They should have realized.
It had started small, a little crack in the side of the Aurora’s hull. It hadn’t even needed replacing, Nastya had just welded it shut, whispering sweet Cyberian nothings into the cold metal. They had figured it was just the momentary glitch in the shields coupled with an opportune piece of debris, though Aurora still seemed tense. Nastya supposed it was reasonable enough. Brian had run a diagnostic and couldn’t find anything wrong that could have caused the glitch in the shield, and she knew Aurora took failing to protect her very hard.
“It’s alright, звезда. It was just a glitch, it happens.” She rested her head against the smooth plating, listening to the soft hum of her love calm down from its frantic buzz.
Nastya had thought that would be it. A single glitch, a momentary issue and that was the end of it.
Instead, things began to get stranger.
One day it had been a mysterious crack all the way through a plate that had required them to stop for a replacement (And hadn’t that been a misadventure). The next occurrence had been during a battle, with the entire shield going offline for a full minute, although once again Brian could find no problems in the code. Nastya had been shot in that one, too. Clean through the chest, according to Marius’s somber report. Aurora had been inconsolable that night. Nastya had stayed with her, telling her that it was alright, she hadn’t had control over the glitch, they were both alright. Still, when she woke up gasping from a particularly bad nightmare to a sound like weeping from the walls around her, she couldn’t quite bring herself to believe her own words.
Things were getting out of hand.
A few days later, following a harrowing few hours of a completely nonfunctional segment of the shield, Jonny called a meeting.
“Alright, I’ve been meaning to get around to this since that fight. Brian or Nastya, would either of you care to tell us what the fuck is going on?”
“That’s just it! We don’t know!” came Brian from where he was running the third consecutive diagnostic on the shields. He looked frantic, his copper-wire ringlets frazzled and out of place. She thought he’d be sweating if he, you know, had human skin.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?!”
“It means just that, Jonny.” Nastya cut in tiredly from her spot near the main controls, bringing the budding argument to an abrupt halt. She had a hand laid on the panel, worry etched into the sleepless lines of her face.
“We are dealing with something that’s beyond even what we know.”
“That’s… not ideal.” Jonny’s irritation died down, and Nastya could see the concern bubbling up to take its place.
“No, it isn’t.” She sighed, running her other hand through her hair. “Something else is going on, and Aurora either doesn’t know,” her gaze flicked to the panel her hand was on, “or won’t tell me.”
The panel lights up beneath her palm and Brian and Jonny both crowd around her, trying to see what their starship had to say.
I did not want to alarm you, the letters flicked up on the screen. But I fear that my worries may be justified after all.
“Oh, come on! It’ll be fine, we’re plenty tough,” Jonny snapped from where he was, squished into Nastya’s side.
She swats his nose, and says to her love, “Arenka, dear, whatever it is, I’m sure it’s fine.”
I… the flickering cursor where Aurora is typing hesitates. I believe Carmilla may be accessing the overrides in my shield programs.
Nastya saw Brian’s metallic eyes go wide as he read, a slow creeeaaak accompanying it. Jonny went as pale as a sheet, a ghost in the control room.
“There’s no way, she’s been gone for ages!” he yelled, almost defensively. Brian nodded emphatically, adding that “Maybe somebody else figured out an override. It’s perfectly possible, we haven’t updated the shield programs in decades.”
Nastya didn’t like this. She didn’t like it at all. “Ara, do you want to maybe have one of us keep watch for her? I can monitor the activity logs for anything strange.” When Aurora’s cursor races across the screen, it reads like a sigh of relief. That would be good, солнышко. Thank you ^-^.
“Anything, любовник.” Nastya stretched and got up, though she still felt uneasy. Brian and Jonny followed after, and they went back to their respective activities.
That night, Nastya sat down with a tablet containing the activity logs of Aurora’s shield systems. There was not so much as a blip or a single line of comment text to indicate that anyone had gotten in, and the shields remained as strong as ever. Finally, she went to her quarters in the morning, when Jonny woke up to wander around. If he seemed a bit worn when she saw him, she chalked it up to anxiety over the things Aurora had said and fell into a deep sleep. She woke around midday to a plate of sweet-smelling French toast and a doodle of her on a scrap of paper, signed only as “J.” She smiled, and began to eat.
Nothing happened for nearly five months, not even a second’s glitch. None of Nastya’s late nights yielded so much as a single entry in the activity logs. Gradually, Aurora’s tension began to ease, and Nastya went back to her usual routine.
Complacency. That was their first mistake.
She had been fast asleep when it had happened. A literally ear-shattering explosion sounded from the other end of the ship, at around 3 in the morning, ship’s time.
Nastya sat bolt upright in her bed, ignoring the thin trail of blood coming from her ears. She slipped on her jacket and boots as they healed, her hearing returning in small pops.
She ran toward the common room until Brian stopped her, clapping a hand over her mouth.
"Don’t move." Nastya made an mmph! of protest that he quickly shushed.
"She's here. I was walking the same way as you were when Aurora flicked on the camera feed on the screen by my quarters. Stay as far from the common room as possible. She’s armed."
