintered loudly as she tore the lid off the bed all the way and cast it against the far wall, making sure to avoid the room’s other standing occupants as she did so. With the lid cleared, a soft alarm sounding from somewhere nearby, she was free to reach into the bed and take hold of Blake by the front of his shirt and jacket, and rip him out of it, not caring in the least if she killed him in the process. When his body cleared the edge of the bed she released him and let him fall in a rolling heap to the floor, turning to follow him immediately afterwards with the intention of securing him properly. 

The last thing she expected was for him to come roaring to his feet, ripping a blade from his belt as he did so. 

 


 

“Richard Blake has been successfully removed from the environment,” Isaac reported and Claire heaved a sigh of relief but it was short-lived as she turned her gaze back to the monitors that were tracking the Captain’s vital signs. 

Everything was wrong, and dangerously so. With a shake of her head she turned her gaze up towards Commander Grayson who was continuing to utter soft but urgent reassurances to the Captain despite the fact that he was under heavy sedation and therefore incapable of hearing her. Claire wouldn’t stop her though, not only because she didn’t have the heart but because she couldn’t help but wonder if they might help, if on some level perhaps the Captain could hear her. And if he could? Then he would need those reassurances that help was coming. 

Claire just hoped that would be enough. 

 


 

Anger wasn’t a strong enough word for what he felt when the simulation dropped away and the real world came snapping back. Fury. That was much closer and yet still it fell laughably short of what surged through him when he lifted his head and saw the Xelayan bitch bearing down on him. She had ripped him out. He saw the pod in which he had been settled only a short time ago, now missing its cover, and knew instantly that she was responsible. 

What he didn’t expect was to see Lowell standing nearby. And he was stopping the D’Nari operator from interfering with the Xelayan’s actions. 

Traitorous little bastard. Blake would skin him alive. 

But first he had to deal with the Xelayan. 

With a furious roar of murderous intent he surged to his feet and tore his knife from his belt as he went without even having to so much as pause to reorient himself after being in the simulation. The D’Nari were gracious hosts, after all, and took much more care with their paying guests than they did with their less willing participants. There had been no harsh and forced integration for Blake and his boys but instead a much more civilised and streamlined experience in which they were almost gently immersed in the environment of their choosing and left to do as they pleased. 

Blake fully intended to get back to it as soon as he was done with this bitch and his double-crossing former pilot. How they’d turned Lowell didn’t matter one bit, not as far as he was concerned. All that mattered was that they had and he had to make them pay for that along with everything else. 

With a snarl of hateful anger he slashed the blade out at the Xelayan, feeling his blood beginning to boil when she managed to duck back out of the way of its wickedly sharp edge in time to avoid any serious injury. She didn’t miss the blade completely though, he noticed with a smug grin, as her dark hair was sent spilling free of the red tie that had been holding it securely only moments before. There was a fine red line along the side of her neck that showed just how close Blake had come to slicing her open. 

First blood was his then. Good

 


 

It happened so suddenly that Ed wasn’t sure it had really happened at all at first. 

Real or not real? 

Blake was there one moment and gone the next, simply winking out of existence as if he had never been there to begin with. The abruptness of it actually startled him, making him tense reflexively, practically flinching at the unexpected shift in his surroundings. His breath caught painfully and even with the last wave of agony still loosening its grip on him he was able to turn his eyes towards the next closest figure. 

Reed was staring down at the remote that had fallen harmlessly to the ground when Blake had vanished, his bottom jaw dropping as he turned his gaze towards the room’s last occupant. 

Ed almost followed his gaze but remembered at the last moment that he couldn’t. Dangerous. Too dangerous. 

“What the hell? Where is he?” 

Maykor snarled, literally and fiercely, and stalked across the room, closing the gap between himself and Ed. Despite himself Ed closed his eyes and kept them that way, listening rather than watching because that was safer. 

“We have our orders,” Maykor growled roughly, but Ed thought he heard something unsettling riding along underneath the usual aggression. Something not unlike anticipation

“Are you serious? We have to get out of here!” Reed returned urgently. “If his people have come for him we’re outnumbered and—” He stopped suddenly. Ed opened his eyes to see why and saw that Maykor had rounded on the engineer in order to stare him down. 

“We have our orders,” the Moclan said again, his voice lower, his words more pronounced and spoken more slowly. It gave them a warning edge that Reed obviously didn’t miss if the small backwards step and slight lift of his hands was any indication. And then Maykor wheeled back towards Ed, approaching him purposefully. 

Ed felt his heart jump instantly, trying to step back as Reed had and remembering too late that he still couldn’t do that, an involuntary sound of fear rising up in his throat. 

“What’re you gonna do?” 

Maykor was beside Ed, far too close for comfort, when he turned his head back towards his companion and said with meaning, “I am going to ruin him.” With dangerous amusement in his voice he added, “As ordered.” 

“What—” Reed stepped closer and shook his head. “Man, you can’t mean—” 

“I can,” Maykor snapped in response, “and I do.” 

“Man, no. Come on.” 

Ed’s heart was picking up as his fear started to grow. There was a quietly desperate undercurrent to Reed’s voice that unsettled him, a subtly pleading quality that made him dread what was coming. 

Maykor’s voice had dropped in volume when he said slowly, “You challenge me?” 

Reed hesitated, starting to form several words unsuccessfully before he finally found his voice enough to say, “Your methods, yeah.” 

That low growl sounded from close to Ed’s left and he flinched despite himself, wanting to withdraw and hating that he couldn’t. Having the Moclan so close to him and being unable to retreat was more unnerving than he ever could have thought possible. If he could have just put a few inches between them it would have helped but he couldn’t move even one. Another shallow sound of fear threaded its way up his throat. 

“You dare challenge me,” Maykor went on, turning back towards the engineer then, standing level with Ed for a few moments before he took a step back towards his companion. 

“Maykor, man, come on. You can’t do that.” Reed was shaking his head almost constantly now, gesturing emphatically towards Ed as he went on, “I know we hate this guy but—dude, it’s messed up.” Actually daring to meet and hold the Moclan’s gaze he said with surprising steadiness, “Don’t do it.” 

A low rumble like the warning growl of a predatory animal rolled in Maykor’s throat as he continued to close the gap between himself and Reed, bearing down on him with purpose. Ed couldn’t tear his eyes away as the Moclan continued to approach the blonde engineer who actually managed to stand his ground as his much larger companion came to loom over him. 

“You presume to give me orders now?” 

Reed set his jaw and looked up at Maykor almost defiantly. “Yeah,” he said after a moment. “Yeah, I do. And I’m ordering you not to r—” 

Maykor’s hands were on Reed’s head and twisting savagely in the blink of an eye, and a sickeningly loud crunch filled the room. Ed flinched so violently that his whole body screamed in pain, his cry of alarm smothered by the gag across his mouth. For just a moment it felt like his heart had stopped as Reed’s body went limp and slumped lifelessly to the ground, his head twisted at a sickeningly unnatural angle. Maykor stood over it for only a couple of seconds before he made a low sound of dismissal and turned to cross the room once more. 

Oh God. Ed tried to shy away again, hating that he whimpered in very real fear but unable to stop himself. Maykor was the single most terrifying individual he had ever encountered in his life and now he was alone with him. Trapped and helpless and very much at his mercy. 

The Moclan came up beside him again and leaned down to growl in his ear, “No one to save you now, human.” 

 


 

God, he was fast. So fast. Talla almost had trouble keeping up with him in the confined space of the suite and she was glad she had had the foresight to snap the command to Reed and the alien worker to get back because Blake was swinging and slashing that blade with such blind and wild ferocity that one or both of them would have been laid open by now if they hadn’t moved. 

She would have put the man before her in his late forties to early fifties, if she had to guess, but he had kept himself fighting fit and in prime condition. His movements weren’t as agile and smooth as her own but they were savage and intent and he didn’t miss a single opportunity to swipe his weapon at her. She had to spend most of her time ducking and jumping back out of his reach, a task made all the more difficult by the confined space in which they had found themselves. 

Her hair tie was lying severed and discarded on the ground somewhere, the brown lengths cast into unruly disarray around her face and shoulders as she whirled and weaved out of her opponent’s vicious path. It half-blinded her and she was paying for the handicap, having to spend far too much time concentrating on Blake’s location from what she could see through her spilled hair than she would have otherwise. 

A sudden hiss and violent cry from across the room distracted them both but Blake recovered faster than her and lashed out with the blade. Its tip caught at her arm and bit through her uniform, deep enough to rake at the skin underneath, leaving a bloody red line in its wake and a stinging pain that made her gasp. And then she lashed out with a foot, smashing it into Blake’s gut and slamming him away from her, clean across the room. 

 


 

Lowell whirled at the sound, keeping the clueless and terrified worker held close to him by a handful of his plain uniform so the poor guy wouldn’t end up getting caught between Blake and Lieutenant Keyali. What he saw when he finished turning surprised him into releasing the alien and crossing the short distance to the closest pod, which opened up just in time for Shelton to jolt upright. He was clutching frantically at his neck and gasping wildly, fear and shock in his eyes. 

“Shelton?” 

His brother heard him even in his dazed state and turned his head, confusion sweeping over his face before recognition set in. “Lowell?” 

And then a furious yell turned both of their heads to the clash happening across the room. Lieutenant Keyali had thrown Blake away from her but he was surging back towards her, undeterred by her formidable strength. She hadn’t even had the chance to draw the weapon at her hip. 

“What the hell are you doing—” And then realisation dawned. “No,” he said with obvious regret and disappointment. Lowell felt a pang in his chest as Shelton shook his head in disbelief and refusal. “Lowell, no. You didn’t.” 

“I’m sorry,” Lowell said to his brother, shaking his own head in return. “But you were wrong. We were wrong.” 

 


 

Ed’s heart felt like it was going to smash its way clean out of his chest, panic fuelling his adrenaline beyond bearable levels. Maykor lingered beside him for several moments and then bared his teeth in a grin as Ed trembled and actually tried, futilely, to make himself smaller somehow. There was nowhere to go, no retreat to be had, and as the Moclan moved around him and to his back he couldn’t stop the fresh fearful sound that clawed its way up his throat. 

Not being able to see the Moclan was worse. So much worse. It was bad enough that he was chained, forced into a position of helplessness, but having his back exposed the way it was—Ed couldn’t stand it. Squeezing his eyes shut he tried to brace himself for whatever pain Maykor was about to inflict, knowing it was useless because bracing hadn’t helped in the slightest so far. If anything it had made it worse. But he couldn’t stop himself. He couldn’t help it. 

And then Maykor hooked his large fingers in the back of Ed’s waistband, giving him a tug backwards, closer to him. And he held him there, bowing his head close to Ed’s ear as he said in a low rumble, “Struggling will make it worse for you.” His chuckle was throaty, his hot breath washing unpleasantly over the side of Ed’s neck. “But it will make it more pleasurable for me.” His fingers tightened on the back of Ed’s pants. 

Oh God. Oh God, no. No, no, no. 

Struggling would make it worse. Maykor had said so. But Ed struggled anyway, wildly and desperately, and with all his might. 

 


 

“Commander Grayson.” 

There was that urgency again, so alarming when it was Isaac’s voice that it triggered an immediate rush of dread. Kelly turned her head down to the Kaylon and then stepped down from her perch on the rig in order to move closer to the monitor that the Kaylon was keeping close watch over. Gordon joined her, with Bortus closing in just enough to see what was happening as well, but neither of them blocked her path to the rig, she noticed, and she was silently thankful. 

Any and all gratitude or thoughts that weren’t shaped by blind panic and horrified disbelief went scattering out of her head completely when she saw what had alarmed Isaac, and rightfully so. 

The older Reed brother was on the floor, obviously dead. The Moclan was behind Ed, so close that there was no way they weren’t touching. They could see just enough of Maykor’s arm to make out that he had a grip on Ed. On the back of his pants. And he was smiling. And Ed was panicking

Realisation dawned on Kelly like someone had dumped ice cold water on her head. “Oh God.” She felt sick, her blood freezing in her veins. As she whirled back to the rig she slapped at the comm on her wrist, shouting, “Talla!” No response. “Talla!” Still nothing. Oh God, they couldn’t let this happen. “Bortus!” As she took Ed’s face in her hands again she turned her head frantically to the Second Officer and continued urgently, “Go! Stop him!” 

Bortus didn’t waste any time acknowledging the order. Instead he turned and barrelled out of the room, disappearing from sight and moving as quickly as she had ever seen any Moclan move. 

“Hold on, Ed,” she whispered to him, fear making her voice thin and quiet. “Just hang on.” 

If Bortus didn’t make it in time— 

Kelly couldn’t even bear to face that possibility. Even as Gordon’s voice raised angrily from behind her she kept her hands on Ed’s face and whispered urgent reassurances and pleads to him, hoping beyond hope that some part of him could hear her. 

 


 

“What the hell is wrong with you people?” His blood felt like it was boiling as he rounded on the one called J’Ron, snatching out a hand and first taking hold of the alien’s uniform before he gave the male a vicious shove backwards. J’Ron actually stumbled but caught himself against the room’s rearmost workstations, holding up a hand defensively as Gordon bore down on him. “This is the kind of sick crap you just let happen? What, because it’s not real?” 

Gordon shocked himself then by drawing his PM-44 and aiming it directly at the alien’s face. Someone shouted his name but he didn’t really hear them. He couldn’t hear anything beyond the furious pounding of blood in his ears. “I’ve got news for you, buddy.” He practically spat the word. “It’s real enough. And you’re part of it. All of you are part of it! You’re sick and disgusting and—” 

Gordon!” Hands landed on his outstretched arm and he was about to snap at whoever had dared to try and deter him from what he was doing when he turned his head and saw that it was Doctor Finn. Her dark eyes were locked on his and she held his gaze, waiting until he had his furious breathing under control before she said, “This isn’t helping.” 

He blinked and turned his head to look at the alien again. J’Ron was staring at him, terror in his eyes and barely even daring to breathe, staring down the barrel of the weapon that Gordon was pointing at his face. 

This isn’t helping

Gordon blinked again and backed off a step. He lowered his arm. He had to concentrate on his breathing, on steadying it again, and only when he had it under some semblance of control did he give the Doctor a short nod but it was silently that he did so. Gordon didn’t trust himself to speak. He didn’t dare. If he opened his mouth something angry and panicked would come spilling out of him and then he would lose control again. 

But he couldn’t turn around. He couldn’t look at that screen, or at Ed’s struggling, unconscious form. Gordon couldn’t bear to see what would happen if Bortus didn’t make it in time. So he stayed where he was, tight and tense and fearing the worst, closing his eyes and keeping them that way until it ended one way or another. 

 


 

No, no, please no, please don’t, pleasedontdothisnonono— 

Panic and terror and horrified disbelief were shredding any rational thought that tried to form in Ed’s mind as he fought frantically but futilely at the chains trapping his wrists and ankles. He tried to shout and scream and deny what was about to happen but every protest was muffled and smothered, little more than shapeless sounds of desperation behind the gag. He was exhausting himself as he thrashed and struggled but he had to keep fighting. He had to fight. If he didn’t then he was just letting it happen and he couldn’t let that happen to him. Real or not— 

Real or not real? 

—it would leave too deep a wound and Ed feared what would happen to him if he didn’t stop it. But how? How could he stop it? He hadn’t been able to stop the beating, or the shattering of his hand, or the torturous waves of energy. None of it. It had all happened and he hadn’t been able to stop any of it. 

Oh God

Maykor’s other hand landed low on his stomach, far too low, and Ed’s reaction was violent and wild and immediate. With as much force as possible he pulled against the chains with as loud a cry as he could muster. Even with the gag it was loud enough that it filled the room as well as his own skull. He gave another fierce, frantic pull on the chains. 

His right shoulder gave. The excruciating pain was instantaneous and Ed cried against it but then Maykor had hold of the buckle of his belt and the agony was forgotten immediately in the wake of a fresh wave of animal panic. The Moclan let out another throaty laugh, a cruel and unnecessary reminder of how much he was enjoying Ed’s useless struggles, and then he wrenched his grip. 

Ed felt the belt give way with a gut-wrenching snap, he felt it go and threw his head back as his cries tipped over into sobs, every frantic and terrified plea crushed into nothing more than dulled wails and pitched moans behind the gag. Ed felt the tears spill from his eyes as he continued to fight, Maykor’s grasp on the pants themselves threatening to tip him over the edge, well beyond panic and into whatever madness lay beyond. 

With another wrench the button gave and material tore. 

Ed wanted to die. He wanted to die. God, he wanted to die. 

There was a deafening crack.

Chapter Text

He could not fail. He would not fail. Commander Grayson had put her trust in him and he could not disappoint her. He could not fail Captain Mercer. 

And so he ran, moving with as much speed and urgency as he could muster, thundering through the halls and bellowing for any and all who crossed his path to clear it immediately. He ran as if his very life depended on it, as if the life of his mate and child depended on it, and though that was not the case it gave him the strength and the speed required to hurtle his way through the ship to his destination faster than he had ever crossed such a distance before. 

Bortus could not fail Captain Mercer or Commander Grayson. He had to stop the one called Maykor by any means necessary and he was not afraid to do whatever was necessary in order to complete his mission. There was no time to lose. 

The door loomed ahead and he clipped his shoulder on it as it opened, passing through it with such urgency that he did not stop to allow it to clear properly before diving inside. Instantly he became aware of Lieutenant Keyali, locked in fierce and furious combat with the one known as Richard Blake. There, across the room, was Lowell Reed and his brother, the Razer engineer. The engineer was sitting despondently in a pod that looked not unlike a bed. 

And then, with a booming roar and a great thunderous crack of caving metal and glass, Maykor literally shattered his way out of his simulation pod. Shards and fragments of the pod’s lid went scattering wildly in all directions and the huge Moclan spilled out of what was left of it with bared teeth and a mad glint in his eyes. 

Bortus met that gaze with his own and bared his own teeth in a challenge. Maykor snarled like a thing possessed. 

And then he charged. 

 


 

Claire couldn’t believe her eyes. She heard the disbelieving breath rush out of her as the sound of the shot came cracking out of the speakers, thoroughly startling everyone in the room with the obvious exception of the Kaylon to her left. 

“Was that a gun?” Lieutenant Malloy sounded panicked and actually rushed over. 

To her right, braced in the rig in close proximity to the Captain, Kelly turned her eyes frantically down as well, looking suitably terrified. 

“Wh-what—” The Helmsman’s surprise was perfectly in line with her own, Claire noted, and he turned to the aliens who were responsible for this whole situation, asking as he did so and with no small amount of confusion, “Who is that?” 

Claire couldn’t take her eyes off the scene’s new arrival. Whoever it was she knew she wouldn’t be the only one wanting to thank them. 

Her, her mind corrected. It was a woman. 

 


 

“It worked.” J’Ron saw the confusion deepening on the face of the orange-haired human male standing between him and the monitors but even with the close encounter from only a matter of moments before he couldn’t help but smile. Turning his head he looked to K’Mor, actually letting out a small, shallow laugh, equal parts incredulity and relief. “It worked,” he repeated to his fellow operator who was blinking in shock and utter disbelief, mouth agape as he watched events unfold. 

If he was completely honest with himself J’Ron hadn’t known if it would all pay off the way he had been hoping that it would. It had been a long shot to say the least and T’San and U’Rol just as easily could have defied and reported him even after agreeing to go along with his request. 

But they hadn’t. And it had worked

 


 

Caro was trembling as she stood there, watching the Moclan waver, tip, and then topple to the ground. The hole she had blasted through the huge male’s skull had been sizeable and instantly fatal, his unbelievable size making her job that much easier. But still she kept the gun levelled where he had been standing for several seconds even after he crumpled to the floor, landing with such a loud thud that it amazed her that the ground didn’t shake. 

Only when she was absolutely certain that the Moclan was dead did she lower the gun and move forward, her mouth dropping open in disbelief at the sight of the man before her. The last time she had seen him he had had a rope around his neck and a bloody hole in his side but even that had been nothing compared to the state of him now. Ed was trembling so fiercely that she worried he might literally shake himself apart, he was dripping with his own sweat and blood and making such frantic sounds of animal panic that her heart threatened to break as she listened to him. 

Turning her eyes up to where his wrists were locked over his head she couldn’t help the wave of horror that overcame her at the sight of his left hand. It was ruined, little more than a mass of broken flesh and protruding bone. She forced her eyes down again, taking in the map of dark and ugly bruises that mottled his face, littering what she could see of his jaw and cheekbones, and darkening the skin around his eyes which were squeezed shut in obvious terror. Tears had streaked down either side of his face and were still falling as she watched him. His dark hair was a limp, sodden mess, soaked through with the same sweat and blood that covered the rest of what she could see of his obviously tortured frame. 

Caro tried not to think of what would have happened if she hadn’t come when she had, if she hadn’t been dropped down unexpectedly in the middle of this environment with a gun and a simple set of coordinates, along with the means to pinpoint them. It had been so specific, so targeted, that she knew what it meant. She had been guided here. It had been intentional. 

Why, exactly, the D’Nari had guided her here she didn’t spend much time trying to figure out because Ed needed her help, and desperately. 

“Ed?” She reached out and then hesitated. Where could she touch him that wouldn’t hurt? 

Nowhere, she concluded quickly, and uttered repeated apologies as she laid one hand on his chest and then the other at the side of his neck, hoping to steady and ground him. 

Instead he jerked and thrashed, like an animal caught in a trap. 

ED!” 

 


 

She hadn’t missed the newest arrivals on the scene, the enemy Moclan literally smashing his way out of his pod even as Bortus barrelled into the room. The timing of it was perfect, keeping Talla from having to deal with two furious Razers at the same time. If they all got out of this alive she would have to thank the Second Officer later but right at that moment if she didn’t concentrate on keeping herself from getting slashed wide open she would pay for it, and dearly. 

Even as the Moclans collided physically and with what sounded like bone-shattering force Blake came surging at her again, undeterred by the chunks of debris that had been sent flying in all directions by Maykor’s violent emergence from his pod. Talla ducked under his wildly slashing arm and as she whirled around him she lashed out and gave him a violent shove between the shoulder blades that sent him hurtling into the wall and the monitors that covered it. His head took the brunt of the impact and the smooth screen distorted and then disrupted entirely, filled with static as a very real fracture in its surface revealed itself as the man straightened with a sound like a snarl. 

From behind her she could hear the brutal blunt impacts of fists on flesh and knew the Moclans were clashing violently, one of them at least with murderous intent, but she couldn’t even spare a glance to look back over her shoulder. She had to keep her eyes on Blake. She couldn’t even take a moment to shove her loose hair out of her face. It would cost her too much and give Blake too big an opening. 

He came for her again and Talla ducked low, tucking herself down into a roll and snatching a piece of debris on her way, feeling the jagged edges bite into her palm but ignoring the stinging discomfort as she came up in a crouch. As she did so she twisted her body swiftly and agilely and slashed out and back. When she felt the shard of toughened glass catch on material and then the flesh beneath she allowed herself a fleeting moment of satisfaction that only increased as Blake let out a furious howl. 

And then he staggered. Blood pulsed from the wound across the back of his calf, just below his knee. 

Talla straightened slowly and steadily, still gripping her crude, makeshift weapon, meeting Blake’s gaze in an unwavering stare of determination as he turned his furious eyes on her. 

She wasn’t afraid of him. And she wanted him to see that. 

 


 

The other Moclan was strong. Incredibly so. When he struck it was with the force of a great hammer and Bortus felt the bones in his arms shuddering, threatening to give way under the sheer strength of his opponent’s blows. But he continued to press forward, undeterred and unafraid, wanting only to see this enemy defeated and brought to the justice he deserved. 

Whether that justice came from the Union, the council on Moclus, or at his own hands, it mattered very little. 

Maykor could not be allowed to go free. He was little more than a savage beast, wild and out of control and with a sick and twisted mind. He had to be stopped. 

By any means necessary

The larger Moclan swung at him but his aggression made him sloppy and Bortus was prepared for him. He used his smaller size to drive forward and under that swinging arm, ploughing into Maykor’s body with his own and driving them both backwards with as much force and speed as he could bring to bear. Together they struck the shattered remains of the Moclan’s simulation pod and the whole thing creaked and groaned terribly before whatever had been holding it anchored gave way completely. 

Bortus shoved at the other Moclan to get enough distance to smash a fist into his enemy’s face, using the power of it to drive him down on top of the buckling pod as it went. 

Across the room the human known as Blake gave a furious yell that sounded pained. 

Bortus did not allow it to distract him. He could not. Maykor was already recovering and lashing out with his feet, catching Bortus in one hip and throwing him back towards the wall by the door. His back took the brunt of the blow and he felt it shudder through his body, bracing for further discomfort when Maykor came thundering towards him with an animal cry. 

 


 

The bitch. The filthy, wretched bitch. His leg was bloody and burning with pain and he could feel it weakening under him even as Maykor roared and bellowed and spat furious curses somewhere behind him. Whoever he was fighting, Blake hoped his friend smashed them into a bloody pulp. But he couldn’t spare a glance, not with the Xelayan staring him down like that. 

He would wipe that arrogance off her face. He’d carve it off. And he would do it slowly so she could feel every bite of the blade. 

Even with the searing pain in the back of his leg he charged for her again. No rotten little Xelayan bitch was going to get the best of him, especially not a Union one. 

 


 

He was losing blood and not thinking clearly. She could use that against him. It was plain to see from the sheer amount of red that had already spattered the floor that the wound she had landed was deep enough to have done real damage and all she really had to do was let it take its toll but there was a part of Talla, and a loud part at that, that knew that wouldn’t be enough. 

Richard Blake had to be stopped, and she had to be sure he was done. 

So when he charged for her again she watched for the vicious slash of that blade and retaliated with one of her own, driving her own wicked weapon down as his arced across. Hers hit home first, the viciously sharp point of the glass punching clean through the flesh of his arm with almost no resistance at all. She felt the way that point caught on something hard beneath the surface, and then the slide of the jagged edge that scraped along after it. 

Blake roared

The metal blade of his weapon clattered loudly as it hit the floor. 

Talla kept her grip on her crude but effective weapon tight and unrelenting even as she lashed out with a foot and kicked first at that blade and then at Blake’s knee. The former went skittering swiftly clean across the room and the latter caved with a sickening crack. Blake buckled to the ground in a howling heap and Talla wasted absolutely no time in following him down to keep him there. 

 


 

Bortus caught sight of the flash out of the corner of his eye, the light glinting brightly off the metal surface as it came skittering swiftly across the floor, making almost no sound at all. 

