Bala-Tik woke on the floor, looking up at a ceiling he didn't recognize. He didn't jolt, didn't jump, didn't start hyperventilating. His first waking moment was a passive one, his mind and body still catching up. The panic and confusion was well on its way, but in the meantime his eyes just darted around in their sockets, blinking away the cobwebs.
Even though he had no clue as to where he was, he knew it probably wasn't anywhere good. That meant everything he did going forward would be a risk. But risk was always coupled with reward, wasn't it? And right now, he was vulnerable, risking everything and gaining nothing. So he chanced a slight sit-up, just to look around.
His surroundings shifted into focus. Metal walls, some of the paneling stripped away with the mechanical guts laid bare. Streaks of grease. Bad lighting. A set of bars between him and a hallway.
And another person in this cell with him.
Still remaining calm, Bala-Tik looked the other body over. It was a bit bigger than he was, different garb as well. He didn't bother inspecting further when he saw that the two of them were cuffed together at the wrist. Bala-Tik's brow furrowed and his eyes widened.
He turned his head in their direction. They were coming from his right, down the corridor, approaching slowly but surely.
His curiosity kept him sitting up, before his wits laid him back down abruptly, closing his eyes and reassuming his role as a throw rug. He kept listening, working to keep his breathing steady.
They came upon him like the tide, and stopped. Whatever it was, it was checking on him. There was a tense pause, then the footsteps resumed their rounds, padding off to his left and out of earshot.
Now Bala-Tik jolted, now he jumped. His breathing became louder and louder in his ears, his boots scraped against the deck. Sitting now, he grabbed ahold of the link between his wrist and his cellmate's. Stun cuffs, nigh-unbreakable, and he knew this. But still, he felt the need to put his boot on the durasteel cable and tug. Maybe "they" hadn't applied them correctly, maybe his hand could just slip right out.
No such luck. He gave up just shy of yanking his shoulder out of its socket, unpursued his lips and let out an exasperated grunt. Lifting up his cuffed hand, he noticed the weight of the arm he was bound to. He dropped it back down with a low clang.
He took a moment to get a better look at the person he shared this cell with. Humanoid, bipedal, maybe two meters tall. It had a good eight inches or so on him, along with a considerably larger frame. That meant it could most likely poleax him if it wanted, but seeing as it had yet to wake up, he was safe from it for now.
He didn't know how much time he had until that was no longer the case, though. And eventually their captors would be arriving to continue whatever it was that they had started.
He had to get these cuffs off. His head whipped around, searching every inch of the cell, finding nothing. Every little movement he made now carried with it the possibly of waking the snoozing lummox on the floor. He could already feel sweat beading on his forehead.
Then Bala-Tik remembered something. Stretching his left leg out before him, he used his free hand to awkwardly undo the strap on his boot and slide it off. This exposed his cybernetic leg, the product of an old story not worth telling, the only relevant part of it being that he hadn't been able to afford a lifelike prosthetic when he'd gotten it. No synthetic skin, simulated sweat glands, or artificial hair. Just a skeletal metal appendage from just below his kneecap. He gave his metal toes a wiggle on reflex. Fully functional.
Though it was an eyesore, it was sure to go unnoticed by most anyone. That meant it was the perfect place to conceal a weapon.
He reached into a neutral space within the apparatus of his calf and procured a knife. It had been a while since he'd looked at it, but a cursory inspection of the blade showed it was still sharp.
He held the blade in his teeth and pulled his boot back on. Then he turned back towards their conjoined wrists, and took the blade in hand again.
The knife was made of simple steel, definitely couldn't cut through these binders. But with enough tenacity it could certainly cut through flesh. And of that which was available, it wasn't going to be his.
Bala-Tik told himself that, if it had been his cellmate who woke up first, he'd understand.
He adjusted his posture, putting himself on one knee. His eyes glanced over the body in front of him, which was unwise. Don't focus on the fact that it's breathing, that it might still wake up before you're done, that it probably feels the same pain you feel. It's this thing's hand or your life.
He flipped the blade facing downward and quickly raised it above them with cold intent.
A drip of sweat rolled down his nose. He felt his hand shaking.
Not going to happen. And if he'd been able to just thrust himself into it, all that willpower left him when he eyes foolishly glanced over to the body of his cellmate, watching those unmistakable movements of its chest rising and falling with ignorant breaths.
