In Transit

By SB Zarben

sbzarben@gmail.com

A sleek ship, its exterior hull tinted in silver, flew majestically through the darkness of space, its destination less than a day away. The calm exterior gave no hint of the controlled chaos about to erupt within the vessel.

"Janus!" The yell was loud enough to permeate the farthest reaches of the ship, bouncing off metal walls and finding the only other ears that could hear the call.

Janus winced at Barker's voice, the suddenness grating on her hearing and making her almost drop the tool she held in an attempt to repair the power coupling. She stood, set the tool aside, and started toward her companion before Barker could let out another ear-shattering yell.

It wasn't that Barker herself was particularly loud or shrill, it was simply Janus's hearing was particularly sensitive, especially lately. She couldn't say why, but ever since she and Barker had embarked on their ship - which they still hadn't renamed - Janus had found her senses getting more and more hyperaware. Which was a pain, really, since they hadn't been anything to laugh at before.

Janus stepped into what they were loosely referring to as the common room to see her little blonde friend standing, arms akimbo, a scowl on her face and her mouth open to yell one more time. "Aye?"

Barker's green eyes tracked immediately to Janus's face, the spark of annoyance and slight anger obvious to anyone. Janus didn't need to see it, though, she could feel the roiling emotions in her own chest and wondered what she'd done this time.

"I'm sick of this."

Janus's eyebrow crept slowly up her forehead.

Barker spread her arms out and turned in a circle, "Look at this place. It's a disaster and I'm sick of tripping all over your stuff!"

Janus studied the room. It was hardly her stuff; her stuff had all been blown to bits on her ship a few months prior. Everything she had now had either been borrowed or bought on Jopus Prime and it was simply the essentials. Barker, in fact, had far more stuff she could claim as her own than Janus did.

But, there were some tools pushed to one side of the common room, the staff Lucious had insisted she take with her in another corner, and a stack of odds and ends that she had cleaned out of the main storage compartment. Apparently, Nulas hadn't looked the ship over before he had given it to her. Some of this stuff had been here since before her mother had died.

Janus looked back at Barker and leaned on the door, "What do ya suggest?"

"I suggest you start cleaning up after yourself."

Janus nodded slowly, her eyes once more straying around the room. Then she held out her hand which Barker took with no hesitation and pulled the smaller woman down the hall to the galley. They stopped in the threshold of the entryway.

Barker pursed her lips and looked at Janus out of the corner of her eye. She still wasn't used to Janus's...she couldn't really call it moods, more like her outlook on life. It seemed her personal policy was to use only as many words as necessary and it often frustrated Barker beyond articulation. She was often left wondering what Janus meant, or expected her to see. Like now.

Her eyes scanned the galley, not seeing anything worth this little side trip. She shook her head, "I have no idea what you want."

Janus wasn't looking at her and had her hands clasped behind her back, "Ah will when ya do." With that she turned, her boots clinking slightly on the metal deck.

Barker's brow puckered as she stepped further into the galley and looked around. I will when you do. What the hell was that supposed to mean? She studied the table where she had eaten breakfast this morning, a weird cereal type thing with the consistency of porridge and taste of apples, then turned her attention to the countertop. She looked into the sink to see her bowl sitting there, filled with water, little bits of uneaten food floating forlornly in the liquid.

Barker turned back to the table, trying to remember putting the dish in the sink. She couldn't. She looked around some more and noted that hers were the only dishes. Janus had eaten the same cereal...

With a sigh, Barker pulled up her sleeves, sparing one moment to study the silver designs snaking along her skin, before she grabbed the soap and turned the tap on.

***

Janus cursed softly under her breath as the tool slipped and jammed her finger. She rose the digit to her mouth briefly before turning on her side to better reach the power coupling. She had almost repaired the minute crack when she felt Barker's warm presence step onto the bridge. She could feel Barker's slight indecision but also her determination to smooth over their latest spat.

"Aye?"