Maykor did not hear it. He was too preoccupied with trying to get his massive hands around Bortus’ throat to crush the life out of him. That was just one of his many mistakes, and he would pay for them all dearly. 

Just when the other Moclan thought he had the upper hand Bortus caught him off guard by folding his knees under him and dropping down under Maykor’s grasp. His enemy’s meaty fists smashed into the wall either side of where Bortus’ head had been and he snarled, spitting a heated curse as he whirled to try and follow his opponent. 

Bortus had wasted no time in snatching his hand out to claim his prize, sent in his direction by a triumphant Lieutenant Keyali who was driving a knee into the back of Richard Blake to pin him to the ground. There was no time to celebrate. Not yet. His mission was not complete. 

With his prize grasped firmly in his hand Bortus turned and surged up to meet his enemy anew. Maykor had come driving furiously towards him once more but Bortus met him halfway, getting his arm between them at the last moment in order to land his blow. And he made sure to drive up as they collided. 

Maykor’s massive body jerked and stilled, tensing as the larger Moclan let out a stunned sound. His eyes stared down into Bortus’ and he returned that fierce gaze in kind, knowing not to waste the opportunity presented to him by his enemy’s shock. With a powerful push and twist he drove the blade all the way up into Maykor’s chest. Into his heart. 

It took several moments for the other Moclan to die but Bortus ensured he fell to his knees before the end. It was a fitting death for such a foul coward. Maykor did not deserve to die a warrior’s death, on his feet. 

Only when the light had faded from the other male’s eyes did Bortus pull the blade free and turn to Lieutenant Keyali, hearing the sound of Maykor’s large frame hitting the ground behind him. She was watching him and nodded her head, approving. Bortus returned the nod and then looked across the room to the two brothers. The last of the enemy Razers would be no trouble. That much was clear. 

“It is finished,” he said to no one person in particular before fixing his gaze upon the Lieutenant. “We must return to the others.” And quickly. 

 


 

The panic was reflexive and unstoppable. The thunderous crack hadn’t ended him, as he’d hoped it would, and that just made things even worse. And then hands were touching him again and he gave a thin wail of unbridled terror, trying to pull his head back out of his attacker’s reach so that whoever it was couldn’t hurt him anymore. He couldn’t take any more. 

He wanted to die, he just wanted to die, why wouldn’t he die

ED!” 

That voice. Didn’t he know that voice? 

Real or not real?  

What if it wasn’t? 

Real or not real? 

Ed was almost too afraid to open his eyes but a fresh cry of his name, shaped with concern and panic all its own, drove him to do so at last and what he saw changed his sobs from terrified to relieved. He did know that voice. And it wasn’t cruel or harsh or spiteful or mocking, it didn’t herald pain or humiliation. He remembered it bringing reassurance and comfort. He recognised the soothing intention of the touches even if any contact brought pain then. Everything hurt. Every little thing, every single inch of his body, inside and out. 

It was too much. 

He couldn’t take it. 

Caro tried to soothe him with the sorts of hushing sounds that were normally most effective with spooked animals as she took her hands from his heaving chest and damp neck. Ed flinched despite himself as she reached higher, to his face, but when she whispered, “Easy, easy, it’s okay,” he was overcome with a sudden and forceful wave of exhaustion so intense that he couldn’t help but still enough for her to finish. 

When the pressure released from around his face and over his mouth Ed couldn’t stop the sounds of unbridled distress and anguish from spilling out of him in a desperate flood. With the gag gone there was nothing stopping them now and he filled the room with them, unable to hold them at bay, or even so much as try. They overcame him completely and even when hands took either side of his face and that familiar voice tried to calm and steady him they wouldn’t stop. 

Do it.” 

Ed hadn’t even realised it was his own voice at first until he opened his eyes, his vision blurred with tears that were just as unstoppable and incessant as the awful sounds he was making, and saw that Caro was staring at him. Confusion at first. And then uncertainty. 

“Ed?” 

God, he couldn’t bear it. He just couldn’t take it anymore. Every pain, every hurt, the phantom feeling of the Moclan’s hands on him and what Maykor had been planning to do to him— 

Please,” he sobbed, dropping his head in her hands and feeling it come to rest on her own. She was standing so close to him. “Please,” he whined. “Please, do it. Please.” 

“Ed, I—” Caro paused and then she lifted his head. It hurt, he winced and flinched and struggled to breathe, just wanting everything to be over. He just wanted it to stop. Ed wanted the darkness and the silence and the numbness. He wanted the nothing that came with the end. 

His voice was quieter then, weaker, made thinner by exhaustion and an agonised desperation as he said in one last plead, “Please, Caro.” 

Make it stop

But what if it never did? 

Real or not real? 

Tears sprung to Caro’s eyes as well, he could see them even through his own, and she said nothing. Did nothing for several seconds. She moved her thumbs against his cheeks just briefly, just once, and then she released his face and stepped back. 

The gun was in her hand as she raised her arm. It was surprisingly steady. Her voice was anything but as she whispered, “I’m sorry.” 

Ed closed his eyes in the same moment that Caro shut her own. He heard her thumb back the hammer. Relief crept up inside of him. 

A deafening crack. 

And then nothing. 

 


 

Gordon hadn’t wanted to watch but something had compelled him to lock his eyes on the screen and keep them there. With the Moclan dead and gone he had been so confused by the new arrival that he hadn’t been able to take his gaze off that screen after she had shown up. The alien’s response to his question of who the woman was didn’t clarify matters in the least but Gordon had given up on asking a second time, instead turning to watch events unfold along with Isaac and the Doctor. 

The speakers that were hidden in the wall around the monitors perfectly captured and transmitted every single sound from what was happening on the screen and Gordon felt wrong for hearing those words. He had had to squeeze his eyes shut against those awful sounds, unable to associate them with the man who had long since become not just his best friend but the only brother he had ever had. No human being should ever make sounds like that, he thought, and he wished he had never heard them. They were going to echo in his skull long after all of this was over, he knew. 

When he opened his eyes and looked over the Doctor’s shoulder again he saw the woman stepping back from Ed. He saw her raising the gun, the same weapon she had used to eliminate the Moclan. 

It wasn’t real, not really, but Gordon couldn’t help the way his hand raised to cover his mouth as that woman aimed that gun at Ed and paused to whisper an apology. When the gun went off Gordon started, more violently that he had expected to, and he closed his eyes against the sight of the shot hitting its mark. 

Simulation or not he couldn’t watch Ed die. 

And then suddenly multiple alarms sounded from the monitor in front of Doctor Finn, moments before one of those awful sounds flooded the room from close by. 

 


 

It caught Kelly so off guard that she almost slipped from her perch, the sudden sound and movement adding horribly to what she had been able to hear from that monitor and its speakers only moments before. Something had happened in the simulation, someone else had arrived, and a gun had been fired. And then abruptly, violently and desperately, Ed was awake

“Oh my God.” Kelly still had her hands on his face from where she had been repeating her pleads for Ed to hold on, just hang in there, don’t give up, and she kept her grip even as he gave a horrible wail of a sound. It was unlike anything she had ever heard from him before and it twisted her guts in on themselves and sent a knife of pain straight through her heart. “Ed? Ed! It’s me, it’s—” 

But he couldn’t hear her. He unleashed another one of those awful sounds and started to shake horribly. She could feel him straining against the restraints and then the whole rig started to shift and pitch. She had no choice but to step back and down then before she fell and she saw in her peripheral vision that Claire was swiftly sifting through the notifications on the medical monitor to the side of the rig which continued to pivot forward. 

There was a hiss and Ed gave a cry before his head dropped forward, released from whatever invisible force had been holding it in place. Kelly reflexively reached up and supported it with her hands on either side of his face, the roughness of his stubble catching at her palms fully as the oxygen mask retracted. Ed’s laboured and ragged breathing was almost deafeningly loud at close proximity and it sounded so rough and so uneven that Kelly knew instantly that it was very, very wrong

“Ed, it’s me, it’s Kelly. It’s Kelly, it’s okay. I’ve got you.” But he didn’t react, her words falling on deaf ears. Fear spiked through her and she turned her head towards the aliens, snapping at them, “Get him out of there! Now!” 

O’Lar had told her upon the Orville’s arrival that she had no authority here but the way the workers reacted suggested otherwise as they darted forward, startled by the volume or the frantic aggression in her tone, the vaguely panicked quality of it making it all the more urgent. Kelly heard the fear in her own voice but there was no hiding it, no disguising it, and certainly no mistaking it. 

The workers tapped several commands on either side of the rig in which Ed had been secured and Kelly heard mechanisms working smoothly. The intravenous lines that had been secured in his arms, one in each, retracted first, and there was a sequence of low hisses and hums before the restraining bands released, freeing Ed completely from his confinement. 

Kelly almost wasn’t quick enough to catch him, his trembling body buckling down against hers instantly. “Gordon!” She was afraid of dropping him and hurting him. The Helmsman bolted over and sunk down to give extra support to Ed’s collapsing frame and Kelly’s as well, her knees giving out on her under the sudden weight. Her arms went around Ed’s back and held on tightly, his head coming down on her shoulder as if it was too heavy for him to hold up by himself. Gordon got them down to the ground and stayed there, right there, so close against Kelly’s back that she could feel his chest against her shoulders. 

Ed was shaking so violently it was making her body tremble as well. God, it was just so wrong

And he was soaked. His uniform undershirt was wet through, clinging to him, his whole body covered in sweat. 

Kelly’s fear took a very real jump, a mixture of dread and terror threatening to gnaw away at her senses. 

“Ed, it’s me—” 

And then he panicked

 


 

No, no, no, nonononoitcantbereal— 

Real or not real?  

—how is it real howitsnotitcantbe— 

Ed thrashed and shoved and twisted to try and get away, every sense reeling and screaming as his brain railed and rebelled and misfired repeatedly. He heard a horrible, animal wail of despair and terror and realised only after it came again and again that it was his voice, twisted by terror and confusion and a complete and utter lack of comprehension into something awful that he couldn’t recognise. 

The chains, the agony, the dark room, the remote, the energy, the blood, the laughter, Maykor— 

—and then the gun. 

Real or not real?  

Real or not real?  

Real or not— 

Oh God, he didn’t know. He didn’t know

Ed cried out in a blind panic and pushed at the hands on him, trying to get them away, away from him, hands on him caused pain and he couldn’t take any more. There were voices, raised and urgent, but his blood thundered in his ears and his heart crashed in his chest and drowned them out. The words were lost. The lights were too bright and there were too many colours and he couldn’t see properly. Everything was a blur. 

Terror. Pure and blinding and crippling. 

Ed couldn’t handle it. 

“Stop, stop, stopstopstop—” His fingers clutched at his hair and tightened there as he screamed. “MAKE IT STOP!” 

 


 

DOCTOR!” Kelly could feel the tears on her own face as they flowed unbidden in the wake of what was unfolding in front of her eyes, feeling the very real force that Ed put behind the shoves of his hands as he fought in a blind panic to get away. He pushed and he twisted and he cried out, terror plain on his face and in his eyes as he tried to escape. He clawed at his hair like he wanted to tear it out of his skull and Kelly grabbed at his hands in a bid to stop him. 

Claire was there in an instant even as Gordon repeatedly said Ed’s name and tried to get through the panic that had such a tight and terrifying hold on him. The older woman met her eyes and Kelly shook her head for a moment, at a complete loss for what felt like an agonising eternity as Ed thrashed and struggled wildly to get away from them. From her

“Do it,” Kelly managed to say, trying desperately to keep her hold on Ed because she was afraid of him hurting himself. In his panicked state she was worried about him cracking his head on something and he was already in such a terrible condition that that might be one step beyond what his system could handle. “Claire, please. Do it.” Ed was suffering and she couldn’t stop it. She couldn’t stand it. 

The other woman didn’t need to have it explained to her, retrieving the hypodermic from her medical bag swiftly and waiting until Kelly and Gordon had enough of a hold on Ed to put it to use. He pleaded shapelessly and desperately for them to let him go and Kelly almost couldn’t bear to look at his pained and panicked face as Claire pressed the hypodermic to the side of his neck. Too late he seemed to realise what was happening and he flinched with a cry but by then it was done and the sedative was already taking hold. 

Kelly caught him as he slumped forward again, his whole body going limp after a brief and futile struggle to resist the drug that took him down and under. One arm went around his back again and as his head dropped once more to her shoulder she brought her other up and cupped her hand at the back of it. His body was still shaking, his entire frame wracked constantly by tremors and quakes, and blinking back the worst of the tears in her eyes Kelly turned her gaze carefully past Ed’s dropped head to Claire where the Doctor was knelt beside them. 

“We have to get him back to the ship,” she said with a troubled shake of her head, her medscanner in her hand. “He’s on the verge of a cardiac arrest.” 

“He’s having a heart attack?” Gordon’s horror was evident. Kelly would have heard it clearly even if he wasn’t practically pressed up against her back, one hand forward on Ed’s shoulder. 

Claire shoved the scanner back into her bag with a shake of her head. “He will be if we don’t get him back to the ship right now.” 

And then, from the doorway, Kelly heard a sound that she would never forget. A laugh, cold and cruel and sickeningly sincere, gaining strength and volume as it went on. When she turned her head to look past Ed’s against her shoulder she could see Richard Blake staring at them from just inside the threshold. Even down on his knees and covered in his own blood, even in Talla’s tight grasp and with his arms restrained behind his back, he looked so happy as he watched them. So pleased

In that moment Kelly had never wanted to kill anyone as much as she did that awful, hateful man. It took every ounce of strength she possessed to keep her voice steady enough to say to Talla, “Get him out of my sight.”

Chapter Text

There was no way to get back to the shuttle without people seeing. There was no privacy to be had, no means of covering the distance covertly, and Gordon resented each and every strange and unfamiliar alien for staring as they passed, moving as quickly as they dared under the circumstances. Talla had gone on ahead with Bortus and Blake, practically dragging the wounded and beaten Razer behind her. The oldest Reed brother had followed along with a dejected and defeated air about him, not saying a word. 

Gordon had wanted to try and carry Ed himself but in the end nothing of the sort was necessary. The one called J’Ron had retrieved a stretcher for them, not too dissimilar from the Union issue ones, and carefully they had loaded Ed onto that instead. Now they were moving back to the shuttle bay as quickly as they could. It wasn’t quick enough for Gordon’s liking. Even from his place behind the Doctor where she was pushing the stretcher along he could hear Ed’s laboured breathing and see the way the other man’s chest rose and fell in a troublingly uneven way. 

Isaac flanked the bed on one side with Kelly on the other. Gordon hadn’t missed how Kelly’s hand was holding on to one of Ed’s and refusing to let go for so much as a single second as they made their way through the ship. 

Gordon had forgotten that Lowell had hung back and trailed after him until the younger pilot said, “I’m sorry.” When their eyes met the other man said, “I had no idea.” 

All he could manage was a nod. Now wasn’t the time. He didn’t trust himself to keep his temper and his emotions under control. He couldn’t think, let alone speak, and Lowell wouldn’t deserve whatever would come spilling recklessly out of his mouth if he tried to respond then. So he just nodded. 

When they got back to the shuttle he sprinted to the front of the procession and darted inside first, wanting to get it fired up and ready to go. Through the front viewer he could see Talla finishing handing off the overpowered and restrained Blake, along with the resigned Shelton, to one of the Olympia team but he didn’t even have it in him to be relieved by the fact that the bastards wouldn’t be travelling back to the Orville with them. 

As soon as everyone was on board and secured Gordon got them moving, all too aware of the urgency of the moment. Ed wasn’t out of the woods yet. Far from it. 

 


 

Kelly kept her grip on Ed’s hand as much as possible on the way back to the Orville, resuming her unwavering grip once they were back on the ship and moving through the familiar corridors again. She sent Bortus, Talla, and the latter’s two men ahead to clear the corridors and ease their passage, but also to keep the witnesses to the hurrying procession to a minimum. She didn’t want people to see Ed like this. Maybe he would have cared less but he was in no condition to worry about himself then. And so Kelly would do it for him. 

She had to release her hold on him so that Claire could get the bed into sick bay but she was through the doors immediately afterwards and trying to figure out where she could stand that wouldn’t be in the way. By the time she crossed the threshold the medical team were already transferring Ed from the stretcher to the main bed and moving the monitor into place over him. 

Under the bright lights of the Orville’s sick bay Ed looked even worse. Kelly’s heart ached just looking at him, at the paleness of his skin and the glistening quality of it as he continued to perspire horribly. Every tremor that wracked his frame was cast into harsh relief and even under sedation she was able to watch the way his features shifted in pain and distress. He was still suffering. He was unconscious and he was still suffering. It wasn’t fair. 

Kelly ended up by Ed’s head, threading her fingers carefully into his dripping wet hair and trying to bring him some kind of small comfort as Claire and her team worked frantically and with urgency. A strange kind of dread-fuelled numbness had settled over her as she stood there, watching but not seeing, listening but not hearing. She turned her eyes down to Ed’s pained face and bowed down just enough to touch her head gently to his, whispering as she did so, “Please hang on.” God, she couldn’t lose him. “Please don’t leave me.” 

And then there were hands on her easing her away and she almost fought but it was Gordon and she calmed enough to look from his troubled face to the bed and the medical staff surrounding it. Claire’s face was drawn and she was snapping orders, working controls furiously after administering another drug to Ed’s system. 

He had stopped shaking. 

Oh God, why— 

Kelly brought a hand to her mouth even as Claire gave the order for sonic defibrillation. 

Ed’s heart had stopped. 

Gordon’s arms had gone around her and he kept them there as they watched in muted horror, praying and hoping and silently begging to hear a rhythm. When it didn’t come Claire repeated the order. 

“Come on, Ed.” Gordon’s voice was strangled by fear but there was a determined kind of plead there as well, almost as if he thought he could urge the other man into coming back to them. “Come on, man. Don’t do this.” 

It was unbearable. The wait was agonising and wretched and it felt like it went on for hours. Kelly thought her own heart was going to stop. 

And then Ed’s started to beat again. 

Her knees almost threatened to give out on her but Gordon had her and he wasn’t letting go, actually tightening his grip on her as a relieved rush of breath came spilling out of them both almost in unison. Kelly could have wept, she could have sobbed in her relief, but now wasn’t the time. Ed needed her to be strong and so that was what she would do, carefully peeling herself out of Gordon’s arms to return to her place at the head of the bed. Even with people watching she didn’t hesitate in what she did next, bowing down once again but this time to press a light kiss to Ed’s brow, whispering softly afterwards, “You can do this.” 

And he wouldn’t have to do it alone. Kelly wouldn’t let that happen, and neither would the rest of the crew. They were all with him, every step of the way. They would take care of him. 

She would take care of him. 

 


 

There had been too many people in sick bay for Claire’s liking but she hadn’t had the heart to ask all of them to leave. Bortus had announced that he would return to the bridge after one of the medical team had checked him over and ensured he hadn’t sustained any serious injury in his clash with the enemy Moclan and Lowell Reed had excused himself, presumably to return to the quarters that had been assigned to him during his time aboard the Orville. Isaac too had departed, seeing no need to stay and opting instead to follow after Bortus and resume his duties on the bridge. 

Kelly, Gordon, and Talla had remained behind. The latter had been at Claire’s request. Tommy had been growing increasingly agitated and it was only the presence of the Xelayan that had had any real calming effect on him so far and so Claire had asked her to stay close to him. It gave one of her team an opportunity to tend to the Lieutenant’s injuries as well. Talla sat quietly on Tommy’s bed while he switched between reading his book and gazing silently across the room at what was happening at its centre, and one of the medical team made short work of healing the damage that had been done to the Xelayan during her struggle with Blake. 

Gordon was leaning against the wall of Claire’s office with his arms folded over his chest, looking worn out but obviously determined to stay, occasionally rubbing at his face with one hand. He was staying quiet and out of the way, appearing to most to be almost entirely out of character in his stillness and silence, but Claire recognised the powerful concern on the Lieutenant’s face, and the fear about what might happen if he left. 

And then there was Kelly. She had hardly moved since the group had entered sick bay after returning to the Orville. Claire had considered asking her to go and sit in the office but one look at the other woman’s face had been all she’d needed to know it would have been a waste of breath. So instead she had asked one of her staff to fetch a chair for Kelly to sit on so she could maintain her vigil at the head of the bed. As Claire looked up from her work she watched the younger woman’s hand smooth some of the Captain’s dirty and untidy hair back from his forehead and temples, the action gentle and tender and filled with concern. Every now and then she would say something quietly, practically under her breath, and the intimacy of it kept Claire from even attempting to pick out the words. 

She didn’t have the heart to send Gordon or Kelly any further away than they already were. Claire knew they wouldn’t have left even if she had asked it of them. So for now they could stay. 

Her eyes returned to her work, the readings on the monitor rested over the Captain’s unconscious form telling her plainly and clearly that even though the man was out of immediate danger there was still work that needed to be done, and plenty of it. With a sigh she made a swift mental list of tasks that needed to be taken care of in order to get him properly on the road to recovery. 

“What is it, Doc’?” Gordon sounded just as weary as he looked, lifting his gaze from the bed’s occupant to where she stood to its side. 

Claire hesitated, debating the pros and cons of telling those present just what she was looking at, before she decided it would have been foolish to even try and lie or gloss over anything relating to the Captain’s condition. With a shake of her head, her mind made up, she said, “His system is still in a state of shock. When I said in that lab that it was like it was really happening to him?” She looked from one face to the other, even going so far as to include Talla over in the corner. “That’s exactly what I meant.” She gave a small nod towards the monitor in front of her. “Even with what we’ve done so far to stabilise his condition his blood pressure and heart rate are dangerously elevated, and his body is reacting as if the physical damage he endured in that simulation was inflicted in the real world.” And that was to say nothing of the man’s neurological readings, but for the time being she was keeping those to herself, at least until she knew just what they were dealing with. She didn’t want to frighten those present any more than absolutely necessary. Claire shook her head again. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” And yet there it was in front of her, indisputable and as plain as the nose on her face. 

Part of her knew that the readings would make for fascinating research material but the rest of her dismissed the idea instantly, and completely. If she had had no personal association with the individual concerned then perhaps she might have been intrigued by the idea of authoring a paper but as it was she not only knew the patient in question but she knew him well. She admired him greatly and she cared for him deeply. Captain Mercer was not a research project. 

“So what does that mean?” Gordon went on to ask, his brow furrowed and his mouth turned down in a frown. 

“Honestly?” Claire raised her brows and shook her head once more. “I’m not sure.” She turned her gaze to Kelly, who looked troubled and miserable as she dropped her attention once more to her ex-husband, brushing his hair back yet again. “For the time being I need to focus on getting his system back to some semblance of normal. I need to get his levels balanced and stabilised again. It’s going to take a little time.” If only because she wanted to tread carefully and not push Captain Mercer’s body beyond what it could realistically handle. They might have had all the technological and medical advances that life in the twenty-fifth century could afford but there were still risks and she wasn’t willing to take them in order to get the job done faster. 

“But he’ll be okay?” 

Claire met Gordon’s gaze, wanting to answer him with the immediate confidence that she knew he was seeking in order to feel reassured, but she had already decided not to lie to them. “I hope so,” she said instead. And then she added, “I’ll do everything that I can.” 

There was too much about all of this that was unknown and unfamiliar, there were too many alien elements that she didn’t know enough about, and that troubled her. Claire needed more information than what she had in order to do everything in her power to get the Captain back to perfect health. 

If she could. 

Over in the corner Tommy made a plaintive sound and Talla attentively reached out a hand and laid it on the young man’s knee to soothe him. “I’ll be right back okay?” she said to him, her voice soft and gentle. “Stay here? I’ll make sure he’s okay.” And she gave him a warm smile as if they really had known one another for years before she slipped from the bed and pulled the curtain around it that little bit more. Claire noticed she had done so to the point where Tommy could not clearly see the middle of the room and its occupants and she gave the Xelayan a curious look as she approached, wondering why. 

“You said there was a woman,” Talla said to them, but only when she had come up close enough to the bed that she could lower her voice so as not to be overheard by the young man in the corner. “In the simulation. The one who killed the Moclan.” 

Kelly spoke up from her place at the head of the bed. She sounded exhausted. “She saved him.” Her eyes were down on the Captain as she spoke. She smoothed his hair back once again, as if she thought the action could soothe him even while he was unconscious. 

Talla looked down to the Commander. “What was her name? Did anyone hear it?” 

It was Gordon who answered, albeit not confidently, “Cara, maybe? Something like that.” 

Claire shook her head. She had been closer to the monitors, and therefore the speakers. “It was Caro,” she amended. 

Talla’s expression shifted enough to show recognition and she said then, “Tommy knows her.” Glancing briefly back over her shoulder she went on, “He was talking about her earlier. He talked about her like they were close.” She paused before she added more quietly, “Erana too. The Xelayan.” After a moment she persisted, “He said the Captain had stayed with them in a simulation for a while, like they were all trying to keep each other safe.” 

Claire dropped her gaze to the Captain, noticing how Kelly had bowed closer to his head and closed her eyes. “She certainly did that,” she said, looking across to Lieutenant Malloy who was shaking his head. 

“We can’t leave her there,” he said then, his arms still crossed even though he had stepped away from the wall to be closer to the conversation. “We have to get her out of there.” He met Claire’s gaze directly when he added, “After what she did for Ed it’s the least we can do.” 

“We have to try and get them all out,” Talla said before she sighed. “But one step at a time, I know.” With a nod she went on, “I agree with Gordon.” 

Claire looked down at Kelly who was quiet for several moments before she straightened enough to say, “Get her out of there.” She didn’t take her eyes from the Captain as she said that but they heard the hint of authority in her voice that made the words an official order. None of them needed any more than that. Talla tapped her comm to relay the command to the bridge as Gordon reached out and set a hand on Kelly’s shoulder. 

They would get the woman out, Claire knew, but none of the crew currently occupying sick bay would be present for the recovery. For her part she had one patient still in dire need of her attention and, from the sounds of things, she would soon have a second. 

 


 

She had turned the gun on herself. There had been no other way out and even if there had been additional hunters anywhere in the environment she hadn’t wanted to wait for them. She had just wanted to get out. Dying had been easier than remaining there alone in a room with the remnants of what had happened and who had done it, not to mention who they had done it to. Caro had barely been able to stand looking at it. 