Once again he groaned and dropped back to a sitting position.
If couldn't cut off this thing's hand, he would have to think smarter. Once again he looked around the room.
On the bulkhead to his left there was a section of paneling that was less worn, its own shade of smooth gray standing out against the wall of rusted, greased up metal. Though there was a thin layer of dust on it, he could make out what looked to be fingerprints in the dust around the edges. Bala-Tik strained his eyes to look closer; could it be?
Yes. It was a maintenance panel. That meant that they weren't locked in an actual holding cell at all, but whatever room had been empty enough to throw them in. If he could get that panel open, maybe he could tap into some circuitry and short out these binders.
But first he had to get there, and after a few tugs on the cufflinks, that proved to be quite the undertaking. This thing was heavy.
Bala-Tik got to his feet, and put a hand on his cellmate's wrist and under the shoulder. He made sure to listen carefully, making sure no one would interrupt. Then his grit his teeth and dragged about one-hundred and seventy-odd pounds of dead weight across the floor to the wall, which looked a lot closer just a second ago.
When they got there, he didn't immediately set to work. He slumped to his knees against the wall and took a breather, and made sure his passenger was still sound asleep.
His cellmate's face wasn't apparent, as it was obscured by a helmet, which could be roughly compared to a gray half-bloomed flower, with a visor nestled in the middle of it, practically out of sight. The rest of the garb was some kind of leather derivative, with intermittent plates of armor. It was loose and billowy like a cloak or overcoat, very streety. The boots and vambraces looked practical, military-grade. A bandoleer and utility belt were present as well, but he wouldn't risk rifling through them.
There were some markings on the outfit, but nothing Bala-Tik recognized. Why were they cuffed together?
Didn't matter. There was no point in pondering why they were bound together because in a moment they would not be bound together. He was going to open up this panel, fry these cuffs, and from there he'd continue to improvise until he was back aboard his...
What was the name of his ship?
One hand against the wall, Bala-Tik's eyes picked through the imaginary filing cabinet in front of him and found it empty. He could barely remember anything. How could he remember the knife stashed in his leg, but not the name of his own ship? Or what had happened that led to him being locked up in here?
The hand against the wall balled into a fist.
Bala-Tik pulled off his gloves and dug his fingertips into the edges of the paneling. Typically, maintenance panels such as this weren't fitted with a locking mechanism – too complicated in the event of an emergency – but rather a pressure sensitive section that would simply pop it open. A special tool carried by the onboard engineer would make this much easier, but all Bala-Tik had were the tools he was born with, and he was long-past caring about a few broken nails and nicked knuckles.
He felt a portion of the metal budge, and felt a grin form on the corner of his mouth. He winced through the discomfort of jamming his fingers further into the seam, but it proved worth it when the panel ejected from the bulkhead with sudden ease. Bala-Tik took another look at the hallway then set the panel lightly on the floor.
From here it would be a simple matter of making as big a mess as he could. Somewhere in this alcove of exposed circuitry was a power conduit. They carried enough of a current that it wouldn't kill him if he "interrupted" it with something, like these cuffs for instance.
He leaned in and peered into the wall. The lighting in here was already sparse, and it was pitch dark inside the panel. High-end ships occasionally had little courtesy lights inside, but this was definitely not a high-end ship. Luckily, everything important was usually within an average arm's reach. A flashlight would help, but for now he would have to rely on phantom groping and mental images.
Bala-Tik had become so enamored with both the thought of his escape and of his own ingenuity that, as his eyes pierced the inky darkness of wires and solder, he failed to notice the shape rising up just behind him. The sudden tug at his right arm cued him in.
Utilizing their linked limbs, his newly-woken cellmate whipped him around to being them face-to-face, and used the hand that wasn't cuffed to throttle him.
Bala-Tik made a somewhat unmanly hissing sound through his teeth as he found it suddenly hard to breath. He was staring into a visor, showing him his wide-eyed expression. He could hear both of them breathing.
He obviously wasn't being perceived as a threat, as the thing reached up with the arm that was cuffed to his and began undoing the clasps on its helmet, while his hand just dangled along for the ride. Bala-Tik offered no resistance.
