Author's Notes: Happy New Year, my readers! No, I assure you I have not forgotten about this story. Honestly, I will be shocked and humbled if anyone is still reading this with how sporadic my updates are. But if you are, then I guess I'll make a New Year's Resolution: to get over my writer's block and deliver more chapters!

Not much to say about this one in particular. I hope it's as enjoyable as the last update was. Savor it well, I intend to get the story really rolling soon!




Phaaze 09: Family Values

"I could be brown, I could be blue, I could be violet sky,

I could be hurtful, I could be purple, I could be anything that you like…"

I press my face to my hand. "Oh, man." This song hasn't been played since Earth's heyday ages ago—way before any colonies ever existed. I didn't know people still listened to this.

Nigul looks up from his work, Riina's suit sprawled out across the dining table in their spacious main deck. Well, spacious for me, anyway—for most people, I think. The Victor is by no means modest in terms of size. It's no giant, but my gunship barely covers the belly. "What is it?" he questions.

Words still lilting through my head as I respond. "I wasn't aware there were still existing copies of this song."

The Luminoth can't really smile. Facial expressions go a different way for them because they don't have the mouths to pull it off. But despite that, when I look up and see Nigul's face, he seems to be squinting his eyes as if he really could tug a smirk into the mix. "It's amazing, the things one can find on the black market."

I lift an eyebrow curiously. "You sure you didn't find it in a scrap heap?"

He trills a high-pitched note, which is his way of laughing. "Be careful about that; Riina would be insulted to hear such a blasphemous phrase."

Except Riina is, at the moment, taking a steam shower somewhere in the back of the ship, where the two of them live half the time…which explains where the music is coming from.

I haven't listened to music in the shower in years…

The memories keep my mind off the incessant twitching in my fingers, claws pushing uncomfortably against the inner mechanics of the suit. I am very glad the cannon-arm disguises such minute movements under its bulk. It does not, however, disguise tweak after tweak of accumulating agony searing through my veins as my self-destructive genetics cry out for lifeblood. It could not have chosen a more poorly-timed moment to resurface. "How much longer before we reach Kaon?" I ask, the impatience setting in.

"Another half hour, give or take," Nigul answered calmly. Then he adds, "Working energy subverters would make the trip a little shorter, but she'll overheat now if I make her go any faster."

A frown creases into my face and I drum my fingers inside the cannon-arm, trying to ignore the monstrous urges. "What do you have a set of subverters for? All you guys do is hunt pieces of technology, right?" It's not as if they need anything other than a good tractor beam, a grappling hook and the sturdiness to carry cargo, big and small. Owning subverters means there's extra goodies on the ship, which means they have more than the bare basics. I'm curious to know about the upgrades…from one custom-job owner to another.

Nigul trills again, threading a needle-head screwdriver into the mechanism on the left arm of Riina's suit, where her defensive energy blade recedes. The generators are turned off, obviously, for the Luminoth to work on its machinery and fix whatever is wrong. I'm a little mesmerized by the delicate attention he pours into the task. With those long fingers, many believe the Luminoth are all about the look of grace but terrible with handling objects. Clearly, they have never seen one put to work. "It would be faster to list what I don't need the subverters for."

"Humor me," I insist. "What else are you packing on this ship?"

There's a brief pause while Nigul twists the screwdriver around inside the suit, crossing it with a long metal hook, scissoring the two tools together to fix something so small I wouldn't be able to see it without squinting. All I can observe from here is his frustration with the repairs themselves and how he seeks to remedy the problem.

"Well, there was a high-functioning plasma grappling hook…as to what was not shot off, we are equipped with a second set of thrusters for an extra speed boost, and a whole host of miniature smart missiles, as well as a double-layer energy shield." Nigul paused in his work to meet my stare. "That's just naming the major components. I'm still hoping to get my hands on a better hyper-drive."

A blink, "What's wrong with your hyper-drive?"

Nigul lowers his tools and cranes his head over towards the nearby hallway. "Do you see those cryo-chambers over there?"

Hearing the term makes the gelatin muscles in my right arm squeeze until they tremble. Turning my head to look at them feels like a chore, the very thought of any sort of cold seizing the Metroid half of me in a primal, defensive terror. "We need those because the hyper-drive only works at half capacity, maximum. Meaning, in short, it can only take us half as far, and half the time we're only halfway to where we need to go."

