Decker drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair in the silence. The Kjellmann star was growing in space, almost, but not quite, imperceptibly. Right now, it was just a large pinprick of light in the sea of stars, like a widening hole in a great canvass.
Decker opened his mouth wide and exaggerated a yawn. He didn’t need to exaggerate much.
“So…what’s up?” He said after a moment. He stretched his legs out on the smooth decking, making sure his boots squealed. Tobias didn’t turn around.
Decker sniffed and took in the last dregs of Sixteen’s teleportation odour. It smelt like cake, burned to a cinder in an oven last week. The bridge lights were on half-setting, and his eyes were beginning to droop despite the adrenaline that raced intermittently through his system. Being on edge was tiring.
“You haven’t said two words to me since we got on board.” Decker paused. “Not that that’s particularly new.”
“What do you want me to say?” Tobias’s voice was rough, raw. Like he’d eaten a raw onion. Or he’d been crying. But Tobias hated onion. He didn’t turn from his console.
“I don’t know.” Decker sighed. “Tell a story. Tell me the time. Tell me I’m a prick and I should shut up. Anything.”
“You’re a prick and you should shut up?” said Tobias.
Decker laughed. “Fair enough. Or maybe you could tell me what you owe me.”
Tobias sniffed and an edge of anger crept into his tone. He turned suddenly to face Decker, his chair swivelling and rebounding off the console with a soft click. He had been crying. He seemed to realise this at the same time as Decker, and swatted at his face with his sleeve. If anything, it made his eyes blaze harder.
“I don’t owe you shit.” He spat.
“You begged a ride on this trip, remember?” Decker could feel his own heat rising. “You could at least tell me why.”
Tobias turned again in his chair. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me.” Decker continued. “I’m not a bad psychologist.”
He could hear the hesitant grin in Tobias’s voice. “Can’t be any worse than you are as a captain.”
“Hmm.” Said Decker. He’d intended it to come across lightly, but even he could hear the weight in it as it hung in the bridge like a small storm cloud. Perhaps Tobias heard it too.
“My brother.” He said, after a while. Decker could see his dark fingers, pressed into the console so hard they’d turned pale.
“Didn’t know you had one.” Decker mused, as he watched Kjellmann. The star was larger now, large enough that he couldn’t block it out with his thumb. A soft alert chimed from Tobias’s console, alerting them to the fact they’d entered the system.
“He was 14 years older than me,” Tobias said. “He’d already started basic by the time I was old enough to walk, my parents-“
“Wait, you have parents too?” Decker said. “You’ve got to hold up a sec, my heart can only take so much.”
“Is that so surprising?”
“Well…yeah.” Said Decker, and was surprised to find he’d meant it. Of the entire crew, Tobias was the member he knew the least about, no matter how fervently he’d tried to pretend Bril was just a wall hanging that unfortunately moved at times. He’d known him the longest, and often felt he barely knew him at all. The young man was highly-stung, lowly-sexed, and stole anything that wasn’t nailed down.
“Yep, parents. Married, two kids, nice house in the country.”
“If they were married, then you weren’t even a bastard.” Decker batted back. “And there I thought all along-“
“Not a bastard, but an accident.” Tobias smirked in the reflective plastic of the viewscreen. Stars glittered in his teeth, like diamonds set in ivory.
Decker made a rare wise decision, and closed his mouth.
“You know Vulaya?” Tobias asked.
Decker thought for a moment. “That’s the planet the Coalition militia come from, right?”
Tobias nodded. “Roughly 80% of the human component anyway.”
“Good fighters.” Decker nodded as if he knew. Perhaps there’d been some in the blockade, back there.
“We are.” Tobias said.
We? Decker’s history was shaky. But Vulayans had a rep. Shen had scrapped with a big one a year or so back on a cargo transport, and had to regrow four teeth and his right ear. They’d called it a draw. Tobias was tall, but scrawny. But he sure had the anger. When his space was violated for too long, he would fight like a demon. Just not a very effectual one.
“My parents paid into the system. Thirty years of service, then the state gave them their house, and their child allowance.”
“Seems backward.” Said Decker.
“It works.” Said Tobias. “Or at least, usually.” He sounded bitter.
“Not in your case?”
“In mine, no. In Garrett’s, sure.” Tobias sighed and dug his fingers deeper into the console. “They allocate you three. But mum and dad were happy enough with the one. How I happened is anyone’s guess.”
“Sibling rivalry.” Decker had heard of that before. Maybe he’d even had one. Named prisoners had been rarer than a solid bowel movement in the camp.
“I loved Garrett.” Tobias’s voice shook. Decker didn’t believe the kid loved anything. Besides the thrill of the chase, that was. “He never treated me like they did, like I was a pet they wanted to rehome. He taught me to fly, you know.”
“Thank him for me, when you see him next.” Decker said. He meant it. Tobias had evaded the guns of the Pavralian emperor’s flagship, The Avenger, in that little tub that had been their cargo shuttle, held together with Shen’s spit and prayer.
“Might be sooner than you think.” Tobias muttered.
“What-“ began Decker, and then his mind caught up with his mouth. Tobias had seemed his usual nonchalant self, typically unaffected by the massacre at Pavralia that had likely been a dual diversion, to help thin the blockade. He’d smirked his stupid smirk and been as uninterested in Decker’s predicament as he was in women, right up until Sixteen had mentioned the Slyrene nebula.
“He’s out here?” Decker was taken aback. If he’d heard Tobias right, his brother was Coalition military. The type that stayed out of the area they blockaded. A massive gas giant, emerald green, ringed by faint, glittering crystal, crawled by in the viewer. The Kjellmann star was so bright in the sky that the viewer dimmed now as it labelled another point of growing light. Kjellmann 3.
“That’s what the file said.” Tobias nodded to himself.
“What file?” Decker was becoming rapidly more invested in the conversation, anything to take his mind off that planet, slowly coalescing to haunt more than his dreams.
“I had Eldred hack into the Vulayan database, when you were off cleaning the bits between the emperor’s toes.” Tobias almost had his grin back.
“You what?” Decker spluttered. “We agreed, nothing to draw attention-“
“Take it up with Eldred, she got me drunk.” Tobias said. “And we didn’t get caught.”
“I will.” Said Decker, knowing he wouldn’t. “What did you find?”
“Nothing.” Tobias shook his head ruefully. “Apart from that. They held a funeral for him, seven years ago. Full military honours. I watched mum and dad on the feeds.”
“You didn’t go?” asked Decker.
“I’m…not welcome on Vulaya. Long story.” Tobias said. “Point is, they lied. Said he’d been killed in a skirmish and spaced.”
“Might not be a lie.” Decker pointed out, and instantly regretted it.
Tobias was silent for a long time. Decker could hear him try to get his breathing under control. When he finally spoke, the wall was firmly back in place. “Lost out here.” He said. “But I’m going to find him.”
Decker was spared having to continue the conversation as Kjellmann 3 slowly filled the viewscreen.