Meeting the crew I would be a part of from now on proved to be almost as perilous as the events that led to my being hired by their captain.
“I haven’t told them I was looking to hire someone new,” he told me as he led me out of the cargo bay onto the bridge. “They might seem a little… surprised.”
Remembering Ted, the pilot’s, suspicious reaction over the com to the Captain’s news that he wasn’t alone, I wasn’t sure that ‘surprised’ was the right word.
We passed through an airlock and stepped into a room that smelled like heaven.
“This is the common room,” Grey said, stepping aside so I could get a better look. A table dominated the center of the steel-walled room. It was bolted to the floor, as were the twelve swivel-chairs surrounding it on their short rails that allowed you to push them closer to the table without lifting them. In a space ship, everything was bolted or locked down, in case of turbulence.
To the right, a counter separated the kitchen from the rest of the room. The heavenly smell emanated from there.
Real vegetables, Fang informed me, both disgusted and pleasantly surprised. She preferred raw meat to anything green, but it was rare, if not unheard of, for a freight ship that was always on the move to load fresh produce. At least I’d never experienced it. I just hoped I wouldn’t have to cook it myself, because then it would land in the garbage due to inedibility.
“Hey Lilly,” Captain Grey said to the girl stirring the food in the large pot standing on the stove. “Do we have enough for one more?"
The girl turned around with a smile when she heard his voice. The smile died when she saw me, and her blue eyes sparked with apprehension.
“Lilly, this is Samira Inverness,” Grey introduced me, "our new backer. Elisabeth is my sister,“ he added to me.
That explained the similar blue eyes, although she had to be at least ten years younger than he; a girl on the cusp of womanhood. Other than the eyes, they had little in common. Where he was tall, dark and inscrutable, she was short, blonde and expressive. She couldn’t have hid her feelings to fool a rock.
“Does Ted know?” she asked her brother, sorrow roughing her voice. She put down the spatula, but didn’t take off the rubber kitchen gloves covering her hands. The kind you usually wore to wash up with, not to cook. Maybe she was afraid of burning her hands.
“He knows we need to fill the position,” Captain Grey said resolutely. “He’ll get over it.”
She opened her mouth, but he interrupted her. „Samira’s the one who tipped us off about Moore’s plans.”
She smiled, though it remained sad. At least she finally looked at me. “I guess we’re in your debt then. Thank you.” Surprisingly, it sounded sincere.
She pulled the rubber glove off her hand and held it out for me to shake. I noticed she was wearing another glove underneath, the stark white satin disappearing beneath her sleeve. “Nice to meet you. Call me Lilly.”
“Sam,” I said, shaking her gloved hand. The white fabric was warm and slightly damp to the touch. I wondered why she wore it. At least the rubber gloves made sense now; keeping the satin ones clean while cooking would take a miracle.
She caught on to my curiosity.
“Don’t mind these,” she said, wiggling her white fingers. “I don’t like to touch people skin on skin. For some reason it tends to bring out my epilepsy.”
It’s difficult to outright lie to me. Lying makes everybody uncomfortable on some level and Fang picks up those subtle fidgets, those changes in tone and scent that indicate when someone isn’t being truthful.
She wishes it were epilepsy, she let me know.
Is she dangerous? I asked. I, of all people, knew best that monsters came in all shapes and sizes.
Why thank you, Fang said, pleased. She had no qualms about calling herself a monster. And no, she’s harmless. You could take her down half asleep with your hands tied behind your back. Not that I think you’ll ever need to. She’s grateful for the warning about Moore. And she is pleased to meet you.
Good enough for me.
“Smells amazing,” I said, eyeing the pans behind Lilly, trying to break that slightly awkward first-meeting ice. “I haven’t had anything healthy in eons.”
“Neither have we,” she admitted. „I hope I don’t ruin it.“
"Quit fishing for compliments, Lil,“ Grey said with a smile. “Is there enough for one more?”
“If Marek agrees to relinquish one of his usual four helpings there should be plenty,” she said with an affectionate smile. “It’ll be ready in ten.”
“Great. I’ll show Samira her cabin and then she can meet the others at dinner.”
He led me through another airlock and into the bowels of the ship.
