Straggle reached a long, thin arm into the gap under the panel until he was in it up to his shoulder. He had to roll onto his back then, exposing his belly to get the right angle. But the crawl-way was so narrow he had needed to leave his armour at the entrance, so there was no way anybody else could get near enough to him to hurt him. And he was so close now.
He bent his arm at the elbow, his whiskers twitching in the darkness as he felt around with his fingers for the screws. There they were. Three of them, near the top of the panel. He went to work, twisting and rolling the screw heads with the tips and sides of his digits until they came loose. But quietly. No sense in getting caught now.
He had outwitted the Maligni already. Those ugly, arrogant Maligni, the ones who had sneered at him all his life. They looked down on every brethren pupped into the lower castes. They thought they were so clever, just because they had the fortune to be born a Malignus. They could make nice weapons and good armour, it was true. Back before the mother had decided it was time to travel, to board a human starship and fly, anyway. But here, on the ship, on the long journey between where they had come from and wherever they were going, what did they do? Nothing but eat the food the brethren fetched for them.
And then they had taken the mother away from them.
The final screw fell loose and clattered down onto the metal vent surface before Straggle could catch it in his paw. He lay there silently for a moment, his right ear trapped between his shoulder and the panel, but his left ear straining in anticipation, listening for any reaction to the noise. But there was none. All he could hear were the normal sounds of the ship’s pumping systems, sighing deep and slow, like a mother’s breath, and the slow rotations of its core. Straggle slowly let his own breath out.
He withdrew his arm and wriggled back around onto his belly. Then he gently pushed the now-free access panel clear and eased his body and ragged tail into the next space on his journey. Three more panels and then he would see her again. And them.
It wasn’t fair. He had tried to be respectful, but the Maligni had still stopped him. They called him names, hissing at him spitefully, and then tore apart the offering he had brought. It had been a blanket, a human one, well made and carefully pilfered from a container Straggle had chewed his way into in one of the cargo holds. At great personal risk too. He had gone there during a day cycle on the ship, the time when the human crew were most active. He had been so desperate to see her again.
The mother had birthed on the voyage before, adding more brethren to the nest. But, when her time had come this time, something was different. The Maligni had been agitated, and had moved her from the nest’s great chamber beneath the heat exchanger on the seventh deck to an even more remote place behind and below it. A place with only one entrance. And they would not allow any of the brethren in to see her.
When she had finally given birth, her shrieks had nearly driven the brethren mad. They had all heard her call out before, but this was different. She made sounds that seemed to be not just heard, but felt, deep in their skulls. Eventually she had stopped and they had all calmed down, but Straggle had nearly chewed all the way through his tail as he fought the urge to tear out the throats of his fellow brethren. Even some of the human crew, the ones Straggle watched as they went about their business, had seemed more irritable in the days around the birthing.
Life had gone back more or less to normal since then. But Straggle had found himself almost consumed by the need to see the new litter. To see the mother again, of course, But mostly this new litter that called out to him in the night when he slept, his tail thrashing from side to side and small growls escaping his open mouth.
He was nearly there now. The Maligni had secluded the mother in a chamber that only had one entrance, it was true. But it was also true that there was always another way in for the brethren.
Life for the brethren was all about survival, especially on a starship like this one. Survival here meant becoming an expert at being above, below, and all around the humans that ran it, without ever being seen. Straggle was very good at surviving, one of the best of the brethren when it came time to finding ways around the ship. It was how he had got his name. As a pup he had always been wandering off from the rest of the litter. They thought he was lagging behind, a straggler. But in fact he was exploring. He had found every loose access panel, every unsecured hatch and conduit, every crawlspace and dropshaft and way in and out of the ship since they had first crawled aboard. And now he had found a second way into the new birthing chamber.
He had gone under the nest, the empty auxiliary fuel pod the Maligni had disconnected from the rest of the system, and through the waste water containers. This had not been pleasant, but, once through the thick soup of stinking waist-high liquid, he had been able to access an empty space that ran almost all the way from the ship’s belly to its upper decks. Then he doubled back on himself, sliding along a narrow cable duct, removing panels as he went, until he was here - ten feet above the cavity in which the Maligni had sequestered the mother and her newest offspring.
He slowly pushed aside the broken grillwork at the top of the bulkhead section that made up the rear wall of the space and dropped down into the chamber.
It was warm in here and it smelled good. Straggle’s nose twitched from side to side as he tested the air. No sign of any interfering Maligni. He could smell her though, a comforting odour, slightly bitter, like old cheese and engine oil, that suggested comfort and care and food. There was another smell too, familiar and odd at the same time. It had to be the new litter.
The mother was sleeping and through the gloom Straggle could see her bulk, laid out on her side. The newborns appeared to be by her belly. It was a peaceful, quiet scene. Straggle remembered his own time as a pup being more chaotic, an almost constant struggle for survival, a time that served to prepare the young brethren for the hard life ahead of them. This litter seemed to be taking a much easier path and Straggle wondered for a moment whether it was possible the mother had birthed a litter of runts, weak infants that would not survive long enough to leave her.
He crept forward, eager to see them anyway. The whispers in his head told him to.