Barker jumped a little at Janus's voice, distorted by the compartment she had her head in. "I'm..." She paused and cleared her throat, "Janus, listen, I..." Barker stopped again when Janus turned and squirmed out from the compartment and sat up, leaning back against the console. She smiled at the smear of grease on Janus's cheekbone before plunging in with both feet, "Listen, I know we have our differences and I'm sorry about kind of going off on you like that. I... I don't want the adjustment of living together to be a constant source of contention. I think if we compromise we can do this."

Janus cocked her head as Barker knelt and wiped the grease off her face. Janus captured the blonde's much smaller hand before she pulled it away and smiled, "Barker, if dirty dishes and messy rooms are the only thing we fight about, ah would say that we are doin' well."

Barker smiled and pressed her forehead against Janus's, smiling as she studied Janus's eyes up close and personal. "I agree. So, fight over?"

"It was 'ardly a fight."

Barker smiled and tilted her head, "Disagreement then."

"Aye," Janus said quietly as their lips met in a kiss.

BEEEEEPPPPPPPPPP!!!!!!!

They pulled apart with a chuckle and stood, Janus easing in front of Barker to see what the alert was for.

All the ship's controls were in Janus's own language which Barker was learning, slowly but surely. She thought she was doing pretty good, considering she'd only been on this ship for a week. Barker put her chin on Janus's shoulder and studied all the buttons and switches, looking for any lit-up alerts she recognized. "It's the proximity alert, right?" Janus had taught her that one right off the bat, along with how to tell if they'd been targeted by hostile ships and how to read what passed as radar.

"Aye. It is fer Karton's station." She jerked her chin at the screen which flickered before displaying the station, surrounded by a hub of activity.

"I thought we weren't going to arrive for another two hours."

Janus shrugged but privately considered the question. Nulas had said that the ship had been "upgraded", he just didn't have time to tell her in what manner. She'd have to seriously study the engines before they left here; if they broke down somewhere and she didn't know how her ship worked, well, that wouldn't be good.

"Ohhh," Barker's hand shot out and hovered above a switch, "communications. Can I press it? Please?"

Janus grinned and nodded.

A decidedly neutral voice soon filled the small bridge, "Unknown ship, state your purpose in this area immediately."

"We are 'ere ta see Karton."

Silence, followed by another voice, this time female, "What is your business?"

Janus's eyes squinted as she stared incredulously at the console, "We are 'ere ta see Karton."

More silence and static before the woman asked, "Who are you?"

Janus scowled some more and Barker squeezed her shoulder to try and calm her down. Janus had little patience for bureaucratic nonsense and for people in general. Barker figured in was only an endearing quality to people like her who didn't seem to naturally annoy Janus.

Just as Janus had decided to give her name another female voice, this time extremely familiar, broke into the conversation. "Janus? Is that you?"

"Aye, Tryst."

They could hear the cyborg's smile through the line, "What are you waiting for? Docking bay thirty-one is yours for the taking." She paused then, and Janus could hear receding footsteps followed by a closing door and assumed Tryst had made the others leave. Her voice was quieter, more somber than before, "Karton'll be glad to see you both."

Janus closed her eyes as her greatest fears were refuted. Barker felt the immediate relaxation of Janus's muscles and the bleeding away of an awful tension that she had felt ever since Karton had dropped his bombshell on Jopus Prime, not long before everyone had left.

He was dying of old age and nothing could prolong his life any longer.

That was the reason for their trip and, Barker knew, the source of much of their fighting in the past week. Janus had been worried and on edge, concerned that they wouldn't make it in time and just mad in general which had, in turn, made Barker testy and irritable.

After losing so much Janus had to accept one more loss of a friend and mentor who had meant a great deal to her. It was compounded by the fact that someone who was so used to being able to do almost anything was powerless to help Karton. She could only watch as his life slowly slipped between his fingers.

That's why they were here. To attend a funeral for a man who was not yet dead.