So she had ended it. And then it had all disappeared, everything dropping away for however long it took for her mind to snap out of the simulation and back to where it really belonged. It was as jarring as it had ever been, if not more so, and she was so fully exhausted and wrung out that she couldn’t help but cry as she trembled as the rig settled and the D’Nari watched her coming around. It was nothing new, nothing shocking or unexpected, and she knew it would only be a matter of time before she went back in. 

Would she find Ed again? What kind of condition would he be in when she did? Her poor brother had never endured anything like what Ed obviously had in any of his experiences and the simulations had taken their toll on his mind. She dreaded to think what all of that had done to Ed. How long had they been doing that to him? She might have wondered why if she hadn’t been in and out of the environments as many times as she had but even in all of her times going through the motions she had never seen anything like that. That had been a very targeted and destructive kind of violence, not to mention cruel, and that Moclan— 

Her stomach rolled powerfully and the nausea threatened to overcome her but she held it at bay. Just barely she was able to bite and swallow it back, having to fight to do so and only exhausting herself further. 

“What do we do now?” The female. 

“I don’t know. J’Ron didn’t ask for anything else.” The male. 

J’Ron? Who was that? 

Caro had long since given up trying to interact with the D’Nari who watched over her and controlled her insertion into the simulations. She barely even bothered to look at them anymore. But she listened, if only because there was nothing else to do, and because on some level the sound of their voices was grounding and she needed that. After what she had seen and what she had had to do she needed it more than she cared to admit. 

“Should we take it out of the directory?” Female. 

“I—” Male. “Yes. For now. Until we know what to do next.” 

She must have fallen asleep. The world had gone dark and quiet and still. 

When it came back there was noise and movement and people were speaking urgently and with purpose. Caro struggled to open her eyes and found herself faced with an individual she didn’t recognise, one that actually startled her into jerking back in the rig. 

“There is no need to be afraid,” the Kaylon said to her and she was close to telling him that was easy for him to say, or trying to, when someone in uniform came into view. An orange and black uniform. A Union officer. 

“Caro, right?” they said to her and she hesitated before nodding, her heart going a mile a minute and her brain scrambling just as frantically. “We’re here to help. Take it easy, we’re gonna get you outta there.” And then he turned to the D’Nari and snapped commands as naturally as if he had been in charge here all along. “Let’s go, c’mon! Get her outta there!” The bars on his shoulder, she could just make out, marked him as a Lieutenant Commander. 

And then she was free of the rig and dropping out of it, unable to catch herself and falling freely. But she didn’t hit the ground. Instead she found herself in the arms of the Kaylon, of all people, the blue points of light that represented eyes turned down towards her as she trembled and clutched instinctively at his cool, sturdy frame. 

“This is Isaac,” the Lieutenant Commander said as he came back over and Caro was grateful for the fact that she had managed to sleep so that she could at least halfway keep up with what was happening. “I’m John. Isaac’s gonna carry you. Okay?” 

Isaac? The Kaylon? She looked to him and opened her mouth to ask why, to ask how they could trust a Kaylon, but then she realised she wasn’t standing under her own power anyway and in the next instant she was being scooped up with a surprising amount of care. And then she was letting her head drop and slipping back into blissful unconsciousness once again. 

 


 

“Commander? Commander Grayson?” 

Someone touched her shoulder as they said, “Kelly?” 

It was a struggle to open her eyes, let alone lift her head. Everything felt heavy and sluggish and it was with no small amount of effort that she managed to do first one and then the other, having to blink her eyes several times in a bid to get them to focus. 

The first thing she saw was Ed. Still unconscious but still breathing. His chest was moving with a little more rhythm and depth than before but it was still noticeably uneven and Kelly frowned. The monitor was still settled over his torso and she could hear soft sounds emanating from it. 

She couldn’t remember falling asleep. At some point she must have rested her head down close beside Ed’s and let her eyes slip closed as she listened to him breathing. It occurred to her as she lifted one hand to rub at her bleary eyes that she never had managed to get any sleep during the mission to track the Razers. She was paying for that now. 

“Kelly?” 

When she finally turned her head at the sound of that voice she saw Claire looking at her. She still had her hand on Kelly’s shoulder. “I—” She cleared her throat and shook her head a little. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—” 

Shaking her own head Claire cut her off. “It’s okay,” she said. “But you need to get some sleep. Real sleep.” Raising her brows she went on to add, “In a bed, in your quarters.” 

Kelly looked back to Ed. She didn’t want to leave. What if he woke up while she was gone? He might want her there, he might need her there, and she would feel terrible if she failed him any more than she already had. She didn’t want to leave him. 

“It’s okay.” Gordon was still in sick bay and he moved over as he spoke. “I’ll stay with him.” He sounded tired too, he looked it as well, but he gave her a reassuring nod that told her he didn’t care about any of that. He was Ed’s best friend and he would make sure nothing else terrible happened to him just as surely as Kelly would. There wasn’t much that could happen to him in the sick bay of the Orville, she knew, but it would still be better if someone close to him was by his side when the sedative wore off and he woke up. If it couldn’t be her, and she could tell from the look on Claire’s face that she wasn’t going to take no for an answer, then she was glad it would be Gordon. 

That still didn’t make it any easier to nod her head in surrender and say quietly, “All right.” Part of her had debated resisting, insisting that she was fine to stay, but it would have been a poor lie and one that the Doctor and the Helmsman to either side of her would have seen through instantly. Turning her gaze briefly back to look over her shoulder she saw Talla give her a small nod that promised she too would watch over Ed. 

He was in good hands. The best. 

“All right,” she said again and started to rise from her seat, but not before she brushed another kiss to Ed’s brow. One more time she smoothed his unruly black hair back and then she stepped clear of the bed, summoning all of her waning strength to do so. True to his word Gordon lowered himself into that same seat to keep vigil, leaning back in the chair but keeping his eyes on the figure on the bed. 

Kelly lingered for only a few moments more before she felt the weight of Claire’s gaze on her and knew she couldn’t put it off any longer. If nothing else if she stood there any longer her knees were going to fold and drop her to the ground. Her friend was right. She needed to sleep. She wouldn’t be any good to Ed if she was too exhausted to function. 

That didn’t make it any easier to tear her eyes from his unconscious frame, just as it didn’t make it any easier to step through those doors and leave him behind. But she would be back. As soon as she was at least a little rested she would be back by his side and ready to get him through whatever came next. 

 


 

It was getting more and more difficult to keep his eyes open, but truthfully all Gordon had to do in order to snap himself out of it was look straight ahead at the prone figure on the bed. His best friend. The man he had called his brother. The man who was his brother, for all intents and purposes. Blood ties be damned, Ed Mercer was his family and always would be. There was nothing Gordon wouldn’t do for him and right now that meant sweeping aside his own heavy weariness and keeping watch, just in case Ed needed him. 

He was just shifting in his seat and straightening in order to better keep himself awake when the sick bay doors hissed quietly open and permitted Isaac and John, the former carrying another unconscious form. It was a woman, and Gordon only needed a moment to be sure that it was the same one he had seen on the monitor in the simulation. It was the same woman who had killed the Moclan. The same woman who had killed Ed. 

Mercy kill. The mental reminder was sharp and didn’t make him feel much better, the words leaving him feeling disquieted as he took his gaze from the Kaylon and the Doctor’s new patient and dropping it to Ed once again. How much would he remember? 

Gordon couldn’t help but recall the shouting and the panic, the desperate shoving and pushing, the fingers clawing at hair. He swiped his hands over his face to try and dislodge the memories because that hadn’t been the Ed Mercer he knew. It hadn’t been the same man he had connected and bonded with at Union Point. He just couldn’t make the two fit together in any way that made sense. 

“Over here,” the Doctor said to Isaac who dutifully followed the instructions and laid the woman gently down on the bed further back. 

“Caro? Caro!” And then the sound of hurried movement. 

“Whoa, take it easy.” 

Gordon turned just in time to see Talla catch Tommy as he all but spilled himself off his own bed and into the space between that one and the next one, where Isaac had just set the woman down so Doctor Finn could examine her. There was no doubting that they knew one another, not for a single second, and Gordon could see in Tommy’s face the same fear and panic that he remembered feeling not too long ago himself. 

He turned his eyes back to Ed. And then back to Tommy and the woman on the bed, rising quietly from his chair in order to get a better look at first one then the other. The colouring and the facial structure, the slope of the jaw and the shape of the nose—there were too many similarities for it to be a coincidence. Gordon deduced in those few moments that the two were siblings, brother and sister, and he found himself marvelling at the odds of encountering yet another familial pair in all of this madness. 

“Caro!” Tommy was trying desperately to get closer to his sister’s side and Talla looked to the Doctor imploringly before the older woman gave her a nod. The Xelayan relaxed her careful grip enough to let the young man get close enough to reach out and touch his sister, at which point he let out a series of breathless laughs of what Gordon could only assume were relief. He started to speak in a low flurry, a rush of disjointed thoughts and half-sentences that none of them could make out properly. Doctor Finn, for her part, left him to it and ran her medscanner over the length of the new arrival’s unconscious form, silently studying the readings. 

Gordon couldn’t take his eyes off the way Tommy bowed over his sister and kept up the constant stream of one-sided conversation. The longer he watched the more unsettled he became, thinking about the man behind him and the way he had acted upon his release from the simulations. He tried not to notice similarities like the unkempt appearance and the inability to grasp what was going on around him. If he started to notice things like that, really notice them, he might never stop. 

With his back to the room’s main bed Gordon had missed the movement that preceded the panicked shout that had everyone turning, startled, in that direction. It startled him enough that he actually physically jumped, whirling quickly, half expecting an attack of some sort. The Security officers who had followed Isaac and John were still standing just inside the door and they instinctively went for their weapons but held off when they saw who had made the noise. 

Ed was awake. The sedative that the Doctor had given him on the alien ship had worn off, obviously, and he had awakened abruptly enough that he had done so in an obvious panic. Gordon watched in stunned disbelief as Ed shoved frantically at the monitor over him and knocked it away, scrambling from the bed and almost toppling himself right over onto the floor, giving a yell that was almost pained as he did so. Instinctively Gordon moved forward to help him but when Ed looked at him all he saw was fear and alarm. It was enough to root him to the spot, instantly second guessing himself. 

“Ed? It’s me,” he said, holding up his hands. “It’s Gordon.” 

But it didn’t have the calming effect he was hoping for. Ed, breathing wildly and shallowly, backed away from him and looked over his shoulder at the last moment to see John. The Chief Engineer had his hands up as well as he said, “Captain, it’s o—” 

Ed whirled on the spot and backed away from him as quickly as he could, bumping heavily against the bed he had tumbled from and once again knocking the dislodged monitor so that it clattered loudly as it was sent further away. The noise and movement startled him further and he backed away from that too, noticing for the first time the presence of the two Security officers by the other door. 

“Captain?” Doctor Finn was moving around the other side of the bed and trying to come into his line of sight. Gordon backed off enough to give Ed room to pass him and waved a little frantically at Isaac to do the same. The Kaylon did as he was wordlessly instructed and cleared Ed’s path before the man could bump into him but his movement was startling enough anyway. 

With a breathless gasp Ed staggered away from Isaac and almost lost his footing. His wild eyes moved quickly, trying to take in every face at once, and his breathing quickened again. It was too fast. He was going to make things worse. Gordon wasn’t a doctor of any kind but even he could recognise why it was dangerous for Ed to be in the state he was in currently. 

“No,” he mumbled with a frantic shake of his head. “No, no, no, it’s not—it can’t—this—” He kept on shaking his head and backing up, spotting Talla for the first time and then, close by, Tommy and his prone sibling. The sound Ed made then was low and strained, almost strangled, and he pushed off the woman’s bed to get more distance between himself and the figure upon it. “This can’t—it’s not real. It’s not real. It can’t be, it can’t, it can’t—” 

Gordon moved towards him. “Ed, hey, hey.” He raised his hands further to try and bring his friend’s attention to him. “It’s okay, all right? It’s okay now. We got you out. You’re out.” 

Ed’s response was sharp and immediate and his eyes locked instantly on Gordon’s with more desperation and fear than he had ever seen in anyone, let alone the man standing before him. “No.” His head started to shake again. There wasn’t much of him that wasn’t shaking, Gordon noticed. “It’s a lie, you’re lying—” It almost sounded like Ed had started to laugh but Gordon realised after a moment that it was a frantic and constant hitch in his breathing that went on to sound almost like he was sobbing instead. 

Gordon didn’t see who tapped their comm but he recognised that it was Doctor Finn’s voice that called Commander Grayson’s name. He kept his eyes on Ed, trying to keep his friend focused on him, but there was no focus in the other man’s gaze whatsoever. There was nothing but panic and dread and a complete and utter lack of any kind of understanding.

Chapter Text

“Commander Grayson! Kelly!”

Too soon. She wasn’t ready.

KELLY!”

She snapped awake, bolting upright on her couch and feeling her heart just about leap into her throat. The comm. Someone was trying to reach her on the comms. And it sounded urgent. “C-Claire?” Her mind hadn’t properly woken up yet. She had fallen into such a deep and immediate sleep that she hadn’t even removed her boots, only her jacket before sitting down and then slumping all the way over onto her side. She had had every intention of going up to her bed but she had never made it.

“Get down here right now!” And then she was gone.

Kelly didn’t stop to think, she didn’t hesitate, she just leapt from her couch and sprinted from the room as fast as she could, wheeling around the open door so swiftly that she almost hurtled herself clean into the opposite wall. Moving as fast as her long legs would allow her she ran through the halls to sick bay, covering the distance easily enough with anyone in her path recognising her urgency and practically diving out of her way. There was no time to thank them.

The doors to sick bay parted just in time for her to dart through them and what she saw inside made her heart freeze in her chest. Oh my God. The words died on her lips before she was even able to give them voice and she tried to make sense of the scene before her but it wouldn’t ground itself in reality the way she needed it to in order to properly address and deal with it.

Ed was backed against the far wall, looking very much like a wild animal fearing but anticipating the killing blow. His chest was heaving and she could hear each frantic gulp for air from where she was standing. Gordon was closest to him, trying to calm him down by saying his name regularly and telling him it was okay, but Kelly could tell with a single glance that nothing was even close to being okay. Talla was standing close to Tommy who had started to cry loudly, holding the limp hand of the woman they had recovered from the alien ship. Isaac was on the far side of the room, silent and unmoving. John was in the corner between the room’s two entrances, looking suitably lost and confused. Doctor Finn was halfway across the room, close to her office door, turning her head towards Kelly almost as soon as she spilled inside.

Two of Talla’s team were just inside the door. One of them had his hand on his weapon. Kelly snatched one hand out and yanked his away from the holster, fixing him with a fleeting but furious stare before she moved further into the room, closer to Claire.

“Maybe you can get through to him,” the other woman said instantly and in a hushed tone.

Kelly hoped so. She couldn’t bear to see Ed like that, looking terrified and completely lost, so unlike himself that she hardly even recognised him in that moment. As she watched he started to inch down the wall, his back pressed to it, his head shaking back and forth desperately as he said over and over again, “It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real.”

Her heart constricted but she moved closer anyway, coming up even with Gordon who looked utterly at a loss. She felt his eyes on her as she moved a little way past him and lowered herself, trying to get level with Ed and his wide eyes. “Ed? Hey—”

No.” A sharp denial, fierce but shaking and threading off in a pitched sound like a whine.

“Yeah,” she countered, nodding her head. “You know me. Right?”

Instead of a word he made a drawn out sound like a groan in the back of his throat, his brow furrowing deeply and desperately, his back pressing harder against the wall.

“It’s me. It’s Kel.”

She used his name for her. Cassius had started to use it quite of his own accord but it had never felt right in his voice. It was Ed’s name for her. It always had been and always would be. She was hoping to trigger something in him, some recognition, some familiarity, that would bring him out of his panicked state.

Ed clamped his hands over his ears and made a pained sound, as close to a sob as he could get without tears flooding from his eyes, which he squeezed shut almost as if afraid to keep them open.

“Ed, it’s me—” But her voice was lost under another one of those terrible sounds, this one closer to a shout, a frantic bid to drown out any other noises. Kelly wanted to reach for him, take him in her arms, hold him close to her and tell him it was okay, he was safe, they’d gotten him out, but something in her gut told her not to touch him. That same something told her that touching him right then would make everything so much worse.

And it just about broke her heart.

“Talla.” Claire was using the volume of Ed’s shapeless protests to get the Xelayan’s attention without alarming the person they were trying to help. When Kelly looked back over her shoulder she saw the Doctor holding something out towards the Security Chief. It took Kelly only a moment to recognise what it was.

A hypodermic.

Tears stung her eyes but she blinked them back and told herself that it was a necessary evil. Ed wasn’t ready. He couldn’t be awake yet. His body wasn’t prepared and his mind even less so. Sedating him was for the best. It was the kindest thing they could do right now.

And yet she still felt a stab of self-loathing as she shifted her body a little to Ed’s right, managing by some small miracle to attract his attention in doing so. As she expected he would he matched her movements with a gasp of alarm, shifting clockwise away from the wall in order to keep her fully in his line of sight. His head shook and he pushed a hand to the floor, his trembling body adjusting so he could be better prepared to run.

“It’s okay, Ed,” she said to him, and raised a hand. And then she extended it.

She had to scare him. And she hated herself for that.

 


 

It’s okay, Ed.

No. No. No. She wasn’t real. None of it was real. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible.

They had made this somehow and he was back in and he would never get out. There was no way out. Over and over and over again he would be back in and he would lose himself completely. It was already happening. He could feel it. The edges were fraying and coming apart and he couldn’t hold them together properly anymore.

Ed’s breath caught painfully in his throat and he groaned, a low sound in his throat.

The hand raised again and then reached out for him.

No.

That couldn’t happen. He couldn’t let it.

His breath caught again and as fear flashed through him he shoved against the ground and back to his feet. He had to back away. Distance. He needed distance. If he got distance he could turn, he could run, he could get away. Hide. He could hide.

But something stopped him.

Out of nowhere an arm went around his chest from behind and held him close, firmly, too tightly for him to get away. Fear became terror in the blink of an eye and that panic was back, a white-hot fire in his veins that made him grab at that arm as he thrashed and fought despite the pain eating away at him and he gave a shout of denial and despair. He kept thrashing and he kept fighting but he couldn’t get away. It was too tight, too strong, and there was no way out.

“I’m sorry, Captain.”

Not real, not real, not real—the words were close to his ear and he couldn’t not hear them before something pressed to his neck and he realised the danger too late.

Not again. Please not again.

No—” His voice broke and failed him, it tapered and faded to nothing. Cool quiet slipped through his veins and swept everything away. Ed lost the fight instantly and let it take him.

 


 

Talla was ready for the dead weight of the Captain’s body slumping into her arm around his chest before the sedative had even fully taken hold. She had prepared herself for it even before she had pressed the hypodermic to his neck, part of her hating herself for it every step of the way because it felt cruel and unfair to do that to him. But the rest of her knew it had been the only way, that trying to overpower him by any other means would only have made things worse and pushed him even further over the edge.

That knowledge didn’t make her feel any less terrible about what she had done though. Talla suspected nothing would.

First she had failed him on that planet, what felt like weeks ago now but was only a matter of days in reality, and now she had used her strength against him in order to keep him compliant. They had to keep him from hurting himself but it still felt wrong.

Doctor Finn moved over and Talla became aware of the fact that Tommy was still crying but she couldn’t go to him with the Captain’s unconscious form supported by her arm. As soon as Claire slipped the empty hypodermic from her grasp Talla shifted her grip and picked Captain Mercer’s body up properly, supporting him under his shoulders and knees and carrying him easily back to the bed he had surged up from in a blind panic. She could feel the eyes of everyone in the room fixed on her, or the Captain, but she held her tongue, setting him down carefully and then backing away.

She turned her gaze first to Gordon, who was frowning deeply and watching Claire check the Captain over for any injuries, and then to Kelly. The other woman was still standing where she had moved herself to play her little part in what had just happened. After a few moments she lifted her gaze, shining as it was, and met Talla’s. Neither one of them said a thing about what they had just done, the quiet but necessary cruelty of it.

There was nothing to say.

 


 

“What the hell was that?”

Normally when Gordon Malloy said such a thing it was powered by more incredulity and disbelief but all Claire could hear in his voice then was a stunned kind of shock. He and Kelly were sitting in the chairs in front of the desk with everyone else standing somewhere behind them. Claire was in her chair on her side of the desk. Bortus had come down from the bridge to join them for the impromptu and somewhat oddly placed meeting but all those who had been present for what had just transpired had agreed in next to no words that they needed to talk. And urgently.

Claire hadn’t wanted to alarm anyone with what she had seen on the Captain’s full scan results but obviously the time for such concerns had come and gone. What had just happened had made it a moot point anyway. She had been hoping, somewhat naively she knew now, that the Captain would have stabilised in more ways than one by the time the sedative wore off but obviously it was worse than even she had anticipated.

“I can’t exactly be sure of the extent yet,” she said, trying to keep the sigh that threaded through her words to a minimum, “but Captain Mercer’s neurological scans did show signs of damage similar to what we saw in Tommy’s results.”

What?” Gordon voiced it for everyone, that shock and disbelief, his shoulders dropping as the real gravity of the situation weighed on him. “Are you serious?” The way he said that made it a subtle plea that Claire couldn’t help but hear and she hated that she couldn’t give the Helmsman what he wanted. She couldn’t deny the truth for his benefit.

“I’m afraid so,” she said, oddly relieved that there was no monitor present in her office large enough for everyone to see what she had discovered. “It’s not as extensive as Tommy’s, to be fair, but—”

“But it’s there,” Talla offered after Claire’s words trailed off with a small shake of her head. That shake became a confirming nod.

“Can you reverse it?” John asked, his arms crossed with his eyes turned to the window looking out onto sick bay. From where they all sat or stood they could see the bed on which the Captain was laying once again.

Claire hesitated, choosing her words carefully. Giving false hope was one of the worst things that any doctor could do, but at the same time she didn’t want to strip it away completely. It was a delicate balance, a difficult thing to strike. “There’s a chance that I can, yes,” she said, looking at the faces of those gathered. “But I won’t have a better idea until I remove the implants and even then this is still new territory for me.” It was obvious that the neurological docks needed to be removed, and the wounds caused by them had to be repaired. “It’s my hope that the damage will be easier to address and repair once they’ve been removed.”

Kelly had been quiet up until that point, not looking anyone in the eye, but she spoke then, asking, “How soon can you remove them?”

“I didn’t want to go ahead and take them out until all of my results were in, but now that they are? I can get to work on it right away.”

The Commander nodded her head, brushing some of her hair back behind her ear. “Do it.”

Claire hadn’t really needed to be given a command but she acknowledged it with a nod anyway. It would have been immoral to leave them in, in her opinion, and if they prevented her from doing her job properly then they had to go as soon as possible. “I’ll let you know as soon as it’s done.”

Kelly brought her eyes up and when their gazes met Claire saw in the other woman’s the determination to remain. She didn’t argue. After what had just happened she didn’t doubt Kelly had decided she could be nowhere else until the Captain was more settled.

“So what do we do until we know?” Gordon asked. “If you can undo it, I mean. We—what? Just wait and see?”

Obviously he was referring to what had just happened and the likelihood of it happening again.

“Surely it would be prudent to ensure that the Captain does not regain consciousness for the time being,” Isaac offered and Claire frowned but she couldn’t exactly argue with the Kaylon’s logic. If nothing else it felt like it would be kinder to keep Captain Mercer sedated until they knew one way or the other what his condition was, and if nothing else it would give his body a chance to recover more fully from the state of shock it still seemed to be locked in.

Talla shook her head wearily. “Is that really the right thing to do?” The Xelayan looked regretful and Claire was sorry all over again for having put her in the position that she had when the Captain had been in the grips of his panic. Talla had been the best bet to subdue him and administer the sedative while causing the least amount of stress but it had still been a hell of a thing to ask of her.

Gordon sat back in his seat, frowning and sounding resigned. “What else can we do?” He looked over at Kelly and then across at Claire. “He could’ve hurt himself, right?” After a moment of hesitation she nodded. “And maybe it’s the best thing for him right now.” He didn’t sound completely convinced but Claire thought he was trying to reassure himself that that was the case.

They sat and stood there like that for a while, each of them waiting for someone else to object or argue the point, but eventually they all conceded, accepting silently that for the time being at least there was no other course of action available to them. Until they knew exactly what they were dealing with, and the full extent of the damage, they would keep Captain Mercer sedated. Hopefully it would be for the best. If nothing else Claire hoped it really was the kindest thing they could do for him.

 


 

It hadn’t felt right, making a decision about Ed on his behalf like that, especially after what he had already been through. It felt controlling and cruel and like they were hiding from the truth in a way, but at the same time Kelly knew that it was for the best. As Gordon had said Ed could have easily hurt himself during what had happened, he had been so panicked and out of control that it was a miracle he hadn’t done himself some kind of harm anyway, and surely it was better for both his body and his mind if he had a real undisturbed period of rest. It was chemically aided rest, to be sure, but it was rest all the same. Claire had said that his system was overworked and exhausted, that that had been a contributing factor to the overall state of shock it was struggling to snap out of, and on top of that he had shown signs of malnourishment as well. There was too much for his system to deal with all at once and by keeping him sedated they were helping him.

That was what she had to keep telling herself. They were helping. It was for the best.

That hadn’t made the last twenty-four hours, give or take, any easier. Admiral Halsey had attempted to contact her at least once during that time but Kelly had told the bridge to inform him that she would get back to him at a later time. When exactly that later time was she didn’t know yet, she hadn’t thought about it. She couldn’t really think about anything right then. Even thinking about Ed was difficult. Looking at him was hard as well, taking in his pallor and the overall unkemptness of his appearance. None of it was like him. None of it was right.

She had been present when Claire had performed the surgeries and she had barely dared to breathe when Ed’s turn had come. Their Chief Medical Officer had studied her scans extensively and she had even taken advantage of the fact that they were still in proximity to the alien ship in order to reach out to the staff over there and ask every question to which she was even remotely unsure of the answer. Any and all reluctance to cooperate with the Union had gone out the window when the D’Nari, as they were called, had realised that the four ships keeping them under guard were not going anywhere for the time being and so Claire had been able to acquire all the information she needed in order to successfully remove the neurological implants her three patients had been fitted with against their wishes. Each surgery had taken almost an hour. They had managed to sedate Tommy and perform his first before moving on to his sister, Caro. Ed had been last. Kelly told herself that it had nothing to do with the fact that Claire would have wanted to leave his for last so by the time she went through the motions they would be practised and perfected but she knew that would have been a lie. It wasn’t a decision she could judge or think any less of the other woman for either. If anything she was grateful. But that hadn’t made the whole process any less harrowing to watch.

