AUTHOR'S NOTES: For more information, and useful things like a character and terms glossary, please visit mahastory dot livejournal dot com. Much love and thanks to Neeti for beta-ing this chapter! Feedback and comments are much appreciated. Thanks for reading!
EXILE 01: REUNION
Jumpspace was cold.
"So that's the problem," Nakula said, throwing up his hands in frustration. "The whole heating system is
gunked. I could fix it, but we don't have the necessary amount of insulation."
"So what are our options?" Yudhisthira asked, watching his breath puff out.
"The important thing is to keep a minimal amount of heat in every part of the ship, and I'm talking 'minimal' as in 'barely fit for human habitation.' There are portable gas stoves in the storage hold, with the other outdoor camping equipment. I vote we haul those up here and choose a few rooms to keep really warm."
"Can one of those places be the bathroom?" Arjuna asked, shivering. He had just attempted to take a shower in the freezing-cold bathing room; currently, his wet hair was giving him chills.
"Yeah, sure. Whatever. Arjuna, come with me down to the storage bay. And for the love of the Lord, dry your hair."
"I can't. I tried to plug in the hair dryer and it shorted out a bunch of lights." Arjuna shivered again. "By the way, do we have any more, uh, lightubes? Like the long ones, in the bathing room?"
Nakula sighed. "Not many."
It didn't take long for Nakula and Arjuna to find the gas stoves out of the storage area in the belly of the ship. The Duyona had been in jumpspace for less than two days, and already things were starting to go wrong. As if adjusting to life aboard the tiny transport cruiser hadn't been difficult enough. There was a rhythm to this sort of life, but Arjuna and his brothers were still stumbling around and trying to find it. The first two days had been a confusing whirlwind, trying to divvy up space, time, and responsibilities on board the ship; who would sleep in what room, who would have access to the precious bathrooms and showers and when, and who would take care of cooking, cleaning, and maintenance. The cooking did not even get done, not really: occasionally some of them would drift into the small kitchen/dining area, heat up an instant meal, listen to Nakula complain about the engine if they were unlucky enough to be in the kitchen when he was, and then leave.
The first two days, then, had been mostly cleaning and chores. They were still trying to find all of the ship's cleaning supplies, still trying to properly store the food and medicine that they had brought on board, still sorting through the paltry amounts of clothing that had been left in the ship for them to use. They were also trying to figure out where to sleep. The Duryona had four shared quarters for eight crew members, and two larger rooms meant for two officers. There were seven people currently aboard the ship. Currently Nakula and Sahadeva were volunteering to share a room, although everybody understood that this was a temporary arrangement. The unspoken thought among the five brothers was that their pilot, being a lowborn commoner, should not have the privilege of his own room. Unfortunately, that still meant that one of them would have to share with him.
"Here we are," Nakula said, having finally succeeded in excavating a small gas-powered stove from beneath a pile of old sleeping bags, a molding tent, and various other equipment intended for camping on uninhabited but terraformed planets. "Ugh, it's rusted." There were dark circles underneath Nakula's eyes. Since the Duryona had jumped yesterday, Nakula had spent most of his time in the engine room, kicking and cursing at the engine whenever it threatened to shut down and lurch them out of jumpspace. This had happened three times already.
"You know what? I've got it," Arjuna said quickly, reaching to take the heavy stove from Nakula. "Why don't you, uh, go take a nap or something."
Nakula blinked at Arjuna for a moment, considering this. Then he said, "Wake me up right away the minute that the engine starts acting up."
"You have no idea how to tell if there's anything wrong with the engine, do you?"
Arjuna scratched his head. "Well… I'll know if we kick out of jumpspace!" he said, trying to crack a joke.
Nakula glared at him flatly. "Don't even joke about that. If we kick out of jumpspace too early, and if the engine is too mucked to jump again, we'll die out here. The likelihood of a passing ship picking up our distress signal is less than zero point zero zero zero zero two percent. Understand?"
Arjuna felt a strange, sinking sensation in his stomach. "Oh."
"So I can't let the engine get to that point, where we might kick out of jumpspace. I can't risk it."
"And if we kick out of jumpspace and if it takes us three years to reach a planetary system using auxiliary power and if we have to resort to cannibalism to survive, you're going to be first on the list for eating. Got it?"
Now it was Arjuna's turn to stare at Nakula. "What?"
"Because you're useless. You'd be serving us better as food right now."
Arjuna was still aghast. "You've thought about this?!"
"I think about a lot of things. Come on, make yourself useful and carry that stove to the lounge."
The lounge that Nakula was referring to was a small room that actually doubled as the kitchen and dining area. There was kitchen equipment in the back of the room, and the front portion of the room was taken up with tables, chairs, a long couch that had seen better days, and a small media console that was already showing signs of unreliability as it attempted to capture broadcast waves in subspace. The "lounge" was, by any measure, a gloomy, cramped space; made all the more so by its bareness. There was a complete absence of anything in the way of decoration, not even so much as a poster on a wall or a plant in a corner.
Today the lounge was imbued with an even gloomier atmosphere than usual, due mostly to the presence of Yudhisthira sitting at one table and half-heartedly nursing a cup of tea, staring morosely off into space, infecting the room with the particular air of despairing helplessness that he had been emitting ever since the day of the dice game. But at least Yudhisthira wasn't alone in the room. Sahadeva was curled up on the musty-smelling couch, dozing with a printed copy of one section of the ship's massive operating manual in his arms. And Bhima was standing in the back of the room, among the kitchen equipment, boiling water. At first Arjuna was surprised to see his enormous brother doing something as simply domestic as working in the kitchen, but then he realized that Bhima was boiling water for Yudhisthira's tea, and that made sense. There was no other reason – no other person – for whom Bhima would do such a thing.
Yudhisthira looked up at Arjuna when he entered the room. "Is that the stove?" he asked. Even by Yudhisthira standards, it was a stupid question. But Arjuna figured that he probably didn't have anything else to say.
Arjuna set down the stove in the center of the room, unscrewed the tank access cap, and stepped aside to allow Nakula to start pouring gas into it. "We have enough liquid gas to burn three stoves all day every day until we reach Gajapati," Nakula said. "So at least three rooms will be warm."
Arjuna ignored Nakula and Yudhisthira, and stepped over toward Bhima. "Can I help?" he asked.
"I've got it."
"I'm not useless, you know," Arjuna suddenly blurted out, bristling.
Bhima turned toward him, startled. "I didn't say you were. But it doesn't take two people to make tea, Arjuna."
"Nakula said that if we kicked out of jumspace and were stuck traveling with auxiliary power and we had to resort to cannibalism to survive then I would be the first to be eaten--!" Arjuna cut himself off abruptly when Bhima laughed, and flushed as he realized how whiny and childish he sounded.
Yudhisthira looked up at Arjuna again. "That won't happen," he said. "And besides, if we did resort to cannibalism, it would only make sense to eat Bhima first."
Bhima stopped laughing abruptly. But then Arjuna laughed at the look on Bhima's face.
Yudhisthira sipped his tea calmly. "Alive, Bhima consumes the most food. Dead, he would provide the most food. Simple equation."
Bhima snorted, deciding to play along. "Arjuna would taste better, though."
"I would not--!" Arjuna paused, suddenly unsure if Bhima had insulted him, or if Bhima had complimented him and tricked him into insulting himself. Stupid Bhima. Fortunately, at that moment, Krishna stepped into the lounge, and Arjuna whirled immediately toward him. "Krishna! Do I taste better than Bhima?!"
Krishna paused in mid-step. "Oh my," he said. "I wouldn't know. That's really the sort of question that you should be asking Draupadi, not me."
There was a moment of silence that greeted this statement. Yudhisthira's jaw dropped, and he managed, even in the midst of his depression, to look perfectly appalled. But Nakula, however, threw back his head and laughed heartily. "Score one for the pilot!" he crowed.