He was only a few feet from them, crawling low on his haunches so as not to draw attention or appear threatening, when he noticed the entire litter had white fur. He had never seen a completely white brethren before. Some had patches; Straggle himself had an almost entirely white belly and he knew that if he managed to survive long enough, his fur might turn grey as it aged. But all white was something new.
He was beside the litter now and he realised the colouring was not the only unusual thing about this litter. He could see all their heads, as many as he had fingers on one paw, plus his ears. But instead of being piled together, sharing body heat like his own litter had done, they seemed to be arranged in a neat circle. The heads lay at its outside and their tails were wrapped closely around each other in the centre. He sniffed and peered more closely at the arrangement. His eyes widened as he realised the tails were actually fused together, a knot of bone and flesh that unified every little body in the litter.
One of the pups moved then and Straggle jumped back quickly, startled. He was still curious though, eager to meet this strange new brethren with their odd colour and tangled tails, so he crouched down again and creeped back forwards. The pup, awakened perhaps by hunger or because it had smelled Straggle, slowly opened its eyes and lifted its head to face him. Straggle whimpered slightly as he saw the tiny creature had no eyes, only two black sockets, scabbed over with dried blood. But somehow it saw him anyway and it felt as if Straggle’s world suddenly ended.
His body collapsed to the ground and lay there, his legs and arms twitching and pawing at the floor convulsively, while a jaundiced yellow foam leaked from the corners of his mouth. His mind was still active though, still conscious as the Veer-myn pup spoke inside his head.
It was several voices, but it spoke as one. The joining of their tails had linked the pups’ minds as well as their bodies. Even the sleeping ones were present in his head now, whispering to him and showing him things.
First they showed him their birth, the pain of it, all of them coming at once. The mother had nearly died from the pain, but they showed him the Maligni’s faces too, eager and excited at the advent of this omen in their nest. They called it a ‘Tangle’ and they were very special to the Maligni, both a warning and a signal.
The Maligni were the last thing the Tangle saw before all its eyes were scratched out.
The birth of a Tangle meant great things for the nest that raised them and great prestige for their mother. But they would be hated too, reviled by other nests, rival Tangles. They had to be protected and kept safe from harm. Taken somewhere deep and dark where nothing could get to them.
Straggle heard the discussion amongst the Maligni after they blinded the Tangle. One had wanted to try to take the ship immediately, to kill all the humans aboard it and steer the ship to somewhere safe. Others spoke more reasonably, pointing out they didn’t know how to steer the ship or indeed exactly where they were in the galaxy. So they decided to wait, to keep the mother and the Tangle safe in their birthplace, until the next omen revealed itself.
Next, the Tangle showed him the future. It was a vision of fire and death.
He was on the ship still, and it had flown near a sun, its light filling the viewing windows on the left side. He saw himself in one of the upper corridors, but in the open, unafraid, no longer skulking in the dark and hidden spaces. He felt the comfort of the sun’s warmth and he saw now there were other brethren there too, all of them basking in the warm yellow glow. But then everything was thrown into darkness. A shadow fell over them, the shade of something so big it blotted out the light from the sun. It was vast and formless, nameless, yet it seemed somehow familiar to Straggle. Or was it the Tangle that recognised this vast evil that had come for it? A racial memory passed down through the genes of the Veer-myn since their creation. Whatever it was, it scared Straggle, and in the real world, a stream of urine escaped him and pooled on the floor around his prone body.
He saw himself alone on the deck then, exposed and terrified by the shadow looming over him. It descended on him quickly and he felt himself being consumed by it. He squealed as the thing tore him apart until there was nothing left but blackness.
When light returned to Straggle’s world, he found himself in an air vent. Through slats in its side he could see the ship’s main hangar bay to his right. His fractured mind could not remember how he got back out of the birthing chamber, or collecting his armour, or how he had gotten all the way from the bowels of the ship to the bay. It did not matter. Nothing mattered now but escape. Survival.
A klaxon was sounding and he heard the hiss and thump of the heavy hydraulics as the external doors to the bay slid open. Another ship began to move into view, its nose easing inside the bay, and Straggle crawled faster towards the end of the vent. Ships often visited here, but they never stayed for long.
At the vent’s end, he peered through the mesh and sniffed at the air being carried to him. Humans, machine parts, exhaust gases. Then - something else, something bad. He suppressed a hiss as the new ship’s ramp lowered and several short armoured forms walked down it. Stunted men. He had seen and smelled them before and he knew they were probably more dangerous than the humans of the Harridan.
For a moment, he was torn. Here was the mother, the brethren, the familiar runs and lairs and food. On the stunted men’s ship was unknown danger, danger he would face alone.
But the Tangle was here too. And the vision it had shown him.
As he remembered the shadow and its teeth and claws, he squeaked very quietly and all reason was driven from him. Something horrible was coming to the Harridan and Straggle knew he didn’t want to be here when it arrived. Whatever was on the stunted men’s ship, it had to better than that.
He would have to be quick though, sneak aboard while the stunted men talked with the humans.
He could see an intake valve open at the rear of their ship, not far, easy enough to skitter from shadow to shadow until he reached it. So, as the stunted men went about their business, unloading heavy crates onto the deck of the Harridan, Straggle began to twist open the screws at the rear of the vent panel.