So: I am in love with sci-fi, and space, and I wanted to put the PJO characters in that world. Just imagine PJO with a little bit of your favorite space-faring movies and shows and games, and that is this. I do not claim to be any kind of expert on the realities of space or ships or futuristic societies, nor do I own any of these characters. Just having fun writing, and I hope you'll have some fun reading.
Full of rust and old air and home to near a thousand people. Forgotten ones, most: families from failed colonies, retired and disgraced soldiers, criminals, traders, adventurers with nowhere else to go. The old and sick and lost. The first time Percy ever saw the port, in those desperate days right after he'd been booted from CAMP, so many years ago, was from the cockpit of his own ship as it limped toward a dock—it'd looked so small and run-down, compared to the perfect silver labyrinth of the CAMP base, and he'd wondered how this little port was even functional at the edges of Federation space.
Now, it rests in its same place, unmoving through space, unchanged. Five crooked, reaching arms affixed to a central hub, lined with blinking lights and half a hundred smaller docks. Late-model, piecemeal ships landing to refuel and resupply before drifting out to space. Debris crowding the arms. Panels peeling loose. Paint long worn away.
Impossibly surviving. Much like the people inside, he supposes.
Perhaps it's that unlikely reliability that keeps him coming back. That, or the fact that the port does lie so close to the borders, close enough for him to go to ground, if he needs to. After everything that happened with CAMP, sometimes all that matters is being just far enough away.
And here? Here he can be nobody. Just as forgotten as everybody else.
"Captain," his pilot says, her voice smooth and even, the tone she takes when she's trying to hide her laughter. Usually at him. "Approaching dock."
He nods, leans against the back of her chair. "Bring us in smooth, Pipes."
Gently she pushes forward against the hard-light holo-controls, glowing soft blue against her hands. Outside the wide window in front of them, a door inches open, slow as can be, at the side of the hub, revealing a large, empty room and a wide set of doors that lead to the main garage. Docking clamps wait along the floor and walls to grab the ship into lock. Piper's hands are steady at the controls as she moves the ship into place.
Steady, he thinks, remembering when she was not, remembering the way the ship would tremble as she did behind the controls. Watch the starboard wing. Push us lower. Slow, slow and steady.
"I've got it."
Percy releases his grip on the chair and crosses his arms. "I didn't say anything."
"I can feel you freaking," she says. Eyes narrowed, lips pursed. Decidedly not looking at his fingers drumming against his elbow. "Shut your eyes or something."
He does. He closes his eyes and places his faith and his ship entirely in Piper's hands, closes his eyes and breathes… but the empty black beneath his eyelids doesn't help. So he watches instead as she guides the ship into dock without incident, watches the clamps shut, watches the lights on the control panel blink the all-clear, reflecting on Piper's face as she leans back and grins at him.
"We're green, Captain."
He exhales. "Knew you could do it."
"You didn't, but thanks for saying so." Her smile slips, if only for a moment, and then it morphs to a smirk, too sharp. "So," she says, crossing her legs, planting her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands. "You change your mind about letting me in on this shore leave?"
"Supply pick up, not leave," he says, pointing at her. There's a heartbeat of silence, Piper's inhale, and then Percy says, "And before you say it, the only reason Leo's going is to choose what parts we need to keep the engine going."
She groans. "Come on, Captain. I haven't left the ship in weeks. I feel like my ass is growing to my chair."
Her eyes are wide and beguiling and shameless, just as they are every other time she manages to talk him into something, and he's not falling for it this time. Not when he needs someone to stay with the ship. Not when it needs to be someone quick enough to get them out of port if something goes sideways (when, he tells himself, when things go sideways, because there's always something, an accident or incident or some peripheral noise that raises the hairs on the back of his neck, a fight-or-flight go, run, go instinct).
With a sigh, he falls into the co-pilot's chair next to her, stretches his legs to rest in the little aisle that runs between the consoles. Percy laces his fingers together on his stomach; Piper steeples hers and rests the tips of her fingers against her chin.