It was only a matter of time.

***

Barker paused in the passageway and just looked. There were dozens of different species all over the station, very different from Jopus Prime which had only contained about a half dozen. She felt her eyes widen as a lumbering green and yellow creature with tentacles for arms and eight eyes arranged on its face passed by.

A hand on her shoulder sent Barker whirling with a yell, her arms coming up into fists of their own accord.

"Whoa!" Tryst backed up a step, "Still a little jumpy?"

Barker blew out a breath and lowered her arms, "Sorry."

"No problem."

They started down the hall, side by side, "I thought you weren't coming here?"

Tryst shrugged and made a face, "I wasn't going to. I said my good-byes at Jopus, you know? But... I got half way home and changed my mind."

"You been here long?"

"About a day."

Barker nodded and chewed on her lip. "How is he?"

Tryst took a moment to answer, in which Barker could hear the slight whirring and clinking of her cybernetic systems. "Worse."

Barker swallowed. She had figured that. Janus had gone off as soon as they had docked and the sadness and shock, she assumed at Karton's state, was still strong. "How bad?"

"He's bedridden. He's not eating and all he does is sleep. They say that it wont be long."

"Janus was really worried. I'm glad that we weren't too late and that she'll get this chance to say good-bye."

Tryst nodded and they fell into silence again. When they reached a common area Tryst grabbed a jug and three glasses before seating herself at an out of the way table. Barker sniffed the drink before taking a tentative sip. She started coughing. "Oh, God...that's awful." Her nose crinkled and Tryst laughed.

"Isn't it?" She swigged hers down in a few gulps then poured some more. "It's called Brenari Nectar. It's pretty common around here and really is your best bet for alcohol."

Barker swirled her cup then took another experimental drink. If this was to be her life now, she'd better start acclimating in a friendly environment.

***

Janus paused outside the door and took a fortifying breath before she stepped inside. The lights were turned down but her eyes adjusted almost immediately. She took a few quiet steps towards the bed and felt her breath catch.

Karton looked like he'd aged decades since he'd been on Jopus. The lines on his face were deep and plentiful, his skin had a gray pallor and there were dark circles under his eyes. She sat on the chair by his bed and carefully clasped his hand; it felt limp and weak in her own.

It made her wonder now how much the war had taken from him. She had no doubts that he had already known he was dying before going to Jopus but it hadn't been this bad. She would have known if it had been this bad. The stress and the worry, everything, had shortened what little time he'd had. And he'd done it for her, because she'd asked.

A small groan emerged from his bearded lips and his eyes cracked open slowly. "Janus."

"Karton."

His eyes opened a little more and she felt the faintest squeeze of her hand, "Don't blame yourself, child. What I did was my own choice and I'd do it again a million times even knowing this is how it ends." He wheezed and coughed, a harsh rattling sound that Janus had heard many times. It was the sound of death.

She reached out and laid her hand on his cheek then met his eyes. The markings along her arms glowed brightly in the dark room for a moment then faded as Karton's body relaxed and some of the lines around his eyes eased.

He nodded and smiled, his body pain free for the first time in several days. Karton squeezed her hand one more time then his eyes drifted closed again and his body relaxed into sleep.

Janus stayed another few minutes, gently stroking his hand and memorizing his face. When she left it was to head straight to Barker and Tryst who, to her delight, were drinking. She sat next to the human and grabbed the third glass, filled it to the brim and downed it in one shot.

Barker didn't try to speak to Janus. She could see the clenched jaw and bleak look in the woman's eyes. She simply patted Janus's leg under the table and accepted a refill from Tryst.

It was going to be a long night.

***

Barker woke up with a pounding headache to find the other half of the bed empty and cold to the touch. She groaned and forced her body up. She remembered Janus joining her and Tryst and eventually trading old stories about...she couldn't even remember what about. And she had no idea how she'd gotten to bed.