Seeing that awful thing taken out of the base of Ed’s skull had been beyond horrible, and part of Kelly had been sorry that she had watched its removal. But she had wanted to be there, she had wanted to hear the sound of his heart beating and the other confirming sounds of life coming from the various pieces of equipment the medical staff had had running during the procedure. Even after the device had been extracted and Claire had knitted everything back together as thoroughly as possible she had felt on edge and unsettled because they still didn’t know for certain, one way or the other, how things would turn out.

Not knowing was the worst thing.

Kelly wanted to reach out and touch him but all she could think about was how he had shied away from her when he’d been panicking. He had never done that before. It had been a shock to say the least, nothing she ever could have expected, and the fear in his eyes—

He hadn’t known her. Or he hadn’t believed. Either way it had been like a knife to the heart and she could still feel the pain of it now.

And yet not touching him was painful all on its own. She couldn’t bear the distance, that invisible barrier that had come between them, and part of her was afraid that permitting it even for a short while would only give it strength. If she didn’t fight it then it would grow and eventually she would never be able to get past it.

So she reached out and laid a hand on him. First she set it on his arm, and then she leaned a little closer so she could lay her palm on his chest. Over his heart. If she closed her eyes she could feel the beat beneath her hand and even with the inconsistencies and jumps in its usually steady rhythm she was comforted by the feeling. And so that was how she remained, eyes closed and arm outstretched, feeling the beat of his heart against her hand, silently praying for him to get better and come back to them. To her.

 


 

Talla had managed to get away for a little while to rest and eat and change but she hadn’t kept her distance for long. As soon as all of those things were done she had come right back to sick bay and taken up her place on Tommy’s bed, where he seemed to want her at pretty much all times, knowing that what she was doing with the young man was ultimately no less cruel than what they had decided to do in regards to the Captain. By continuing to play into his fantasy she was prolonging his belief that everything was fine now, she was delaying the inevitable and perhaps ultimately making it so much worse for him in the long run.

And yet she couldn’t pull the rug out from under him like that. He was in no condition and it didn’t take a medical professional to recognise that. Even with the implants removed he was still so much like a child that she was constantly second guessing her actions for fear of spooking or unsettling him, and so many simple things seemed to confuse or overwhelm him. It was worse when she wasn’t there, apparently, so the medical staff continued to tell her.

Taking her eyes from Tommy when he went back to the book he had shown her an illustration from she turned them to the figure on the next bed. From where she sat she was able to see the woman’s left hand and there was no mistaking the ring on the fourth finger. It was a human custom, Talla knew, but she had spotted a very similar band on the same finger of the Xelayan woman whose body they had recovered from that planet.

The D’Nari’s dumping ground. Learning that had been sickening to say the least and everyone aboard the Orville had had much the same reaction when the news had reached them. As if their actions and practises weren’t foul enough they had actually selected one planet to use to dispose of bodies and individuals who no longer served a purpose. People like Tommy. Usually those people succumbed to the elements, in one form or another, but Tommy had been lucky.

That word didn’t feel like it fit. Luck had played no part in any of Tommy’s involvement in this, Talla knew, and once again she found herself wondering what the young man had been like before he had been taken by the D’Nari. Had he loved books just as much then? Had he been funny, witty, charming?

He had been special enough for his sister to come after him at least. And—what? What had Erana been to them?

Talla told herself that she knew the answer to that. The rings were a human custom but love was a powerful thing. She could easily believe that a Xelayan would adopt such a custom as their own if they loved the other person enough.

Because the longer she looked at the ring on Tommy’s sister’s finger the more convinced she became that it wasn’t just similar to the one on Erana’s hand, but identical. And that could mean only one thing.

Turning her head she looked at Tommy again, just as he raised his head and smiled at her, lifting and twisting the book to show her another illustration. Talla felt her heart breaking for him all over again as she summoned a responding smile.

She couldn’t keep this up forever. If nothing else as soon as his sister regained consciousness it was going to get decidedly more complicated. But maybe that was for the best. Maybe that was kinder. Keeping him in blissful ignorance was only the right thing for so long and then eventually it became cruel and manipulative. And he had already been through so much. Ultimately keeping him believing a lie any longer than absolutely necessary was an abuse in and of itself and Talla could never be comfortable with being party to that.

That didn’t mean she was looking forward to the moment where he learned the truth. If she was honest with herself she hoped she was anywhere else when the time came and yet something told her that she was exactly where she needed to be. Running from that moment would be cowardly and Talla Keyali was no coward. Staying away would be easier but it would be wrong.

And so she would stay. Even if it hurt she would stay. Because this was where she needed to be. Where Tommy needed her to be.

 


 

It was a strange thing, to wake up naturally and steadily. Part of her had forgotten entirely how it felt to do such a thing and so for a while she struggled to recognise what was happening. There was no snap return to consciousness, no shock of experiencing death jolting her violently back into the waking world only for her mind to struggle to orient and balance and come to terms with what was happening.

Compared to that waking up naturally was a gift.

Caro could hear soft conversation close by but it lacked the professional levelness and stiff back and forth that the D’Nari lab had always been filled with. Instead this was soft and gentle, and someone laughed quietly.

She knew that laugh.

It was too soon to open her eyes but she knew that laugh and she had to see him with her own eyes to convince herself that it was real and even then she wasn’t entirely sure she would be able to trust it. The truth was a tricky thing, it was a slippery beast and difficult to keep a grip on. Caro opened her eyes knowing that and turned her head towards the sound enough to see the figure that belonged to that voice but still there was a part of her that almost didn’t dare to believe it.

And was that—

No.

No, it wasn’t her.

“Tommy?” Her voice was weak and felt scratchy on the way up and out of her throat. She wanted to sit up, drink something, wondering if she would be able to remember how to do that under her own power. It had been a while. But the fear that none of what she was seeing was real kept her weighed down against whatever she was lying on.

Her brother’s eyes turned to her and widened instantly. “Caro!” He was up off what he had been sitting on and flying across the short distance to her, all but smothering her with an embrace that filled her eyes with tears. He felt real. She wrapped her arms around him as best she could and held on tightly, letting him pull her up into a sitting position to make the embrace easier for both of them. “Caro, it’s you! You’re okay! I missed you!”

“I missed you too.” More than she had been able to bear. She opened her eyes and managed to pull back enough to look at his face, bringing her hands around to take hold of it at either side and look him in the eye. “Where did you go?”

“Trees,” he said to her, holding on to her arms. “It was dark. I didn’t like it.”

Were his sentences that little bit more complete than the last time she had seen him? Caro couldn’t be sure, just as she couldn’t be certain whether or not to be reassured or unnerved by such a thing.

“Erana came,” he said to her then and he was smiling broadly as he looked at her. “Look!” He reached out behind him and Caro didn’t understand why until she looked past her brother and laid her eyes once again on the woman she had briefly mistaken for—

Oh.

She lost her fight to keep her tears at bay, blinking the first of them free so that they started to slide swiftly down her cheeks as she looked to her brother again. When she returned her gaze to the Xelayan woman nearby she saw the tiniest shake in the other woman’s head. And the bottom of her stomach dropped out. Her heart followed. The rest of her nearly went with it.

Focusing on her brother made things a little easier. Focusing on him helped her to balance and steady and stabilise. She pulled him that little bit closer and pressed a kiss to his forehead before she tugged him into another embrace. Because she had missed him more than words could say. And because she didn’t want him to see her cry. She didn’t want him to see her mourn.

Chapter Text

They weren’t going anywhere until the Planetary Union had decided what needed to be done with the D’Nari ship and that meant there was no real work for him to do. Not on the bridge at least. As far as Gordon was concerned there was plenty of work to be done that didn’t involve the Orville’s trajectory and keeping her flying in the right direction and he had already spent more than enough time away from where he needed to be in order to get that job done.

Calling it a job wasn’t really fair either. Gordon was under no obligation to go where he was going right now, or do what he was going to do. It wasn’t work. It was family and he would have felt wretched not doing it. So after sleep he had struggled to get properly and food he hadn’t really wanted to eat he was heading right back to sick bay and knowing in his gut that it was the right thing to do.

Someone else could watch the helm.

The doors parted and Gordon paused despite himself, surprised into stalling by the sight of the woman at the back of the room sitting up, her arms wrapped around Tommy. It looked like such a private and emotional moment that he almost backed out of the room again before he reminded himself he was far from the only other person present. Doctor Finn was keeping her gaze averted and Kelly had her attention fixed firmly on Ed who was still sedated. Talla had dropped her eyes and slipped from the bed she had been sitting on, standing now, albeit somewhat awkwardly, close to the two embracing siblings. Gordon felt for her. Part of him wanted to go to her and lay a hand on her arm but that would have drawn more attention to the moment than either one of them would have wanted and so he held his ground.

He didn’t have to wait long. The sound of a throat clearing brought his gaze back up from where it had dropped by the foot of Ed’s bed and he found the woman, Caro, looking around at all of them.

“I’m, um—” She cleared her throat again, using one hand to wipe at her face, first one cheek and then the other. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Talla was the one to say that, giving the other woman a small nod and the subtlest show of a smile.

Gordon took the opportunity to step further into the room, drawing Kelly’s gaze his way with his approach. She looked tired. She still looked tired, rather. More so now than before, actually. Gordon couldn’t remember a time when he had ever seen her looking so tired but they all knew she wasn’t going anywhere.

Tommy stayed close by his sister’s bed and kept one of his hands on her, which Caro went on to grasp with her own. It was a grounding motion, Gordon thought. They were using it to reassure themselves. Unbidden he felt his attention straying once again to Ed and he frowned. Could they use the same thing to help him? But if he wouldn’t let them touch him then how could they do that?

“Thank you,” Caro said to them then. “For finding my brother.” Her brows lifted as she said that, as if she wasn’t sure if that actually was the case but Talla and Doctor Finn both gave her a small nod. “And for getting me out.”

Gordon frowned again but held his tongue. Waiting.

“Thank you for what you did,” Doctor Finn said and there was a serious weight to her words that none of them missed.

Caro shook her head and turned her gaze for the first time to the man on the room’s main bed. There was a lot going on in her mind in that moment, Gordon could see, and one of the main things going through her head was regret. There was a crease in her brow that told him as much. “I wish I could have done more,” she said to them then, bringing her gaze back up. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t.” With another shake of her head she said, “I got there as quickly as I could.”

Doctor Finn was standing closer to Kelly now, close enough that she could lay a hand on the other woman’s shoulder if she wanted to. “What do you mean?”

“I woke up in that environment not knowing what was going on,” Caro replied, looking to her brother when he gave her hand a small shake and tug. Gordon noticed the way she gave his hand a small squeeze in return. “There was a gun and a set of coordinates, and a tracker.”

Gordon felt his frown deepen. “Like a map?”

She nodded. “It took me right to him. To where they—” She closed her mouth and smothered anything else she might have been about to say.

It worked. Gordon’s mind snapped back to that lab on the D’Nari ship of its own accord and he felt his mouth drop open in disbelief. “They led you there,” he said aloud, disbelief flooding his voice. “The people in charge of putting you guys into those simulations. They did that.”

Caro nodded, though she did so a little hesitantly. “That’s what I thought as well.”

“Why would they do that?” Doctor Finn looked between the two of them.

“Because they knew it was wrong,” Gordon said, jumping to conclusions but remembering very clearly the helpless and borderline apologetic look on that one alien’s face when he had been demanding that they help Ed. At the time he had thought they were lying to him, trying to distance themselves from their actions, but there had been more to it than that obviously. “They said they couldn’t get Ed out of there because he had to die in the simulation in order to be released from it. They couldn’t do anything.” He looked across at Caro. “So they sent in someone who could.”

“My God.” Doctor Finn’s response was little more than a breath past her lips as she turned her eyes back to Caro who was shaking her head, albeit not in denial.

“I’d offered to do it once before,” she told them. “He was badly injured and I wanted to try and spare him the pain but—”

Gordon understood instantly. “But he wouldn’t let you.” He looked to Kelly who was showing the same dawning realisation. “Because he didn’t want you to have to live with that.” Because Ed Mercer was a good man, a selfless man, and he wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to have to carry that burden.

Caro’s smile was sad and sorry and it didn’t last long. “I think so,” she agreed, and then she frowned. “But it was more than that.” She looked briefly to her brother and then across at Ed. “He wanted to put it off as long as he could. He knew that it was taking a toll and he didn’t want to go through it again if he could avoid it.”

None of them asked what. They didn’t need to.

“He’d lost track of how many times he’d been inside,” Caro said to them with another shake of her head. “I found him in one of the simulations and he was—” She drew in a breath, looking as if she was searching for the right words. “He didn’t seem right.”

Gordon looked down at his friend again and frowned.

Caro went on, “They must have been putting him back into the system as quickly as possible. Usually there’s a rest period every one or two runs but—the way he was acting, it was like he’d been in the system for a lot longer than he was. A rapid series of runs is the only thing I can think of to explain that.”

“How do you know all of this?” Gordon had been thinking about asking that for himself but Doctor Finn had beaten him to it.

“And how are you so—” He waved his hands a little, being careful with the exaggeration of the motion so he didn’t spook Tommy. He couldn’t think of the right word.

“Normal?” Caro offered, and he nodded. “I had breaks between every run. They let me rest.”

“And that allowed your mind to readjust,” Doctor Finn added, nodding her own head.

“I think so,” the other woman said. “It was easier to separate what was real and what wasn’t when I spent more time outside of the simulations.” With a slightly sheepish smile she added, “But I struggled when I woke up just now, believe me.” Taking a breath she brought herself back to the other unanswered question. “As for how I know all of this, my wife and I—” she glanced briefly to Talla then, as did Tommy, “—tried to learn as much as we could about the D’Nari and their organisation before we even attempted to get on board.”

Talla dropped her gaze and Gordon was once again compelled to go to her but the moment passed before he could do it without making things even more awkward than they already were. None of them had missed the fact that Tommy had kept calling Talla by another name and acting as if they were close friends who had known one another for years. My wife. That Xelayan they had found on the planet had been Caro’s wife. That was why Tommy had been crying when they had found him, but when he had seen Talla his inability to separate reality from the fiction of the simulations had blurred the lines enough that he had mistaken one for the other.

Caro seemed well aware of the fact that Talla was not her wife but Tommy was struggling, or perhaps refusing, to accept that truth.

God. Gordon didn’t envy whoever had to broach that subject with him.

“How was he?” Caro asked then, her voice quiet and a little reluctant. “When he—” she hesitated and looked to the faces of those gathered, “—when he woke up?” The silence that she was immediately met with seemed to tell her everything and she uttered a small, “Oh,” as she lowered her gaze.

Gordon waited to see if Kelly was going to say what was on both of their minds but when she held her tongue and dropped her eyes to the man in question, he took it upon himself to say, “I’ve never seen him like that.” Maybe it should have felt inappropriate to be saying such things not only when Ed himself was unconscious, but also to people who hadn’t known him as long as he and Kelly had, but Gordon believed he could trust everyone in sick bay enough to keep what was being said to themselves. True though it was that he didn’t know Caro and Tommy well, who were they going to tell? And Ed had obviously trusted them, or Caro at least.

The woman was frowning as she gave her brother’s hand a squeeze and then slipped from the bed, taking a moment to get her balance before she moved across the room and closer to where Ed rested. Her eyes met Kelly’s briefly and she hesitated but when the Commander didn’t stop her she stepped right up to the side of the bed. “Is he sleeping?” she asked, looking to her side at Gordon and then down at Kelly before settling her gaze on Doctor Finn when the other woman responded.

“Sedated,” the Doctor said. “He was in such a panicked state when he woke up last time that we thought—”

Caro was shaking her head as she looked down at Ed.

“What is it?” Gordon asked her before Doctor Finn had a chance to do so herself. The woman was obviously disagreeing with what they had decided and it was important that they know why.

“That’ll only make things worse,” Caro said to them, looking back at Gordon first and foremost. As she went on she looked once again to Kelly and then to the Doctor, saying, “You said he was panicked when he woke up?”

“He kept saying it’s not real.” Kelly’s voice was quiet but it carried well enough in the relative silence of the sick bay where the only other sounds were from the monitor over Ed’s bed keeping them all apprised of his condition.

Gordon assumed that was what Caro had been expecting them to say because she nodded her head a little before going on, “We were sedated before being put back into the simulations. Sometimes they would sedate me between runs. They probably did that to Ed too. Especially if—” She paused, hesitating, and then threw caution to the wind, saying, “Especially if a death was particularly bad.”

Doctor Finn was frowning deeply as she asked, “You felt the deaths?”

Caro nodded silently and Gordon dropped his gaze to his friend’s resting form. “Jesus.” It slipped out of him before he could help himself, one hand lifting to briefly cover his mouth before he swiped it down, shaking his head in disbelief. “Every time?” He didn’t want Caro to nod. When she did he thought for a moment that he was going to be sick but thankfully the nausea passed and he could regain his composure.

“I was with him during three of those,” Caro told them and then she caught herself, closing her eyes as she made the correction. “Sorry. Four.” She kept her eyes closed for a moment, opening them again and looking to Doctor Finn as she said, “It felt worse every time. At least it did for me.” She looked back across the room at her brother who was sticking close to Talla. “And for Tommy.”

“Which means it must have for Ed as well,” Gordon said gravely, the words tasting foul on his tongue as he spoke them. “So what are we supposed to do?” Caro had said sedating him would make things worse and who else could they trust but someone else who had been in the same system that had done Ed so much damage in the first place? The D’Nari hadn’t seemed to care too much about any kind of real recovery for their victims, as Gordon saw them, and that meant Caro was their best source of information. Something told Gordon that a lot of what she was giving them was guesswork but she was speaking from experience at least. “What if he wakes up like that again?”

“He probably will,” Caro replied, shaking her head apologetically as she met his gaze. “But—” Drawing in a breath she looked down at Ed. “He needs to work it out for himself. What’s real and what’s not.”

Kelly had lifted her gaze. “We have to help him,” she said, and she spoke the words with just the sort of impassioned determination that Gordon had expected her to.

With a nod Caro went on, “And you can. You will. It’s just—” She seemed momentarily at a loss for how to continue, gesturing a little with her hands in a manner that told Gordon she was searching for the right words before she continued, “If you tell someone something is real when they’re not sure then that makes the doubt more powerful. If that makes sense? If you insist, I mean. Trying to force him to accept reality will only push it further away.” She was frowning as if she understood how little sense that might have made but Gordon realised what she was saying.

“He has to figure it out for himself,” Gordon said, effectively repeating what she had said a moment ago. “We can’t push him. We can guide him, but we can’t push too hard, or—”

“—Or you’ll push him over the edge,” Caro completed, nodding her head.

“And then he’s right back where he started,” Doctor Finn chimed in, sounding regretful as she lowered her gaze to the unconscious man between them.

Caro lifted her hands then, taking her left one in her right as she said, “Little things will help.” And then she showed them the ring on her fourth finger on her left hand. “This was never in the simulations. And our clothes were different.”

Gordon had noticed that but it hadn’t felt important enough to remark on. Obviously it was more important than he ever could have expected.

“The D’Nari decided where we ended up and how. They decided when we could rest. We had no choice in any of that.”

They had had no choices at all. Gordon heard that loud and clear, and looking at the others he knew they did too.

“So if we let the Captain choose for himself,” Doctor Finn said, “where he goes and when, whether or not he sleeps—that will help?”

Caro nodded. “I think so.” And then she frowned. “But honestly?” A fleeting discomforted expression crossed her face and Gordon thought perhaps for that moment she had felt nauseated. “I’d never seen anything like that.”

Kelly’s eyes closed and Gordon couldn’t blame her. They all knew exactly what Caro was referring to. They didn’t need it dumbed down for them.

“He’ll remember it.” Caro’s voice was quiet, almost reluctant, and there was a sympathetic and regretful quality to the words that was unmistakable.

Gordon had been afraid of that. “How much of it?” he found himself asking, his throat feeling dry and his voice reflecting it by coming out sounding rough.

There was an uncomfortable pause that told him, and everyone else, the answer before Caro even opened her mouth to say, “Everything.”

He wanted to curse. He wanted to break something. Maybe everything. He wanted to go back in time and make sure none of this ever happened. He wanted to go inside his best friend’s mind and dig out all of the awful things that had happened to him and ensure he would never remember them. But he couldn’t do any of that. And that knowledge was like a punch to the stomach, one that almost literally doubled him over at the waist.

It was a good thing that bastard Blake wasn’t aboard the Orville, Gordon knew. One look at Kelly’s face was all he needed in order to know with absolute certainty that he wasn’t the only one who would have killed the son of a bitch with his bare hands in that moment if he’d had the chance.

As he glanced to Talla and Doctor Finn he wondered if perhaps they all would have.

 


 

“And you’re sure you can trust everything this woman says?”

Kelly fought the urge to rub her hands over her face in her no doubt obvious weariness and drew in a deep breath instead, nodding her head as she let it out again slowly. “We have no reason not to trust her,” she told Admiral Halsey, shifting her position in the chair behind the desk in Claire’s office to try and get herself a little more comfortable. It didn’t work.

The Doctor had taken a break in order to spend some time with her sons, something she hadn’t been able to do much of in the last few days with everything that had been going on. Kelly had insisted that she would be fine left on her own in sick bay with Ed, and they had come to the agreement that perhaps it would be for the best if there were next to no other people present the next time he regained consciousness. Caro and Tommy had been taken to guest quarters by Talla and as Kelly looked through the office’s side window she could see no signs of movement. It was just her and Ed.

“If all of what she says is true,” the Admiral was saying as Kelly brought her attention back to the screen, “perhaps it would be for the best if the Orville returned to Earth.” The man on the other side shook his head with a touch of sadness as he said, “Ed might be better off in a facility here.”

Facility. Kelly didn’t like the sound of that word or what it implied and she was quick to shake her head. “With all due respect, Admiral, I think that’s a terrible idea.” When Halsey frowned she went on, “We’ve already been told that it will do more harm than good to make Ed’s decisions for him, but admitting him to some hospital against his will? That’s only going to make things worse.” If she was brutally honest Kelly thought it might push him all the way over the edge, past the point of no return. She could hardly bear to think about it. “He’ll be in a strange place, surrounded by people he doesn’t know.” With another shake of her head she concluded, “He’s been through enough of that.”

With a sigh Halsey seemed to concede, asking, “You really think him staying aboard the Orville is for the best?”

Kelly didn’t even hesitate. “Yes, Sir.” She looked to the window again, if only briefly. “He knows the Orville, and everyone on board. It’s familiar and hopefully he’ll think of it as a safe place.” She drew in a breath to steady herself as she went on, “It’ll help him get back to—” Normal. It felt wrong to imply he was anything but. “He’ll have a better chance of recovering here,” she ended up saying instead.

Halsey hesitated but ended up nodding. “All right, Commander. I’ll trust your judgement on this one.”

Because no one knew Ed Mercer better than her. It didn’t need to be said. They both knew it, and so did everyone else. “Thank you, Admiral.” She looked down at her hands knitted on the desktop in front of her, furrowing her brow as she asked, “Have any decisions been made about the D’Nari?” Only once the question was out in the open did she bring her gaze back up to the screen again.

The Admiral leaned back in his seat a little. “It’s a tricky situation to say the least,” he began with a shake of his head. “The D’Nari aren’t subject to the Union’s rules and regulations, and they seem to make a point of steering clear of the borders of any space controlled by any species that calls itself a member.”

“But they’re not against hiring mercenaries to cross those borders,” Kelly pointed out, hearing the bitterness and resentment in her own voice.

“That’s part of what makes it so complicated,” the Admiral admitted.

“Admiral,” Kelly began, shaking her head, “there are who knows how many people being held aboard that ship right now, trapped in the same sorts of simulated environments that Ed was stuck in all this time. What they’re doing causes real damage. It destroys lives.” With a frustrated gesture of her hands she added, “And that’s to say nothing of the fact that there’s a planet out there littered with the bodies of past victims who’d finished serving their purpose.” A bad taste had crept up onto the back of her tongue as she’d been speaking. She didn’t have anything to wash it down with so she just had to swallow against it. Like her attempt to get more comfortable it didn’t really work.

“I understand, Commander,” Halsey said, “but the Council is having a hard time coming to an agreement on the matter. Some parties believe that what they’re doing isn’t technically illegal—”

“You have got to be kidding me.”

He held up a hand to stop her from going any further and she managed to bite back any additional words of angry disbelief so he could go on, “And there are those who question whether or not it’s our place to challenge the practises and customs of cultures that aren’t part of the Union.” With a sigh he leaned forward again. “If we start prosecuting other races for actions we see as immoral or in any way criminal then where does it end?”

Part of Kelly couldn’t believe what she was hearing, and yet another part knew that she should have expected this. She dropped her gaze with a disappointed shake of her head. “So they’re just going to get away with it?”

Halsey drew in a breath. “I didn’t say that.” When Kelly met his gaze again he went on, “The D’Nari may not be part of the Union but the fact remains that this Director O’Lar has openly admitted to employing the services of the Razers in order to kidnap one of our officers.” His brows lifted as he added, “It’s not like Ed provoked them in any way, and he wasn’t on their turf when the incident occurred. If the Council can agree to consider that much as a criminal offense then that’s a serious charge in and of itself.”

“And that’s a start,” Kelly said after several moments of quiet, knowing that the Admiral was trying to throw her a bone and assure her that steps were being taken to rectify the situation, or at least see that justice was served. She still wasn’t happy about how complicated the Council were making things out to be but she knew that she was letting her emotions cloud her judgement. Ultimately it was a good thing she wasn’t involved in those discussions in any way. She wouldn’t have trusted herself not to say something she would end up regretting.

“As for Richard Blake and his engineer,” Admiral Halsey went on, and Kelly felt the way her expression soured at the sound of that name. “They’re to remain in custody aboard the Olympia until she returns to Earth, where they’ll face trial.”

Kelly’s gaze was hard as she met the Admiral’s across the line. “Just for kidnapping, or for all of it?”

There was a pause in which Halsey considered his words carefully before he said finally, “Hopefully the latter.”

Once again Kelly had to avert her gaze, shaking her head tightly in frustration. “Unbelievable,” she muttered, not meaning for the Admiral to hear but she suspected he did anyway.