Finally Percy says, "Remember when you had shore leave last? You got arrested."
"That was an accident."
"He was a diplomat. And you broke his nose."
"He deserved it!"
"Not saying he didn't. I wanted to see you take that guy to the ground," Percy says, remembering the vivid well of blood that fell from the man's shocked face, the crooked angle of his nose, Piper's clenched fists and deep frown that was at once anger and triumph. He remembers, too, the paparazzi and their cameras. "But it was on the Net that next minute, and you know we can't get caught that close to CAMP, Pipes. They'd take you and Leo into custody, open up the ship, and once they found the engine, they'd probably make sure Grover and I were dead for real this time."
She sighs. The exhale takes the stiffness from her spine, and she sinks low in her chair, pulling her knees to her chest. "What about your advisor? Wouldn't he—"
And here, Percy almost laughs. "What, protect me? Stick his neck out for me. If anybody there found out I was alive—and that he and the Director let me go, with his ship—it'd be his ass on the line."
"But he claimed you. They told us that meant something."
"Yeah," Percy says.
The word hangs between them, quiet.
Eighteen years old, he thinks as she tilts her chair toward the console. Piper is eighteen and out here in the black and after everything she's seen, she still believes.
If the past four years hadn't happened the way they had, if, maybe, he'd stayed on Earth, or been chosen by another advisor, or been successful in his mission—if something had gone differently, would he see the hope in the light of the stars the way Piper does? Or would he still only see the gaping, dark spaces in between?
There are days he curses CAMP and all of his years there, but most others, he's almost thankful.
He owns a ship. It's his, even if he inadvertently stole it, and even if he definitely had a hand in stealing the half-finished engine prototype. Once he'd made it far enough through his training, the Director had taken him to the massive garage deck on the CAMP base, claiming to have a surprise for him, and when the doors opened—the way it sat there, sleek and compact and gleaming a bright black sheen, the word Anaklusmos written on its side in bold, flowing letters; the way the Director gripped Percy's shoulder, and his words, "We've been waiting for a successful Poseidon candidate for a while now. When you're through, you'll have this ship to command."
His, waiting for him before he even left Earth.
If he'd believed in something like fate, he'd felt it that day in the cool balloon of air in his lungs, the skip in his breath as he ran his hand across the cool metal hull.
The path he takes now through its halls is instinctual. Out of the cockpit, through the bridge, down the stairs and through the second deck, past the storage rooms, and down into the cargo bay, where Grover waits for him, sitting on a crate. He is focused on a worn piece of paper on his lap. As he reads, his furry legs swing back and forth, his hooves tapping an uneven rhythm on the edge.
"Hey," Percy calls, laughing when Grover nearly slips off the crate. "Sorry. You ready?"
Grover fumbles to fold the paper and slip it into his vest pocket. "Yeah. Still waiting on Leo."
"My favorite game."
"He said he forgot something he needed for his list? And then he ran back down to the engine room. Sure we won't see him for a while."
Percy's sure that's true, but they have a schedule to keep here, as minor as it is. He walks over to the comm panel and pushes the button for the engine room. "Leo! Get down here or we're leaving without you."
A brief pause of crackling, followed by a loud bang, and then Leo shouts, "Coming! Coming, gods, will you wait for like, two minutes?"
"Nope, got to go now. We have that salvage we have to swing by in a few days, remember?"
Grover laughs. "That salvage near the Didyma System? The one he's been talking about for weeks now?"
"Figured it'd get him moving," Percy says, grinning. He reaches down to adjust his boots and makes sure his pistol's tucked safely into his belt. While not completely prohibited, weapon-carrying is highly frowned upon on Spaceport 49—and with weak security, vigilantes, and criminals holing up in the same space, it means everybody who can get their hands on a gun likely has one.