She stood and stumbled into the small refreshing chamber that was attached to all quarters on the station. A cup on the counter caught her eye and she picked it up, reading the note that sat underneath.

For your headache.

Barker's eyebrow quirked just a little as she stared dubiously at the mixture. It looked thick and black with a few floating...things in it. But, if Janus said it'd help her headache, who was she to dispute it?

Taking her courage in both hands Barker plugged her nose and downed the mixture in one long gulp. She smacked her lips and ran her tongue along her teeth afterwards, deciding that it really hadn't tasted that bad.

Next order of business, a shower.

She found clean clothes in the small living area on the couch and pulled them on then chanced a glance at herself in the mirror before leaving. She looked far more human now and her pounding head was quieting.

Satisfied with her appearance Barker headed out to find Janus. Or Tryst. It only took her a few minutes of following the warm spot that meant Janus to her before she spotted the woman in conversation with a vaguely human looking man she didn't recognize.

They finished and he left with a sympathetic look. Janus was upon her and leading her down the hall before Barker even had a chance to ask what she'd been up to. "Who was that?"

"Doctor."

"Is he...how is he today?"

"The same. 'E wants ta see ya. Ya do not 'ave ta if ya do not want. But..." Janus trailed off and gestured to the door they stopped by.

Barker looked at it, considering. Karton had definitely been a friend to them all. He'd helped Patrik's daughter Emmeline control her gift, been a kind ear to hear everyone's troubles and, Barker was certain, he had helped to save all their lives. She smiled at Janus before stepping into the room.

"Barker," his voice was weak yet gentle, "is that you?"

"Yes." She approached and sat in the same chair Janus had occupied yesterday then took his hand.

He smiled, "I wanted to thank you."

"For what?"

"For being what Janus needs. You're good for each other. You...you take care of her for me."

Barker nodded, tears filling her eyes, "I will. I promise."

Karton smiled again then his eyes drifted to the door, "She out there?"

"Yes."

He coughed and grimaced, his other hand going to his chest, "Get her for me?"

She nodded and fetched Janus, who kneeled by his bed as Barker retook her seat. They waited, the silence charged and heavy.

Karton's lips moved a few times before his voice broke the stillness, "I've had a great life. I'm ready for what comes next. Don't mourn me forever, Janus. Celebrate my life." His eyes opened fully and latched onto Janus's with sudden intensity. Janus stared back, her head slightly tilted in curiosity, seeming to know that whatever he said next was not part of his simple good-bye, "Watch out for dragons."

Barker's forehead crinkled and she frowned. What kind of weird statement was that? She threw a look at Janus who shook her head, equally as confused.

Karton smiled and looked at them both in turn, "I love you." Then his eyes unfocused and his face grew slack; the hand Barker held lost its tension.

Barker looked at Janus, suddenly realizing what had happened. The slight smile on Janus's face fell and her eyes hardened just a little before she stood and leaned over the bed, placed the gentlest of kisses on his forehead, then closed his eyes. Barker felt tears roll down her cheeks as she placed his arm by his side and smoothed the blanket out over his cooling body.

Janus ducked her head, her arms crossed and muttered a few inaudible words. She was utterly still for a handful of heartbeats then stood and strode stiffly from the room.

Barker sniffled and wiped her eyes, placed her own kiss on his temple, then turned to chase after Janus.

***

The funeral was a simple, quiet affair. Karton had made arrangements for leadership of his station and made his wishes for after his death well known. A few words were said, his favorite song was played, and then his body was jettisoned into space.

Janus had barely said two words to her since he had passed. To Barker's supreme relief, however, Janus hadn't pulled away to stew in her own pain. She'd allowed Barker to comfort her physically if not vocally and for that Barker was grateful.

Janus had sequestered herself in their ship afterwards, dedicated to the task of stripping the engines to learn every facet of their operation. Barker was happy to take the opportunity to soak in as many other cultures as she could.

"Hey, Barker! Are you paying attention?"