“Rest assured that I’m arguing this case on yours and Ed’s behalf, Commander,” he said to her, “but the fact of the matter is the violent acts committed by Blake and his men happened in a simulated reality. That makes things—”

She cut him off. “Complicated.” Kelly was meeting his gaze again then. “With all due respect, Admiral,” she went on, “violent acts is an understatement. Let’s call it what it is: those men tortured Ed. And that Moclan? You and I both know what he would have done to Ed if we hadn’t gotten him out of there in time.” And there would have been no coming back from that, Kelly knew. With a forceful shake of her head she said pointedly, “They can’t be allowed to get away with that. I don’t care if it was in a simulation. It happened, and they’re responsible for the damage it caused.”

If Blake and his engineer weren’t charged accordingly? Kelly didn’t know how she would make peace with that.

Admiral Halsey was frowning and he remained quiet for a while, letting what she had said settle and sink in. With another sigh he nodded his head. “You’re right. And that’s why I’m giving you my word that I’ll push with everything I have to make sure they pay for what they did.”

Part of Kelly was sorry that she had let herself get so worked up, that she had essentially blown up at the one Admiral who always had their back. He hadn’t deserved that, and if it had been any other member of the Fleet Admiralty she would have found herself scrubbing toilets at Union Point before she could even think to apologise. She needed to count herself lucky that she wasn’t dealing with anyone else. “Thank you, Sir,” she said, hearing just how tired she sounded.

Halsey was quiet again for a few moments before he asked, “When was the last time you got some sleep?”

Kelly had brought one arm up, propping the elbow on the surface of the desk so that she could support her chin in her hand. The slight smile she gave Halsey was half-hearted at best. “I can’t do that right now,” she told him, giving her head a small shake.

He frowned at her again. “Kelly—”

“I’m all right, Admiral,” she said, taking her chin out of her hand and sitting up a little straighter. “Really.” But before she could offer him any further assurances something in the peripheral of her vision caught her attention and turned her head. In sitting up straighter she had been able to catch the first signs of movement from sick bay and she watched in still silence as Ed started to stir on the bed in the next room.

She dropped her gaze to the screen again. “I’m sorry,” she said to him, “I have to go.”

“Commander?”

She was already reaching for the disconnect button as she said, “Ed’s awake.” And then she ended the call.

 


 

He knew this place. Didn’t he?

Real or not real?

How had he gotten here? Why couldn’t he remember?

Real or not real?

With his heart already beginning to pick up speed he took his still-clearing gaze from the ceiling overhead and turned it to one side. It was familiar, wasn’t it? He knew this place. He did. He was on a bed and there was a monitor on the far wall showing a scan. Was that a brain? Ed blinked his eyes and turned his head the other way.

When he jolted at the sight awaiting him he nearly tossed himself right off the bed, his heart jumping dramatically and his breath catching. It hurt. Everything felt tight and uncomfortable, everything felt alien and strange, but he didn’t really notice that until he had managed to get himself clear of the device curving over the bed he had been lying on. Only when his feet touched the ground, his knees almost immediately giving way under him, did he take a moment to really look at the figure before him.

He knew her. Didn’t he?

Real or not real?

His mouth was dry. His heart started to beat even faster. His breathing grew shallower.

Ed shook his head. He didn’t know the answer to the question, that same question that kept going around and around in his head. He didn’t know and that frightened him. It was a bad thing not to know the answer, not just to that question but to any of them. How had he gotten here, why couldn’t he remember, how much time had passed, what had happened between the chains and the agony and the gun and this moment? His brain started to fire on too many cylinders at once and a nauseatingly deafening and dizzying clamour of images and sound crashed through his mind. He had to close his eyes against it and press the heels of his hands against his ears, trying to crush the din out of his skull.

Why couldn’t he think? Nothing made sense. Not a single thing. There were too many broken and fragmented pieces and he couldn’t figure out how they went together. They wouldn’t fit. He couldn’t make them fit.

Not safe. It wasn’t safe. It was never safe. Ed couldn’t remember what that felt like.

His breath caught, a horrible hitch that made his whole chest flare with pain, and he tried to back away from all of it. The questions, the confusion, all those countless pieces of uncertainty.

Hide. He needed to hide.

 


 

When his breath caught like that Kelly felt her whole chest tighten horribly. More than anything she wanted to go to him and take him in her arms, she wanted to hold him close and tell him that everything would be okay, that she would keep him safe. But she couldn’t. She had to resist that impulse, fight that urge, and keep her distance.

Caro had told them that they needed to let Ed figure it out for himself. Kelly was only just starting to realise just how painfully difficult that was going to be but with nothing else to go on they had to believe that the other woman was right. They had to at least try and follow her advice. And if it meant helping Ed and making things better for him? Well, then Kelly would do whatever it took.

As he started to back away from the bed she stayed where she was in the doorway to Claire’s office, keeping her hands in sight but otherwise not moving and not speaking despite how much she wanted to. She watched as he reversed all the way into the wall and startled himself into uncovering his ears and opening his eyes, looking over his shoulder at the monitor he had bumped against. He backed away from that as well.

Kelly stayed where she was. If she moved when he couldn’t see her then that would make things worse, wouldn’t it? If he didn’t see her move and she was suddenly somewhere else then that would make it worse. So she stayed still.

Ed backed up closer to the windows looking out into space, between the beds running along that wall, his dark and disoriented gaze frequently flicking to her as he tried to figure out where to go. She remained in place, not saying a word and not moving a muscle as he glanced to his right and then started to inch nervously in that direction, watching her as much as she was watching him.

Kelly stayed rooted to the spot until Ed had inched his way along the wall all the way into the far back corner of the room, around sick bay’s slight bend where the rearmost beds were situated. If she turned her head and looked through the windows at the back of Claire’s office she could see him taking stock of his surroundings, obviously noticing that he was in a corner. He put his back to the wall and then slid down it, slipping from her sight, but she could still hear the sound of his anxious breathing from where she stood in the doorway.

She closed her eyes and tried to tell herself that that sound wasn’t as heart-breaking as it really was. It was a futile effort and ultimately a waste of her time, but several minutes passed in the attempt and by the time she opened her eyes again it felt okay to move from the doorway. She did so quietly, moving over to the seat that she had been occupying at Ed’s beside, reclaiming the chair without a word and resigning herself to wait however long the next step took.

Chapter Text

What exactly had possessed him to head down to the mess hall he was having trouble recalling as he sat there not really listening to the inane chatter of his crewmates. Gordon had sat himself down at one of the tables amongst familiar faces from Engineering, primarily, thinking maybe grabbing another bite to eat with company might be a good idea. The longer that chatter went on though, the more time passed trying to tune out the meaningless back and forth, the more he questioned his logic for coming here in the first place.

For the most part everyone was discussing random topics that crossed their minds, clutching at proverbial straws in order to avoid the real subject that was hanging over everyone’s heads. Gordon couldn’t help but hear what people weren’t saying, the things they were avoiding touching on, and it made him feel increasingly uncomfortable as he sat there, his head propped up on one hand with an untouched beer on the surface of the table in front of him.

He hadn’t wanted it. Someone else had gotten it for him. Maybe Jenny. He couldn’t remember now.

Someone changed the subject just as the last one was wearing thin and even though he wasn’t really listening Gordon picked up on the first threads of genuine desperation as everyone latched on to the new topic and tried to kindle it into a real conversation. Someone down the table laughed at a joke that wasn’t really funny and the falseness of it wore on what few nerves he had that weren’t frayed to begin with. Despite himself Gordon turned his gaze down the table to the person responsible and fixed them with a stare that asked them without words if they were serious. That fake laughter dwindled and faded. They cleared their throat and fell quiet, returning to their place as a background figure with no real contribution to make.

“Hey, man.” Over his time aboard the Orville Dann had picked up on the aphorisms and vernacular of his crewmates, namely the humans. “You’re pretty quiet. You okay?”

It took Gordon a moment to realise that the other Lieutenant was talking to him, and even then it was only after Jenny had given him the slightest nudge with her elbow. “Hm?” He took his head from his hand and looked across at Dann. “Yeah. Fine.” Lie. And not a good one. To his left Jenny glanced his way and then across at Dann, and Gordon thought she might have given her fellow Engineering officer the slightest shake of her head, maybe in the hopes of deterring him from trying again.

But if there was one thing that could be said about Dann it was that he wasn’t one to give up easily. “I mean, it’s just not like you. You know? It’s kinda freaking me out a little bit.” Dann actually offered a smile then.

Gordon narrowed his eyes a little and regarded the other Lieutenant, part of him having a hard time believing the words coming out of Dann’s mouth. “You want me to crack a joke or something?” he asked, and he saw the way Dann’s expression faltered almost immediately. “Is that it?”

“Well, n-no.” Dann gave a nervous chuckle and looked to Jenny as if he hoped she might weigh in but she was a lot more perceptive than him if her silence was any indication. “It’s just that ever since—” And then he stopped abruptly, his mouth half-forming a word that he failed to give voice to.

Gordon continued to stare at him, waiting. “Ever since what, Dann?” He should have let the other Lieutenant trail off and end it right there, he knew, but now that the sentence was halfway out of the Engineering officer’s mouth he wanted to hear the rest of it. It was almost as if in not saying it Dann would be making things that much worse somehow.

How exactly they could be worse Gordon couldn’t even begin to imagine.

“What, Dann?”

“Gordon—”

“No, I wanna know.”

Dann was shaking his head, starting sentences but only getting a fraction of the way through them before they faltered and dwindled to little more than meaningless syllables with no real structure.

Gordon wasn’t letting up. “Say it, Dann. Go on.” Even as the words left his mouth he knew it was a bad idea, that in pushing he wasn’t helping anyone or anything, and ultimately it was his exhaustion and fears getting the better of him and clouding his judgement. He wasn’t exactly known for being combative or confrontational, after all. Impulsive and a little emotionally charged, yes, but never unpleasantly so. Not under normal circumstances, anyway.

But there was nothing even remotely normal about anything that had happened lately.

“I just—” Dann looked up and down the table, which had fallen uncomfortably quiet during the awkward exchange. “What’s it gonna be like when the Captain leaves?” Only a breath of a moment had passed before Dann corrected himself with a little too much force, “If. I meant if.” And he released another one of those nervous chuckles.

Sitting up straighter in his seat now Gordon looked across the table at Dann. “That’s it, huh?” He looked around at the rest of the table, almost all of whom had dropped their gazes to their half-eaten meals or various beverages, most of them trying to look busy with cutlery or cups and glasses. “Is that what you all think? That the Captain’s done?”

An Ensign from down the table lifted her petite shoulders in a shrug. “Well, we heard he’s kind of—”

Gordon cut her off. “Kind of what?”

She blinked her pale eyes and looked around at those seated close by for some help, which came in the form of a Lieutenant sitting beside her who said, “He’s just not himself. That’s all. That’s what Dann meant.”

“And so that’s it? Game over?” Gordon challenged, brows raised. With a shake of his head he went on, “Man, am I glad he can’t hear you guys right now.” He was about to push up from his chair when something else occurred to him and he said, a little more heatedly than was necessary, “You should all be rooting for him to pull through instead of thinking about worst case scenarios and what ifs. All this negative crap isn’t helping anyone, least of all the Captain.”

“Really?” That was the Lieutenant who had jumped to Dann and the Ensign’s defence. “Man, c’mon. You’ve been negative since the second you—”

And then everyone’s gazes turned to the mess hall’s main entrance. Gordon’s back was to it and he twisted to look over his shoulder. As soon as he saw what everyone was looking at he started to hear the murmurs and whispers, several of them coming from his own table.

“That’s the guy, right?”

“Yeah, that’s him.”

“Why is he even still here?”

Gordon pushed up from his chair and moved towards the steps leading up and out of the mess hall, at the top of which Lowell had come to a standstill, looking around like the proverbial deer in headlights. Before he put one foot on the first step he turned back and said to no one person in particular, “You know what? You should be ashamed of yourselves. Or you should at least try to be a little more open-minded before you start tossing around blame and making accusations.”

“But isn’t he—”

“Dann?” Jenny shook her head emphatically. “Just be quiet.”

And Gordon took that as his cue to turn and leave, waving Lowell on ahead of him as he went. The younger pilot looked back over his shoulder as they went but he didn’t let his gaze linger on the people in the mess hall for long. Gordon was glad when the doors slid closed behind them, cutting off all the watchful eyes and hushed mutterings of people who were too quick to jump to conclusions and make judgements.

Maybe they weren’t ashamed of themselves, but in that moment Gordon was ashamed enough for every single one of them.

 


 

“Sorry,” Lowell said, keeping his voice low as they went, shaking his head apologetically. “I shouldn’t have come down here.” He had known he wouldn’t be welcomed with open arms and from what he’d been able to see and hear upon his arrival things hadn’t exactly been going well to start with. Malloy had been in the middle of the beginnings of what could have ended up being a heated debate with another officer when he’d stepped through the doors and maybe it was for the best that he’d interrupted things the way he had but Lowell couldn’t help but think he had inadvertently made things worse with his arrival.

“No, man. No, you didn’t do anything wrong.” Malloy lifted one hand and rubbed at his face, bringing the other up to join it only moments later, sighing heavily into his palms. When he dropped his hands again as they walked he said, “I shouldn’t have snapped like that anyway. I was being a massive jerk.”

From what Lowell had heard he had only been coming to the defence of a man he saw as a brother but it was a lot more complicated than that, he knew. He didn’t understand the intricacies of life aboard a Union ship and maybe he never would. Everyone had to not only work together but live together and it wasn’t a matter of having it out and leaving it at that. Malloy would have to see those people day after day and if things were hanging in the air between them then that could put the smooth operations of this ship at risk.

Blake’s ship had had plenty of that but fear of their commanding officer had kept everyone in line enough to leave grudges, disagreements, and resentments behind closed doors. That had meant that a lot of things had gone unresolved, and had only ended up getting worse as a result. There had been clashes and altercations but Blake had cut them off swiftly and forcefully, usually verbally but sometimes by other means that had done a good job of keeping everyone else toeing the line.

The Orville wasn’t like that. It was like a whole other world and Lowell was still trying to wrap his head around it.

“Are you okay?” he asked the older man walking alongside him.

Malloy lifted his gaze as he turned his head and after a moment he gave Lowell what looked like a weary but appreciative smile, fleeting though it was. “Yeah.” And then he sobered. “But what’s up? Is something wrong?”

Lowell shook his head, keeping quiet until a pair of officers in green uniforms passed them by, presumably on their way to the mess hall. He didn’t envy either one of them for walking into the kind of atmosphere they had just left. When they were gone he said to Malloy, “Not really, no.”

With a small sound like a chuckle Malloy said, “Prefacing that with not really kind of defeats the object of saying no.”

Despite himself Lowell actually smiled, looking down at his feet for a moment as he nodded his head, conceding the point. “Yeah, I guess.”

“So what is it?”

They slowed to a stop as Lowell decreased his pace, shifting his weight a little uncomfortably, knowing that what he was about to say might be easily misconstrued. Hopefully though the time he had spent with Malloy would enable the other man to understand why he was going to make the request in the first place. So he took the leap. “I want to see Shelton.”

Malloy’s brows lifted but there was no immediate rebuttal or outburst of disbelief. “You sure that’s a good idea?” he asked, going on to furrow his brow in uncertainty.

With a shrug Lowell said, “He’s my brother,” as if that explained everything but he quickly realised for himself that that didn’t really clear things up. Shaking his head he went on, “I just want him to know what’s happened, and why I did what I did.”

“You know you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone, right?”

Lowell smiled at that, surprised by how grateful he felt to hear those words aimed in his direction. His smile faded as he said, “I just want him to understand.” He sighed. “And I guess I want him to explain himself as well.”

When Malloy nodded it was silently that he did so, his own gaze dropping as he did so.

“I knew he had it in him, I guess?” Lowell hadn’t wanted to admit that, even to himself, but as the hours following the trip to the D’Nari ship had passed he’d had a lot of time to think in the quarters he’d been assigned aboard the Orville. “But I never really expected him to be capable of it.” After a pause he added, “Or maybe that’s just what I wanted to believe.”

“I get it.” Malloy was nodding again. “We never really want to believe the worst about the people we love.” It sounded like he was speaking from experience. Part of Lowell was curious but the rest of him knew not to pry. With a frown Malloy went on, asking, “Are you sure you’re up for it?” Shaking his head he said, “I’m not saying you couldn’t handle it, but—” After a pause he sighed. “It’s not going to be an easy conversation for either one of you.”

And that was if the commanding officer of the other ship allowed it, Lowell knew. “I know,” he said. “But if I don’t?”

Malloy obviously understood. “You’ll regret it.”

“Yeah.” Lowell still didn’t know what the Union had decided to do with him specifically but he was well aware of the fact that Shelton was in the same boat as Blake. He had been taken into custody and there was no escaping the fact that his older brother was in trouble. A lot of it. Lowell might never see him again after decisions were made and if he missed his last chance to try to understand what had happened and why then he would never be able to move past it. Not properly, at least.

“All right,” Malloy said after a few moments of quiet. “I’ll see if I can get in touch with the Admiral.” With a shake of his head he added, “I can’t promise she’ll allow it, but I can try.”

It had slipped his mind that a Fleet Admiral was in command of the ship Shelton and Blake were being held on. He had even seen her on the viewer when the other ships had come to the Orville’s aid, proving him and his brother wrong in their worst opinions about the Union. Not just one but three other ships had come to their aid. Maybe other ships just hadn’t been able to reach their parents’ vessel in time. Maybe while he was aboard that other ship he would ask. That Admiral might have some answers for him.

“Thanks,” he said to Malloy, knowing it had been a big ask and a request that could have just as easily been turned down. When he lifted his gaze he saw that the other man was giving him a small smile, and he had no trouble at all returning it. That smile quickly faltered and became a frown though as he hesitated and then asked, “How is he?” After another pause he added, “Your Captain.” Maybe that had been obvious, or maybe not. Lowell just wanted to be clear.

Malloy was still and quiet for a moment before he drew in a breath, straightening himself on the spot as he said, “He’s gonna be okay.” Lowell could hear in the other man’s voice the determination for that to be the case. Even if it wasn’t true right now he would do everything in his power to make sure that was how things turned out. He was a good friend. A good brother. A good man. “He’s tough,” Malloy went on. “He’ll pull through.”

Lowell nodded, showing that he hoped that was what happened, not just for his brother’s sake but for the man in question, and for Malloy’s sake as well.

 


 

Talla hadn’t asked for a drink, or anything at all for that matter, but Caro had taken it upon herself to synthesise something for her anyway. She didn’t object. It would have felt too awkward, or just plain rude, and as she stood in the middle of the main room of the guest quarters they had assigned to the siblings Talla wondered if maybe she shouldn’t have taken her leave when she’d had the chance. As soon as Caro had managed to convince Tommy to lie down and get some sleep she should have excused herself and left the other woman to collect her thoughts and grieve in peace but something had compelled her to stay.

What, exactly, Talla couldn’t say. But either way it was too late to leave now.

Turning from the synthesiser with a pair of mugs Caro offered one to Talla and said, “Tea. I hope you don’t mind.” With a small smile she said, “It’s been a while since I’ve had it. I couldn’t help myself.” She looked almost sheepish as she gazed down into her steaming mug.

With a shake of her head Talla said, “It’s fine. Thank you.” She looked down into her mug as well, able to pick out the sweet scents of something vaguely fruity, and she silently wondered what sort of tea it was before the other woman spoke again.

“Do you want to sit?”

Talla brought her gaze up and then realised how awkward she still looked, just standing there. Caro had moved over to the table in the dining section of the main room but she hadn’t lowered herself into a seat, obviously waiting to see what her guest wanted to do.

“Of course. Sorry.” Talla gave another small smile and sat herself down, setting her mug on the table in front of her.

“Thank you again,” Caro said after a short time spent in silence with only the ambient sounds of the ship to disrupt the quiet. “For what you’ve done for my brother.” With a frown she added, “I know it can’t have been easy.”

If it hadn’t been for that last part Talla would have just assumed Caro was referring to the Orville’s recovery of Tommy from that deserted planet. That last part, however, removed any room for doubt. At first she didn’t know what to say, how to broach the subject of playing along at being someone she wasn’t and the moral ramifications of that, especially when that other person was no longer with them. Talla frowned, her brow furrowing, and shook her head. “I’ve been wondering whether or not I should have done that,” she admitted at last, bringing her eyes up to the other woman’s.

Caro nodded silently and stayed quiet at first, looking down at her tea. “Is she here?” she asked finally, her voice so soft that Talla almost missed it.

Her mouth felt dry all of a sudden. “Yes.”

Another nod. Caro drew in, held, and then released a long breath, closing her eyes. “Does your Doctor know what happened to her?”

“It was quick,” Talla said. “Doctor Finn said she wouldn’t have felt a thing.” The Xelayan woman, Erana, had been hit with a massive charge of high-intensity energy, Doctor Finn had deduced, most likely from some sort of plasma weapon. It would have killed her quickly, if not instantly. That probably wasn’t much of a comfort though, Talla knew.

“She did it then,” Caro said quietly, her smile sad and regretful. “Ed and I thought she might have broken out somehow.” She picked up her tea but didn’t drink it as she added, “They didn’t know how to handle a Xelayan.”

Under any other circumstances Talla might have smiled at that, and proudly as well, but in that moment it was just sad. Caro’s wife had died simply because she was a Xelayan, because the D’Nari hadn’t been prepared to handle Erana’s strength and resilience. Talla couldn’t help but wonder if her death had been an accident, an overcompensation on the part of whoever had fired the shot that had ultimately ended her life. It was entirely possible that they had simply meant to stun her back into compliance. Short of asking the D’Nari there was no way of knowing.

“You look so much like her.”

Talla brought her eyes up and saw the grief in the other woman’s gaze. “I know,” she said quietly, and a little regretfully. “I’m sorry.” Because it couldn’t have been easy for Caro to wake up to that, the realisation that Talla wasn’t Erana, and that she would never see her wife again.

The other woman shook her head but didn’t say anything at first. She spent the next minute or so looking into the tea she wasn’t drinking before she found her voice again at last in order to say, “I don’t know how I’m going to break it to him.” Caro set the mug back onto the table. “God, he loved her.” She smiled another one of those sad smiles. “Even before Erana and I started dating he was fond of her, I could tell. They just clicked.” Her smile lost a little of its sadness as she added, “It was one of my favourite things about her.”

Talla smiled. She wanted to say that she was sure Erana would miss them both, that she would have done anything to stay with them, but she hadn’t known the woman and it felt too presumptuous to make such bold claims. Even if they probably were true was it really her place, as a relative stranger, to say such things? “If there’s anything I can do to help,” she said instead, “just let me know.”

Caro held her gaze for a few moments and then she smiled, nodding her head gratefully. She lifted her mug again then and actually took a sip from the rim. Talla followed suit, taking her first drink of the hot liquid. It was soothing and sweet and tasted of some sort of berry as it touched her tongue. When her eyes met Caro’s again she gave the other woman another smile to tell her that she liked it. It was understandable that she had missed it.

What sorts of things had Tommy missed during his time aboard the D’Nari ship, Talla wondered.

And what about the Captain?

 


 

Time was a tricky thing. Slippery, evasive, elusive, and difficult to grasp. It was a lot like sand, and trying to cup it in your hands. Just when Ed thought he had a good hold on it he would realise it was trickling through some gap he hadn’t properly sealed and then before he knew it he had lost more of it than he could regain and it was all for nought.

How long had he been sitting here?

The question bubbled up again and he closed his eyes shut tight against it, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyelids as if he could push the thought out of the back of his skull. He didn’t want his mind to ask the question anymore. He still didn’t know the answer and the longer that uncertainty went on the more it frightened him. But in the blackness behind his closed eyelids his mind started to replay those things he could recall most vividly and with all of those things came pain.

Unbearable, intolerable, unbelievable pain. And so much of it.

A wave of it crashed through him, so intense and powerful that it robbed him of breath for several seconds in which all he could hear was the blood pounding in his ears and then somewhere underneath that the frantic thunder of his heart. His hand felt like it had been thrust into a roaring fire but when he looked at it there was no shattered and protruding bone or torn and ripped skin. There was no blood.

The question simmered up anew. Ed squeezed his eyes shut again and made a tight sound of apprehension at the back of his mouth. No.

Another rush of pain flowed through him and as he sucked in a hiss of a breath between his teeth he hugged his head down closer to his folded knees. His arms went up to brace and protect and his fingers quested shakily for the points where the pain was coming from. But he couldn’t find them. He could only just reach the space between his shoulders and there was nothing. Nothing behind the hinge of his jaw. As he pulled his head back up he ran one hand down his throat. Nothing at his collarbone.

Other than the dampness of sweat there was nothing at his abdomen or lower back either. No discs. No source of pain.

It didn’t make sense. He remembered it. All of it.

Didn’t he?

When he closed his eyes that time he saw a face that instantly had him snapping them open again, having to fight to catch his breath. He actually jerked against the wall and looked to his left, expecting to see the face there.

But there was no Moclan. No Maykor.

The relief that flashed through him was short-lived and tainted by that bristling cloud of confusion and uncertainty. The questions kept flashing through his brain, like bursts of lightning in the storm clouds that were his crashing and colliding thoughts. That same one punctuated them all, vibrant and almost violent in its force.

His head was pounding. Why?

He didn’t know the answer to that one either.

Ed took as deep a breath as he could, trying to drag it past the ache in his ribs that he suspected was just as unreliable and illusory as the burning through his hand and the pulses of sharp discomfort through his torso and neck. After the first he did his best to take another, knowing that that was the right thing to do even if he couldn’t recall why. It had worked before, hadn’t it? Maybe.

Certainty was just as slippery as time.

As he sat there breathing in and out, pulling and pushing each breath past those phantom aches and pains that wavered and ebbed, coming and going inconsistently, he tried to latch on to the things he did know. His name. His birthday. His hometown. His parents’ names. How he took his coffee. His favourite drink. Simple things, little things that would never change no matter where he was, whether he was in the system or out of it.

Real or

“No.” Ed hadn’t meant to say it out loud but it slipped past his lips anyway as he pushed his fingers back through his hair. His hands were trembling.

God, why couldn’t he stop that question?

What was the answer to that question?

Real or not—

It was relentless. It wouldn’t leave him alone. It prowled and circled like a predator working its way tirelessly towards its prey, playing the long game. Ed felt trapped by it, surrounded by it. At its mercy.

He opened his eyes and stared across the room. He knew this room. The walls, the lights, the monitors and the soft sounds. It was quiet and soothing and familiar and he knew it like the back of his hand. Didn’t he?

