The room was long, with windows down either side and in the ceiling. The only break from the black space beyond them were the steady lights of of a couple of ships; the stars could not be seen from the illuminated room. Eight makeshift beds lined the walls, their occupants battered and still unconscious. A pair of nurses were was moving down the rows, examining each patient before leaving the room.
Arrachachak was the first to awake, and even then it was a while before he began to notice his surroundings. The giant tried to sit up, but grunted in pain and laid back.
"Anyone here?" he called quietly from his prone position. Nobody answered.
The time passed slowly as he lay there, staring at the ceiling, until he heard a rustling and a groan from elsewhere in the room.
The other person groaned again as they began to come round.
"Arrachachak?" Sawaka's voice asked.
"Right. What's going on? I can't move much to see."
Sawaka was lift herself up on her elbows and peer around the room and give a report.
"I don't know where this place is," she began, "but it looks like a hospital ward. There are several other beds."
"Who's in them?" Arrachachak asked urgently.
"I can't see them all properly," Sawaka replied in a tired voice. "Marchero's next to me. There's Garath, and I think it's Mu next to him. Kirrik's here, that's probably Silsi over there. I can't see who it is in the corner."
"I don't think so." She dropped back onto the bed and closed her eyes. "What's going on?" she asked plaintively.
"Like I know."
One by one the six other people gradually woke up, revealing the man in the corner to be Mychov. All were hurt, some more than others, but the fact that they had come round at vaguely the same time suggested they had all been kept asleep artificially.
Recollections about what had happened were understandably vague, and no-one could remember beyond the final bang when the ship had died. Talk of those events distressed a couple of them, and soon they all gave up on attempting conversation.
They were eventually attended by a doctor, recognisable as the man who had treated some of them back on the listening post. He proved almost as uninformative as previously, only this time there was the odd flicker of a grimace on his face as he tried to evade their questions.
It must have been close to a day before they received answers, by which time they had all recovered by various degrees. Arrachachak was comfortably propped up in his bed; some of the others were able to walk, although there was nowhere to go apart from the bathroom at one end of the temporary ward. Mychov had been peering through the windows, his hands screening his eyes from the room's lights.
"Vipers," he announced eventually.
"The same ones that were in the fight?" Kirrik suggested.
"I didn't see the fight," Mychov replied flatly, taking his hands away from his face.
They were interrupted by a chime at the door.
"What's the point of ringing when we're locked in?" Marchero called out. There was a pause, and the door slid open, revealing the post's alien commander.
It's gaze passed around the room. "You are recovering? Yes, it would seem so. That is pleasing," it noted.
"What does - he? she? want?" Marchero sighed to Mu.
"'He' will suffice," the alien informed her. "Although it is not entirely accurate."
"It would be inappropriate of me not to visit you at some time. I offer a thank you for your assistance."
Kirrik laughed at him. "It didn't seem to do much good."
"On the contrary. Your collision with the Schriy's shields was enough to reduce them sufficiently for our ships to destroy it."
"Shields? We weren't even close to it!" Silsi exclaimed.
"You were informed that the technology was different. Did your sensors not show you the extent of the protective field?"
"No," she replied angrily. "Thanks for telling us now."
The alien seemed unperturbed by her hostile reaction to his information. "Then I apologise," he said simply.
"Where are the others?" asked Arrachachak.
"The rest of the crew of your vessel, including the man in joint command, are dead."
There was an angry buzz from the patients.
"You should have told us straight away!" someone shouted.
The alien looked as calm as ever. "It was the opinion of my medical officer that you should start your recovery first."
From his perch on the edge of his bed Garath hopped to his feet and starting to make his threatening but limping way towards the commander.
"I had your wellbeing in mind. You are not in a condition in which to fight, anyhow."
"Too bad!" Garath screamed back, continuing his slow advance. Marchero grabbed him by his shoulders. He tried to shake her off then yelped suddenly as he twisted his hurt leg. With a final shrug he freed himself and hopped over to sit down on the nearest bed.
"We won't forget this," he snarled.