"…I see." Quickly returning to him, eager for a distraction, "You must do some pretty deep salvaging, then. Even at half capacity, most hyper-drives can get normal Hunters to where they need to be."

"Correct—and we are no normal Hunters," Nigul chuckles. But as soon as he's back to work, he's also back to murmuring about repairs. "That hyper-drive's been broken since several missions ago. We get paid well for our services, but the drive I'm looking for is hard to find: at full strength it could carry us to the Black Band and back without fretting about an overload."

Sweet Jesus…not only do they have the ability to go that far, they actually have the balls to use it. The Black Band is a notorious expanse of space ringing in all known charted galaxies, a fair distance out from any concentrated civilization, but still known to exist by just about everyone. It is named so for the reason that in the Band, there is nothing but stars and asteroids. No technology…no colonies…nothing.

"We'd have a new one by now if the model weren't so elusive. That's the one problem with customizing a ship: you end up picking things that are either very obscure or strictly underground."

"I guess it also helps to conserve energy when you're out in the Band, huh?"

Nigul looks up quickly, eyes leering. "Oh, yes, but we never go into the Band!" He insists, shaking his head. "It's far too dangerous. Any expanse of space that big with no technology is every sane Hunter's nightmare. But we have come quite close many times. Still, even skirting along its edges can be a test of survival; part of being a Tech Hunter is learning how to stock and use supplies sparingly."

Makes sense…being away from home for a long time can be a serious measure of skill and willpower on any Hunter.

…My arm convulses again. The table shudders under its movements and I tug my arm back and press it to my side as subtly as I can. Beneath the bulk of my Fusion Suit, I can feel my body getting hot with sweat. Even my thoughts are drifting towards feeding time; a tiny voice in the back of my head wails and cries at me, weeping about how hungry I am. I feel lucky that Nigul doesn't notice my breakdown, and redirect all of my energy in trying to stave it off.

"So this Aether project-thing of yours, it's all about reversing the damage the Ing have done to the planet, right?"

Nigul goes on with his repairs, not bothered by my interruptions. He tinkers here and there with the suit, picking up small gears and mechanisms, swapping them in as he pulls out the damaged ones. "Not just that; we've lost a fair amount of records on our history thanks to them, and many of the technologies on Aether that help us to survive are either completely destroyed or severely damaged. That is why we go hunting for that very tech—so that we can restore Luminoth civilization and lower the body count. It isn't just the Ing that are a danger to us anymore." He looks up from his work momentarily as the song changes to something else in the background of the ship. "You know, Riina is one of the founders of the ARP. She's its co-executive and its most active hunter."

I'm genuinely surprised by this. "Really, now?" I muse. Co-executive and co-founder of a planet-wide restoration project, and spends her time scouring the galaxies for elusive technology when she's not pushing pencils—that's not bad at all. "She must make a pretty penny off of that."

"Riina receives a regular salary for her hunting, but refuses the pay she would normally be given as a manager."

This stuns me even more. "How is that smart? Just a few years of doing that kind of work, with a double salary like that, she'd be set for life…"

Nigul squints again and sounds a trill as he begins to repair the suit's missing pieces. A stack of small armor patches sit beside him that he can weld into shape to temporarily replace or patch over the open holes. "You don't know Riina very well yet," he chuckled. "She considers management a side job. Whenever at last we accomplish a mission and a piece of our history is laid bare in our hands, her eyes light up and she cheers for us. She'll marvel over our objective the entire way home, and then help to install it when we make landfall. Our kind's well-being is her passion."

Silence overtakes me then. Our kind's well-being is her passion. That sentence echoes in my ears, emphasizing the last two words: her passion. Riina is in love with the Luminoth so much that she puts her life on the line for them every day, risking breath and limb to bring them the tech they need to get back on their feet. I almost don't believe it. I don't hear such valiant stories anymore…for so long, the world I've lived in has been constructed of one bleak, filthy grime-hole after another, the stink of greed and petty squabbles offending my nostrils and blinding my eyes to the good that's still out there. For so long, I've dealt with nothing but scheming binge-rats and fallen has-beens, doing everything short of clawing eyes out for a decent pay to afford my food and rent.

It doesn't help that her being so enthralled by the Luminoth reminds me of one of my own past connections.