But what if they had gotten things wrong?

“No,” he said again, just as quietly as before, rubbing at his tired eyes and swallowing against the dryness in his throat. When he lowered his hands he looked at his wrists. He had hurt himself, hadn’t he? And there had been needles in his arms, hadn’t there? But there was nothing there now. No marks of any kind.

What did that mean?

With his legs drawn up he could see the blue detail down his pants, one on each side, a perfect mirror. Regulation boots. His trembling fingers plucked uncertainly at his shirt and he raised a hand cautiously to the neckline. Blue. Like the pants. Command colours. His uniform.

Had they changed it? Everything had been completely black, hadn’t it? Were they just trying to throw him off? They could control all the details, he knew.

God, he couldn’t remember getting out. Surely that meant—

There was a sound from around the corner, the source just out of sight. Ed stilled and turned his eyes in that direction, barely even daring to breathe. Time kept on ticking by with nothing happening, no approach of anything dangerous and no sudden appearance of any sorts of threats or predators. Before he even knew that he was doing it Ed was pushing himself tentatively up from the ground, going slowly on legs that didn’t feel steady and trying to support himself with arms that wouldn’t stop feeling shaky. He kept his eyes fixed on that corner, just in case something popped into view without warning. Letting his guard down was dangerous. He couldn’t do that.

With shallow breaths making his chest feel tight he inched his way slowly towards the corner, slowing his progress even further as he approached the edge of it, where the wall rounded off into the bigger section of the room. His heart had steadied but it was beating faster again now, hammering that little bit more unsteadily. Tension had crept through his back, his muscles tightening despite the persistent ache.

Fight or flight. Ed recognised that much.

He reached the corner, standing at just the right point so that he could see beyond it and to the rest of the room.

She turned her head to look at him but said nothing. She was sitting beside a bed. The bed. He had woken up there, hadn’t he?

Real or not real?

There was no stopping the question that time. It had gained too much power as he stood there looking at the woman that he knew but didn’t, too many other questions barrelling through his overworked mind to stop that one. It blazed through his brain and lingered there unanswered as he tried to understand what he was seeing and how because there weren’t enough dots to connect and that meant there was a lie here somewhere.

There had to be.

Didn’t there?

His chest ached. His brow furrowed. His vision blurred as his eyes started to sting. His breath caught as he tried to find his voice.

“K—” God, his throat was so dry. It hurt. Had he been shouting? Or screaming? More questions with no answers. There were so many now he thought that they might crush him. His voice cracked when he tried again, “Kelly?”

It couldn’t be. How could it be?

But he wanted it to be. God, how he wanted it.

No. Not want. Need. In that moment there was nothing he needed more.

 


 

His voice broke on the way out and it was all she could do not to surge up from her seat and rush over to him. It took every ounce of self-restraint she possessed to keep herself sitting in that chair and holding his gaze, wavering and shining though his was now, and simply nod her head at him.

It had taken more than an hour for him to get this far. She had waited in that chair and listened to the unsteady sounds of him trying to orient and balance himself and obviously struggling every step of the way. It had been agony. All she had wanted to do was stride around that corner, sit herself down next to him, take his hand, and tell him everything that had happened. All she had wanted to do was be his rock, his port in the storm, the steady ground on which he could find his feet.

Not being able to do that had felt almost like another betrayal, in a way. It had felt like she was letting him down, failing him just when he needed her most, and even telling herself that she was doing the right thing in allowing him to come to her hadn’t helped her in the least because the idea of letting Ed suffer in solitude was unbearable. It hadn’t felt right, or natural. It went against everything her whole being had been telling her to do.

So when he finally appeared at the corner of the outer wall of Claire’s office and stood there looking at her, she had had to tell herself pointedly not to move, not to speak, and not to do anything until Ed showed that he was ready for her to do so. This was the first step. She had to tread carefully or she would send Ed sliding all the way back to the beginning and she couldn’t bear that thought any more than she could bear to think of him suffering alone.

“Kelly?” he said again and she heard the fresh catch in his voice and in his breathing. The pained look on his face told her everything, that he didn’t understand what was happening, or how this could be real. She gave him another small nod, continuing to hold his gaze. “Kel?” His name for her spilled out of him with a hint of pleading and desperation and no small amount of confusion.

“Yeah,” she said to him then, because keeping quiet wasn’t helping and she could see that. Kelly Grayson wouldn’t just sit there silently and nod at him. She would talk to him. “Yeah, Ed. It’s me.” And she gave him the slightest smile.

Ed didn’t smile back at her. She hated that. It felt wrong. It was no more wrong than anything else about this awful situation but he had always been the sort of man who smiled easily and often and she missed it. It had felt like months since she had last seen that smile of his. Instead of smiling he frowned more deeply and gave his head a small shake, his gaze breaking from hers so that it could travel the room, albeit more than a little nervously. “I—” His voice caught again and he tried to clear his throat.

When was the last time he had had a drink? It only occurred to Kelly then that it had probably been a while but she had to fight the urge to grab him something so she wouldn’t undo their progress and send him darting back around the corner. So instead she waited for him to get the words out, dry and fractured though they were.

“How did I—” His eyes came back to her, his brow deeply furrowed with obvious confusion. “I don’t remember.”

He didn’t remember how he had gotten here. That was what Caro had been talking about, going from one place to another without experiencing the journey and therefore losing their grasp on what was and wasn’t real. “A shuttle,” she said to him, keeping her answers short and simple. “We brought you.”

“H-How—” Ed shook his head again, closing his eyes. “Is this—”

Hearing him like that, barely able to get the words out, was more painful than she could ever have imagined. Ed had always had a way with words, sometimes not the best way but he had rarely been at a loss for them like he seemed to be in that moment. He was surprisingly eloquent when the need arose and he could talk his way out of just about any situation if given half the chance. “Real?” She couldn’t not offer that word out to him then.

Ed’s eyes opened and he looked at her. He said nothing, just looked at her. And he waited. That pained expression hadn’t gone anywhere. If anything it had grown even more pained than it had been a moment before.

“Yes,” she said, letting him see her rise to her feet and taking her time with it. She saw the way he hesitated, debating whether or not to withdraw, but something kept him rooted to the spot. “It’s real, Ed,” she went on, standing in the same spot for a few moments before she took a step towards the head of the bed, a little closer to him and further into his line of sight. “It’s real.”

His breathing had quickened, she realised. If she dropped her gaze from his face she could see the way his chest was heaving.

“Real,” she reassured him, showing her hands and then touching one to her own chest, right in the centre. Right over her heart. “Real.”

That quickening quality of his breathing worsened until it sounded like he was on the verge of hyperventilating and he turned just enough, unsteadily, to put his back to the corner of Claire’s office wall and brace himself there. Kelly saw the way his weight bobbed a little, almost as if his knees were going to give out on him, and she took a step towards him before she could help herself. He saw her do it. When he didn’t retreat or shy away she dared to take another, and then another, and then she closed what little gap was left between them.

“Real,” she told him again as she came to stand in front of him, bringing a hand up and hovering it close to his face. There was the barest flinch, the very first hints at one, but he didn’t shy away properly and so she followed through. His stubble was rougher now, it had grown in even more over the day or so that he had been sedated, and she could feel it scratching at her palm as she cupped his face on first one side and then the other.

He was struggling to breathe as he looked at her up close, his whole body shaking horribly as he stood there looking into her eyes like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. It was like he hadn’t seen her in years. It was like he didn’t dare to believe.

Real,” she told him one more time, leaning on the word and hoping to give it more power so it could drive those doubts and fears out of his mind but she knew even as she spoke the word that it wasn’t going to be that easy. This wasn’t over yet. It was just one step on a road the end of which neither one of them could see yet, but Kelly had already committed herself to walking that path with him. Every step of the way she would be with him. She gave him the same smile she had always given him when she had missed him and was reminding herself just how lucky she was to have him in her life. A fond smile. A warm smile. A loving smile.

A breath rushed out of him then and he nearly folded down to the ground but she caught him on the way, her hands leaving his face so her arms could go around him and hold him close. For just a second she thought he was going to try and fight his way through, just like he had on the D’Nari ship, but then he was holding on to her in return, practically clutching at her, like a drowning man fighting desperately to stay afloat.

His head buried into her shoulder as she lowered them to the ground, his knees threatening to give out too often for her to trust herself to hold them both up, and she threaded the fingers of one hand through the back of his hair as he struggled to breathe past the great shuddering sobs that came pouring out of him. She stayed like that until he had worn himself out and then she stayed like that when exhaustion claimed him and he buckled against her completely, his breathing turning deep and heavy. Even when Claire came back in, momentarily startled by the sight of them on the floor like that, Kelly stayed where she was until Ed was ready to wake up and start all over again.

Chapter Text

Claire had seen no reason not to discharge Ed and let him go back to his own quarters if he chose to do so of his own accord. Her work was far from done but there was no need to keep him confined to sick bay and ultimately it might end up stalling his recovery if they kept him from leaving when he wanted to do so. That was the theory anyway. For Kelly the difficult part was finding a way to suggest it without making it seem like she was pushing him. She had wanted to broach the subject and let him make up his own mind. She needed to be a guiding hand rather than a directive force and that was no easy balance to strike.

In the time that they had known one another she had never had any problems telling Ed exactly what she thought he, or they, should do. They were each of them strong-willed people, fiercely independent and determined, and that was both part of why they had made such a great couple to begin with and a major contributing factor to the downfall of their marriage. Taking a back seat and having to wait for him to make the decisions, no matter how long it took him, was an alien concept to her, and something that she knew she was going to struggle with for however long it needed to go on.

It had finally dawned on Ed that he could leave sick bay, if he wanted to, and that that was what he wanted to do. Kelly tried not to liken the delay in his realisation process to that of a child but the similarities were too stark for her to ignore completely, no matter how much she attempted to shut them out. When he finally looked at her and said he wanted to go she had smiled at him instead of letting those troubling thoughts show and said sure, they could do that. And so that was what they had done.

Claire had had the foresight to contact Talla and have her discretely clear the corridors the short distance between sick bay and Ed’s quarters. Until he was more settled in his surroundings, and himself for that matter, the last thing he needed was to have people see him when he was far from his best. That was a decision the rest of the senior staff had made without really needing to discuss it, and one Kelly supported wholeheartedly. It was bad enough that this had happened to Ed in the first place, he didn’t need the rest of the crew seeing him the way he was.

When they had gotten back to his quarters, Kelly letting Ed lead the way even though he had to take his time with it, as if his surroundings were somehow alien and yet familiar at the same time, she had stayed quiet and relatively still while he had slowly wandered around the lower level. Every now and then he had touched something, a little tentatively at first, and he had taken just as much time with that as he had the journey from sick bay.

He had looked her way with a silent imploring quality at one point, the uncertainty on his face making her heart ache all over again, and she had seen the question in his eyes, the one he obviously kept asking himself without words. “Real,” she had told him. She had had to say the same thing after he had woken up in her arms on the floor in sick bay, especially when Claire had stepped into view, catching him off guard.

How often was she going to have to tell him that before he started to believe it enough not to have to ask? Kelly didn’t know the answer to that and the fact that it was a question she was asking herself was nothing short of disquieting.

After exploring the lower level Ed’s gaze had angled up to the upper floor and Kelly had given him a small smile when he had glanced briefly her way, as if unsure. Only after that smile had he actually ventured up there. Kelly had followed him, giving him space but wanting to be nearby even if he was in a safe space where no one could catch him off guard and startle him. It felt like the right thing to do, what she was meant to do.

Much like with the lower level Ed had explored a bit, and it had occurred to Kelly as she watched him that he wasn’t so much familiarising himself with his surroundings as he was checking for anything that might be out of place. Inconsistencies. Mistakes.

Ed was still asking himself the question. It struck Kelly as he emerged from the bathroom after briefly stepping inside that he was probably doing that constantly. How exhausting, she had thought, to be so continuously on edge and uncertain. The proof of that exhaustion had come almost an hour after they had arrived in his quarters. Ed had ended up sitting on the bed and Kelly had taken it upon herself to join him, only to realise after a time that his head kept nodding and his weight was shifting in a tell-tale fashion. As gently and carefully as she could she had shuffled herself back to sit against the headboard without saying a word, silently relieved when Ed saw fit to do the same. Less than five minutes later his head had ended up on her shoulder, and from there, once she was certain she wouldn’t wake him, she had eased him down so he was using her lap as a pillow instead.

Quite of their own accord the fingers of one hand had started to thread through his hair, a soft repetitive motion that was as much for her own benefit as it was for his. It was reassuring to be able to lay her hands on him after what had felt like an inordinately and unfairly long time apart from him and she hoped that it would bring him comfort as well. Even if he wasn’t conscious as she touched him surely some part of him would be aware of the contact and hopefully it would help.

Turning her gaze down to where he slept she was once again struck by the uncharacteristic unkemptness of his appearance. Ed had never been a vain individual but he had a way about him, he liked to present himself as composed and tidy and at least moderately organised. Even at his worst she had never seen him looking so unlike himself and she found herself wondering if he had ever looked half as rough and dishevelled as he did now following their divorce. With a frown she brushed her hand through his hair again and shook her head. She hoped not. There was something just so inherently sad about the way he looked now that the idea of causing anything even remotely similar was almost more than she could bear.

He was still wearing the uniform he had been wearing when he and Talla and the rest of the landing party had gone down to search for that dysonium deposit but as with everything else Kelly knew it had to be Ed’s decision to change it. They couldn’t change it for him. It was dirty and crumpled and there were scuffs of mud and who knew what else on his boots but if he didn’t do it for himself then he wouldn’t believe any of it was real. They would be right back where they had started.

Kelly used her free hand to pinch at the bridge of her nose in an attempt to keep the stinging in her eyes from getting any worse, drawing in a deep but quiet breath as she did so. When she lowered her hand again she had to keep her eyes up, letting her gaze settle anywhere but on the man whose head was still rested in her lap because in that moment it was far too painful to actually see him the way that he was, and the last thing Kelly wanted was to fall apart. Ed needed her too much for that. She had to be strong enough for both of them, and she had to keep that strength up for however long he needed it. Maybe it would be days, maybe it would be weeks, but she had had to face the idea that it might be longer than that. Much longer.

In sickness and in health.

They hadn’t been husband and wife for a while now but Kelly was a woman of her word and even though she wasn’t bound by those oaths anymore she still took them very seriously. And she cared far too much about Ed to go back on that promise now, when he needed her most.

He would do the same for her. Kelly knew that as surely as she knew her own name. And so she would do it for him, and so much more besides. Because even though they weren’t married anymore she still loved him more than she could ever put into words and she couldn’t imagine doing anything less.

 


 

Time had no meaning in the dark. It was neither intimidating nor daunting, there were no looming questions about its passage, and there was no need to fight to keep any sort of grasp on it. In the dark everything was quiet and still, it was numb and empty of worries and concerns and fears and pains. It was a blissfully blank canvas.

Until it wasn’t.

Until the darkness folded in on itself and everything flooded with light and sound and sensation. Until everything the darkness had been holding at bay came rushing back with renewed intensity and force, building and growing and twisting into something terrible that the mind could no longer hold at bay.

And then it was hell.

Worse than the memory itself it all came surging back in Ed’s unconscious mind, unbidden and unwelcome but unstoppable as it tore through what had been peaceful numbness and sent everything into a horrific overdrive. But even in the grip of such an onslaught he didn’t stir in the physical world, at least not enough to snap out of it. In the grip of a deep exhaustion-fuelled sleep as he was Ed had no awareness of the fact that in the real world he was perfectly safe in his own quarters with his head in Kelly’s lap while she too had allowed herself to doze off where she sat. In his mind, dragged down into its own warped and misshapen recollections as it was, everything was terror and agony and despair.

And blood. It was everywhere. It was all he could taste, all he could smell, all he could feel. He was covered in it, bleeding from wounds he couldn’t even find that were soaking his shirt and gluing it to his skin. It was under his nails, in his hair, his hands were slick with it. In the endless dark voices cackled and hollered and howled but he couldn’t see them beyond flashes of eyes and glimmers of sharp weapons intended to take his life.

They were everywhere. All around him. There was nowhere to turn.

A baying filled the air and sent him crashing to his knees, it was so loud that it hurt his ears and he clapped his hands over them as the sound rattled and raked through him to his very core. When he opened his eyes and looked into the dark he saw them. The eyes. The teeth. The snapping jaws and wicked claws.

Run.

Scrambling to his feet he turned and ran but the eyes were approaching from all sides and there was no escaping them. The howling and baying came from all around and threatened to drive him mad, it was incessant and horrific and seemed to slice right through every inch of him.

And then they were on him. Out of nowhere they came bounding and stalking and he was surrounded. They snarled and slobbered and bared their terrible shark-like teeth at him and padded ever-closer. There was nowhere to go. No way to escape. His lungs closed up right before his airway did and terror flooded him completely in the moments before the hellish creatures pounced and barrelled into him from all sides. Their snapping jaws and questing claws dug and gouged into him and he felt every bite and slash as they tore him apart.

Ed screamed but no one could hear him. It just echoed and echoed and trailed into nothing, swallowed by the darkness that was crowding in all around him as the beasts ate him alive.

And then he was running again, running and running and running until it felt like his legs would break and he would never move again. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, could barely even function at all, his terror was so absolute as thunder rolled dangerously close at his heels. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe.

He couldn’t breathe.

Suddenly he was in the air, strung up by his neck and gasping for the smallest breath, the pressure around his throat unbearable and his body fighting him every second as it faltered and failed and started to give out on him. Eyes watched him from below as he strangled to death and their laughter chased him all the way into the dark as he gave one final choke.

The wind whipped at his hair and clothes and he almost stepped right back off the sheer drop of a cliff. It was as he was gasping in shock and struggling to right himself that he saw the eerily swift movement from close by and realised too late he was being charged. Rambler slammed into him with the force of an anvil and ploughed them both back over that ledge and into the nothingness beyond. As they fell Rambler drove his blade in again and again and again, stabbing and slashing and hacking, making those wretched maddened sounds all the way to the bottom. But the bottom never came.

And then he stopped falling, jerked to a stop by his arms so suddenly and so painfully that he tried to cry out but he couldn’t make a sound past the gag over his mouth. Everything was blinding agony and his body wanted to fail him but there was no relief, no release, and no reprieve. He tried to fight the chains that held him but they only tightened, threatening to break his bones with every thrash. He couldn’t get away. He couldn’t get free.

Someone touched him. A large hand. A strong hand.

A figure loomed out of the darkness and his panic and horror almost suffocated him, they threatened to crush him under their weight as the Moclan bore down on him. As the Moclan took hold of him. As the Moclan stepped around him and out of sight. He tried to scream and defy and deny but nothing came out and there was no one to hear him. He waited for the end but there was no saviour stepping from the shadows, no crack of a gunshot, no last-minute rescue.

The strong hands ripped at his clothes. They yanked and pulled and sought to ruin as cold laughter rushed over his ear, the heat of another body so close feeling like fire licking at his bare skin. That laughter became a guttural snarl that filled his skull as those hands grabbed and held on tightly. Purposefully. He threw back his head and tried to scream with all his might, with every ounce of strength and desperation in his failing body, begging for an end that would never come.

Ed snapped awake, still screaming that scream and trying to throw himself away from an invisible enemy who wanted to ruin him in the worst way a person could be ruined, still feeling those hands on him trying to hold and pull and quest horribly. Ed screamed and cried and fought to get away, blind to whose hands were actually reaching for him because all he could see was danger and terror and the worst pain imaginable.

And there was no way out.

 


 

It was the scream that woke her, a sound wholly unlike anything she had ever heard in her life. It chilled her to the core and set her heart racing as her mind reeled in immediate panic. It jolted her instantly out of the light slumber she had allowed herself to slip into and in that same moment she registered the sudden movement from close by.

Ed was awake.

And he was screaming.

The sound tore through her like the sharpest, most wicked blade imaginable, and for a couple of seconds the sheer unbridled fear and pain of the sound froze her in place. It was the worst sound she had ever heard, one she hoped never to hear again, and Kelly knew in that moment that she would hear it in her dreams for years to come. That sound would haunt her.

Ed was in a panic, trying to cry and shout and yell even when he had no breath to do it, and Kelly recognised in her own fear that he was fighting against something, trying to deny and reject it. Instinctively she reached for him and that only made things worse, it pushed him into unleashing a wail of a sound that was more animal than man as he scrambled frantically back and further away from her.

He was going to hurt himself.

She had to stop him.

Somehow, somehow, she had to get past the terror that had gripped him during whatever nightmare had taken hold and get through to him. Part of her thought he might not be truly awake yet but whether or not that was the case hardly mattered as he scrambled dangerously close to the end of the bed and Kelly had a snap decision to make. Without thinking she hurled herself across the mattress and grabbed hold of him, making him cry out in even greater panic but she managed to at least slow and alter the path of his fall enough that he didn’t smack his head dangerously on the ground or his nightstand or the wall. She also managed to topple herself off the bed right along with him but she had just enough time to keep herself from landing on top of him.

Ed continued to make those terrible sounds as he shoved and clawed and shuffled himself desperately backwards and away from her, not really seeing her when he looked at her with tears in his eyes and all the colour drained out of his face. The terror she saw there almost rooted her to the spot again but she reminded herself that he wasn’t seeing her. He was seeing something else. Something much worse. And it was her job to make him really see.

His back hit the wall and he had nowhere else to go but that didn’t stop him from digging the heels of his boots into the carpet and trying to continue to shove anyway, his every breath thin and ragged and strangled.

Kelly didn’t reach for him again but she didn’t retreat either. She set herself on her knees and planted her hands on the ground and locked her eyes on his, needing to hold his attention and keep it on her. “Ed,” she said, more firmly than she would have cared to but she knew she had to anchor him. She had to bring him back from the abyss he was lost in. “Ed. Ed.” Either he couldn’t hear her or he didn’t want to. She had to keep trying. “Ed, listen to my voice.”

More frantic breathing and wrung out animal sounds.

Keep trying.

“Ed, just listen to my voice. Okay? Just listen to my voice.” Keep trying. “You’re not awake. I need you to wake up for me. Okay?” Keep trying. “Please, Ed. Just breathe. Breathe for me.” Her voice softened and she continued to hold his gaze. “Come back to me, Ed. Come back to me.”

 


 

Listen to my voice.

Ed could barely hear anything past the frantic battering of his heart against his rib cage and the deafening drum of his blood in his ears. 

You’re not awake.

He couldn’t remember falling asleep. Had he? When had that happened? 

Wake up for me.  

Why would he have fallen asleep? And why couldn’t he wake up? 

Breathe. Just breathe.  

He couldn’t remember how. His lungs refused to do what they were designed to do. They rejected their primary function and tried to seize and fail. 

Come back to me.  

That voice. Didn’t he know that voice? God, he knew that voice. Didn’t he? But— 

Come back to me.

Kelly. Kelly.

All of a sudden Ed’s airway opened up and he managed to drag down a great swallow of air that was almost painful as it rushed down. It came racing right back out of him again but once the floodgates opened there was no stopping it and his lungs demanded more and more and more. Ed heaved in gulps and gasps of it as the world came dropping back in around him, abruptly and all at once. One moment he was in that wretched place where he couldn’t move to escape what was happening to him and the next he was on the floor and free of restraint and it wasn’t a cruel and wicked face looming close to him but one filled with warmth and concern and—

“Oh God—” It came shuddering out of him as he buried his shaking hands in his hair and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to make himself smaller against the wall because none of what was happening could be real. It was too foul, too horrible, and too much.

Hands settled on his knees as they drew up towards his chest and softly she shushed him and soothed him wordlessly, drawing closer though she did so tentatively at first. Because she was afraid of scaring him. Because she didn’t know how he was going to react.

Fear trickled icily through his veins. Because Ed didn’t know how he was going to react either.

Kelly moved closer, as close as she could get without being right on top of him. Her hands settled on his in his hair and freed his fingers from the knots and tangles. She kept hold of them as she drew them away and when he lifted his head enough to look at her he saw the worry in her eyes and the determination to help him. He saw the woman he had fallen in love with all those years ago, the same woman he had never stopped loving. He had tried. God, how he had tried. But he couldn’t.

He had wanted to claw and dig and gouge those horrible images and sounds and feelings out of his head but she had hold of his hands and he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t get them out. If he couldn’t get them out then how could he separate that world and the one in which she was sitting so close to him and looking at him like that? How could he know what was—

“Real.” Kelly gave her head a small nod as she looked back at him, that certain whisper lining up so perfectly with his panic-laced thoughts that it should have made him doubt but hadn’t she always done that? Hadn’t she always known him better than he had known himself?

You forget, nobody knows you better than me.

Ed closed his eyes and bowed his head. He could taste the tears that were sliding steadily down his face, powerless to stop them from falling as Kelly moved in even closer and used her strong, steady hands to pull him against her. Ed didn’t fight her. Not even for a second.

Nobody knows you better than me.

But how could she?

How could she know him when he felt like he didn’t even know himself anymore?

Chapter Text

“So what does this mean?”

The sound of Lieutenant Malloy’s voice to her side pulled Talla’s attention from the window. She had been staring out into the stars beyond as if they might provide her and everyone else with all the answers and comforts and reassurances they might need after everything that had happened. It was a naive hope really, a child’s hope, and part of her was glad for the interruption.

The Helmsman was looking up and down the table. “What do we do now?”

It was strange to see Commander Grayson out of her uniform in the briefing room. She sat in her usual seat near the head of the table in a simple set of her own pants and a plain sweater that looked somewhat out of place in such an official setting but less than twenty minutes before they had gathered to discuss the newest developments the First Officer had informed Bortus that he would be in command until further notice. Their Second Officer had not argued or asked for any details, instead accepting the task with his usual dutiful promise that he would not fail her.

Talla understood why. They all did. Glancing around at the faces gathered she knew not a single person in the room needed to have it explained to them why Kelly was relieving herself of duty for the immediate future. And yet, even with Bortus as acting captain for the time being, they still all looked to Commander Grayson in the wake of Gordon’s questions.

Something about that struck Talla as somewhat unfair but she was as guilty as everyone else, and she reminded herself that if Kelly had any issues with it she would soon let them know.

Ultimately it was Claire who answered anyway, stepping in when the silence had stretched more than a few seconds and was bordering on becoming uncomfortable. “He needs more time.” With a small shake of her head she went on, “How much time he needs exactly, I couldn’t even begin to guess. I searched the Union medical records and couldn’t find any case even remotely similar to what we’re dealing with here.”