Footsteps pound down the hallway, step heavy and quick down the stairs. Leo emerges with his hands full of junk and his coveralls covered in grease and mumbling curses just loud enough for Percy to hear.
"I'm here, I'm here, and I hate you."
"And you smell. Badly." Percy puts his hand on Leo's shoulder and steers him toward the open bay ramp. Grover slides off his crate and follows. As they step off the ramp and make their way toward the large doors that will take them through the garage, Percy's ear comm chirps. B-beep!
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do," Piper sings.
"That isn't a whole lot."
"Hey Boss." Leo jams his elbow into Percy's ribs, loses his grip on a battered old tablet. Grover catches it, tries to balance it in Leo's arms as they continue to walk, and then thinks better of it. Leo nods in thanks. He glances at the thing every few steps as if it's likely to explode. "You think we could swing by that place across from Horace's taco stand?"
Grover's eyes light. "He puts anything in a taco."
"Yeah," Percy says, pulling open the garage doors. He could go for a taco. Hell, anything non-dried or pill-shaped and he'd probably inhale it. "Let's go."
As the doors to their dock swing shut on Percy's ship, as the full, busy noise of Spaceport 49 welcomes them, Percy feels himself relax.
There's something about this place. Ship crew amble through the garage, toting wrenches, or parts, or, as one man does, a cluster of wires in his mouth, a baby. Grover ducks out of the way of a two Harpies and a woman carrying a large metal wing; Percy helps another Satyr trying to push a jack underneath his transport jeep; Leo juggles the mess in his arms. They pass more and more people as they approach the doors to the hub—people dressed just as they are, in scuffed boots and age-worn pants and almost-white shirts that haven't seen a wash in a while; used, worn, well-loved clothes, thin leathers in Earth browns, cottons in a faded rainbow of colors, all such a contrast to his old monotone fatigues. As they walk, Percy counts more than a dozen hidden guns, tries to ignore the way Grover sneezes as they enter the crowded marketplace, and focuses instead on Leo, who is short and disappears easily and is watching the second tablet in his arms instead of where he's going.
"We need a leash," Grover tells Percy, taking the back of Leo's arm and tugging him out of the way of a large Cyclops stomping through the crowd.
Leo shakes his head. He still hasn't looked up. "We do not need a leash."
Grover keeps hold of him anyway, right until they reach Leo's favorite electronics store and the kid barely holds himself from running inside. Percy and Grover hover at Horace's taco stand for a while. Grover gets a fish enchilada (where does the fish come from? Percy wonders, has wondered before, as it is slightly gray-purple and bumpy and smells like flowers, and that can't be normal, right?), and Percy settles on a veggie wrap. They talk about tacos for a while. It is probably Grover's favorite subject. Eventually Grover orders a second enchilada, then a third, and they say goodbye to Horace to wait for Leo.
From their position, leaning against the wall of the store his engineer is looking to spend all their money in, Percy can watch the steady flow of people through the busy market. This central hub of the spaceport is a large ring, with different sectors that include apartments and business offices and medical clinics, a small section of research development, and the rest devoted to shipping and storage. Sector B, here, is supposed to be a simple line of stores, but has grown to a teeming marketplace, with vendors of all races setting up shop next to the storefronts and often in the middle of the corridor.
It's a loud, near claustrophobic mess of boxes and music and bodies, unfamiliar smells and languages and colors, but watching the flow of people and letting everything wash over him is somehow comforting. Which is why, when Grover takes a huge bite and turns to Percy with gray-purple fish chunks hanging out of his mouth, Percy is first grossed out, then confused.
"Stop worrying," Grover manages to say.
And what is it today with his crew bossing him around? "I'm not worrying," he says, balling up the greasy wrapper and tossing it into a nearby bin. "I'm feeling pretty good about this. Leo gets his parts, we swing by Smithson's for our ration order, and then we're good."
"Worrying," Grover says. "Know how I know you're lying? Know how I always know you're lying?"