Yudhisthira closed his mouth, pursing his lips. He glared at Krishna. "It is not proper for you to show such disrespect for your employers," he sniffed, finally managing to be at least a little bit haughty again.
" 'Employers'? But you're not paying me anything," Krishna said cheerfully. He sat down across from Yudhisthira, then turned toward Bhima. "Some tea would be nice," he said casually.
Yudhisthira's jaw dropped again. But Nakula said sharply, "Oh, get that stick out of your ass. We're all commoners now, remember? I'm not a prince and you're not a king, and there's no reason for you to demand that our pilot treat you as one."
"Oh no, that's not it at all," Krishna said quickly. "Yudhisthira is still a king. Nothing that your cousins can do could ever change that."
Yudhisthira frowned at him. "Then why do you, a commoner, insist on treating my brothers and I as if you were our equal?"
"Oh good," Draupadi said, stepping into the lounge and interrupting Krishna, "You're all here." She shook Sahadeva's shoulder, waking him up. "We need to have a talk."
Sahadeva clutched the operator's manual more tightly to his chest, mumbled something, and rolled over on his side. But he did not wake up. Ignoring him, Draupadi sat down beside Yudhisthira. "We need to make a plan for Gajapati. And we need to figure out the sleeping arrangements. And, for the love of the Lord, somebody has to cook a decent meal at some point. Where's the console remote?"
Yudhisthira stared at her.
"Remote," Nakula said, handing it to Draupadi.
She twirled the remote in her hands for a moment, then switched on the small console mounted on the wall across from the couch. The image on the console screen was jumpy and the colors were off, but the face of a newsreader from Panchala was clearly visible. "This thing picks up news channels from Kuru, Panchala, Madra, and twelve other systems. It also," she said, flipping to a new channel, "picks up this broadcast from Gajapati. At three hundred Universal time there's a children's program where some guy in a giant elephant suit teaches how to speak basic Ganjam. I think we should all make it a point to start studying Ganjam, and as Arjuna's dictionary discs aren't very helpful for useful language study and our diginet connection is shot--"
"I'm working on it," Nakula interjected.
"I know. I know you are. But right now, this is our only and best option."
"Can we watch the news from Kuru?" Arjuna asked.
Draupadi seemed taken aback by the question. "Well, yes, but…" She looked at Yudhisthira, who was staring intently down at his teacup, and then back to Arjuna. Draupadi shook her head. "Maybe later," she said.
"No," Yudhisthira suddenly said. "No, it's all right." But while he spoke he still would not look at Draupadi. Even as he spoke, he was still staring at his teacup. "Arjuna, you can watch whatever you want. Don't… Don't not watch something just because I'm in the room."
Silence greeted this. Arjuna actually had to look away from his brother, mildly disgusted by Yudhisthira's pathetic demeanor, his hunched shoulders, the submissive lowering of his head, and the empty fatalism in his voice.
Suddenly Draupadi reached out and grasped Yudhisthira's hand. "Come with me," she said, standing up quickly and pulling Yudhisthira with her. "Now. We have to talk."
Yudhisthira did not protest as Draupadi dragged him out of the lounge.
And then, again, there was silence.
Finally Bhima broke the silence. "Tea is ready," he informed Krishna, although he of course did not stoop to serve the commoner himself.
Krishna stood up and helped himself to the tea, while Bhima sat down beside Arjuna. The flimsy lounge chair groaned under Bhima's weight. "We have a long time before we reach Gajapati," he said.
"Yeah," Arjuna agreed.
"And nothing to do until then."
Bhima paused for a moment, then said, "There are weapons in the storage area."
Arjuna perked up instantly. "Really?"
"They're not very well-maintained, but useful for practice, I guess."
"Good. Good!" Arjuna leaned forward eagerly. "I have to do something, you know, something, or else I'll get fat--"
Bhima threw back his head and laughed, a rumbling roar that seemed to shake the very bulkheads of the Duryona itself. "You?!" He encircled one of Arjuna's arms with his enormous thumb and forefinger. "You're as thin as a twig!"
Arjuna bristled. He wasn't thin, actually. His thick upper arms rippled with solid muscle, built up from years of athletic training and practice with Gandiva. But to Bhima, of course, any human who weighed less than an elephant was by default 'thin'. "I'm not a twig," Arjuna said. "I could take you in a fight."
Bhima laughed again. "Go ahead and try!"
"I'd like to see Arjuna try too," Krishna said, earnestly, without a hint of irony or sarcasm in his voice. He had poured himself tea and was now sitting across from Bhima and Arjuna, in the seat that Yudhisthira had vacated a few moments earlier. "A lightweight skilled in martial arts can easily take down a heavier opponent."
"So even I could take down Bhima," Nakula mused. He was sitting on the floor in front of the couch where Sahadeva was sleeping, idly flipping through console channels with the remote in his hand. "Good to know. I'm still planning that mutiny, you know."
Krishna ignored this, and turned to Arjuna. "You do know your asanas, don't you?"
Arjuna stared at him.
"Movements. Forms," Bhima said. "For the sword."
Arjuna stills stared.
"For a 'Great Warrior,' Arjuna, you aren't very versatile," Bhima sighed.
"Don't tell me that you never learned any weapon beyond your bow!" Krishna suddenly wailed, apparently greatly distressed. "Didn't your guru teach you anything?!"
Arjuna bristled again, this time at the implied insult against Mr. Drona. "I learned lots of yogic techniques," he said, miffed. But it was true that he had never seriously studied any weapons or martial arts beyond his bow. The reason was that, as the host of a devaweapon, it had taken every ounce of Arjuna's strength and concentration to learn to master Gandiva without it taking over and killing him instead. Gandiva was a powerful force, sometimes a force which he could barely contain; it was only his physical strength and skill as an archer that kept Arjuna in control of the bow, instead of the other way around.
"My cute little baby brother," Bhima said, reaching out to pinch Arjuna's cheek. "I'll make you a deal, all right? Before we reach Gajapati, I am going to teach you how to kick my ass."
"And in return?" Arjuna asked, sensing where this was going.
"You're also going to read – and memorize – the ship's operator's manual. Cover to cover. And you're going to learn how to take over some of the first mate's duties for me."
Arjuna was taken aback. That hardly seemed like a price to pay – in fact, it was the reward that he had been waiting for. He wanted to step up and take his place beside his two older brothers. He wanted to be useful on board the Duryona. Most of all, he wanted to make a contribution that he could rub in Nakula's face the next time that Nakula joked about cannibalism. But Arjuna forced himself to contain his excitement, and to maintain his adult composure. He nodded grimly. "I agree."
"Then it's settled," Bhima said, standing up. "Nakula. Wake up Sahadeva. You two are training too."
Nakula stared at Bhima. "What?"
"I said, you're training with Arjuna too."
"But I have to--" Suddenly the Duryona shuddered, and the utensils in the kitchen rattled alarmingly as the engine rumbled and vibrated beneath them. "Ihavetowatchtheengine," Nakula said quickly, jumping up and running out of the room as fast as he could.
Arjuna watched him go, then turned inquisitively toward Bhima.
"Oh, he got away this time," Bhima said. "But there will be other times. And besides," Bhima said, eyeing the still-sleeping Sahadeva curled up on the couch, "he left behind his partner in crime."
It was bitterly cold in Draupadi's quarters.
No, not quarters, Yudhisthira decided, as he followed Draupdi inside. It was merely a room. There was a bed piled high with a generous portion of the extra blankets that Bhima had dug out of storage, a closet that was closed but that Yudhisthira knew was mostly empty, a shelf, and a mirror. The shelf was crammed with objects that Draupadi had salvaged from the Duryona's old stores: a hairbrush, a toothbrush, and several suspiciously ancient items of makeup, in clear cases, none of which matched Draupadi's nearly-ebony skin tone.