"And we will not forget your assistance in the battle, which enabled us to escape. I wish to discuss your future with you, but I perceive that task must wait until a later time. Goodbye."
Left on their own, they were sitting in uncomfortable quiet, one or two, including Garath, muttering silently to themselves, the rest lost in a private depression at the news. Marchero stood where Garath had left her, watching them suspiciously.
"Look, it happens in your business. People die."
Without warning Garath swung around, still sitting, and lashed out at her. He caught her on the side of the head, and she was sent reeling back. Marchero recovered quickly and stepped back out of reach of his next blow.
"You little bastard!" she screeched at Garath, now darting forward to hit him. Her fist knocked his head back but he shoved her away at the same time, causing her to stumble over a bed leg and fall in a heap.
"Stop it!" Kirrik called out from his prone position. Garath made no attempt to move, but sat there glowering. Marchero was starting to rise, only to collapse suddenly. Her opponent started to taunt her until Kirrik called at him to shut up.
Arrachachak, who's bed she had stumbled over, rolled onto his side to look at her.
"She's out of it," he called.
"She hardly even hit her head," Garath retorted scornfully.
"Stop babbling!" Kirrik called. "Go and get some help, quick!"
"Why? Let the bitch die."
Silsi ignored him and started pounding and yelling at the door. When it slid open there was only a guard standing on the other side.
"What?" she demanded angrily.
"Get your doctors. Somone's just collapsed."
The guard snapped a quick order at someone just out of sight, then disappeared, leaving the door open. Another soldier stepped in to fill the gap.
Two doctors arrived a minute later, pushing a floating stretcher along with them. They quickly examined her before demanding, "What happened?"
"Squabbling and fighting, as usual," Mychov remarked.
"What?! She's already suffered internal injuries. Haven't you people got any common sense?"
"Considering the fact that's the first you've told any of us about what's wrong with us, possibly more than you," he returned.
The doctors lowered the stretcher to the floor and gently lifted Marchero onto it. As they were carrying her from the room one of them turned back to the rest of the Constrictor's survivors.
"For goodness' sake, keep yourselves under control. I'll be back later to tell the rest of you what's up, if it's the only way to keep you from killing yourselves."
With the medics gone, and the door shut, Garath remarked nastily, "With her gone we've less cause to get into fights."
"Look, I know how bloody irritating Marchero can be," Kirrik told him. "But the doctor's right. We've got to calm down."
"That's fine, coming from you. You got us into this mess!"
Silsi clenched her hands to her temples. "Why are we always arguing?" she exclaimed. "There's been nothing but bickering ever since we left Esdi. Can't it wait until we're out of trouble? We can fight all we want when we're back home. Marchero didn't kill Aeyris and the others."
"Your flying did," Garath said flatly.
"Garath!" Arrachachak snapped. He rolled over to offer a sympathetic reply to Silsi, but she appeared more angered than hurt. She glared at Garath, then stomped out into the bathroom. When she emerged a minute later her face and hair around it were damp with water, but she seemed to have regained her temper.
"It's tough without Aeyris," Sawaka declared. "We're now missing a leader, and we need one. No offence to Kirrik, but you're an outsider."
"As such, I'll make an observation, then," he announced. "Aeyris was a good man, as far as a pirate can be, and you all seemed content to let him lead you. From what I've seen you are all too used to following to take over his position."
"That's true." Mu shook his head sadly. "Look at us! None of us have even shown any desire to take over his position."
"You aren't much good as typical pirates," Kirrik noted. "Most of the ones I've met jump at any chance to finish off their superiors and take their position."
"We've done that together," Sawaka told him seriously. "Once we were part of a bigger organisation. Aeyris was sometimes ruthless in moving his way up, and he succeeded with our help, and we benefited from it."
"And are now left with a problem," Kirrik reminded her. "If you want someone to get you back, I'll help you, and then leave you free."
"Can we trust you?" Arrachachak asked bluntly. "Or will you turn us in when we get back home? You can assist us for the time being, but I don't want you in sole command."
"There you are!" Kirrik said. "You're being assertive, and you're thinking of your companions. If you need one of your lot to follow, I think Arrachachak is as good as any."