Chapter 4

            They were right about the time crunch. Once Ter Dryst got me back to the city, I barely had time to dock Whisp, grab my stuff, and buy something hot to eat at the main terminal. I usually like to savor strange foods (and I hadn’t had much Ialuan fare yet), but I was too hungry. And in too much of a hurry. I ate as I rushed down from one floor to the next through the warren of hallways.
            I passed scanners several times, but the new badge on my collar seemed to be working since I made it through without setting off any alarms. Ter Dryst had handed me the badge (or “brooch” as Ter Fless would say) as he dropped me off, saying that I would need it to get to the ship. I’d assumed it was an ID so that the ship’s captain would let me on – until I’d followed the directions and ended up in a bleakly utilitarian hallway full of scanners. This definitely wasn’t part of the public area, and I really didn’t want to think about what would happen to me if I wasn’t supposed to be here. I’d had enough of that today.
            Just as I was beginning to fear I’d gone the wrong way and that I’d have to explain to Ter Dryst how I missed the ship because I got lost, I turned a corner and almost ran into a pair of CarbonCoreTM doors. Even as I jerked to a halt, they were swinging open, revealing a private dock. It was empty except for two figures leaning on the side of the ship.
            “About time.”
            It was said in a lazy, sibilant drawl that sent my mind flashing back to the port on Calder. For a second, I was 10 again staring down an angry crowd of huge, scaly humanoids with glistening teeth that flashed in time to their enraged hisses.
            “Ter Fless sends his apologies, Captain,” Ter Dryst’s level voice broke through the flashback. “He did not give the Deathwalker much time.”
            “Sso you said.”
            While they were occupied with each other, I took a deep breath and pushed the memory aside. Low-level adrenaline was surging through me, and I could feel the cold sweat trickling down my back. I had an instant to reel at how strong the memory had been before they turned back to me.
            “Captain Nathaira, this is Deathwalker Sephtis.”
            I started to reach out my hand, caught Ter Dryst’s raised eyebrow, and quickly continued the motion upward to form the Kaihmi gesture of respect specific to captains. It was less elaborate than the one I’d given Ter Dryst but not by much. On their ships, captains ranked higher than most leaders.
            The captain showed no sign of recognition. He nodded abruptly and turned to the ship.
            “Let’s go.”
            That susurrant voice still made my hair stand on end, and as I followed him up the ramp, I hoped fervently that the reaction wouldn’t last.
            A hand in front of me stopped my forward motion. It held something that looked suspiciously like parchment. I glanced at Ter Dryst.
            “Your case, Deathwalker,” he said blandly.
            “Of course,” I said as if I hadn’t forgotten. I gingerly took the parchment from his hand. He gave me another of his long stares.
            “Prep this time,” he said finally. Then, he walked away.
            I gaped after him until an impatient hiss sent me scurrying up the ramp. It rose with a groan and closed me in the dark with the captain.
            “What did he mean thiss time?”
            The sound of the captain’s voice still set my nerves on end, but I must’ve been getting a better handle on it because this time I didn’t miss the doubting, disdainful edge to the question. Instead of answering immediately, I blinked as if adjusting to the harsh light of what I assumed was the cargo bay and took a moment to recap everything he’d said so far. Every single word had come out with a sneer.
            My eyes narrowed.
            “You know Ter Dryst, Captain,” I said in a saccharine tone through teeth gritted in a poor facsimile of a smile, “such a practical jokester.”
            With that, I turned and headed casually across the cargo bay as if having a pissed-off Caldling behind me didn’t make my skin crawl. When I got to the point where I would have to choose which doorway to head for, I glanced back over my shoulder.
            “Which way to my quarters?”
            “You-” the word was half hiss and half snarl.
            “Am taking up your time, Captain, I know.” I said with that same insincere smile. “If you’ll direct me to my quarters, I’ll get out of your way.”
            The captain approached me with rage in his eyes and far too many teeth showing. I kept my stance casual but made sure my weight was over the balls of my feet. I wasn’t 10 anymore.
            A hissing sentence shot out of the doorway to my right. I knew just enough Caldese to know that the crewmember had asked if the pilot could take off. For an instant, the captain seemed torn between answering and tearing me apart; then, he stalked past me and through the doorway. Another pithy hiss made me the crewmember’s problem.
            I relaxed slightly. Then, he stepped through the door. Another Caldling. This day kept getting better and better. 
           I considered him in silence. His scales were a darker gray than the captain’s, and his throat had a bright iridescence that stood out like jewelry against the faded blue of his shirt. His round black eyes weighed me as he leaned against the doorway. I waited for him to comment on the argument with the captain.