Draupadi sat down on the bed, and gestured for Yudhisthira to join her. She was wearing work pants and an unflatteringly ugly sweater, hand-me-down clothes from the previous crew. Her face was unmade, her hair flowing loose around her shoulders. Even though they were several days into their exile, Yudhisthira was still not yet used to seeing his wife without her makeup or jewelry, at least not in any context other than when she was not also unclothed and lying beside him in his bed.
"Your hands are shaking," she said, as she grasped them in hers.
"I know. I'm sorry." He looked away from her. "There are no smokerolls aboard the ship anywhere," he said by way of explanation. And he knew, because he had searched for them himself. Oh, how he had searched – nearly tearing apart the ship from top to bottom. But no luck.
"Oh," Draupadi said. Then she added, "Well, it was a nasty habit anyway. It made your breath smell terrible." Despite her cold words, however, there was a deep sympathy in her voice. She let go of Yudhisthira's hands, but then gently wrapped her arms around his shoulders, drawing him close to her.
Yudhisthira trembled with hesitation, then surrendered to her embrace, wrapping his arms around her waist and resting his head on her shoulder. It was the first time that she had touched him since the dice game. "Draupadi," he whispered, murmuring her own name into her neck.
She held him tightly to her. "This is the part where we make up, I guess," she said. "We have to. We're the heads of this family. They need us to be together."
Yudhisthira closed his eyes, afraid to look at her. "You shouldn't forgive me too easily," he said. "I'm weak. I don't deserve--"
"No. No, Yudhisthira, you're not weak. You're strong." Draupadi squeezed him to her body. "You believed in Duryodhana, up until the very last moment, and that is a type of strength. It was foolish, but it was also a type of strength. It can be both."
"…I don't understand."
She let go of his shoulders and abruptly pulled out of his embrace. Draupadi stood up off the bed, turned, and faced Yudhisthira, glowering imperiously down at him. "You don't have to understand. Just know this. I will never forget – I will never let you forget – that you are a king. And you must never forget that I am a queen."
He looked up at her, and met her eyes with his. "I won't," he promised. "I swear I won't."
"And someday we're going to have our kingdom back."
"I swear, I swear I will do that for you."
"No. Not you. We're going to." She tenderly brushed a lock of Yudhisthira's overly-long hair from his forehead. "That's the promise that I want to hear from you."
He nodded solemnly. "Then I promise."
"Thank you." She leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead.
He reached up and took her hand. "You're not… You're not going to ask me to avenge your honor?"
She looked down at him, and there was suddenly a deep sorrow in her eyes. "No," she said, "I'm not. You're not the right husband for that, Yudhisthira. You're too pure for revenge." She looked away from him. "I know that if I asked you to, you would. That is enough for me. But I'm not going to. That's going to be Bhima's role, remember? He already took that oath. You were there, you heard him."
Yudhisthira bit his lip, momentarily afraid to say anything else. He was terrified, in that moment – terrified of the realization of where he stood in relation to Duryodhana and the rest of his family, terrified of the knowledge of what he was going to have to do to get his kingdom back…
No, he thought. I won't let it come to that.
Then Draupadi was back, sitting beside him on the bed, wrapping her arms around him. "Stop," she said. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You need to accept my forgiveness and move on. We need you to be strong right now."
He pulled her close to him, returning her embrace. Their lips were very close now. "You're my strength," he whispered.
"And you're my conscience, I think," she said with a light laugh.
"Good. That works out well."
Yudhisthira wasn't sure when exactly they started to lean back, or which of them leaned back first. But suddenly they were tumbling backward onto the bed, a joyous tangle of arms and legs, seeking hands and fluttering lips. Draupadi threw back her head and laughed. "So this is the part where we…?"
"Mmm-hmm." Somehow their tumble in the bed had ended with Yudhisthira on his back and Draupadi draped over him, her hips grinding pleasantly down against his. "I think we do," he said, mildly amazed at the fact that he was feeling genuinely aroused for the first time since the dice game. Surely that was a sign that he was getting over the shock of the whole affair, right?
Draupadi bent low over him, her dark hair cascading down around his face. "Make-up sex?"
"Now that you've said it, it sounds so crude." Yudhisthira kissed her again though, hard this time, and rough.
She pulled away from the kiss first. "Wait," she said. "It's the middle of the day. I have no idea what the sound insulation on board this ship is like… What if they hear us…?"
"Uhm," Yudhisthira said, suddenly flushing a deep crimson. "Uhm. Uh, I didn't want to tell you this, but… I think that somebody is more likely to hear us if they're sleeping in the next room than if they're in the lounge on the other side of the ship. And since this is the middle of the day and everybody seems to be gathered in the lounge on the other side of the ship right now, it might be an optimal time to--"
"But you're sleeping in the room next to mine!" Draupadi suddenly exclaimed, her eyes wide with horror. "Oh my gods… Did you hear Sahadeva and me last night?!"
"That was Sahadeva?"
"I don't know, I was trying NOT to pay too close attention, you know, out of a well-developed sense of decency and moral prudishness."
Draupadi sighed. "Obviously, this living arrangement is going to take some getting used to."
"I think so too."
"And… What was that you were saying about moral prudishness…?" She licked her lips, grinned devilishly at him, and in one smooth motion slid her hand down his pants, closing her fingers around his erect, swollen member. "Oh that's no good, Your Majesty. We're going to have to do something about that."
Yudhisthira awoke from a hazy doze with a shiver. He glanced around Draupadi's room, but could see no clock within the immediate sweep of his vision. Draupadi, however, rolled up against him, pressing her bare breasts pleasantly against his side. "Sleep well?" she asked.
"Yeah." He reached up and rubbed his eyes. "How long was I…?"
"Just for an hour. I was watching you sleep."
"That's kind of kinky." Then he shivered again. "It's cold in this room."
"I know. Believe me, I know." The two of them, nude and sated, were huddled closely together beneath the many, many blankets that Draupadi had piled on top of her bed. Draupadi's skin was baking off a pleasant heat, as it always did – Yudhisthira suspected that this was a side-effect of her Gift – but it still wasn't enough to prevent the goosebumps that were now spreading across Yudhisthira's skin. He knew that he was going to have to get up and put on some clothes soon. But for the moment, he still didn't want to move. Not yet. He wrapped one arm casually around his wife, and turned his head toward her. "So…" he said. "The pilot."
"Arjuna said that he'd met him before. The night when he faced the gandharvas." Yudhisthira frowned. "Why didn't he tell us before? He always told me that he was alone that night."
"He always told you?" Draupadi frowned.
"Well, no, not exactly, now that I think about it… He never actually said that he was alone, but he just… Hmm. I guess Arjuna just never mentioned that somebody was with him. And a commoner at that. That's a rather large omission, don't you think?"
"Yes. But he didn't outright lie to you." She rested her head against Yudhisthira's shoulder. "I trust Arjuna. I'm sure that he had his reasons."
"I know. I trust Arjuna too. And I trust him when he says that we can trust Krishna. But…" Yudhisthira trailed off, unsure how to phrase what he wanted to say next. Then he remembered all of the years that his younger brother had clung to Duryodhana's side, and he frowned and said, "Arjuna has a history of trusting too easily."
Draupadi laughed. "Should I point out that if you hadn't trusted your cousin so easily, we wouldn't be here right now?"
Yudhisthira was instantly chagrined. "All right, all right."
Draupadi snuggled against him warmly, and rested one hand languidly on his chest. "You're right to be worried about Arjuna," she said. "It's your job as a king, as a brother, and as the captain of this ship." She kissed him lightly on the neck. "I'm glad to hear you finally sounding as if you're ready to take on those responsibilities."
"Then let's go." She sat up, pulling most of the blankets off both her and Yudhisthira as she did so. Yudhisthira sucked in his breath with a sharp hiss, as the cold air of Draupadi's cabin slapped against his exposed skin. Draupadi stood up off the bed, and held out one hand toward Yudhisthira. "Ready, my king?"
"As ever, my queen," he said, taking her hand, letting her pull him out of the bed and into a standing position beside her. "Let's go take our kingdom back."