“So the Captain’s Patient Zero?”

Claire turned her head to look at their Chief Engineer. “Essentially, yes.” After a pause she corrected herself, “Though technically that would be Thomas Sadler.”

They could have found Tommy in their systems, along with his sister and her wife, but to Talla that had felt cold and clinical, not to mention unnecessary when two of the three were essentially living aboard the Orville at that exact moment in time. She and Caro had gotten to talking while they drank tea in guest quarters and the other woman had shared enough information about herself and her brother that they hadn’t needed to consult any other records to learn more about them.

“But you still think Ed can recover?” Gordon was looking at Doctor Finn across the table with a quietly imploring quality, wanting a positive and hopeful answer even though there had to be a part of him that knew he might get something else entirely.

Claire hesitated, and then told him, “Like I said, this is new territory. I’m figuring this out as we go along as much as anyone else.” When she shook her head then it was an apologetic motion.

“He’s better than he was.” Kelly’s voice was quiet, weary, but there was a certainty there that Talla, for one, wanted to latch on to. Gordon did too, if the way he turned his head quickly in the Commander’s direction was any indication. As she glanced across the table at their Doctor Kelly went on to say, “I know it’s not by much, but any improvement is a positive sign. It has to be.”

The other woman gave her a small dip of her head in acknowledgement. The fact that Kelly had been able to attend this meeting in person was proof enough of her point, Talla thought, and they all had to be thinking something along the same lines. The Captain wasn’t completely alone, admittedly, with one of Talla’s team stationed outside the door to his quarters just in case he wanted or needed to leave, and it had taken the other woman a little bit of time to convince him that he would be all right on his own for a while, and that she would be back soon. But it was still an improvement, even if it was only a small one.

“If Captain Mercer is continuing to struggle with the ordeals he has suffered at the hands of the D’Nari and the Razers, would it not be more efficient to simply remove his recollections of the events altogether?”

They all turned their attention to Isaac.

“You mean a memory wipe?” Talla knew very well that that was what he meant. They all did.

“Precisely, Lieutenant.”

Kelly’s refusal was immediate. “No.”

“Under the circumstances, Commander, would it not be kinder to the Captain to do so?” The Kaylon regarded them all steadily as he went on, “It seems to me to be the best course of action and would ensure Captain Mercer’s recovery, whereas—”

“Isaac, man, no.” Gordon shook his head emphatically. “After all that those bastards did to him over there?” He gestured at the window even though they were on the other side of the D’Nari ship and it couldn’t be seen from their current location. “He’s had enough people messing around inside his head. We can’t do that to him too.”

“And besides,” Claire chimed in, “that’s not a procedure I’m comfortable performing without the patient’s consent, considering the risks of brain damage.” Drawing in a breath and letting it out slowly she went on to add, “And I don’t believe the Captain could make that decision for himself right now.” She shook her head as well. “So as far as I’m concerned, it’s off the table.”

Isaac was quiet for several moments before he gave his head a small dip. “I see.” Settling back into his observant state he added, “Very well, Doctor.”

Talla looked across the table at the Kaylon as she said, “That would only get us so far anyway.”

John frowned as he looked in her direction. “What do you mean?”

She met his gaze as she said, “Well, what about everyone else?” And then she looked around at the others. “Wiping the Captain’s memory of all this is one thing, and maybe it really would help him, but the rest of us would still know what happened.” Shaking her head she added, “Maybe we don’t know all the details but we know this terrible thing happened to him.”

Gordon sat back in his chair even though he didn’t say a word. He nodded his head as he did so, silently agreeing with her point.

“The rest of the crew would remember on the Captain’s behalf,” Bortus said, summarising Talla’s point for her. She nodded her head at him.

“Makes the whole thing kind of a moot point, really,” Gordon said, his eyes fixed on a spot that only he could see on the table in front of him.

It was a lot more complicated than Isaac had made it sound, that was for certain. Talla, for her part, didn’t like the idea of people looking at the Captain knowingly when he had no recollection of the events himself. She didn’t like the idea of it changing how people looked at him, or thought of him. As terrible as his experiences had been it was better for him, and for everyone, if he picked himself up and dusted himself off. And if that took time? Well, time was something that they could give him. All Talla had to do was look at the faces of those gathered to know that everyone was determined to give him however much he needed.

“What about Tommy?” John waited until everyone had looked his way. “For a memory wipe, I mean.” With a small shake of his head he said, “Maybe it’d help him. You said so yourself, Doc’, he might be too far gone to recover on his own, and like Isaac says, maybe it’s kinder.”

Talla didn’t want to admit that somewhere in the back of her mind she had been going to that exact same place herself. Could Tommy even remember enough about how he had once been, before the simulations and the deaths and the trauma all of that had caused, in order to make that decision? With a frown she said, “He might not understand.”

“But his sister would,” Gordon said to her left and Talla met his gaze. “Could she make the decision on his behalf, Doc’?” The Helmsman looked across at Claire.

Their Doctor stayed quiet, considering the matter before tilting her head a little as she responded, “Technically, she could, but she would need to understand the risks it poses, especially given Tommy’s already fragile condition. There’s a chance it might just make things worse. It’s not a decision I would advise anyone rush into.” Looking around at all of them she said, “Once a memory wipe has been performed, there’s no reversing the procedure.”

Which meant Caro would have to be absolutely sure that that was what she wanted to do. And she would have to make that decision on her brother’s behalf. Talla frowned. It wasn’t a decision she would want to have to make on anyone’s behalf, certainly, and it was a lot to ask of a person. They had just discussed the morality of performing such a procedure on Captain Mercer and decided that it wasn’t fair to him, but now they were suggesting it for Tommy instead. Talla wasn’t sure she fully understood what that said about any of them.

And yet she found herself saying, “I can mention it to her.”

Claire looked at her from across the table and gave her a small, soft smile. It was an understanding smile, and a sympathetic one. The Doctor knew that Talla had gotten close to the pair through no choice of her own but she had to admit, now that she was close to them she couldn’t help feeling somewhat responsible for them. It didn’t even begin to make up for her earlier failures that had led to the Captain’s capture and all the horrible ordeals he had suffered as a result but if some good could come out of such a terrible thing then maybe, just maybe, she could make some sort of peace with it.

It didn’t take long for the conversation to swing around to other matters. After everything that had happened there was a lot of ground to cover still, a lot of loose threads to make sure they got tied off, and as Kelly gathered herself to speak again near the head of the table Talla shook off her thoughts of the Sadler siblings and gave the Commander her full attention. Obviously the other woman wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page before she fully stepped down for the immediate future.

“The D’Nari leader is going to be heading back to Earth on the Olympia, along with the Razers already in custody.” She must have talked to Admiral Halsey again recently, Talla knew. The rest of the senior staff were not always privy to such conversations, even though they usually heard the end results of them one way or another. “It’s anybody’s guess if anything will actually come of it though.” Kelly’s face clearly showed her displeasure on that front and as Talla looked around the table she saw that the Commander wasn’t alone in that regard.

Gordon shook his head, dissatisfied. “Won’t they just pick another leader?” With a frustrated sweep of one hand he added, “This whole thing will just start all over again.”

“That was my argument as well, but apparently it’s complicated.” Kelly was frowning as she said as much, glancing briefly in the Helmsman’s direction.

“Nothing complicated about it. What they’re doing is insane,” John interjected from across the table, and not one person present saw fit to argue with his assessment. It was blunt and concise but no less true for those facts. John LaMarr usually told things exactly how they were, regardless of whether or not the people around him wanted to hear them.

Sighing heavily Kelly leaned her crossed arms on the surface of the table at their centre. “They’re likening it to the Calivon zoo situation.”

“There’s a big difference between locking people in a zoo and subjecting them to simulated deaths over and over again until they lose their minds.” Doctor Finn obviously wasn’t happy with that comparison, and it showed. Again it was a point that was met with zero argument and Talla sighed softly to herself, looking around at the unhappy faces of her companions.

“Regardless of what we think,” Kelly managed to go on, though her voice was tight as she spoke, “the point is that the D’Nari aren’t members of the Union, and because they keep their operations outside of our borders they’re beyond our jurisdiction. It sounds like we should be counting our lucky stars that we’re getting any traction on this, even if it is the bare minimum.”

“So what about the rest of those poor people?” Gordon’s frown was deep and wounded, his disbelief at the idea that so many other victims might go unaided plain for all to see.

With a shake of her head Kelly said nothing at first. When she did respond there was an exhausted resignation in her voice that was impossible to miss. “I don’t know.”

From across the table Claire said, “I’m working on a report for Union Central based on what I’ve been able to learn from the Sadlers and the Captain. They might change their minds once they see the effects the D’Nari’s system has on the body and the mind.” She shook her head as she added, “I can’t make any promises, obviously, but I can push from my end. Hopefully it will help.”

Commander Grayson nodded her head with the barest hint of a smile, but it was somewhat grim. “Thanks, Claire.” Drawing in a deep breath she added, “It definitely won’t hurt our case.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Doctor Finn concurred with a small nod.

Talla could see from where she sat that Kelly’s restlessness and exhaustion were working hand in hand, clashing forces though they were, and she was obviously keen to get back to the Captain’s quarters, where she had been spending the vast majority of her time since he had been released from sick bay. That was where they would find her for the foreseeable future, they knew, and not one person in the briefing room saw fit to question her logic. Seeing that desire to push things along she took it upon herself to keep the conversation moving, turning her gaze to her fellow Lieutenant to say, “Gordon, you said you and Reed were heading over to the Olympia?”

He met her gaze and nodded his head. “Yeah.” He took in the rest of those present as he went on, “Lowell wants to talk to his brother. It might be the last time they talk to each other. Who knows?” His shoulders lifted and dropped in a shrug. Talla could see that Gordon was deeply concerned with the younger pilot’s fate, whatever it might be, and she sympathised. They had both found themselves with unexpected responsibilities during all of this, it seemed.

“What’s going to happen to Lowell anyway?” John asked, his hands knitted in front of him as he leaned on the table.

Kelly took that opportunity to step in, saying, “We’re not sure yet.” It sounded as though she had discussed this point with Halsey as well. “At this point he’s just the getaway driver, and that means he did play a part in the Captain’s abduction—” she met Gordon’s gaze there, “—but he was pretty much completely hands-off for the major parts of it.”

“He wasn’t on the planet when we were attacked.” Talla wasn’t sure if that point would help the young man’s case but she thought it was important. She had recognised the others from the ambush but not Lowell. His brother, Shelton, had been present, she was sure, most likely the one directly responsible for the use of the concussion device they had acquired on Jarona II. As their engineer it made sense that he would take charge of something like that.

Doctor Finn had been watching her while she spoke, chiming in once she was done to say, “We could argue that he was quite obviously pressured into his position. All you have to do is spend ten minutes with him to figure out he’s scared to death of Blake.”

“And that Moclan.” Gordon’s expression soured obviously, but he turned what Talla suspected was an apologetic glance in Bortus’ direction.

If the Second Officer was offended he showed no signs, saying instead, “He will no longer be a problem.” After a moment he added with weight and emphasis, “For anyone.”

Not one person around the table was sorry about that, and not a single member of their group would judge or think less of Bortus for what he had done on the D’Nari ship. Maykor had needed to be neutralised one way or another and Talla had been able to see during her part in that final clash that the other Moclan would not have gone down and stayed down. He had intended to kill Bortus, and her too, and perhaps even Lowell as well. He had left them with no other choice. Claire and Isaac had told them that Maykor had even murdered his fellow Razer, Lowell’s brother, in the simulation, when the engineer had seen fit to challenge his authority and try to prevent him from assaulting the Captain.

That thought put a bitter taste on Talla’s tongue and once again she was silently thankful for Caro’s intervention. And—

“What do we do about that D’Nari operator?” she asked, her brow furrowing as her eyes narrowed. With a shake of her head at the vaguely puzzled looks everyone turned in her direction she went on, “He obviously did what he could to help the Captain. It might not have been much, all things considered, but it’s a hell of a lot more than any of the rest of his people did.”

Everyone was quiet, considering that point, and Talla suspected it was something that had weighed on all of their minds at one point or another, even if only briefly.

“He gave me all the information I needed to perform the surgeries to remove the docking ports as well,” Claire pointed out after that long stretch of quiet, shaking her head after the fact as if to say she wasn’t sure what to do with that information now that she had given it.

The room was quiet again for a while before Kelly sighed heavily and said, “He did more than anyone else, like Talla said, and he’s been forthcoming with information since we left, but considering the Union might not even pursue the D’Nari in general?” She shook her head. “Maybe it doesn’t really matter.”

Talla knew that Kelly didn’t mean to imply that it didn’t matter that that one worker had helped. Nothing could have been further from the truth in that regard. She meant to say that there might not be anything they needed to do, ultimately, considering the Admiralty probably wouldn’t take any further action against his people. There were no criminal charges for him to escape, and therefore no action they needed to take on his behalf.

“Who knows?” Gordon said, suddenly sounding just as weary as the Commander to his left. “Maybe after all of this he’ll think about a new line of work.”

And maybe that was the best they could hope for on his behalf, that all of this had opened his eyes enough to the error of his people’s ways that he would part from them altogether and do something else with his life. Talla, for one, certainly hoped so, and she couldn’t help but wonder what the Captain would think. That would have to wait until he was recovered enough to be able to take on board all that had happened during and after his captivity, of course. It was just one of many things he would have to deal with going forward.

Talla turned her eyes towards Kelly as the other woman drew in a breath, and once again found herself wishing there was more she could do to help her friend with the task she had taken upon herself. She could see the weight of it pressing on the Commander’s shoulders, almost literally, and she couldn’t help but frown. For the time being she knew that the best she could do was support her from afar, and be ready to step in if she was called upon, but other than that there wasn’t much that any of them could do.

“All right.” Kelly let out the breath that she had drawn in. “You all know how to reach me if you need me.” She looked around the table. “But for now that’s everything.” She ducked her head in a nod. “Dismissed.”

Even without her uniform she was still the clear voice of authority in any room she occupied and they all rose from their chairs to leave. Doctor Finn lingered, Talla noticed, and she gave the older woman the slightest nod, silently thanking her for whatever she was about to say or do, because there was no doubt whatsoever in her mind that it would help their friend immensely. Claire returned that minute nod with one of her own, a silent promise to do whatever she could.

Talla paused at Kelly’s side just long enough to touch her hand to the taller woman’s arm, drawing her friend’s gaze in her direction. She gave Kelly the smallest smile, the briefest show of affection and understanding, seeing the faintest show of appreciation in the other woman’s face, and then she took her leave.

 


 

Claire waited until the doors had closed after Talla’s departure and only then did she say anything, stepping around the table in order to be closer to the Commander when she said, “How are you holding up?” Because there was no doubt in her mind that the younger woman was struggling. It was written all over her face even if Kelly was obviously doing everything in her power to keep it from showing. Claire had her extensive training and experience to thank for the fact that she could see it where others might not.

Kelly knew about that experience well enough not to lie and she sighed, lifting one hand to rub at her face. “I can’t remember ever feeling this tired before,” she admitted, and Claire heard the regret and the guilt in those words, as if in feeling that way she was somehow at fault.

With a frown Claire said to her, “I’m not surprised.” Reaching out she touched her hand to the other woman’s arm briefly, saying as she did so, “Are you sure you want to do this by yourself?” Meeting her friend’s gaze she went on, “You know any one of us would help, if you need it. All you have to do is say the word.”

The small smile that touched the blonde’s face was slightly saddened and she shook her head. “No,” she said. “It has to be me.” Before Claire could argue Kelly went on, “And it’s not just because I know he would do the exact same thing for me. It’s—” It took her a moment to find the right words, her eyes narrowing as she searched for them. “It’s what I’m meant to do.”

Claire understood, and she showed as much with a small nod. Kelly believed with all her heart and soul that remaining by the Captain’s side during his recovery period, however long that ended up being, was the right thing to do. Who was Claire to challenge that? Or anyone else? Everyone knew just how much their commanding officers cared about one another, how deep that bond went, and she had seen with her own eyes the lengths that they would go to in order to help each other.

It was a beautiful thing, really, and Claire thought they were incredibly lucky, blessed even, to have that powerful a connection with one another. Just because it was complicated that didn’t make it any less powerful either. If anything it made it more so.

“If you change your mind,” she said to her friend, “you know you only have to ask.”

“I know.” Kelly’s smile then was grateful, and though the traces of sadness were still present they had taken a backseat to that gratitude. “Thank you, Claire.” With a smile she nodded, letting the silence fall around them for a few moments, allowing her words to sink in properly, but it seemed like the taller woman had something on her mind. Her brow had furrowed and her light eyes had dropped away briefly before she shook her head and said, “I hate not knowing how to make this better for him.” She met Claire’s eyes anew then. “I never thought I would see him like this.” With another shake of her head she turned her gaze to the stars beyond the window, “I can’t get him to eat anything, and he’s barely sleeping. And when he’s finally exhausted enough to just pass out he wakes up in a panic.” There was a lost and desperate quality to Kelly’s gaze when it came back in her direction and Claire frowned as well.

What she was about to say wasn’t news to anyone, least of all Kelly, but maybe it would help the other woman to hear it anyway. “He’s been through a hellish experience,” she said gravely, and not without regret. “And right now he’s struggling to process all of that. We know he actually experienced everything that happened in those simulations, even if it was only in his mind, and that’s a lot to come to terms with.” She shook her head. “Honestly? I’m amazed at the progress he’s managed to make so far.” At Kelly’s vaguely surprised look she went on, “Put yourself in his shoes for a minute. Experiencing death once would be a shock in and of itself. At least four times? I can’t even imagine it. And we know for a fact that there were others that Caro wasn’t present for.” Her frown deepened as she added, more quietly, “And that’s to say nothing of what was happening when we arrived.”

Kelly averted her gaze, once again staring out of the window, but Claire saw the sudden tension in her jaw.

“I’m not surprised he fell apart after that,” Claire said, with sympathy, hating that she believed those words to be true but knowing it wouldn’t do anyone any favours to deny them. “But I genuinely believe that he can put himself back together again, with time.” Her hand went back to Kelly’s arm, and she gave it a slight squeeze. “Having you there by his side will help him.” Immeasurably, Claire thought. And she didn’t just think that, she believed it, without a shadow of a doubt. “If anyone can get him through this, Kelly, it’s you.” With a smile she added, “And you and I both know how stubborn the Captain can be.”

There was genuine amusement in Kelly’s smile then but there was that sadness again as well. There was affection too, some of it aimed at Claire herself, she thought, but a majority of it meant for the man in question.

“You’ll get there,” she said to her friend, giving her arm another small squeeze. Kelly Grayson and Ed Mercer were both incredibly strong people, but they were strongest when they were together. Claire had seen that time and time again and she genuinely believed that this situation, terrible and unexpected though it had been, would be no exception. “You both will.”

 


 

Business had taken a very noticeable and very drastic turn for the worse. The lingering presence of the Union vessels was having a decidedly negative effect on things, certainly, but that wasn’t the only factor. The disruptions that they had experienced in the form of the Union officers coming aboard and taking not just one but two participants, as well as seizing two guests had had a large impact on operations. That was to say nothing of the death of a third guest. For all their other clients knew those guests had been paying guests, and the idea that an organisation like the Union could just storm in and take whatever they pleased, as well as end sessions without warning, was souring the opinions of other formerly interested parties.

Would-be guests had been leaving in droves, shockingly high numbers really. It was unheard of, unprecedented, and as J’Ron watched yet another shuttle leave their vessel through the large window overlooking the bay he felt the certainty overcome him once again.

This was the end. Or at least the beginning of the end. It would be all but impossible to come back from this.

The D’Nari had always had a reputation, and a good one among the circles that would find their operations appealing, and that reputation had taken a serious blow. Some damage was too severe to be repaired, and J’Ron suspected that that was the case this time. Those who were departing their ship and taking their business with them would also take opinions and witness accounts, and word would spread. They would probably never recover.

That, J’Ron thought, was probably for the best. Some things simply were not meant to last and even though he never would have expected it the recent turn of events had opened his eyes to just how indecent their actions had been all this time. Not everyone shared his opinion, in fact very few of his people did, but whether or not the masses agreed with him was irrelevant. If the clients stopped coming then they would have no reason to continue. They would have no other option but to discontinue their entire operation.

What that meant for the participants still aboard he had no idea. The humans recovered by the Union had been only two of countless individuals, the number of which was beyond even J’Ron’s ability to recall in that moment. Dozens, at least. Perhaps more than a hundred. It was a large ship. A very large ship.

Perhaps he could make a case for their release. It would be much better than the only other imaginable alternative, but if the rest of his people decided to dispose of them as they had all other former participants then he could at least send word to the Union. Their ships could recover those abandoned on the planet. They had visited it before, after all. It was how they had ultimately discovered the D’Nari vessel, or at least one of the steps on their journey. Perhaps that was the best outcome they could hope for.

For O’Lar, however, there was no better outcome than what she had invited upon herself. There were many on board who disagreed, and strongly, with her choice to accept responsibility for what had happened, but there were also a surprising number who agreed with the decision. She had misjudged, and gravely so, and overstepped in employing the group known as the Razers to retrieve a participant for the system. J’Ron thought it rather ironic that many of those who thought as such had had no qualms whatsoever about the decision until it had blown up in their faces, and rather spectacularly at that. If the Union had never arrived then they never would have spoken ill of O’Lar’s actions, and would have instead continued to praise and commend her for her resourcefulness and daring.

Just one more reason why the collapse of the system was probably for the best. It had done ugly things to many of his people, perhaps the majority of them, and until very recently he could have counted himself among that number. It did little to redeem him that he had had a change of heart after so many years, he knew, but perhaps it only mattered that he had as opposed to how long it had taken him.

And for a human, of all things, to trigger that change, was nothing short of shocking, never mind unexpected. But given the reputation of the human in question, the very reason for its acquirement in the first place, perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised in the least. Maybe they should have seen this coming. That same human was responsible, or at least at the head, of so many other shocking events and changes that it might very well have been naive for them to expect that they would be any different. In bringing the human here they had started themselves on the road to their own undoing. It was actually rather fitting, when J’Ron thought about it, that the pursuit and capture of an individual known to incite such radical changes was the cause of such a thing.

But J’Ron had seen the human when he had been released from the system once and for all. After only a few days inside he had been severely damaged, perhaps irreparably, and given all that it had experienced in such a short amount of time it was no wonder. For his part in that J’Ron was genuinely sorry, and that was why he had been so forthcoming with information when the Union doctor had reached out to them to ask questions about their technology so that she could go about its safe removal. After so many years working as an operator he had seen participants succumb to that same madness time and time again but never in such a short space of time, and even as he had been answering the doctor’s questions there had been a part of him that had wondered if perhaps he shouldn’t warn her about the unlikelihood of the male’s recovery.

Ultimately he had decided against it. There had been a fierce determination in the woman’s gaze that had made him wonder if maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that he was wrong. Only a small one, perhaps, but a chance all the same. J’Ron had actually wished her luck before their communication had ended. All things considered it was the least he could have done. Whether or not she believed his sincerity he had no idea but ultimately that didn’t matter. Either she would succeed or she would not. He would probably never find out either way.

He was disturbed from his reverie by the sound of a collection of footsteps approaching from down the hall. Turning on the spot he saw O’Lar and a small group of Union officers approaching, obviously on their way to the shuttle bay with the intention of heading over to one of the larger vessels. It might very well be the last time he saw someone he had known for many years, and as such he approached the group, noting how the officers dressed in red immediately turned their gazes towards him. “May I have a word?” he asked, giving a small nod of his head towards O’Lar, who watched him with well-veiled curiosity. He only spotted it because he had known her for so long. “It won’t take long, I promise.”

The officer at the head of the party considered his request for a moment and then dipped their head. “All right,” they said, and waved O’Lar in his direction. Her face was an impassive mask but he saw the finest hints of annoyance there. For a while now she hadn’t had to ask permission of anyone to do anything and the idea of requiring it in any form obviously grated.

J’Ron remained quiet until they were far enough away from the Union officers that their conversation could be at least mostly private. Only then did he speak. “I hope you understand why I did what I did.” He didn’t owe O’Lar an explanation, not strictly speaking, but she had been his superior for a while now and habits such as those were truly hard to break, at least in his experience.

She stood looking at him silently for several moments before she admitted, rather matter-of-factly, “I suppose I can.”

That was what he had been hoping to hear from her. All the while the human’s final simulation had been running J’Ron hadn’t been able to shake the uncomfortable feeling that something had been very wrong, not just with what was happening in the system itself but the fact that it had been permitted in the first place. “I wish I could say the same,” he told O’Lar with a small shake of his head. With a frown he went on, “What did they offer that made you sanction such a thing?” There had been those in her position who had done so in the past, and rather readily, but he had always thought O’Lar was a different breed.

O’Lar met his gaze and held it steadily. “Discretion,” she said at last, after what felt like an inordinately long stretch of silence. At J’Ron’s incredulous expression she continued, “If I hadn’t permitted them entry, and free rein, they would have released our location. They would have made it public knowledge for anyone who picked up on the message.”

“Blackmail.” J’Ron let out a breath of a sigh and shook his head. “O’Lar, you could have said something. You could have come to me.” She should have trusted him. That was what he really wanted to say but he couldn’t make the words take form.

“Could I?” she countered, her expression disbelieving. “You had already shown that your judgement was somewhat impaired,” she told him. “Your concern for the participant’s health was far beyond what we would expect to see from anyone in your position.”

J’Ron caught himself before he could say it. “He was struggling to cope with the demands we were making of him. I was under the impression you wanted our participants to last.”

“It was a human,” O’Lar dismissed, and somewhat shortly. “It could have handled it.”

“No.” J’Ron shook his head. “He couldn’t.”

With a deep frown O’Lar said, “He. You see? This is exactly why I couldn’t come to you, J’Ron.” She sounded disappointed. If he didn’t know better he would have thought she actually sounded hurt, as though he had betrayed her somehow. Not knowing what to say, how to respond, he simply held her gaze. After a while he realised there was nothing that he could say to that after all. She had clearly come to her conclusions and he remembered just how stubborn she could be. He wouldn’t be able to change her mind. She knew that as well, he thought. With a sigh, knitting her hands neatly in front of her waist, she went on to say, “If nothing else, my surrender should appease them enough that they leave us in peace.”