"Huh?" She pulled herself out of her thoughts and focused on Tryst, who sat across from her with numerous datapads spread out on the table.

"You asked to learn all this and now you're daydreaming on me."

Barker shook her head and planted her hands on the table, "Sorry. I'm paying attention."

Tryst gave her a measuring look, "Right. You know, I'm surprised that Janus hasn't started teaching you this yet."

"She has. She just thinks that understanding and running the ship is a bigger priority." Barker met Tryst's eyes, "I agree."

"Hey," Tryst held up her hands and smiled, "I'm not knocking Janus. I just think this is pretty vital for surviving."

The blonde fingered one of the datapads, her nose crinkling, "Yeah, well, I think maybe she doesn't know where to start with the rest of this."

Tryst grunted and rifled through the stuff on the table before presenting one to Barker, "Well, if that's the case you should have a pretty good building block once I'm through. Read this."

Barker studied the foreign symbols for a long time, digging around and trying to bring to mind everything Tryst had taught her in the last several days. She'd always been fairly adept at language, she had to be to study history. This was a little different though. It was almost like learning to read runes or some other language on Earth that didn't use English characters.

She cleared her throat and started to recite, "The bribisk... What the heck's a bribisk?"

Tryst opened her mouth, hesitated, then formed a vague shape with her hands, "It's like a... a mammal, with fur and little spiky horns. And eight legs, four on each side, you know. Small, sorta cute." She looked up and then just shrugged helplessly at Barker's sustained bewildered look.

"Right. The bribisk jumped over the," she leaned closer and squinted at the word, "the boat?"

Tryst stood and bent over the table to look at the datapad, "Buet."

Barker nodded, her eyes riveted to the text, "Right, okay. What's that?"

"Uh," Tryst scratched an ear, "it's basically a tree."

Barker's eyebrow crept up her forehead, "Basically?"

Tryst's head bobbed from side to side, "Well, yeah. Except it's carnivorous."

"A carnivorous tree."

"Yes."

"Well, it can't be that big if the bribisk jumped over it." Barker looked up when Tryst failed to respond. "Right?"

"Welll..."

***

Janus scowled at the engine's innards and set the part she was holding down before she got the urge to throw it across the room. Standing abruptly, she headed down the corridor to the exercise room and proceeded to pound her frustrations out on what Barker called a "punching bag."

She was mad. She was mad and irritable and most of the time she generally felt like hitting something. Because of that she was avoiding Barker which only served to further worsen her mood.

It was a somewhat disconcerting realization that she missed Barker if she didn't see and speak to her a few times a day. Janus certainly wasn't used to needing someone, not to the point where the mere thought of never seeing Barker again actually brought on near physical pain.

Currently, though, avoiding the woman was the best course of action. She'd rather never see the blonde again than hurt her in a moment of unthinking anger.

Janus glared at the punching bag and threw one final punch which sent her fist breaking through the surface and its stuffing spilling onto the floor as she pulled her hand out. Muttering, she slapped the bag and sat on the floor, eyes closed, in an attempt to find her center.

She let her mind go, floating on gentle waves of awareness, looking for her emotional anchor. It was probably quite some time later that she became aware of Barker's warm presence beside her and Janus jerked abruptly back to awareness.

Barker was looking at her with equal measure concern and curiosity and Janus felt herself calming under that regard. "Hey."

"'Ey."

Barker shifted so they were shoulder to shoulder and nodded at the punching bag, "You broke it."

"Aye."

"Tryst's been teaching me, um..." She squinted in thought, a furrow appearing between her eyebrows as she searched for a word, "Daetur."

Janus grunted, "Good." She paused and her eyes dropped, "I should 'ave..."

Barker grabbed Janus's hands and ducked her head to get a better view of her face, "Janus. I understand that you chose to teach me how to use this ship first. That makes sense. Frankly, I never gave much thought to how I'd communicate on different planets otherwise I would have asked. Tryst has given me a starting point; I still need you to teach me the rest and she mentioned something about two other languages..."