Draupadi nodded approvingly. "However," she said, "I feel it prudent to point out that, if we have any hope of anybody else respecting our authority, we should both probably put on some pants."
"This is not fair," Sahadeva pointed out as he shivered angrily beneath the spray of cold water. "Why do I have to go last?" He stepped out from beneath the showerhead long enough to lather up his hair.
"Birth order," Bhima said, already dried off and half-dressed. "If there's a limited amount of hot water available for showers, then--"
"But my hair needs hot water," Sahadeva protested.
Arjuna suddenly had to bite back a laugh. Sahadeva momentarily sounded so much like his brother Nakula that it was uncanny. Then Arjuna frowned when he realized how his shoulders, trembling with stifled laughter, suddenly screamed in pain. He was sore all over. Bhima's training had been merciless.
"Are you all right?" Bhima suddenly asked, apparently having noticed Arjuna's wince. He had finished dressing and stood up, now looming over Arjuna, who was still sitting on the single bench in the dry area of the shower bay, his towel draped over his lap.
Arjuna glanced up at his brother. "I'm fine. It's just…" He winced as he tried to roll his shoulders back again. "I'm not used to using certain muscles."
Bhima frowned down at him. "Let's not continue with the sword tomorrow, then. Maybe you should start with something cruder." He tapped his chin thoughtfully. "Axe? Mace?"
Arjuna shuddered. "When would I ever need to use those things?"
"In a life-or-death situation."
"Bhima…" Arjuna trailed off, unsure of what to say to that. Then he turned his head away from Bhima's gaze. He reached for the clothes that he had left piled beside him on the bench, and grabbed the chain with Ashwatthama's ring on it. He slipped the chain around his neck, and relished the feeling of the already-familiar and comforting cool weight of the ring against his chest.
"Are you sure that you should be wearing that?" Bhima suddenly asked. "I mean, it's cursed. And Ashwatthama said that you didn't have to wear it all the time."
"But I like wearing it," Arjuna said simply. The ring on his finger would have been a nuisance if and when he ever got the chance to use Gandiva, but the ring on a chain around his neck worked perfectly fine.
"It's cursed," Bhima repeated, stubbornly. "I don't like you wearing it."
Arjuna rolled his eyes. "Yes, father."
"You're being stupid. There's nothing evil about this 'curse.' Ashwatthama's powers are drawn from his self-restraint and righteousness. Oh come on, it's not like I'm going to get cancer or anything from--"
"Ashwatthama works for Duryodhana," Bhima said, sharply, coldly. "Do not forget that."
Arjuna seethed silently. He didn't want to get in a fight with Bhima – not when they had been getting along so well a few moments ago, not when there was already so much anger and hurt driving his family apart, and especially not when Ashwatthama was a mutual point of contention between them. So he swallowed his anger, and said nothing.
Eventually Bhima stepped away from him. "Do as you like," he said. Then he left the shower bay.
Arjuna let out a long, slow sigh. Then he heard the shower spigot finally turn off. He turned his head, and saw Sahadeva, shivering and dripping wet and utterly unselfconscious of his nudity, stepping into the dressing area and reaching for a towel. He toweled off his hair first, either not noticing or not caring about the way that his naked body was dripping water all over the tiled floor.
Arjuna tried not to stare, but couldn't help himself. There were times when his brothers Nakula and Sahadeva definitely looked more deva than human, and this was one of those times. Sahadeva's unearthly pale skin gleamed beneath the harsh buzzing lights mounted in the ceiling of the shower bay; his devakin markings rippled across his back and shoulders as he worked his arms, attacking his hair with the towel in his hands. Suddenly Sahadeva paused, blinked, and turned toward Arjuna, regarding him with his alien golden eyes. "Why are you staring at me?" he asked.
"I was just wondering," Arjuna said. "How you got so good with the sword." And it was true, he really was wondering that. During their training with Bhima, Sahadeva had instantly mastered nearly every move that Bhima had shown him. And he had hardly broken a sweat during the workout, either. Arjuna was baffled.
Sahadeva smiled at him. It was not one of Sahadeva's usual dreamy smiles, but something entirely different. It was a smug smile. Arjuna was slightly taken aback. Sahadeva said simply, "I learn fast." Then he added, "Because I'm a genius." There was not a trace of either vanity or humility in his voice when he said this; it was merely a statement of fact.
Arjuna sighed. "I don't get it." He frowned. "You, okay, fine, I understand, you're a genius so you can pick up the sword right away. But me? I don't understand why I don't get it. At all."
"Maybe this is the Lord's will," Sahadeva suddenly said.
"The Lord's will," Sahadeva said solemnly. "You're Arjuna, the Great Warrior. There is no good reason why you should fail so miserably every time you touch a sword. Perhaps, then, this is a divine intervention. The Lord must have a reason to prevent you from using the sword. Or maybe," he said, tapping his chin thoughtfully, "Gandiva is jealous, so it's sabotaging you."
Arjuna raised one eyebrow. "That is the single craziest thing I have heard all day, Sahadeva."
"Mmm." Sahadeva turned away from Arjuna, finished toweling off, and then started dressing. He paused, however, after he had slipped back on his pants, his belt still held in his hands. "Hey, Arjuna?"
"You're going to put the pilot in my room, aren't you."
"I said, you're going to put the pilot in my room." He had turned his unsettling gaze toward Arjuna again. "You heard what Bhima said. Birth order. You made me take the cold shower, so that means that you're going to put Krishna in my room."
For a moment, Arjuna could say nothing, because what Sahadeva had said was true. The current sleeping arrangement, with Nakula and Sahadeva sharing a room and Krishna on his own, was understood by everybody to be a temporary state of affairs. Krishna was a commoner and did not deserve his own room; but the question of which of Arjuna's brothers was going to have to share a room with him had been left up in the air. Or rather, it had already been settled, but unspoken: Sahadeva was the youngest, so Sahadeva would lose out on the privilege of his own room. Everybody understood this, but at the same time, nobody had made a move to finalize the sleeping arrangements thus; perhaps because nobody had wanted to inflict that indignity upon Sahadeva, not yet. They had been delaying the move as long as possible. But it had been several days since their departure already, and it was past time for all of them to settle down in their respective cabins.
Arjuna eyed Sahadeva carefully. "You wouldn't like that?" he asked.
Sahadeva said nothing. His face was unreadable.
Finally Arjuna nodded to himself, slowly. Then he said, "All right. I'll tell you what. How about Krishna shares my room?"
Sahadeva glanced up at Arjuna sharply. "Are you serious?"
Sahadeva didn't look too happy to hear the suggestion, though. "I don't know," he said. "I don't like the thought of you and him…" He trailed off, obviously unwilling to finish that thought out loud. Then he shook his head, and forced himself to smile at Arjuna. "Thank you," he said. Arjuna could see exactly how forced that smile was.
"Is there something wrong?" Arjuna asked.
"Mmm. No. Yes. I don't know." Sahadeva turned his attention back toward his belt. "It's just… Bad combinations. Krishna with me or Krishna with you, either way, it's a bad combination. For different reasons, but still a bad combination."
"What does that mean!?" Arjuna snapped, defensively. He had his suspicions about Krishna, too. He remembered the night of the gandharvas well, he knew that Krishna was hiding things from him. He still didn't understand why Krishna had told him to not mention his involvement with the gandharvas. But he also knew that he instinctively trusted the somewhat oddball commoner. And Arjuna didn't like having his faith questioned by one of his nosy little brothers.
"It means this," Sahadeva said quietly. "Your name. The one that Father gave you." Sahadeva finished buckling his belt, and reached for his shirt. " 'Arjuna' means 'pure.' Incorruptible. Arjuna right now knows exactly who he is and what he wants to do, and that makes him strong." Sahadeva finally turned his gaze back toward Arjuna. "Don't ever let anybody convince you to do the things that you don't want to do. Don't let anybody make you into their pawn. Don't let anybody change you."