I don't cry. But I'm still deeply moved, and thoroughly impressed.

"Nigul likes to make fun of me." The voice prompts me to turn around, and I see Riina walking into the room, pale green towel wrapped around her, sweat and water still clinging to her skin. Another green towel is draped over her head, and she uses it to ruffle her hair dry as she walks into the room. I'm a bit startled by the sudden entry line, and have to wonder how long she'd been standing there. "He always says I'm too Luminoth for a human body," she explains. "Sometimes he likes to insist my mind got switched at birth and implanted in another baby. He forgets the only real human contact Luminoths have ever had is with the Federation, and that they're a bunch of frost-bitten asswipes."

I smirk. That does sound like the Federation.

"That is not making fun. That is a legitimate compliment," argued Nigul. "And besides, not even our human friends in the ARP are as culturally immersed as you are. You practically beat with the same heart as we do."

"Yeah, but I really owe it to you guys," Riina laughs. She comes up beside me to peek in on Nigul's work, and addresses me with a sideways glance. "You notice how the Celare is outwardly structured to imitate a Luminoth body? That was all Nigul's idea. He helped build it, along with myself and a couple others in his tribe. It was a present for founding the Aether Resurrection Project."

At this, I break into an amused smile. "If this was such a prestigious gift to you, why don't you take better care of it?"

Riina throws one arm up and it slaps against her side as it falls. "Great! Nigul, what did you say to her? Now you've got her ragging on me, too."

"I said nothing to encourage," Nigul hums, sparks spitting everywhere while he welds on temporary armor pieces, guarding his eyes with a pair of strange blue-tinted goggles. "Besides, I rather agree with her. Sometimes you come back with damage that could have easily been avoided."

"Aw, come on, give me a break! We can't all be perfect!" Watching her, I chuckle at Riina's protests. She shakes her head and sighs heavily, presumably because she settles with giving up the fight. She starts to turn away, glancing at me as she dries her hair. "Well, anyway, steam shower's free if you want it, Samus. I gotta go find a clean change of clothes before we dock back in Kaon."

I'm glad for it. Maybe getting clean will distract me from the ever-intensifying thirst my right arm desires to quench. "Thank you," is all I can sigh to this note, immediately getting up to go take Riina's place in the steam shower.

"Down that hall and through the first door on your left!" Riina shouts as I leave, pointing down the right direction. Following her advice, I reach a mid-sized bathroom and lock the door, molting my Fusion Suit and hanging it where available. Peeling my Metroid arm out yields the stink of old flesh-goo mixed with sweat that has caked onto the inside, making me wrinkle my nose in displeasure. Not a smell I'm not used to, but I can't be bothered to fix it. Every time I clean it out, twice as much as before returns to take the place of what I've purged. After a while, I failed to see the point of it—it only cakes up the protective inside and not the actual mechanics of my cannon, so there's no technical hazard.

I can't stop my arm from twitching while I force myself under the hot spray of steam and water droplets, and I can't stop the volatile half of my mind from begging for substantial food. It sickens me and I do everything possible to distract it, but more often than not end up clasping the monstrous arm to my stomach while the claws jerk this way and that. I glare at them, willing them to be still.

It seems like Fate is out to spite me, since as a rebuttal, pain snaps up my nerves and I cry out shortly as my Metroid arm seizes, tearing out of my grip, trembling something horrible. Flashes blink through my mind about my nightmares where I sink the claws into myself and drain me of my own life energy until someone comes along and touches me. My ashes fall to the floor under my feet and are washed away by the water and steam. Irrational terror strikes me during my hallucination. I pull myself out of the steam in a hurry, rush over to the sink and crank the water on, make it as cold as it can possibly get. I plunge my hand beneath the spray and it's all I can do not to scream, agony searing through me like frost on the fringe of a burning fire, needle-point stabs crawling up my arm and back down again.

But at least the bitch goes quiet, and I can go on with my life. My arm will be numb until feeding time. That's the way I'd like to keep it.

Still, I can't help but think: the mutation is getting worse. There are two halves of me now, and the other half just now very nearly took the driver's seat. It's getting sentient and it thinks it's got the balls to order me around.

Well, fuck you. You are not the boss of me. Try that shit again, and I'll blow you halfway to hell.