"One of you come out," a soldier called out. "The rest of you remain in the ship."
"I'll go," Kirrik said, although not loudly enough for the soldiers to hear him.
"It's my place, since nearly everyone on here is my crew," Aeyris contradicted him. "That gives me the say. You're already responsible for getting us here. Let's not end up in even bigger trouble."
"Oh, that's fine. Sending a pirate captain out is going to really impress them. I've got an official position, so we may as well make use of it."
"So what?" Aeyris replied with a short sarcastic laugh. "Whatever proof you may have had of that is back on that asteroid."
Kirrik shook his head in exasperation. "I've had training in dealing with people. You haven't."
Their arguement was interrupted by the soldier shouting out to them "Hurry up."
"We've got a joint leadership, which is proving awkward at this moment," Aeyris said.
There was a pause from the soldier, then "How many people do you wish to send?"
"Very well, two will be acceptable. Leave any weapons on board."
"We want assurances for our safety, and a comm link to our ship available at all times," Kirrik shouted out.
"Very well. Now get out of there."
"Just a minute whilst I fetch the link."
"You've got thirty seconds."
Aeyris quickly rushed back to the bridge to grab a link. When he was back at the entrance he ordered one of his men "If you loose the link break out of here and blast the place."
He carefully hopped out of Constrictor, wincing when he put his weight on his still sore leg. Kirrik followed, just as uncomfortably. Five soldiers came forward, guns pointed slightly down to suggest that they were not about to be used, but held high enough to be fired instantly at the first sign of trouble.
They left the docking bay surrounded by soldiers, and were marched into the station. They had not gone far before they entered a wide room, where display screens stretched around most of the walls. People were watching them, others were working busily on consoles, and a murmur of voices filled the air. What words could be picked up did not sound like casual conversation.
Another room opened onto the control centre, on its far side a window looked out to space. One of the post's docking arms could be seen through the window; it caught the red glare of the star and threw it into the room. There was no other light source, so when the door closed the figure standing on the other side of a desk was silhouetted in the dim glow.
The figure stood watching them silently. The outline was almost human, apart from the wide head and peculiar stance. The head moved slightly, as if turning to look from Kirrik to Aeyris and back again.
"Space can bring many strange things," it said at last. The voice, if it were human, would have sounded androgynous, and had a peculiar accent and oddly musical tone.
"You are human," it stated at Aeyris. Turning slightly to face Kirrik, it continued "But you I do not recognise. Not from a Treaty world, nor any Schriy planet I know of. Perhaps your claims are true?"
"Claims?" asked Kirrik.
"That you come from the Far Colonies. Your ship is of strange design, yet we see familiar hints in it, ones which bear a greater resemblance to designs from there. Yet who knows what may have changed in hundreds of years?"
"And what are you?" Aeyris said.
"I say nothing about myself until I know you. Security is a concern, greater than courtesy. Where are you from, why are you here?"
"Security is a concern of mine, too," Kirrik said. "So I'm not saying anything either."
"This cannot be allowed. I am in the stronger position here."
Aeyris started to speak, until Kirrik elbowed him in the ribs. Aeyris responded quietly but angrily. "We aren't going anywhere without the help of this lot," he whispered. "Your concerns are over-ruled this time."
"Interesting," noted the strange alien. "Self interest against a larger cause. Selfishness versus paranoia? Or the realisation there might not be a threat against a very possible one? You cannot resolve this without knowing what is here. And the same concerns work in me. Yet remember that you are alone, and I am not." This could have been a threat, but the expression in the voice had not changed.
"We're always bickering," Aeyris said.
"Very well," Kirrik sighed. "I was investigating an illegal base on a remote asteroid. I was caught, but rescued by his people," he nodded at Aeyris,"who had been stranded on the asteroid when the base was built. We all escaped on the ship you've got here."
"How did you reach us?"
"Some ancient device. The ship was programmed to take us to it."
"Tell me about this device."
"We've nothing to say," Aeyris said. "It pulled us in, three days later we found ourselves over a thousand light years from home."
The creature on the other side of the desk sat down, and pressed a button. Artificial lighting suddenly illuminated the room. Aeyris covered his eyes with his hands in the unexpected brightness. The alien's face was revealed at last - widely spaced eyes, nose and mouth almost a muzzle, pale grey fur covering the skin.
"You have passed unmolested through Thargoid territory," it stated.
"What?" said Aeyris, who was still concentrating on blinking in the light.
"I said what about the Thargoids?"
"Never saw any sign of anything. We weren't travelling in ordinary hyperspace."
Their interrogator sat silently, without any discernible expression. When it spoke again it was without any warning. "Give me your sensor and scanner logs," it ordered.
"May I?" Kirrik asked Aeyris. Aeyris handed him the commlink.
"Have you got a storage unit handy?" he asked the alien.
It pulled open a draw in the desk and took out a small box and handed it to Kirrik. He held it next to the commlink's interface port and tapped a few buttons. There was a pause of ten seconds or so before an artificial voice spoke "Device understood."