Arjuna sat and stared at Sahadeva silently, unable to say anything in response to this.
It was quite late in the evening – at least in terms of the artificial time aboard the Duryona – when Nakula stormed into the lounge, shirtless, his pale skin flushed and drenched with sweat. "I fixed the engine," he declared, "and now I'm going to take a shower, and when I come back, there had better be some dinner on that table," he said, pointing at one of the only two tables in the room. "Understood?"
Draupadi, who was the only person in the lounge at the time, looked up from the book that she had been reading, and blinked at him. "Excuse me?"
"I said, I want some dinner. Weren't you the one who was going on earlier today about how we should get together for a proper meal anyway?"
Draupadi regarded him with half-lidded eyes. "Are you suggesting that I do the cooking?"
"Well… Yes. I mean, we're commoners now, and that's what commoner women do."
She glared at him. "I am not and will never be a commoner." She closed her book. "Also, there's no more hot water left. You should wait for at least half an hour if you don't want to take a cold shower--"
"I can't wait, LOOK at me, I'm disgusting!" Nakula pulled at his hair in frustration. "ARGH! I HATE exile! This is even worse than camping!" Then, apparently having fulfilled his quota of theatrical declarations for the day, Nakula stomped out of the lounge angrily.
Draupadi tried to open up her book again. It was an old printed romance that she had dug out of the storage areas in the belly of the ship, one of only three books that she and Arjuna had been able to find. And it was wretchedly, mind-numbingly boring so far. She closed the book again, and sighed. Suddenly her stomach growled at her.
Draupadi took that as a sign. She stood up, walked out of the lounge, and wandered around the ship until she found who she was looking for.
"Krishna!" she barked.
The pilot, who had been sitting at his station on the bridge and pouring over a section of the printed copy of the ship's manual, jumped to attention. "Yes?"
"It's time for you to cook our dinner," she said.
He blinked at her. "Excuse me?"
"I said, I want some dinner. I'm going to go round up the others. Do you think you can get something ready in thirty minutes?" Without waiting for his answer, she nodded at him. "Good," she said. Then she left the bridge, off to search of her husbands.
Krishna stared at the stove controls. Of course they were written in Oriya. The stove unit had probably been replaced by the crew of the Duryona during some long-ago transport run, probably because the original had broken down and they had been forced to replace it with a unit bought on some foreign planet. Of course Oriya was the one language that Krishna had never bothered to study in school. He sighed. Unreadable labels aside, however, Krishna felt smart enough to figure the stove out by himself. The big button turned on the heat. The big dial controlled the level of heat. Simple enough. There were more buttons and more dials, but Krishna couldn't be bothered with them at the moment. He turned his attention toward the rations that he had to work with: Rice, dried lentils, dried pork, yogurt, and some rather unexciting spices. No problem. He could do this.
Krishna was measuring out the rice when he became aware of Bhima's presence looming behind him. "Is that for all of us?" Bhima asked, leaning over Krishna.
"That's not enough." Bhima snatched the measuring cup out of Krishna's hand and began scooping more rice into the pot that Krishna had set aside. Then he frowned, tossed aside the measuring cup, grasped the bag of rice in his hands, and upended it over the pot. He shook the bag until it was empty and rice grains were overflowing all over the kitchen counter and onto the floor. "That's better," he said.
Krishna gaped at him. "We have to conserve that!" he said. "We have two weeks before we make first port--"
"There's plenty more rice in storage."
"What is this crap?" Nakula sneered, having appeared out of nowhere, apparently specifically for the purpose of making life difficult for Krishna. "Panchalan rice? Are you kidding me?!"
"It's what we have--"
"Weren't you taking a shower?" Bhima suddenly asked Nakula.
"I was. I finished."
"Huh. That's the single fastest shower I've ever seen you take."
"Well, no thanks to you, the water was freezing cold." Then Nakula turned his wrath back toward the overflowing pot of rice in front of Krishna. "That is unacceptable," Nakula said. "There's better rice in storage. I saw it."
"He's right," Bhima agreed, most unfortunately. "Panchalan rice is definitely inferior in taste and texture, compared to the--"
"Then we'll eat this first," Krishna tried to explain, exasperated, "and save the better rice for later. All right?"
Bhima stared at him. "Did you just interrupt me?" he asked, as if he couldn't believe it.
Krishna opened his mouth to answer, but Arjuna's voice cut him off. "Oh, no," Arjuna gasped, having appeared at Krishna's side almost as stealthily as Nakula had. "I can't eat dried meat. It's forbidden. It's sinful."
Krishna smacked his forehead.
"And is that yogurt low-fat?" Arjuna asked.
"But I can only eat the low-fat kind. And it has to be organic, too. Do you know the types of chemicals that they put in these long-lasting yogurt blends? Anyway, I can't eat it. Can you make mine without the yogurt? And without the meat. Don't put any meat in mine."
"Listen," Krishna said. "We don't have enough cooking ware on board this ship for me to make you a separate dish. There is ONE pot and everybody is going to eat the same--"
"But I'm giving you an order," Arjuna said, in the same disbelieving tone that Bhima had used a moment earlier.
"Don't listen to him," Draupadi said, suddenly pushing Arjuna away from Krishna. "Don't enable him."
"Enable me?!" Arjuna sputtered.
Draupadi whirled toward him. "Yes, Arjuna. I'm not going to let him enable you. I am sick and tired of your bizarre eating habits which we all know is just your convenient excuse to cover up your eating disorder and frankly we are in the middle of a survival situation here and we can't afford to let you be a picky eater anymore!" She took a deep breath. "You will eat the pork and you will eat the yogurt!" She turned back toward Krishna. "You will COOK the pork and you will fix the yogurt!"
"But with the good rice," Nakula added.
"And more of it," Bhima said. "So what are you waiting for? Go fetch more rice!"
"The good rice!" Nakula repeated.
"But no pork!"
"And hurry up, I'm starving--"
Krishna suddenly slammed his hand down on the kitchen counter. "That's it," he hissed. He whirled around, pushed Nakula and Arjuna aside, and stomped away from the kitchen area. "If you're going to be that picky about it," he snarled at all of them and none of them in particular, "then you can cook for yourselves!"
He turned his head for just a moment, just long enough to enjoy the looks on their faces. Then he marched resolutely out of the lounge.
Krishna was somewhat surprised when, ten minutes later, there was a knock on the door of his quarters.
He opened the door and saw Arjuna standing there, looking chagrined. "Um," Arjuna said, eloquently.
Krishna glared at him. "I'm not going to cook for you," he said. "Not even if you beg me." The idiot princes had to get their act together sooner rather than later, and Krishna wasn't about to let himself be a party to their continued helplessness anymore.
But Arjuna shook his head. "No, it's okay. Bhima is doing the cooking."
Krishna laughed. "Bhima?!"
"He said that he was hungry and that he couldn't wait any longer and that he wouldn't let Draupadi sully her hands." Arjuna looked at Krishna then said, "I'm sorry."
"For being a picky eater, I guess."
Krishna opened the door wider. "Come in," he said. "It's my understanding that this won't be my room for much longer. Care to help me pack my things again?"
Arjuna eyed Krishna carefully. Krishna wondered if he was recalling the night that they had first met, when Krishna had casually conscripted Arjuna into aiding him with the chore of searching for a missing cow, without any regard to the fact that he was a commoner and Arjuna was a prince. But then Arjuna stepped into Krishna's room and said, "All right." No protests.
Arjuna glanced around the room, taking in the state of affairs. There wasn't much packing left to do. The clothes that Krishna had brought with him were mostly already folded into neat piles on top of his bed, leaving only a few shirts that Krishna was still folding. Arjuna picked up a shirt, then fumbled with it, obviously unsure of how to get it into the crisp, square shape of the other folded shirts already piled on the bed.
"Like this," Krishna said, demonstrating.
Arjuna stared at him.