This is like being in some robot’s intestines. Fang commented after we’d turned a few tight corners and headed up and down several steps that clanged beneath our heavy boots.
It’s like somebody took it apart and put it back together wrong, I agreed. Very curious, indeed.
And what’s with these red sections? Fang asked. They’ve gone to the trouble of painting walls and floor red - but only in certain areas. Not enough money for paint?
I opened my mouth to ask Captain Grey about the red sections just as we entered a dimly lit corridor with three doors on either side. No red sections here, so I decided to ask later.
Names were handwritten on stickers attached above the panels that opened each door: Marek, Ted and Raj on the left. Lilly, Nate and Josh on the right. Captain Grey stopped in front of the last and tore the sticker off the wall with more force than necessary.
“This is yours now,” he said with a slight break in his voice. Sorrow and regret poured off him in sour waves, but I’d never have known it just by looking at him. He looked fierce and angry rather than sad.
He cares for this Josh, Fang said. They all do.
I think Josh is dead, I told her.
Most likely, she agreed.
That would explain the sorrow permeating the ship, the worry in Lilly’s eyes, the suspicion in Ted’s voice, the grimness in Grey’s face. The subtle hostility towards me. As fresh as their loss obviously was, they might not want their noses rubbed in it by replacement-backer me. Just my luck.
We’ve dealt with worse, Fang reminded me. At least these people won’t try to kill us in our sleep.
How can you be so sure?
They need us and we saved them. If Lilly is any indication, these are decent people, and decent people pay their debts.
Grey ended our internal dialogue by pressing the button on the side panel. The door slid open with an electronic whirr, and a light came on in the room on the other side.
Grey took one look inside and swore. He palmed the com off his belt and growled into it. “Ted, I thought I told you to clear Josh’s cabin?”
There was no reply.
“Ted?” Grey repeated, voice low and demanding. „Do you copy?“
The com crackled and Ted’s voice boomed over the static. „Do it your-drecking-self!“
I wonder if Grey is alpha enough to put Ted in his place, Fang supplied thoughtfully.
She got her answer when the captain raised the com to his lips again. “Ted, I swear to the Void, I will leave your ass behind at our next destination if this attitude continues. We all miss him, but life goes on.”
“You don’t miss him,” Ted roared through the com, though I picked up his voice from somewhere in the ship, too. “You don’t miss anyone or anything. You’re like the tin man, only you don’t even want a heart. Well if you’re not going to see the wizard, it shouldn’t bother you to clean out your dead best friend’s cabin.”
Grey’s face was carved in stone. I expected him to speak into the com again, but instead he hurled it at the wall, against which it shattered. Our eyes met for one agonized heartbeat before he turned away and raised his face to the ceiling with a ragged sigh. I didn’t know about tin men or wizards, but I understood the gist of what Ted had said.
It’s not true, Fang whispered, uncharacteristically subdued by all the raw emotions flying around this ship like confetti at a wedding. He does care.
Of course he does, I agreed. Though he hides it well from others.
As if to prove my suspicion, he exhaled and tipped his face forward again. Whatever he felt was shuttered behind a stony visage and empty eyes, but he couldn’t fool me. He was still plenty charged with emotion; Fang could sense tension in the muscles of a louse’s leg, and Grey’s whole body was practically thrumming.
He came out of the room and brushed past me. “Leave your stuff at the end of the hall,” he said to me. “I’ll go talk some sense into Ted’s thick head.”
“I can clear the cabin,” I offered.
He stopped short, as if he’d walked into a wall. “That isn’t necessary. You’re the last person who should have to deal with this.”
"I’m the only person who won’t be affected by it,“ I said.
He turned to me, rubbing the back of his neck, looking suddenly exhausted. “Thank you. I just think doing it himself will give Ted some closure. I’ll tell him you offered, but he might not like that option, either. Lets see what he says.”
"What about your closure?“ I asked.
He smiled. "I got it when he died in my arms.“
And I crap pretty roses, Fang said, not buying a word.
“Go back to the common room,” Grey said, pointing down the way we’d come. “I’ll talk to Ted. Tell the others not to wait with dinner. This might take a while.”
He disappeared through a door in the opposite direction.
Read on at Chapter 5.
Read on at Chapter 5.