Nastya felt a bit of embarrassment tint her face with silver. She should have thought to check the screens, but the bolt of pure fear that ran up her spine when she felt Aurora explode in what must have been agonizing pain had clouded her judgement. She’d mainly been focused on protecting her love.
She walked back with Brian, who had made the wise decision to slip his metal feet into a pair of slippers that muffled his steps, toward the hallway with the crew's quarters.
“You go get the others," she whispered, doing her best to not let her voice shake, "I’ll get Jonny."
"He could get loud or violent, Nastya-"
"And if you get him, he'll assume the worst happened to me, and then he'll definitely get loud and violent. I’ll take care of it."
Brian opens his mouth to say something, then thinks better of it, and pads off toward Raphaella's room. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Nastya walked into the room of the person she was the most worried about.
As it turns out, she didn't have to worry about waking Jonny. He was sitting upright on his bed, hair mussed and spidery eyeliner smudged on one side where he'd forgotten to take it off.
"She’s here, isn't she."
"Jonny..." Nastya sighed, shaky and edged with worry. "Yes, she is."
"I knew it." He was reaching for something under a pile of fabric scraps. The other hand was in his hair, winding, pulling at his scalp. "I knew it, I knew it, I knew we should have listened to Aurora the first time and now everyone's in danger and it's my fault for not-" His voice was shaky with climbing panic, which gripped at Nastya’s heart, and climbing volume, which made the poor thing do space olympic backflips up into her throat.
"Jonny!" Almost without her permission, her hand reached out from her side to gently untangle Jonny's from his hair.
"I know you're scared, Jonny-"
"I’m not bloody scared, Nastya, i'm worried that I just fucking doomed our entire crew!"
"Ok then, you're worried, but you need to keep your volume down and come with me. We’re meeting the others in Tim and Brian’s workshop, come on."
Jonny sighed, deep and shaky, a sigh that mirrored Nastya's own. When he spoke, his voice reminded Nastya of a butterfly with a broken wing- a small, frail thing, on the verge of flickering out.
"Alright." He picked up the thing he pulled out of the massive pile of fabric- a large satchel, full to bursting. He almost met Nastya’s eyes, but his gaze darted away as he clipped his guns to one of his belts, tucked into pockets enough knives to outdo the galaxy's best kitchens.
As they walked down the hall, Jonny stuck close to her side, eyes darting around like a skittish horse, flinching at every bang from the common room. Nastya wrapped her arm tighter around his chest, pulling him close to her, as if her arms were steel or titanium or diamond, as if she could shield him from everything, her fire-forged brother shaking like a leaf in her arms.
"How were you so prepared, anyway?"
Jonny's shoulders drew in impossibly closer to him, and Nastya was struck by how much smaller he was compared to her.
"I've been.... I've been having nightmares, a-about her."
Nastya's heart took a breather from all the hurting it had been doing today to properly break. She and Jonny had faced everything together, back when they had been only newly mechanized, but Carmilla seemed to take more joy in the atrocities she had committed when they were on Jonny. Maybe it was Nastya’s poise or the steel she had built in her core, or maybe it was that he screamed better than her. Hell, maybe it was plain old sentimentality for her first… creation.
But she remembered as clear as day the scars it left on him, the boy (Because he was, wasn't he? Only 19, what was Carmilla thinking? Actually, scratch that. Nastya didn't want to know.) with the literal heart of gold that stuck by her side all those lonely, terrifying decades. She remembered holding him through the countless panic attacks, all the nights he woke up screaming, all the times she called his name through the haze of disassociation, doing her best to help him remember that the one who had hurt him was far away in the void of space, centuries gone.
Except she wasn't anymore, was she? The one who had hurt them was right here, on their ship, and there was not a chance she was going to let them give her the slip a second time.
"Jonny..." She started, then decided against saying anything else in favor of dropping a kiss on the top of his head, soft and worried in the way only a sister can be. He leaned his head into it, and if a tear pricked at the corner of his eye, neither of them mentioned it.
Nastya couldn’t help but heave a sigh of relief when they reached the workshop, its warm lights a lighthouse amongst the terrifying unknown of the ship's halls. Raphaella was slipping through the door when they got there, and her tense expression smoothed when she saw them. She nodded approvingly at Jonny’s bag.
"Oh! Uh- It's- I saved rations."
"Good thinking. Come inside, Captain."
The effect on Jonny would have been funny if it wasn't so commonly featured in Nastya's memories. His face lit up momentarily, and he looked so painfully young that Nastya had to blink hard to clear the sight from her mind. Then it twisted into guilt, writ in the furrow of his brow. He nodded back at Raphaella, absently, and stepped through the door of the workshop without another word.
Nastya herself only lingered in the hall long enough to lean her head against the wall, lips leaving a quick but sincere kiss to its cold metal surface. She had thought they'd have to run longer, but if anything, the distance to the workshop had been even shorter than usual, and Nastya's poor battered heart swelled with pride and appreciation for her love. She had been deeply wounded, and yet she still was doing her best to help them.
"Thank you, дорогой." her fingers pressed against the wall, fervent like a prayer and its answer all in one. Then she took a deep breath, drew up that steel from inside her, and headed through the workshop door.