"Now what?" Krishna asked.
"I was just thinking," Arjuna said. "I was thinking about how sometimes you're so mysterious. But then just now in the kitchen, you got so angry so quickly, just like any regular person would."
Krishna laughed. "Believe it or not, I do have a temper."
Arjuna was quiet for a moment, then he said, "I do too. But I'm trying to get better. I know that I'm spoiled, and I know that I'm useless on board this ship, and I know that I'm immodest and I know that I'm too proud. And I know that I don't know how to be a commoner. But I'm trying to learn. I want to be better. A better person, um, I mean."
Krishna sat down in the only free spot on top of the bed, and looked up at Arjuna, his usual smile dancing on his lips. "Maybe you don't have to apologize for being spoiled," he said. "This is a rule of the universe: the middle child is always spoiled." Then he laughed. "That applies to me too, I guess."
"I guess so." Arjuna joined in his laughter.
"But," Krishna said, suddenly turning serious, "You're right. We all need to get our act together quickly. This exile will be dangerous," he said, solemnly. "It's a good thing that you're training with Bhima now."
Arjuna clumsily folded the shirt in his hands. "I don't know about that," he said. "Now Bhima says that he wants me to learn how to use an axe. Or something. When am I going to ever have to know that?"
"In a life-or-death situation."
"That's exactly what Bhima said. But we're not going to--"
"You still don't understand, do you?" Krishna suddenly cut in, not caring that he was interrupting a prince. "We're going to the Yama Quadrant. There are enemies there, Arjuna. Powerful enemies. You didn't honestly think that your guru trained you just to shoot at pretty-painted targets with your magical bow, did you? You're a Great Warrior, remember? That means that when the time comes – when it's time for you to be the one to protect this family – then you and your Gandiva will have to draw blood."
Arjuna stared at Krishna again, shocked. Krishna could tell from the look on Arjuna's face that he wasn't yet ready to hear those words, no matter how true he knew them to be. But still Krishna pressed on. "And when this exile is over, if you can survive for thirteen years, then when it comes time for your brother Yudhisthira to fight to get his kingdom back, you'll be the one who--"
Krishna allowed himself to be silenced, for a moment. Then he said quietly, "You said that you wanted to become a better person, didn't you? That means facing reality, Arjuna. That means becoming a stronger person."
Arjuna was eyeing him suspiciously now. "I'm not going to let you change me," he suddenly said.
Krishna was taken aback by the oddness of this statement. "I don't want to change you. Nobody does." He looked up at Arjuna. "Do you know why your brother Bhima made that terrible vow at the dice game?"
"Because he was angry."
"Yes, that. And also because he didn't want you to have to be the one to shed their blood when the time comes." Krishna's voice was calm, steady, and deadly serious.
Now it was Arjuna's turn to look taken aback. But he recovered quickly, the shook his head in an emphatic gesture of negation. "No," he said. "It won't come to that. I swear. I won't let it." He stared down Krishna defiantly. "If I have to be a Great Warrior, then fine, I'll be a great warrior. But that doesn't mean that I can't also campaign for peace."
Krishna smiled up at him. "That's exactly why I like you," he said.
"Huhwhat?" Arjuna was clearly still about three laps behind in the conversation.
"Nothing. Never mind."
"All right." Arjuna reached down, pushed aside some clothing, and sat beside Krishna on the bed. He buried his head in his hands. "Give me a moment," he mumbled.
"Because I came here to tell you something specific, but now I'm starting to think that maybe Sahadeva was right, maybe I'm about to make a huge mistake, so I need to think about it for a moment." Arjuna pressed his hands against his face and frowned, obviously deep in thought.
Krishna sat quietly and waited.
Then Arjuna finally lifted his head out of his hands and said, "When we reshuffle the rooms, I was thinking that you and I could take the room that Nakula and Sahadeva have now – the one with the bunk beds."
Krishna was far more pleased to hear this proposal than he wanted to admit. "Are you sure that you don't mind?"
"I really don't mind."
"Because I wouldn't mind sharing a room with Sahadeva--"
"Um, I don't think that he likes you."
Krishna laughed. "I really have my work cut out for me, don't I?"
"Nothing. Never mind."
Arjuna stood up off the bed. "We should--" he began, but then never had the chance to finish. At that moment, the Duryona lurched sickeningly, shuddered, and then began to shake ominously.
Krishna bolted off the bed, grabbed Arjuna's arm, and then dragged the other man bodily out into the hallway. "We have to get to the bridge!" he shouted. "Now!"
"Oh no. Oh no," Krishna said when he sat down at the helm and took one look at the readouts scrolling across the multiple screens on his station.
"The safety overrides are shutting down the engine and I can't stop them!" Nakula shouted into the comm that Yudhisthira had mounted on his ear. Yudhisthira winced, reached up to try to push the comm plug a bit further from his ear, then instantly regretted the gesture as the Duryona lurched again and he lost his balance. Somehow he managed to fall gracelessly into the captain's chair. Oh well, that had been his destination anyway.
"So why are the engines shutting down?" Yudhisthira asked, as he untangled his arms and legs and attempted to position himself in his chair.
"Because the navigation computer is telling the engines that we're heading straight toward an unstable quasar and I can't get it to stop the kickout sequence---"
"But we should be in empty space now," Yudhisthira said. "There's nothing out here but dark matter."
"Yes," said Krishna. "That's because this is a trap."
Silence greeted this proclamation. Yudhisthira risked a glance around the bridge, quickly, making sure that everybody was at their stations – Krishna at the helm, Draupadi beside him, Sahadeva momentarily taking Nakula's seat, Arjuna and Bhima seated below. Nakula was in the engine room. Yudhisthira forced his hands to stop trembling, and turned toward Krishna. "What do you mean?"
"I mean it's a very common technique used to force ships out of jumpspace and render them helpless." The Duryona gave another threatening shudder as Krishna spoke; the white void of jumpspace visible through the transparent ceiling of the bridge momentarily flashed with color. They would be out any minute now. But Krishna pressed on, calmly. "This is an old rakshasa trick. Quasars and certain other bodies exist in both normal space and jumpspace. Ships have to avoid them. But it's possible to broadcast a false signal that a navigational computer would scan as, say, the presence of an uncharted anomaly…" He trailed off, apparently reading the confused look in Draupadi's eyes and the impatience on Yudhisthira's face, and then apparently deciding that a lecture about the fundamental laws of jumpspace could wait for some other time. "Anyway. It's probably just a pirate's trap."
The Duryona lurched again, and vibrated sickeningly.
"Here we go!" Nakula shouted a warning into Yudhisthira's ear. "Kickout in three, two, one…"
Yudhisthira turned his face toward the canopy of the bridge, watching in horror as the white nothing of jumpspace dissolved into the inky blackness of deep space. There was a sudden sense of stillness, and an eerie silence. Yudhisthira did not so much hear the engines stop as he did gradually become aware of the absence of their sound.
That's it? Yudhisthira thought. For a moment the felt as though he were in a dream, as if everything had become too surreal. He sat in his chair with his head tilted back, watching the almost hypnotic dissolution of the non-colors of jumpspace all around him, listening to the silence, listening to his family breathing.
The ship was vibrating a bit still, but he had expected the sudden shutdown of the engines to produce a more violent stop.
Unfortunately, Yudhisthira hadn't taken into account the forces of inertia. And a moment later, those forces caught up to him.
The slam came hard and fast. It was, Yudhisthira imagined, not unlike what driving a hoverer into a brick wall would feel like. He pitched forward – thank the Lord the restraints on his seat prevented him from falling all over Krishna – and his head snapped back and forth so fast that it hurt. Ouch. The lights on the bridge flickered. The straining metal body of the Duryona groaned threateningly.
Yudhisthira gasped, trying to steady himself. "What's going on?" he shouted, both at the comm mounted on his ear and at the rest of his family on the bridge. "What's going on?!" he repeated. Then he remembered the proper term to use. "Status!"