Janus nodded, "Aye. Once ya learn Daetur the other ones are easy enough. Daetur will be enough ta survive almost anywhere."

Barker murmured her assent and put her head down on Janus's shoulder. They sat silently, comfortable just to enjoy each other's presence. "You are going to put the engines back together, right?" She felt Janus nod. "Good." Her eyes drifted closed and her breathing even out a few minutes later.

Janus smiled as she listened to Barker's breathes slow down and become more regular. Her heartbeat followed and Janus focused on that, allowing the soothing sound to settle her mind for one of the few times since they had left Jopus.

***

Janus woke up with a crink in her neck and a little blonde human quite literally wrapped around her body. After a moment's consideration she stood, Barker cradled in her arms, and carried her down to their room. She spent a few moments settling the woman and studying her face before she turned on her heel and headed to the engine room.

It took a while, her mind still foggy from the impromptu nap, but she eventually fit all the pieces back together and made sure it all worked. Janus leaned against the wall, satisfied. The engines had indeed been upgraded and currently gave off thirty percent more power than she remembered. The best part was that they were set up to be modified to go even faster if she ever desired to do so.

Footsteps at the entryway caught her attention and Janus ducked out of the engine room to see Tryst standing a little uncertainly with one foot in the ship. She spotted Janus and smiled, "Hey, there you are. How's that engine?"

"Good."

Tryst nodded and looked around. "It's nice."

"Aye." Janus waited, quite sure the cyborg had another reason for stopping in than to simply admire their vessel.

"What's her name?"

Janus leaned on the wall, content to humor Tryst and her small talk. "Barker wants ta rename 'er. Ah do not see why."

"Cause her old name is a mouthful," Barker said as she stepped up behind Janus, her hair wild and sticking up every which way, "and besides, it's our ship now so it should have a name we like." She smiled and wrapped her arms around Janus's waist.

"Ah 'ave no problem with the old name."

Barker just grunted and turned her attention to Tryst, "So, what brings you here?"

Tryst turned from studying a console and focused on the duo. "There's a small ship inbound which claims to be carrying a message for Janus. We ran its codes, it's a legitimate courier ship. It'll be here within the next hour." Tryst cocked her head and smirked, "Everyone else was too chicken to come tell you."

Barker looked up at Janus, "Who do you think it's from?"

Janus slowly shook her head, "Ah 'ave no idea."

Tryst leaned back and folded her arms, "Well, I'm sticking around long enough to find out and then I'll be leaving. I promised Warber I'd bring him news when he had to go home at the last minute. Clan wars, you know how those guys are." She smiled and waggled her fingers at them, "I gotta go prep my ship."

Barker gave a small wave herself, "See you later." She waited until Tryst had disappeared down the ramp then looked up at Janus, "Speaking of prepping ships, is ours ready?"

"Aye." Janus grabbed her hand and pulled the human down the hall. "Ah believe we 'ave time fer another lesson." She nudged Barker into one of the chairs on the bridge.

"Ohhh, goody!"

***

Janus accepted the datapad from the courier with a nod, trepidation growing in her gut. She didn't like the way this felt. There were very few people who would actively seek her out and the situations that would lead to such an event were not good.

She activated the pad and started to read, very aware of Barker's hand on her arm and Tryst's shadow off to the side. Janus had to read it twice before it really sunk in. She hadn't actually expected this to happen. Sure, she'd known it was possible and that she'd put herself out there to be contacted if necessary but...

"What is it Janus?"

She turned and met Barker's eyes, "It's from my brother."

Barker glanced down at the datapad, mourning the fact that her grasp of Janus's language was not further along. "And?"

"'E needs my 'elp."

Barker glanced back at Tryst then refocused on Janus. "Our help."

Janus finally met her eyes and smiled, just a little, "Aye. Our 'elp."

Fin

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