"Don't say 'empathy link.'"
"Empathy link," he says, tapping at his forehead. The slight curl of his horns peek out from his hair. The first time Percy felt the hint of Grover's emotions—the heavy press of worry against his chest, confusion, a heady sense of wonderment, because these links, he remembered from his studies, were forever 'til death—he thought, first, not about actually feeling somebody else's emotions, but that his best friend was an alien with furry legs and hooves and horns, and wasn't that weird?
"And anyway," Grover continues, "We're fine. This place has been running since you humans started building them out here. I mean, look at the rust on these walls—"
Percy laughs as Grover motions to the nearby walls. Old, yeah, he gets it. Old and safe and totally, completely reliable, in all its patched-up, air-tight glory. By the time their food vendor is ready to talk and Leo comes out of the electronics store, a small knit bag over his shoulder and his face drawn, Grover has finished up his third enchilada and is ready to bargain with the vendor, Smithson.
They order several crates of ration bars and powdered food and nutrient capsules. Grover talks the vendor into discounting a few refrigerated boxes of frozen meat. Leo orders himself an enchilada from Horace. Keeping an ear on the negotiations (and an eye on Leo, who has no misgivings about stealing right under the vendor's nose, not to mention whatever he might've stolen from the electronics store), Percy circles the cart, examining clusters of weird-looking pink and purple gourds, long spears of red grass, a basket of green, knobby stems that smell like aloe. He's surprised to find, in the back, almost hidden, a small carton of strawberries.
They're small and jewel-red and he thinks of Piper, back at the ship, alone.
He picks the carton up and leans in to peer at each individual seed as if he knows that he's looking for. "These ground-grown?"
The vendor nods, proud. "Straight from a colony on Goshill, sir."
"For these? Hundred credits easy."
A hundred credits. For strawberries.
Leo voices his disapproval. They've played this game too many times before. Poor Smithson. "What a rip-off! I know a guy down near Sector C who has some fruit from Earth at half that."
Percy narrows his eyes and motions Grover closer, hands over the carton. "These real?"
"That's kind of racist of you, Percy." He stares at the berries anyway. Smithson glances between them as Grover sniffs at the carton. His nose wrinkles. "Lots of chemicals, man. Made in a lab or highly fertilized. Doesn't seem likely for a colony export. Smells kind of like Mist, too. Not good."
Percy nods. "Knock fifty credits off your price and I won't let it get around that you're ripping off your customers. And another two hundred off the crates of rations we're ordering, too."
The vendor readily agrees to this, at once apologetic to Percy and Grover and outraged at his supplier—and Percy almost, almost feels bad about his manipulation until he thinks about the state of his accounts and how little he has to spend. He's about as poor as a captain can be without permanently docking his ship.
He signs for his rations and arranges for pickup at the docking bay, takes the box of strawberries, and is turning to follow Grover and Leo back when something catches his eye.
A tiny green light. Blinking. Right between two metal crates just a few feet away.
And it's not instinct that pulls him toward it—that is screaming loudly, run, go, run, this is not your problem, not anymore—but a curiosity, a trained reflex to investigate. Hidden lights often spell bad news.
It's probably not a good thing he's drawn toward calamity.
"What is that," he murmurs, kneeling to get a better look. He wriggles his fingers between the crates and pulls them apart. Attached to the side of the crate on the right is a small device. Sleek, circular, ringed with lights. Cool to the touch.
His world narrows.
It's easy for Percy to forget, sometimes, that he spends his life in ships, enclosed by metal walls that are his only protection from the gaping expanse of vacuum outside. The remembering part comes much easier—when their gravity core malfunctions and he loses his footing on the ground, or he hears about someone being tossed out a hatch or trapped in an airlock, or he simply looks outside a viewport.