The helmet came off, revealing an alien face. The first thing Bala-Tik noticed were the pointy bits; mandibles that ran along the jawline, stopping on either side of a seam that was most likely the mouth. But flanking both sides of that mouth were a three inch downward-facing fangs, thin but sharp as an arrow. The skin around all of this looked like tough hide. Atop the head was a cap of hard-looking bone, swept low like scales to the scalp and running from the forehead to the back of it head. There was no nose in the center, but where it would have met the brow were two more horns, upward facing and inches long.
Then he caught the eyes, and he chastised himself for not doing it sooner. While he'd been studying this creature's face, its eyes had been immovable, glaring at him as if to burn a hole through his head. They were a shade of yellow and housed slit pupils, which at this point were razor thin, which probably wasn't good. They were also very large, several times the size of a human's. That made the whole presentation very intimidating.
The center of its mouth between the fangs moved; the mouth itself was like an upturned "V" as it connected to the large mandibles on both sides, and the hide that passed for lips curled back to reveal a clenched mouth of sharp teeth. He imagined that if this thing wanted to take a chunk out of him, it could open much wider.
It barked something at him in a language he didn't understand. The tone was higher than he was expecting, and surprisingly articulate. Well, he assumed it was articulate. To him it just sounded like mismatched vowels, but well-enunciated mismatched vowels.
That's when the headache hit him. It stabbed into his temples and melted into the recesses of his brain. His eyes were forced to squeeze shut – not ideal if he was to maintain some degree of strength in front of this thing – and he instinctively craned his head. But from the outside looking in, this all looked like an attempt to break free of the stranglehold. So the creature shoved him into the wall again, tightening its grip. Bala-Tik didn't have to see its hands to know they were generously clawed.
It shouted again, but this time he could understand it. And what surprised him the most about that wasn't the fact that the barking was now suddenly in Galactic Basic, but the fact that with the cobwebs removed and the language barrier broken, he could tell the voice was not only intelligible, but female.
A female voice that had shouted in a very unladylike tone "Where are we, privateer filth!?"
For a second time, Bala-Tik didn't answer, but now had no real excuse other than that he was confused. And so he felt his breathing being cut off again.
"Speak, filth," she said lowly, "Or I will rip your throat out."
That got him rewound. His left hand had been left unattended, dangling at his side, the loose panel within reach. He grabbed it and winged it over her arm that was choking him, smashing the edge of it into the side of her head.
This gave him an opening. He dropped the paneling and reached for his knife. It came up in time for him to notice that his attack hadn't done much.
Her free hand and her cuffed hand grabbed his hand holding the knife. His cuffed hand, in an awkward combination, also held on, stopping her from reversing the knife into his neck. With their fingers tied in a knot around this knife, they were back where they had started. Neither side was putting any real force against the blade as it was obvious who would win that contest. Its presence in the inches-wide space between them was just a punctuation on whatever was said next.
Bala-Tik kept her look this time though, staring past the blurred shape of the blade in their hands. Her eyes were just as serious as before, but the eyelids had narrowed. She was no longer frantic. She knew she was in control now. An unsaid "Drop it" hung in the air, and eventually he obeyed.
The knife was weakly tossed to the side, clattering against the metal floor. Then the alien woman crossed her wrists against his throat, fast as a viper, and held him up against the bulkhead at her eye level, the toes of his boots trying vainly to scrape the floor. Now it was very hard to breath. He did his best to pull himself upward, his hands on her wrists. She had a knee against the wall between his legs to keep him honest.
"Do not try anything like that again." She sounded legitimately offended, either because of the attack catching her off guard or because of his audacity to even attempt it, "Now, you will tell me everything that has happened. Where are we? Who has put us here?"
"Y-You already know as much as I do," he managed to wheeze out, her hold starting to strain the arteries in his neck and causing a considerable deal of pain.
"How long was I unconscious!?" She demanded, her tone slipping back into that initial hostility. Clearly, she felt that waking up second had put her at a disadvantage, and she wanted very much to equalize things.
Bala-Tik fought through the discomfort and said "Only about a m-minute or two longer than I was…"
She said nothing for a moment and just held his eyes, which were starting to lose their focus and turn red, and hers started to do the same. But whereas his turn was due to lack of oxygen and blood flow, her eyes seemed to start computing things, temporarily taking the gunsights off him and going over things in her head.