J’Ron could hardly believe what he was hearing. And yet, on some level, he found that he wasn’t shocked, especially after the rest of their exchange. That was probably the most disappointing thing. She really had changed a great deal. “Is that why you’re doing this? Not because you truly believe you did anything wrong, but so that all of this can continue?” Even as he asked the questions he realised he already knew the answers.

O’Lar raised her brows and adopted a tone that she might have used to explain something very simple to a child who was failing to grasp the concept. “This has been our way of life for years, J’Ron. This enterprise has sustained our people for longer than you or I have been in our current positions, as well you know.” She shook her head, that disappointment showing through once again. “Ultimately,” she went on with another sigh, “it is out of my hands. The Union know they have no right to interfere in our affairs. We are not beholden to them and their laws do not apply to us. They have no jurisdiction. This is a gesture, if anything.” At that she glanced back at the officers who were patiently and dutifully awaiting her return. As she met J’Ron’s gaze anew she said, “Our people will appoint a new Director after I’m gone and they’ll get everything back in working order, I’m sure.”

It felt almost as if she had struck him a physical blow. For several seconds all he could do was stand and stare at her, and when he finally did think of a response it was relatively short in comparison to her own statement. “I hope not.” He had already been thinking as much before their conversation but now that they had spoken, perhaps for the last time, he felt more certain of that, more stalwart in his conviction.

O’Lar gave him a small smile. It was a sorry expression, edged with sadness, and when she nodded her head gently to accompany it he knew that there was a fine thread of sympathy there. Perhaps even pity. “You were a fine operator, J’Ron,” she told him. “One of the best.” He noticed that she spoke in the past tense when she said as much. “Take care of yourself.”

And with that she turned and walked back to the Union officers. One of them, the leader of the party, glanced in his direction. J’Ron gave the smallest nod. They were finished. The group got underway once more and he watched them go, noting with no small amount of disappointment all his own that O’Lar did not even so much as take one last look back over her shoulder before they disappeared from view.

He had had every intention of watching the Union shuttle depart the bay but there was no need for that now. There was a certain futility to it, he felt, one that O’Lar herself had underlined in the way she had ended their exchange. Not just their exchange, even, but so much more. More than she could ever know.

J’Ron turned from the viewing window and walked away.

Chapter Text

The Olympia was much bigger than the Orville. Lowell had thought he was prepared for just how much bigger it was going to feel once they stepped foot on board but as they walked down the wide corridor on their way to the brig he came to terms with just how wrong he’d been. It was almost impossible to wrap his head around the sheer enormity of the vessel and thinking back on just how small and, to be realistically blunt, rickety his own ship had been, he couldn’t help but be awed by it. The whole thing felt powerful, fierce and indomitable, and even though he knew several ships just like this one had been immobilised or outright destroyed during the Battle for Earth there was no denying how impressive she was.

It was only fitting for a Fleet Admiral, he supposed. He couldn’t imagine someone with so much authority commanding anything less.

They were escorted by a pair of Security officers who spoke to them only briefly in the shuttle bay before leading the way to their destination. Lowell recognised the gruff silence of professionals but they were lacking the inherent hostility and arrogance of most Razers and as such he didn’t feel daunted by their presence. Oddly, even after only a relatively short time in Union company as opposed to Razers, he found he actually felt reassured by it.

It made what he was about to do that little bit easier.

Gordon Malloy and the rest of the senior staff aboard the Orville were to thank for that, he knew, for opening his eyes to the real Union and showing him once and for all that they weren’t the heartless villains that his older brother had always made them out to be. He had been a fool to go along with Shelton’s ignorance and prejudice as long as he had, Lowell knew, but Malloy had told him that it wasn’t too late and that was the thought, the hope, that he was holding on to. Especially today.

Like everything else about the Olympia compared to the smaller vessel they had just come from the brig was noticeably larger, consisting of several cells instead of just one. They were arranged in such a way that the individuals in the cells could not see one another, and Lowell noticed immediately at only a glance that Blake and Shelton had been even further separated by being isolated at opposite ends of the layout. Lowell hoped that that meant their voices wouldn’t carry to the older man who was under observation at the other end of the space, but with a glance at Malloy who gave him a small nod of encouragement, he tried to tell himself that it didn’t matter whether or not Blake overheard them.

They didn’t linger in the entrance long enough for the man to catch their eye, or vice versa, though Lowell didn’t doubt that Blake clocked them as soon as they entered anyway. Before he could say anything, if indeed he was going to, they were moving along and being directed to the cell in which Shelton had been secured. He was sitting on the cot leaning back against the wall behind him until Lowell stepped into view, at which point he straightened, fixing his brother with an uncertain stare. “Lowell.” And that was all he said at first.

“Hey.” As responses went it was equally lame, Lowell knew, but even with time to prepare for what he might say he still didn’t know quite how to begin. “How are you?”

Shelton frowned a little at that. “Kind of a dumb question, little brother,” he said.

Lowell shrugged, trying to fall back into easy patterns of banter and back-and-forth jibing but now it felt stiff and uneasy. He was a little saddened by that, if he was honest with himself. “That’s my speciality,” he returned, “right?”

There was the faintest flicker of a smile on his brother’s face before his expression soured and he looked past Lowell to the Orville’s Helmsman, who had taken it upon himself to stand a little way back but within sight and earshot. Just in case, Lowell had to assume. “Dumb questions,” Shelton said, “and dumb decisions, apparently.”

Lowell had been expecting that. “Look who’s talking,” he parried, lifting his brows. With a sigh and a shake of his head he pressed on, “I didn’t come here to fight.”

“Then why did you come?” Shelton asked, tilting his head a little to one side. “To say goodbye?” Another glance at Malloy. “Or did they decide to lock you up with us after all?” And in that question Lowell could hear that his older brother hadn’t changed his mind about the Union in the least. He couldn’t deny the flash of disappointment he felt at that, even if part of him had been expecting that as well.

“I came to explain.”

“Oh, you want to explain yourself to me? How big of you.” Shelton shook his head and stood from the cot, if only so he could turn his back on the front of the cell and the energy barrier that stood between them. And on Lowell.

With a flash of anger all his own Lowell countered, “Actually, no. I don’t have to explain or justify myself to you, or anyone else.” And he wasn’t just saying that because Malloy had told him so, even though that had been the catalyst. “I did what I did because it was right, Shelton, because it’s what Mom and Dad—”

Shelton whirled back towards him. “They are dead because of these people!”

“No.” Lowell shook his head. “No, they’re not.” He almost lifted his hand to the rings around his neck but he managed to resist the urge. “They’re dead because they believed in the Union, in everything that it stands for. And because it was rotten luck in an impossible situation. And because help couldn’t get to them in time.” They hadn’t confirmed that with the woman commanding this vessel but already it was what Lowell was choosing to believe, and he had found it was surprisingly easy to do so.

“You really believe all that crap? Why? Because he told you?” At that Shelton jabbed a hand in Malloy’s direction. The Lieutenant stayed quiet, though Lowell suspected the older man frowned a little at that.

“Because I’ve seen it,” Lowell returned with conviction. “I’ve seen the lengths these people will go to in order to protect their own, and you know what?” He waited until his brother’s eyes met his own and then he shook his head, letting his disappointment and hurt show. “It’s a hell of a lot more than the Razers would ever do.” When Shelton made a scoffing sound and moved to turn away again, Lowell pressed on fiercely, “You didn’t come for me, Shelton!” That stopped his brother in his tracks. He went on while he had the chance, “For years you’ve been painting the Union as cowards who would abandon their own people. But what did you do when you knew I’d been captured?” Shelton’s eyes met his. “You ran.” Lowell drew in a breath, composed himself, and said with surprising steadiness, “Like a coward.”

His brother said nothing, simply stood there with his jaw clenched noticeably, his hard eyes dropped from Lowell’s face. “And what did they do when we took their Captain?” At that he gestured to Malloy without looking back at the other man. “They didn’t stop until they found him. They went to Jarona II even though it could have gotten them all killed. And when they found him, three other ships came. Three, Shelton.” With a shake of his head he added, “And they asked for my help. Okay? They asked.”

“And you just rolled over and gave it to them.” But even as he said the words Shelton sounded somewhat deflated, like a good deal of the fight had gone out of him. When he lifted his gaze again it lingered for a brief moment on the open collar of Lowell’s shirt, as if he was just seeing the chain and the rings for the first time. “What, because you think that’s what they would have wanted?” It was obvious who he meant by that.

Lowell did lift his hand then, touching it to the rings. For a moment he was quiet, thinking about it, even though he didn’t really need to in order to know the answer. “Yes.” As he stood looking at his brother he wanted to tell him that he believed their parents would have been ashamed of Shelton’s part in all of this, that he had disgraced their memory with his actions, with his anger and vitriol, but as his eyes met and held Shelton’s he wondered it maybe he didn’t need to say it. Maybe on some level his brother already knew it, either because he could see it in Lowell’s eyes already or because he believed it for himself. Ultimately it didn’t matter.

“Is that it?” Shelton asked finally after the silence had stretched for close on a minute. Working his jaw briefly as if to chew on the words before he spoke them, he added, “Are we done?”

For just a moment it felt like his brother had struck him but then the shock of it passed and Lowell was left with a sense of quiet that told him he had known, on some level, that Shelton would act this way. “Yeah,” he said, and it was heavily that he did so, lowering his hand from his collar. “Yeah,” he said again with a sigh. “We’re done.” He stepped back from the cell, saying as he did so, “Goodbye, Shelton.” And then he turned and strode away, listening for a response that never came.

 


 

For just a moment Gordon lingered in place even after Lowell had walked away, his eyes fixed on the older Reed sibling as Shelton stalked back to his cot but didn’t sit on it. Instead he stood with his back to the front of the cell, tension flooding the strong line of his shoulders and tightening the muscles through his back. Gordon stood there for several seconds until he knew the other man wasn’t going to hurl one last retort and then he too stepped away, feeling his own sense of disappointment at the other man’s treatment of his brother. He couldn’t even begin to imagine how Lowell was feeling but one look at his face told Gordon that he was keeping a tight lid on any hurt or betrayal he might have been feeling.

With a nod, Lowell anticipated Gordon’s question and told him, “I’m okay.” And he gave a smile that made Gordon think even if he wasn’t yet then he would be, and soon. He looked like he was glad that he had come here, if nothing else, and that was a victory in and of itself even if Shelton hadn’t reacted the way either one of them had been hoping he would. That had probably been naive, ultimately, given what they had learned about his part in everything that had happened, but Gordon knew all about wanting to believe the best about the people who meant the most to you.

For just a moment Orrin’s face flashed through his mind but it was there and then gone, dismissed as quickly as possible as he drew in a breath and returned the smile the younger pilot had given him. Orrin Channing had died a long time ago. He had said so himself.

But before he could say anything a voice called from down the other end of the brig, asking very clearly and almost cheerily, “How’s your Captain?”

Gordon hadn’t noticed that they had stepped even the slightest bit into Blake’s line of sight but he realised with a sinking feeling in his stomach that that was exactly what they had done. Stepping around Lowell, whose shoulder and arm had come into the Razer’s view, Gordon turned his attention on Blake and fixed it there.

The bastard was grinning. Reclining almost indifferently on the cot with his shoulders braced against the wall behind him, he had one foot up on the bed itself with the other dangling casually off the edge, swinging back and forth in the air with all the nonchalance of a man who was perfectly at ease in his surroundings. They had obviously healed the injuries he had sustained in his fight with Talla. Part of Gordon, and not a part he was particularly proud of, was sorry for that.

“Not good, huh?” Blake was still smiling as he asked that, shaking his head almost as if disappointed by the conclusion he had drawn, clucking his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Shame.”

Gordon felt the same sort of tension he had seen in Shelton flooding his own frame, his anger swelling, but then a hand touched to his shoulder and he stopped himself from taking even a single step in Blake’s direction. Lowell was standing beside him, looking down at his former commander with a surprising amount of contempt and disapproval. “Come on,” he said, keeping his hand where it had come to lay on Gordon’s shoulder.

He didn’t say anything else but he didn’t need to. Lowell was right. Blake was trying to get a rise out of him and he had almost given the man exactly what he had wanted. Without a word Gordon turned his eyes back on the Razer and simply lifted his chin a little, drawing himself up to his full height as he did so. Blake grinned again and let out a chuckle of amusement that followed the pair all the way out of the brig and into the corridor beyond.

“God,” he muttered once the doors to the brig had closed behind them. “What a snake.” With a shake of his head he added, “I’d really like to hit that guy.” Worse, actually, if he was being honest with himself, but he was doing his best to keep those angry impulses in check because it felt like even giving them the time of day in his mind would be akin to giving them power. That would be a slippery slope, he was pretty sure.

“Yeah,” Lowell said quietly with a nod, and Gordon lifted his gaze to the younger man’s face. Actually getting to see the behaviours of the types of people that the other pilot had been surrounded by made it so much easier to understand why he had gone along with it for as long as he had, especially if he had been integrated into the crew at a young age, when he was susceptible to the sorts of pressures and influences that Gordon suspected the Razers had employed. Lowell’s love for his brother had gone a long way towards keeping him in line, he knew, but it was easy to understand how big a part intimidation had played in the whole thing.

Drawing in a deep breath and letting it out again, doing his best to shed any dark thoughts and feelings in the process, Gordon said, “Come on.” With an encouraging gesture he added, “Let’s get outta here, huh?” It would feel good to get back to the Orville, even if they hadn’t been gone all that long.

Gordon had only taken a couple of steps when he realised that Lowell hadn’t followed him, and he stopped, turning back towards the other pilot. “What’s the matter?” he asked. And then he thought he understood, pointing in a vaguely upward direction to indicate the bridge far above their heads. “Oh, did you want to talk to the Admiral while we’re here?” With a nod he said, “I mean, she’s probably super busy but we can give it a shot if—”

“No,” Lowell cut in with a shake of his head. “It’s not that.” And then he drew in a breath, holding it as he met Gordon’s eyes. In the moment before he spoke Gordon felt the very beginnings of understanding dawning on him. “I’m not coming back to the Orville.”

But it was still a shock, hearing those words, and he could no sooner deny that than he could his contempt for the men in that brig, the same men who had done so much damage to his best friend. “What do you mean?” He took a step back towards Lowell, closing the gap between them once again.

“I, uh—” Lowell dropped his gaze with a faint smile appearing on his face, and Gordon watched the way he briefly wrung his hands. “I’m heading back to Earth as well,” he said, bringing his head up and meeting Gordon’s eyes steadily. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Gordon’s brows lifted and he had to take a moment to let the surprise ease up just a little so that he could respond. “What are you talking about? You didn’t do anything wrong, man.”

With a very small laugh Lowell shook his head. “We both know that’s not true,” he said and he smiled again. Gordon realised then that there was a hint of sadness there, but it had nothing to do with regret, at least not about this decision. He was sure about what he was doing. It took Gordon a moment but he thought the regret had more to do with the younger man’s past actions, and the fact that he wouldn’t be heading back to the Orville after all. “I know you and the others were fighting my case for me, but—” Lowell frowned, his brow furrowing. “I need to do this. Face what I’ve done.” He nodded then. “I need to take responsibility for the things I did take part in.”

Lowell had been a Razer for—Gordon actually didn’t know how long, he realised. They had no idea what sorts of things Blake’s crew had done in that time, what crimes they had committed or at least been party to, and even if the now-incarcerated leader had been at the head of all those terrible things that didn’t automatically pardon those who had followed him. As he stood there Gordon realised he had been oversimplifying this whole thing. That had been naive. And yet he still found himself asking, “Are you sure?”

The younger pilot smiled, looking more confident than Gordon had seen him since their first meeting. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure.” And he really was. It was written all over his face.

Gordon pulled in and let out a deep breath, taking the last step back towards Lowell. “We’ll still do what we can for you,” he told the younger man. “You know that, right?”

Lowell’s smile grew and he nodded his head gratefully. “I know. And that means a lot.” With a slight laugh he corrected himself, “More than I can say, actually.” His gaze had dropped briefly but when it came back up it was as he said, “Thank everyone for me, will you?” At Gordon’s nod he added, “And hey, hopefully I’ll see you all again soon, one way or another.”

Gordon smiled at that, nodding after a moment in which he found himself really hoping for the same thing. “Yeah,” he said, “that’d be great.”

For a moment they just stood like that and then Lowell held out his hand. “Thank you for everything, Lieutenant Malloy.”

He didn’t hesitate before he took Lowell’s hand in his own, taking a firm grip. “Call me Gordon,” he corrected with a smile. “And thank you. For all that you did.” He kept hold of Lowell’s hand as he added, “Good luck.”

Lowell smiled again and nodded his head in silent gratitude. A few seconds passed and then they broke their handshake. Gordon stayed standing on the spot as Lowell turned and gave another small nod, this time to the Security officers who had escorted them to the brig from the shuttle bay, and as he watched they escorted him down the corridor and around its bend out of sight. Gordon watched until they were all the way around that bend and he couldn’t see them anymore. Only then did he let his smile slip, slowly becoming a frown.

But he wasn’t sad about what had happened, he realised, as he headed back to the shuttle bay. He was hopeful on Lowell’s behalf, silently wishing the younger man luck once again as he got the shuttle off the deck and heading through the Olympia’s open doors, making his way back to the Orville. They would see Lowell Reed again, he was sure, and the next time they met it would be under much better circumstances.

 


 

The ring on her finger had been a comfort whenever she had been free from the simulations between runs, an anchor to the real world that she had cherished. It had reminded her that there was something to fight for, someone to live for, and that she could never give up no matter what. Now it felt like a lead weight, and the only reminder it brought was one of grief and loss. Every time she looked at it she felt that pain keenly, the knowledge that there was now a hole in her life where once, not so very long ago, someone very special had been. Knowing that Erana was gone, truly gone, was the worst pain she had ever experienced, more excruciating than anything she could have felt in those fabricated worlds conjured by the D’Nari.

Even with Tommy safe and free it did little to alleviate the pain she felt at the loss of the person with whom she had wanted so badly to spend the rest of her life. Caro felt wretched for thinking such a thing, it seemed unfair to her brother to even consider it, but she knew that had he been in his right mind he would have felt the same way. The guilt would have consumed him, eaten him alive from within, and he never would have forgiven himself. It wasn’t his fault of course, Caro would never think that it was, but he would blame himself anyway.

Perhaps it was for the best that he wasn’t in his right mind.

That felt like a wretched thought as well, being in any way relieved or grateful that her brother’s mind was so badly damaged by what he had suffered that he could not properly feel the loss she was going through herself. So many of her thoughts felt wretched or weighted with some kind of loss or regret now, truthfully, and as she stood at the window looking out at the stars she wondered just how long that would last, or if maybe it was a permanent state now. After all that had happened that wouldn’t be so surprising, would it? She thought not.

And it wasn’t over yet. Not really. Because now she had what felt like an impossible decision to make.

Without her brother, her real brother, the one she could remember from before all of this, she felt like she would be truly alone. And yet it felt wrong to make such a decision on his behalf, to take that choice out of his hands the way the D’Nari already had countless times. She loved Tommy dearly, more than anything, but shouldn’t that mean loving all that he was? Or rather, all that he had become? Even after all that he had been through and what it had done to his mind he was still her little brother and it was her job to look out for him, to keep him safe, and make sure that whatever was done was in his best interests.

Was it really the right thing to do to just erase what had happened? Would that really help him? And according to Doctor Finn there was no guarantee that it would even work the way they wanted it to, that the damage he had sustained in the system would not be undone by the memory wipe. If that was the case, that the damage remained and his memories were removed, surely that would just make things so much worse. He would be forever caught between two states, the memories of his traumatising experiences removed but his mind scarred and fractured, neither one thing nor the other but something else entirely.

Someone else entirely.

Caro didn’t think she could bear the thought.

Was that selfish? Did it make her a terrible person? Glancing back over her shoulder towards where her brother was sitting on the sofa watching a movie they had selected from the ship’s archives she studied him silently and tried to answer those questions. As she watched he smiled at what was happening on the screen, the expression genuine and easy, and though it was more childlike than anything he would have worn before his captivity at the hands of the D’Nari she could see her brother in that smile. She could see the happy and lighthearted boy she had grown up with and fought with and helped to teach all sorts of things to over the years.

Tommy was not the same as he had been going into that system but he wasn’t a stranger. Not really. She could recognise him as he sat there and the love she felt for him was unchanged. If anything it had grown, especially after the loss of her wife, his sister-in-law. Just because he had been changed that didn’t stop him from being family, and precious as a result. It was her job to protect him and she would do that until her dying day, no matter what.

He turned his attention from the screen and his smile grew when he saw her watching him. Caro couldn’t help but smile back at him. Yes, she knew that smile. She knew it well. And like everything else about Tommy she would fight to her last breath to protect it.

When he eagerly patted the couch beside him to wordlessly ask her to join him she didn’t hesitate, rubbing her thumb over her wedding band one last time as she lowered herself to sit beside him. With her left hand she reached out and took his right, giving it a small squeeze that made his smile grow even more.

She would let him be whoever he was going to be, regardless of whether or not he healed. Nothing would ever change the fact that he was her brother, just as nothing would ever change the fact that she was his sister. They were in this together now, going forward, just the two of them, and Caro would never let anything happen to him again. She wouldn’t let anyone or anything take another member of her family away from her.

Chapter Text

At first she wasn’t sure why she had woken up. She lay there in the darkness with her eyes closed, comfortably nestled under the sheets with a pillow scrunched under her head, simply aware of the fact that she was no longer asleep. It took her a while to realise it wasn’t just one thing that had woken her, but a combination of factors working hand in hand to rouse her, at which point she opened her eyes and looked across the bed.

Ed wasn’t there anymore. She had stayed awake until after he had lost his battle against the pull of sleep, just watching him for a good while as his breathing evened out and the last of the tension ebbed slowly out of his body. Only then had Kelly allowed herself to relax and settle down so that she too could get some sleep. How he had managed to get out of the bed without her feeling him do it she wasn’t sure, especially if he had awoken the way that he had every time since coming back to the Orville. That was puzzling enough in and of itself.

And she could hear water running.

Sitting up, Kelly rubbed at her eyes and brushed her hair out of her face, turning her head towards the closed door to Ed’s bathroom nearby. The sound was coming from that direction, she was sure. It had to be. Still she climbed off the bed and padded on bare feet to the balcony, peering over it to the lower level of his quarters but everything down there was dark and still.

She turned back towards the bathroom and hesitated. If he had awoken calmly enough that he hadn’t disturbed her then it was possible that nothing was wrong. Maybe he was just washing his hands. But the water had been running too long for that, she knew. The shower? It was the only thing that made sense.

Kelly went back to the bed and sat on the foot of it, content to wait until he emerged even though there was a fine thread of concern working its way through her mind. She tried not to pay attention to it but as more time passed and he still didn’t emerge it only grew. Ed didn’t take long in the shower. And on top of that she couldn’t hear any changes in the flow of water, no disturbances from hands or arms or a head passing under it as someone washed. It was steady and constant and unchanging.

Eventually she couldn’t take it anymore, the concern had turned to real worry and then fear came creeping in as she rose from the bed and approached the door. It opened quietly as she neared it and the expected tumble of warm steam was suspiciously absent, only feeding her sense of discomfort. “Ed?” When he didn’t respond she stepped inside, all hesitation gone as she strode all the way into the room and within view of the shower. They had been married for years. There was no reason to be shy about possibly seeing him in the shower.

As soon as her eyes landed on him she felt her heart drop, threatening to plummet all the way through the pit of her stomach and right down to her feet. “Ed,” she breathed, hearing the tightness of emotion choking her voice as she moved quickly towards the shower and immediately stepped inside as well, not caring for a single second that she would get wet in the process.

Ed was sitting against the wall at the base of the shower, still fully clothed right down to his boots. The water was falling down on top of him steadily and he was soaked to the skin but Kelly noticed quickly that it wasn’t even warm. It was cold. He hadn’t even adjusted the temperature in the slightest. It was no wonder he was shivering. And he had been sick. Kelly could see the last remnants of it around the base of the shower, swirling and shifting lazily towards the drain. When she looked at him again she saw hints of it around his chin and on his shirt as well. Turning her head just enough to see the toilet she confirmed her suspicions that the lid would be raised. He had been sick more than once.

Kelly thought her heart might have literally broken then but there was no time or room for that. Whatever had woken him had driven him in here, into the shower, and in such a state that he hadn’t even thought to undress first. “Hey,” she whispered loud enough for him to hear her, bowing her head so that she could catch his eye. They were open but a little unfocused until she bobbed into view, at which point he blinked, blearily, and seemed to realise for the first time that he was no longer alone. She didn’t know what else to say that wouldn’t make either one of them feel worse so she didn’t say anything at first. Instead she reached up with one hand and adjusted the temperature enough that it was warm. Not hot, just warm, enough that it would stop him from shivering but not so far that it would shock him or make him uncomfortable.

As she was bringing her hand back down from the controls she snagged the washcloth from its place on the tray, letting Ed see it in her hand before she reached towards him. She hesitated when he did, his breathing pausing, but when his eyes met hers the tension went out of him and with it so too did any sense of reluctance or resistance. Kelly nodded at him and got to work gently cleaning his face for him, wiping the cloth around his jaw and chin and mouth, rinsing it off thoroughly under the flow at regular intervals. When she was done cleaning his face and neck for him she used the cloth to get rid of the last of the mess around the base, and then shoved the bunched material behind her. She would toss it later.

Ed lifted his head and let it bump back against the wall of the shower, opening his eyes after having them closed for a while to fix her with a look that was decidedly weary and resigned. She recognised the question in the furrow of his brow and nodded at him before saying quietly, “Real.” She lifted one hand and took his in it, rubbing her thumb across the back of his for a while before she drew in a breath and raised her brows at him.

He understood what she meant. Ed drew in a breath as well and nodded tiredly, taking the back of his head from the wall but otherwise remaining exactly where he was, sitting against the side of the shower with his legs drawn up towards his chest, arms hanging loosely over his knees. That was fine. Kelly had enough room.

She increased the temperature a little more as she snagged something else from the tray, setting the bottle aside once she had some of the contents in her hands. With his head drawn forward like that Ed had given her easy access to his hair, which she went on to trace her hands first over and then through before massaging her fingers into it. Whenever she hit a tangle or knot she murmured an apology and eased up a little but she didn’t stop. Ed didn’t show any signs of wanting her to. So she kept going, working all the dirt and sweat out of his hair, feeling it under her fingernails before it flowed away and down the drain. As time passed he relaxed into the touch of her hands and she was reminded fondly, albeit briefly, of times in the past when one of them had slipped into the shower with the