            “The captain assked me to sshow you to your place,” he said instead. His tone was neutrally polite, and my eyebrows raised. I wondered whether he’d intended the double-meaning or had simply missed the nuance of a strange language.
            I nodded and gestured him to lead the way. There was an instant flicker of what might have been amusement on his face, and I figured my first guess was right. Then, all I could see was his back as he headed through the opening. Wondering again what I’d gotten myself into, I followed. Immediately, I came face-to-face with another door as the hallway took a sharp turn to the left.
            I considered the door for an instant before following the crewmate. From the weight of it, I would’ve assumed the engine room was inside. Or at least a way to it. But I’d never come across an engine room that felt like a graveyard. It made my fingers itch.
            I pushed the urge aside and followed the Caldling. Even if I’d had the energy, I wasn’t about to barge into an unknown situation on a semi-hostile ship. Well, not anymore than I already had.
            The hallway curved to the right, and we began to pass more doors on the inside wall. He paused at a broader door and opened it to show me a hallway heading toward the ship’s center.
            “Sshared areass are through here. Facilitiess, laundry, and kitchen. Follow the guideliness possted.” The last held a warning note.
            Then, he was walking on. We passed several more doors without comment. From the layout and door types, they were probably passenger quarters. Crew quarters would be on the opposite side. It was a pretty common arrangement, especially with mixed crews: with shared space in the center, the captain could keep the crew and passengers separated for the most part to avoid trouble.
            What interested me most was that we continued to walk by them without a word. For some reason, I doubted they were all occupied. It wasn’t the largest ship I’d been in, but it was decent-sized. And we’d walked far enough to make my bag weight down on my shoulder. But he didn’t stop until we got to the end of the hallway.
            “Your place iss here.” He gestured to the final door.
            Instead of answering, I did my best Ter Dryst impression. As the last door on the hall, odds were it was against the outside wall of the ship, which meant it’d be cold. Not freezing – modern insul was better than that – but it would definitely be the coolest passenger bunk they had. And Caldlings weren’t what you’d call warm-blooded people. My jaw tightened. For them, this would be the worst possible room on the ship. If they didn’t know other races were different, they were trying to make my trip as uncomfortable as possible. Even if they did know, it was a pretty big insult.
            He opened the door, and a glance through the opening confirmed my guess. It also showed a standard storage locker and bunk combination. The locker was closed. That could mean any number of things. I’d heard of unwanted guests being shown to occupied rooms as an “accident.” At that moment, I wouldn’t put it past them to try it. Or to give me a broken locker out of spite.
            There was a moment of silence as I waited for the typical tour of the room. When nothing happened, I glanced at the crewman, but he didn’t seem inclined to do more than lean against the wall of the corridor. Either he felt like he’d done as much as he needed to, or he wanted to see what I’d do. And whatever I did, odds were, he’d be reporting it back to the captain.
            What was it with these people and tests?
            I ground my teeth together, but I went ahead past him. At least there was no sign of someone staying in the room. Setting my gear down, I leaned over to make sure the bunk was unassigned. The tiny circular light by the reader was off. A good sign. I touched a finger to the reader and heard the metallic buzz as the light switched on in a haze of yellow. The drawer popped open, completely empty. I closed my eyes briefly. So it worked, and it was mine. The only question was whether they’d shut it deliberately to see me squirm or whether this room assignment had been a last minute switch.
            Pursing my lips, I stood again and turned back to the crewman. He hadn’t moved, but I’d felt his stare as I checked the bunk. Looking at his expression, I couldn’t read anything except maybe a hint of amusement again. My lips thinned. I was past done with having an audience, but I would try to be polite.
            “Crewman…” I trailed off. I couldn’t manage a smile, so I frowned instead. “I don’t think I caught your name.”
            For a moment, he seemed frozen.
            “Gri,” he said finally.
            It was hard to tell, but I thought I might have confused him. What a shame. Moving almost briskly enough to be rude, I made one of the lowest signs of respect (for a stranger of inferior rank). This time the bafflement was obvious. Tired as I was, I took a little perverse satisfaction in that. But it wasn’t enough.
            “I’m Seph.” Why waste time on the title – he knew what I was. “Thank you for showing me around,” I said with a curt finality that normally would have horrified me.
            He blinked at me, nodded once, and disappeared from the doorway. As soon as he did, I had the door shut and locked. With a low groan, I fell on the bunk, hoping that the day was finally over.

Continue to the next chapter…


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