She darted back to the task at hand just as Bala-Tik was about to black out and she quickly released him, her slit pupils widening slightly. Bala-Tik rubbed his neck and gasped for air. The alien still stood over him, barely giving him any space.
On instinct, his right hand came up to caress his neck. This brought her hand with it, and for a moment it was right against his cheek, her claws tickling his skin. He looked down his nose at them, worried he'd done something to draw her ire again.
She noticed the awkward slip-up as well and pulled her hand – and by extension, his – away. Bala-Tik would have stood up straight on his own, but she felt the need to assist him with a handful of his collar, holding him against the wall, albeit less rough this time.
Bala-Tik raised an eyebrow at her, "You know, we can keep our hands to ourselves for the moment, I think. We're chained together, not like I'm gonna be able to pull a fast one on you." He gulped and remembered what he'd done earlier, "Again, I mean."
She seemed to consider this, and then let go of his jacket. Bala-Tik adjusted it with his free hand while still furrowing his brow at her.
She took a step back from him and began checking her pockets. Bala-Tik frowned at this.
"Whatever you might be missing, I can assure you I didn't take it," he defended, "Whoever threw us in here ran both our pockets."
She said nothing to him, but began to look around the room. Bala-Tik took a moment to deduce what she was looking for, couldn't find it, and then filled her in on what he had been trying to do before she came to.
"Look, there's probably a power cell in the wall here somewhere, I might be able to use it to short out these cufflinks." He explained. His words fell on deaf ears as she gave no response, just continuing to look around the room.
"Hey," he said pointedly, "Did you just forget how to speak Basic?" Now she seemed focused on one part of the room, and entirely unfocused on him. His eyes spied the knife on the floor for a just a beat before he pulled against her arm, "Hey, I'm talking to y– "
She suddenly grabbed him, both of her arms under his and wrapped around his torso, and threw him to the ground hard, staying on top of him and putting her hands around his neck again.
Bala-Tik's boots kicked futilely against the deck. He tried to squirm to the left and to the right, and was denied every time. Her grip was unbreakable, but still his hands pulled at hers.
As strange as it was to say, there didn't seem to be any malice in her actions now. There wasn't a burning torch of hate and hostility in her eyes. In fact, the expression on her alien face was completely flat. Her movements had been crisp, her breathing remained steady. While he was having the life choked out of him, she was just going through the motions.
Black began to encroach on the corners of his vision. His eyes felt too big for their sockets. His mouth went dry. His face felt hot.
He looked about the room thinking it was the last place he would ever see. But as his consciousness slipped away, he noticed something. It was most likely what she had noticed, right before taking him down. Earlier, where he had only seen a dull gray room with four walls and a set of bars, she had seen four walls, a set of bars…and a camera in the corner.
And she was putting on a show.
Right on time, Bala-Tik heard a whole mess of footsteps surge to a halt at the gate to the room. The bars retracted into the floor. He heard a low, metallic thud, and then just like that the woman was off of him, collapsing beside him. Bala-Tik felt something wet on his face as he rolled over and coughed his lungs out. He stayed hunched over, head buried in his arms against the floor, eyes closed as everything readjusted itself.
When he felt like his vision had returned he turned his head to look at his cellmate. Though things were still foggy, he could see she was on her side, a strange and vulnerable position that didn't suite her at all. She was bleeding slightly from a fresh gash above her left eye. The blood coming out was a dark purple hue.
And around them was a whole squad of armed and armored guards. They had rifle-length blasters trained on her. Looking around he saw that he had one trained on him as well.
He caught her eye once more, and they shared a vague, nebulous look.
The apparent leader of the group stepped between the two of them, hands on his hips, one of them resting idly on the handle of a blaster pistol in its holster. He carried himself with much more leisure than the statues he was leading. His footsteps were slower, and his feet dragged.
His head flicked between the two of them rapidly, one double-take each. Then he looked to his men and said "Well, I think it's time we took them to see the boss."
Bala-Tik was pulled to his feet along with his cellmate. As this happened, he wiped his face, still recovering from the near-death experience just a second ago. His hand came back smeared with purple blood, the same blood that trickled down the side of the alien woman's face as she was marched past him.
He felt the barrel of a gun pressed to his back and he fell in line as well, led down the hallway towards the next great complication of the day.