When Marek and I got to the common room, Lilly had already decked out six place settings of dented tin plates and cups, and primped the shabby appearance of the dining table with pretty napkins she'd origamied into swans. A skinny man with a black mane of frayed, ropey hair erupting from his head and a beatific expression on an angular, olive-skinned face was ladling the stew onto the plates. He wore colorful clothes that hung from his thin frame like a tent. He was humming to the song still spilling out of the speakers that seemed to be hung up in every corner of the ship - there were three alone in the common room.
"Food, glorious food."
"Turn it off, Raj,” Marek snapped at the rope-haired man, "or I'll break off every damn speaker you rigged up so painstakingly, as you like to remind us. And this time I mean it!"
"Actually, I asked him to put that song on," Lilly said, turning around from the sink at which she was washing up. "Makes everybody appear much faster at the dinner table." She winked conspiratorially at me before turning back to her task.
I like her, Fang said, chuffing. I bet she has the men eating out of her hand.
She was right: Marek didn't utter another word of protest, though he frowned with impressive disapproval as he sat down at the table. He motioned for me to sit beside him. Raj dropped onto the chair on his other side and patted his shoulder, unperturbed by Marek's expression. "Peace, brother," he said. "I'm sure Nate and Ted are on their way."
"Actually, Captain Grey wants us to start without them," I said. "They've got something to discuss."
They exchanged somber glances, understanding what it was about.
"Fine," Lilly said sadly. She hit a switch on the kitchen's control panel, her satin gloves a pale flash against the dark metal. The song cut off abruptly. Marek sighed with exaggerated relief.
"Dig in guys," Lilly ordered, sitting down across from me. "And girl - sorry, Sam. I need to come up with something gender-neutral from now on."
"How about 'chums' or 'homies'?" Raj suggested around his first mouthful of stew. "Mix a little old-school BE or AE in with our ME, no?"
"That racket coming out of your speakers is enough old-school for me, thank you," Marek huffed, spooning stew into his mouth. "Time to arrive in the present, Raj - in this galaxy. Stick to Modern English, I beg you."
"Our dear Raj is an 'origins' nerd," Lilly explained to me, "If you ever have questions about humanity's roots on Earth, our original culture or history - ask him."
"Sadly, nobody ever does," Raj said dramatically. "Philistines. I'm Rajesh Bhamra, by the way, the ship's techanic. But you can call me Raj.”
"Sam Inverness," I introduced myself, "glad to meet you." I really was, especially because he didn't seem in the least bit uneasy about welcoming replacement-Josh-me.
I tasted the stew - and almost passed out with bliss.
"Thish ish amazing!" I mumbled, eyes closed. Even Fang agreed.
Tasty veggies, she said, who'd a thunk there existed a recipe to accomplish such a miracle?
"I hear we have you to thank for the fact we won't be floating belly-up through space," Raj said. "That arsine-stuff probably would have gone off right about now."
I shook my head. "Not far out enough, yet. The toxin doesn't kill quietly, if you get my meaning. If we sent a distress signal now, official help would come looking and get in the way of Moore's people. They wait until nobody will interfere anymore."
"How do you know this?" Lilly asked.
My smile was so tight my lips hurt. "Firsthand experience. I'm the only one who has ever survived Moore's Lethal Load."
Lilly covered the shocked 'O' of her mouth with an unsteady hand. Raj’s lips pressed together in sympathy, and Marek's eyes sparked with something that might have been grudging respect.
"How?" he wanted to know, helping himself to his second bowl.
"I was sleeping in my cabin when it started," I lied. I couldn't tell them that I wasn't quite as easily poisoned as an ordinary human. "So I was exposed to the gas last and least. I got lucky."
Pah, luck, Fang huffed. The real hero never gets the credit.
A true hero doesn't point out her good deeds to every person she meets, either, I said. My credit will have to be enough. You've got it in full, anyway.