"We're dead," Nakula answered on the other end of the comm. "That's your status. We're as good as dead. The engines are shot. They're not going to be able to jump again."
Yudhisthira opened his mouth to report this to the rest of the bridge, but then he saw the looks on Draupadi's and Sahadeva's faces. They had heard. Yudhisthira realized belatedly that Nakula's voice hadn't been coming from the comm in his ear, but from the intercom system that the entire bridge could hear. Yudhisthira groaned and rubbed his neck; he knew that he had whiplash already, and his brain was still rattling in his skull, preventing him from quite grasping what was going on around him or what he was supposed to do next.
Then Yudhisthira realized the most important question that immediately needed to be answered. "Who?" he growled.
Bhima, who had stood up out of his seat, was pointing at the bridge canopy. "I'm guessing them," he said.
Yudhisthira swiveled his head – an act which unfortunately caused a sharp pain to shoot down his spine – and looked through the canopy. Then his heart sank into his stomach. There was a ship floating out there in the inky blackness. There was nothing else immediately visible, beyond the distant stars, and Yudhisthira had no point of comparison from which to visually gauge a sense of the ship's scale. Nevertheless, he could tell that it was enormous: bulbous, round, and not very aerodynamic looking. If it was meant for deep space travel, however, then it didn't have to be. The ship was an organic-looking collection of bulges and globes, a patchwork of what appeared to be dozens of different shades and types of metals layered on its hull, with a graceful and somewhat predatory-looking – but unfortunately unfamiliar – insignia painted on the largest bulbous growth immediately visible on the side facing the Duryona. Yudhisthira squinted, and saw dozens of unmistakable portrubences on all surfaces on the ship – broadcast relays and weapon turrets. Great.
"So those are the bastards."
Yudhisthira turned with a start. His neck screamed in pain again. He hadn't even noticed that Nakula had entered the bridge and was now standing right beside him. Yudhisthira opened his mouth to say something, but then the Duryona gave a sickening lurch again.
"That would be their tractor beam," Krishna said.
Yudhisthira turned toward Draupadi. "Are we picking up any sort of identification broadcast from them?"
Nakula turned and glared at Yudhisthira. "Well, Captain? Any brilliant plans?"
"We wait for them to hail us," Yudhisthira answered, surprised by the smoothness and readiness of his own reply.
"I said, we wait for them to hail us. We have no jumping capability anymore, and we're at their mercy. Our first priority now is ensuring our own survival." Yudhisthira stood up off the captain's chair, shakily. His neck was really hurting now, but he forced himself to grit his teeth and suppress the pain. "Who has the comm?"
"That's my job," Draupadi said, "and it's--" She looked down at the slim control panel attached to one arm of her chair. "Oh good. It's ringing."
"I don't hear any ringing," Yudhisthira said.
"I mean we're being hailed but it's not ringing because it's obviously broken but at least it's blinking so--"
Draupadi bit her lip, stopping herself from snapping further. "Fine. I'm going to patch this to the big speakers. Let's hope that it works."
It did work, and the bridge was immediately filled with the sound of a woman's voice speaking an utterly unfamiliar language. The voice was low and guttural, almost growling, and loud. Too loud. But that might have been a fault of the broadcast system more than anything else.
"If I say something can she hear me?" Yudhisthira shouted over the sound of the woman's growling.
The woman fell silent instantly, as if in response. "Yes," Draupadi said, stating the obvious. "They can hear the bridge now. Do you want to put on a headset so that she can only hear you?"
"We only have two headsets and they're both broken," Nakula interjected, unhelpfully. "I was going to fix them eventually, but I thought that we wouldn't need them until we arrived at Gajapati."
Yudhisthira closed his eyes for a moment, gathering his thoughts. "Does anybody recognize what language we're being hailed in?" he asked, not caring whether the woman on the other end of the line heard or understood him.
"Oh yes," Bhima answered immediately. "They're rakshasa."
Yudhisthira snapped his head toward Bhima, ignoring the instant flare of pain that shot down his spine. "What?!"
"I said that they're rakshasa…"
"Why didn't you say something earlier?!" The Yudhisthira caught himself. "Wait. How do you know what rakshasa language sounds like?"
Bhima opened his mouth to answer, but Nakula cut him off. "Great," Nakula snarled, "just great!" He pointed one finger angrily at Yudhisthira. "We're going to die out here now and it will be all your fault because those rakshasa are going to eat us alive except for maybe Sahadeva and I who might be lucky enough to be sold into sex slavery which would make this the third time in one week that you've ruined my life and--"
"Me?! How is this my fault?!"
"If it weren't for you then we would never have--"
"Nakula," Bhima said. He marched to the upper level of the bridge, the Duryona shaking ominously with his every step. "Sit down. And shut up. The comm is still open. They can hear you."
"They can't understand a word that we're saying and you know it," Nakula countered. "They're rakshasa, just a bunch of asura-spawned monsters, they don't even--"
"Greetings Kuru ship Duryona. Please respond if you understand this message. Over."
Yudhisthira momentarily allowed himself to relish the look on Nakula's face. The voice that they had just heard over the comm was still a woman's voice, and still as guttural and growly as the first voice had been, but clearly belonging to a different speaker. The new voice was speaking flawless High Kuru speech, too.
Yudhisthira held out his hands, signaling for the rest of the bridge to be silent. If only he had a working headset, he thought wistfully. Then he forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand. "This is the Duryona, yes," he said. "We are currently unable to intercept your identification broadcast," Yudhisthira said, as politely as he could. He realized that he probably sounded absurd, pointing this fact out to a rakshasa ship that had just forcefully dragged the Duryona out of jumpspace for what could under no circumstances possibly be a benevolent reason. "May I ask, uh, who…?"
"I will be acting as your interpreter," the woman responded, without bothering to answer Yudhisthira's question. "A small boarding party is preparing to shuttle to your docking lock. I will be accompanying the boarding party. We expect all seven of your crew members to be present at the docking lock and unarmed when we board. I assure you that our intentions are peaceful and will remain peaceful so long as we do not meet any resistance."
"What is your purpose for boarding?" Yudhisthira asked quickly.
"We intend to relieve you of some of your food supplies and munitions."
"But your intentions are 'peaceful.'"
"Yes. We mean no harm. Kuru captain… I do not know if you have figured this out yet, but this is a robbery. It does not have to turn into a massacre."
The threat behind the invisible woman's words was real and palpable. Yudhisthira could feel the eyes of his family boring into him. But he took a deep breath, and decided to make his gamble. "Please," he said, suddenly. "Your gravitational trap destroyed our jump drive. We are unable to return to jumpspace in our current state. We are willing to donate food and munitions in exchange for a few basic repair supplies."
For an endless moment, there was utter silence on the other end of the comm. Then the woman said, "Is this true?"
"Yes. It is absolutely true. I realize that we are in no position to make demands of you, and can only beg, throwing ourselves at your mercy. But please. Be you thieves or not, if your intentions are truly as noble as you claim, then you won't leave us stranded out here to face a slow and inevitable death. Will you?"
"I must consult with my superiors," the interpreter said, then abruptly ended the comm connection with an audible click.
Yudhisthira leaned back in his chair and let out a long, slow breath. Oh Lord, he prayed silently, please let this work.
"What was THAT?!" Nakula exploded, predictably. "Did you just surrender to a bunch of rakshasa?!"
"No, I didn't surrender," Yudhisthira answered calmly. "I begged them for mercy." He turned his head, ignoring the pain, and regarded each of them in turn – Sahadeva. Nakula. Bhima. Arjuna, who had followed Bhima up onto the bridge. Krishna. Draupadi. "We have no other choice," Yudhisthira said. "We need to repair the jump drive, or we will die. If we're lucky, if these rakshasa thieves are as fair-minded as they claim to be, then they will at least give us the supplies that we need to make the repairs ourselves. If not…" He trailed off, then looked at Arjuna. "We have somebody who can never be unarmed," Yudhisthira said, carefully. "And a narrow hallway outside of the docking lock. And--"
"You want me to kill them?" Arjuna asked, his voice a breathy, shocked whisper.