"Come in, ship," Kirrik said.
"What's up?" asked a voice that sounded like one of the pirates.
"Nothing. Send sensor and scanner logs for three minutes up to entry of the portal at Esdi."
"Give us a moment, then," the voice replied.
Time passed with Kirrik standing and watching the commlink, Aeyris fidgeting with his hands, and the alien watching them quietly.
"OK, transmitting," the same voice said. A message "Receiving data stream" appeared on the commlink's tiny display. "Anything else?" the pirate on the ship said a minute later, as the message flashed off.
"Not yet. Kirrik out." He tossed the box to the alien.
The storage device fitted into a slot on the desk, then a screen popped up next to the slot. With it's usual lack of expression the alien studied it for several minutes, seemingly ignoring the two people standing opposite it.
"Interesting, I'll agree," it announced when it had finished. "This will be analysed further. If it is a fake we'll know. Return to your ship."
They were escorted back to the Constrictor. In their absence numerous scanners and cameras had been placed in the docking bay, no doubt to ensure that nobody tried anything hostile.
Back on the ship, things were tense. Armed guards stood in the entranceway, and they found two more on the bridge. They were making no move to prevent anyone from doing anything, but their presence was certainly not a reassuring sign.
Better news was found in the wardroom. There was another soldier there, but the injured Garath was being looked over by a doctor and Marchero and Arrachachak were eating food that must have been provided by the post.
"Well?" Marchero said as they entered the room.
Aeyris glanced at the soldier. "I'm not sure. Things are fine, so far."
"That's a lot of help. You must of had as much luck getting information out of this lot as we have. This guy here," she said, jabbing a spoon towards the soldier, "hasn't said a word." Kirrik winced at her cavalier attitude towards an armed and possibly hostile woman.
"Ah, let's forget it then," Aeryis said. "I'm lying down." He left the room heading for the sleeping quarters. Kirrik watched him leave, then shrugged and sat down at the table.
"Any more food?" Arrachachak pushed a half full bowl of soup over to him. Kirrik finished it, then sat back, looking around. The guard stood near the doorway they had entered from. Marchero was eating a chunk of what appeared to be a bread of some kind, and not paying much attention to anyone else. Arrachachak was in turn watching Kirrik. Although attempting to read alien body language was a pointless exercise for someone not very familiar with the species, he may have been curious as to what Kirrik was thinking. The doctor was busy tending Garath, who in turn was more concerned with his state than anything else.
Arrachachak caught Kirrik's thoughtful look at the medic. "He's no more interesting than the soldier," he told Kirrik. "Only says what he needs to say to do his job."
"Hey, doctor!" Kirrik called out.
The doctor stopped working to answer him. "Do you need medical attention?"
"A bit. They didn't do a great job of patching me up earlier. I'm Kirrik, by the way."
"I'll attend to you when I finish with this man." He returned to Garath.
"See," Marchero snickered.
"Here's an idea," Arrachachak said. "Can you irritate the doctor into saying something as much as you do with Kirrik?" Kirrik shook his head slightly, but Marchero chuckled.
"What did you find out?" Arrachachak asked him.
A shrug, then "Suspicion, of us. Understandable, I suppose. The person we saw mentioned some treaty and a race or group called the Schriy."
"Who did you see?"
"Might have been the base commander. He, or she for all I know, or it, didn't say anything about themselves."
"Not human, then?" Marchero said.
"No. Why bother asking, as if you only expect your lot here? A bit arrogant, aren't you?"
Marchero threw a piece of bread at Kirrik. "Calm down," Arrachachak told them. "We've only seen humans here so far, that's why she asked. What's the problem with you two, anyway?"
"Oh, his lot rub my nerves raw. Running around the galaxy expecting everyone to do their bidding to help fulfil their high and mighty goals," Marchero sneered. "They've been treating me like a slave, really."
Kirrik replied with short shake of his head and a "Hah."
"Why join them then?" Arrachachak asked her.
"You think I had any choice? Dragged out of the frying pan and into the fire."
"I think you're irritating personality predates your meeting with Williams and Jalsa," Kirrik stated.
"What do you know about me? You spend all your time ordering me around and ignoring what I say."
"And you spend most of yours trying to wind me up. It's infantile."
"It keeps me from thinking too much about the mess we're in," Marchero muttered.
Kirrik opened his mouth to speak, but then stopped in surprise at her revelation.
"I still can't stand you, though," Marchero added.
"How nice, we're all, well, slightly less hostile, at any rate," Arrachachak announced.
The doctor had finished tending Garath, and broke up their exchange by occupying Kirrik with questions about the nature of his injuries and what had been done to treat them. Marchero returned to her food, and Arrachachak dug around in a cupboard until he found a pack of cards, and tried to persuade Garath to have a game.
When the door opened it wasn't a pirate or another soldier entering the room, but the being Kirrik and Aeyris had spoken to earlier.
"Well?" Kirrik asked.
"All very strange. So there is a ship on the way to take you back to base."