Stars and nebulae and planets, distant galaxies, blackness as far as he can see, farther than he can fathom—it all looks back at him. Always. No matter how quickly the wide stretch of space became his new sea once he left Earth, it's not hard to remind himself that he cannot hold the universe in his lungs. Because drowning out there? No escape from the frost in your bones and the sucking emptiness in your lungs and the pounding beat of your own panic in your ears, right behind your eyes, in every pump of your near-bursting heart?
It's woken him up in a choking panic before.
And all these people, crammed inside this port, breathing the same recycled, stale air that's probably hundreds of years old, happily forgetful of the fact that it'd take a single hull breach or cracked viewport to crush their lungs inside their bodies—
It's all he can think about as he realizes what it is he is looking at.
And perhaps it's not big enough to wipe out this whole section of the port, but it's enough to open a hole in a few floors, at least—and it's already counting down the seconds—its presence mocking him to react, to move—
equip breather, disarm if possible, clear area of civilians, locate possible suspect
—and Leo, Leo moves first. Forward instead of away. It's the reality of Leo's reaching hands—hands that invent and fix and create, long-fingered and nimble, gentle around the broken wounds of his ship, hands that can't afford to be blown to blood and gristle—that brings Percy back . As quickly, he grabs for the back of Leo's collar and pulls until he falls back into Percy's chest.
Leash. They need a leash.
Civilians. So many civilians. He is a civilian, now, and he should remember that, but that green light is still blinking. Blinking. Blinking. Three seconds. Four. Move.
"Bomb," he says. Then, louder, shouting over the bustle of the marketplace, over the music and voices and moving bodies, over the roar in his head, "Bomb! Clear the area! Move, move, now!"
He pushes Leo back. People in the area start to back away. Smithson and Horace pale and abandon their cars. Percy's hands are steady as he pulls the lid off the crate and yanks the device off the side. It's so small and cold in his hands, winking up at him, the contained potential of a newborn star. A woman sees it, screams. It ignites the crowd. People climb over carts, try to shove their way through the narrow spaces between one another. How many seconds has he lost? How many more do they have to get as far away as possible?
Will it be far enough?
He tosses the device into the box and shoves the lid shut. There's no lock. That won't matter. Grover and Leo are still there when he turns around, and he's too focused to be angry.
"We can't just let it go," Leo shouts. Percy takes the back of Leo's shirt again and pushes him through the crowd. "Captain, I can disarm it. Let me go! I can do it!"
Someone falls into Percy's side, knocks him into Grover, almost loosens his grip on Leo. Spaceport 49 Security—finally doing their jobs, and where were they to prevent this from happening, anyway—try to form some kind of order, but there is nothing but mayhem, a writhing mass of panic, and too many people between here and the docking bay.
He presses his ear comm. B-beep! "Piper. Can you hear me? Tell me they haven't shut down comms."
For a long moment there is only silence from the other end. Leo trips over someone and apologizes, is unable to resist the flow of the crowd and the hand pushing him ever forward. Grover is somewhere to their right. An alarm is triggered and blares shrill over the port-wide intercom, sings through the metal walls. Percy feels his heart grow cold.
Then, b…b-beeeeep! and Piper's voice in his ear: "No, yeah, I—ave you. What—ing on? Th—lot of cha—ou guys over there?"
"Transmission's breaking up," Percy shouts. "We're headed back to the docking bay. Get the ship ready to go as soon as we make it back."
"—said—en a bomber, or som—ow what's going on!"
"Yeah. There's going to be an explosion," he says, and feels himself pushed forward by the crowd. The end of Sector B is in sight, yards away, where a hall branches off the main hub to docking bay 3. They've only made it two stores down. If they can just get there—
Grover stiffens. He reaches for Percy—a lifetime away, a girl's voice, knowing, Satyrs are especially protective of their assigned operative, Jackson, and with a link, they'll keep you safe no matter the cost—and Percy falls into Leo, shielding him, to the ground. The hair raises on the back of his neck, and the sound, the sound that follows expands, swells in his head, nearly knocks him blind.