"No. I want you to take hostages."
"It may be our only way to force them to help us," Yudhisthira said.
"And if the big guys on board that ship decide that their hostages aren't worth saving…?" Bhima frowned down at his brother.
"Then we board their shuttle, take it back to the mother ship, and storm the ship until we get the supplies that we need – or take a hostage that matters, or something – and then make a daring escape. But that is Plan Number Three and I pray to the Lord that it won't come to that."
Draupadi whistled, impressed.
But Bhima apparently was still not. "There are problems with those plans," he said. "First, what are you going to do about the tractor beam? And second, I know that you would never actually go through with a threat to harm a hostage."
Yudhisthira bit his lip, thinking through his response. Then he answered, slowly and carefully, "Bhima, I do not lie. And if I say that I intend to harm a hostage if certain conditions are not met, then that will not be a lie." He closed his eyes. "May the Lord have mercy on my soul. But these are not innocents that we are – or might be – threatening here. If these rakshasas intend to let us die, then it will be in self-defense that we lash out against them. It will be justified."
Silence greeted this. Yudhisthira stared resolutely straight ahead at the alien ship still visible through the transparent canopy of the bridge, carefully avoiding the eyes of his wife or his brothers. But then he felt a cool hand on his shoulder. He looked up – a painful exertion, unfortunately – and saw Arjuna looking somberly down at him.
"For you, I am not afraid to draw blood with my arrows," he said. "I am not afraid."
Yudhisthira reached up, and touched Arjuna's resting hand with his own. "I still hope it will not come to that," he said.
"We're being hailed again," Draupadi suddenly announced, in lieu of the incoming comm signal that was apparently still not working. "Answering now."
"Duryona." The interpreter's voice filled the bridge again. "One of our mechanics will be accompanying our boarding party and will be willing to assist you with the most necessary repairs."
"Thank you," Yudhisthira said. And he meant it.
"Repeat: We expect all seven of you to be waiting by the docking lock when we arrive. Unarmed. We are rakshasas, and you will not be able to conceal weapons in our presence."
"Our continued benevolence in this affair depends on your continued cooperation."
"We will be docking shortly," the interpreter said. Then she abruptly cut off the comm signal for a second time.
Yudhisthira gripped the armrests of his chair, but forced himself to remain calm. "Well, you heard her," he said. "Get to the docking lock. Now. We are going to cooperate with them if we intend to survive this."
"You know they're going to steal our food, right?" Nakula said. "We need that to survive, too."
"If they're going to repair our engine so that we won't die out here, then they're probably going to leave us enough food to at least make it to a nearby port," Yudhisthira answered. "If not Gajapati, then we can stop at Angul." He glared at Nakula. "The human body can survive for a week without food."
"I can survive longer," Arjuna added helpfully. "This one time I went a whole month without eating anything--"
Bhima clapped a hand over Arjuna's mouth before he could go any further. "Not helping," he growled.
"Can you see them?"
Arjuna pressed his nose against the transparent viewing pane beside the docking lock. "Yes, they're coming." He frowned. The small shuttle approaching the Duryona appeared to be as haphazardly-constructed as the much larger mothership from which it had launched. Arjuna didn't understand how such a patchwork creation could even be space-worthy. But pondering that question wasn't doing him any good.
He stepped back from the viewing pane and took his place beside Bhima. They were all standing in a line in the hallway that ran alongside the docking lock; Bhima and Arjuna were standing closest to the lock. Arjuna understood exactly why he had been placed first in line nearest to the lock. He understood exactly what he was expected to do in case something went wrong.
I once faced down a deva himself, Arjuna reminded himself, forcefully. I can handle a few rakshasa. This is what I was trained to do. I will not disappoint Mr. Drona.
"Watch them carefully when they board," Draupadi said. "Consider them extremely unpredictable and volatile. This robbery must be an act of desperation on their part."
"How so?" Yudhisthira asked.
"What kind of rakshasa," Draupadi answered, "would rob a ship like ours to steal food supplies when they could, of course, just devour the crew instead?" She pointed to the viewing panel. "Do you see the size of that ship out there? They wouldn't normally bother to prey on a small catch like us unless they were facing some sort of terrible situation. So again, this must be an act of desperation." She turned to Arjuna. "Be very, very careful when they board. Don't make any sudden moves. If they're going to turn hostile, wait for themto turn hostile first."
Arjuna nodded at her. Then he turned his attention back toward the docking lock. "They're here," he said. Red warning lights flashed above the inner door of the lock; the rakshasa shuttle was docking.
Arjuna concentrated his gaze on the airlock door, slowed his breathing, and forced his mind to remain calm and blank. If something went wrong, he would only have seconds to react. Less than seconds. He needed to keep his senses under control, he needed to stay alert, he needed to—
A sharp, red-hot pain suddenly flared in Arjuna's chest.
He doubled over immediately, gasping with surprise, panicked fingers clutching at his own shirt. He vaguely heard Draupadi call his name and felt Bhima's hands reaching out to steady him. But the searing hot pain throbbing in his chest was rapidly overwhelming his senses. His thoughts whirled in a panic. What is it what is it oh god what if it's my heart again what if it's Gandiva I don't understand it hurts so much it's probably Gandiva it'll kill me this time it—
Voices shouting. Bhima's huge, rough hands tearing at his shirt. And then at his neck. Arjuna choked and gasped, and then—
Relief. The blessed, cool relief of the cold air within the Duryona on the bare skin of his chest.
The relief only lasted a moment, though. The pain was still there, although the source of it was gone. Arjuna looked down at the bare skin of his chest, red and welting and blistering. His eyes traveled further, attracted by the glow of red-hot metal. A broken chain at his feet. Ashwatthama's ring, still so hot that it burned with pure white light, rolling across the floor at Arjuna's feet.
The floor was melting. Or at least, the small portion of the floor that the ring was rolling across was melting.
"Water!" Draupadi was shouting. "Get him cold water!"
Arjuna was kneeling on the ground now. He wasn't sure exactly when he had gone from standing to kneeling, but there he was. The pain in his chest was still there, deep and hot. It wasn't just his skin that had been burnt – something more was going on. The damage was deeper than that. He felt as if his bones, his heart, and his lungs were on fire. Bhima was kneeling over him, still trying to work his shirt completely off his body, but Arjuna's limp arms were in the way. Arjuna tried to lift his arms to help Bhima, but they felt too heavy to move. Something's very wrong here. He lifted his head toward Bhima, tried to open his mouth, and tried to say something – to tell Bhima that there was something much, much worse than the burn on his skin happening to his body – but at that moment, the airlock door opened.
They must have heard us shouting, Arjuna though, numbly. I wonder what they thought was going on. He had his answer in an instant, however, when he suddenly found himself staring down the dark barrel of an unfamiliar weapon.
Things happened all at once. Arjuna couldn't see anything – his field of vision was filled completely by the weapon pointed in his face – but he could hear. Three voices at once. A rakashasa, who said something in his own language. Nakula, shouting "What did you do to him, you monsters?!" And Yudhisthira, at the same time, trying to push aside Nakula and explain, "We have an injured party, we're sorry, please put down your weapons, we--"
The last voice was the voice of the interpreter who had spoken to them over the comm.
Slowly, Bhima lifted his hands from Arjuna. "Hidimbi?!"
Then, the interpreter's voice again. "No. No. No no no no no. You're supposed to be a prince. What are you doing here?! You--"
"What am I doing here?! What are you doing here?! You told me that--"
Arjuna didn't get to hear the rest of this exchange, however. The darkness of the gun barrel in his face seemed to expand to swallow him whole; his hearing buzzed, his eyes rolled up into the back of his head, and he fainted dead away.
To be continued.