If not for Fang fighting the poison with her iron will, we wouldn't have survived. Although the fact that we had was a mixed blessing to me, and not just because of the nightmares.
"They didn't kill you when they realized?" Lilly wanted to know.
"They never found me." This part was true. "I hid and snuck off the ship as soon as they landed and started unloading the cargo."
"You didn't try to get... revenge?" Marek asked.
I smiled wanly at him. "I wanted to, believe me. But I wasn't in any shape. A fruit fly could have knocked me over with its pinky. I tried later, several times, but it's like Moore has nine lives. Someday the opportunity will come."
Marek nodded in dark understanding, Lilly looked at me with pity, and Raj… surprisingly, a little smile was playing around Raj’s lips.
"I guess your misfortune was our luck today," he said.
I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I couldn't tell them I'd rather not have had the opportunity to warn them, because in that scenario Lor and my friends wouldn’t have died and I would still be with them. But I also wouldn’t have met Captain Grey when he was making that deal with Moore.
So I didn't say anything, but they understood what I was thinking anyway. An awkward silence reigned until I pulled myself together and smiled to show I wasn't angry at them. As Raj had said: my misfortune was their luck - not their fault. "Silver linings, right?"
Lilly returned my smile with a wobbly one of her own and shining eyes, then - thank the Void - changed the subject.
"Why didn't you report the incident?" she asked.
"For the same reason you didn't," I said. "No self-respecting smuggler calls the authorities when her illegal activities get her in trouble."
She smiled wryly. "Smart of him to pick people who are running from the authorities themselves."
“That’s his way, although he doesn't pick them lightly," I said realizing something that had been puzzling me. "In fact, he picks the ships, not the crew. He doesn't pick just any old ship to steal, it has to be special in some way. Faster than others, for example, or with special shields, or extra smuggling compartments. So what's Chamaeleon's specialty? It isn't obvious, at least not at first glance. No offense."
"None taken," Raj said with a frown, "that's exactly how we want it. Nobody but her crew knows her secret... at least in theory. Do you think Moore found out somehow?"
"He suspects something, at least," I said, "or he wouldn't have risked making his move on you. He must be either certain or very interested in this secret. Though I can't fathom what it might be." Hint hint. Wink wink. Give me something, people! The suspense was killing me.
They won't tell us before they don't fully trust us, Fang pointed out with a dash of 'duh' in her voice.
Don't pretend like you don't want to know, Miss Smartass, I shot back.
No point in wasting energy on something that will reveal itself on its own eventually, she said with a mental shrug.
Says the one who would go straight for Moore's jugular as soon as he's close, regardless of the consequences for us.
Waiting for something and wasting perfect opportunities are two very different things, she pointed out.
It was hardly perfect, I reminded her. It would have ruined our chances of going legit.
Those were ruined the moment he saw us, you just didn't want to admit it.
Lilly interrupted our internal dialog. “Have you told Nate why Moore is interested in Chamaeleon?" she asked me.
"Um, no," I said, a little embarrassed. It should have been the obvious thing to do, especially after Grey had made me a part of his crew.
"We should tell him when he and Ted get here," Lilly said. "It might be a good idea if --"
The ship shuddered and groaned like a wounded beast. Stew sloshed around in our bowls, and cutlery jittered across the table.
Raj jumped to his feet and hurried out of the room with a muttered "what's up, baby?”. Lilly and Marek exchanged surprised glances - apparently, this wasn't normal flight-behavior for Chamaeleon.
The constant background hum of the engines rose to a thrumming howl. The whole ship trembled like an overstrained muscle, shaking us around on our seats - and died with a final whine of protest.
"We're caught in a lockdown! Stay here," Marek ordered, and followed Raj out of the room at a run. Lilly glared after him, then stood up and went over to the switchboard by the airlock. She pressed a button with a satin-covered index finger and spoke into the com-grid.
"Nate? What's going on?"
There was no answer except for the deep silence of black space that seemed to resonate all around us.
Read on at Chapter 7.
Read on at Chapter 7.