Chapter 5

            I woke up bleary and thinking I was on one of Aunt Apikalia’s traders. Neith would be waiting for me somewhere, but the meal bell hadn’t rung yet. Good. I could sleep a bit more. With a low, grating groan, I rolled over, and my boot hit the curved wall with jarring thud. I shot upright and pushed them off in a panic – Aunt Apikalia would kill me if she caught me sleeping in my boots!
            The adrenaline worked better than a coffbar. I was suddenly wide awake and remembering where I was. And what I’d done. Like deliberately pissing off the captain. Covering my face with my hands, I fell back against the bed. I’d picked a fight with a Caldling! Sharp teeth and claws flashed through my mind. Pressing my hands to my eyes, I fought the memories. I didn’t want to see it or hear it again. But the bloody bodies and the panicked voices were already ringing through my head. Chills swept through me.
            How could I have been so reckless?
            If the crewmember hadn’t stopped us, we almost definitely would’ve fought. The captain had been mad enough and arrogant enough. He’d probably thought he’d rough me up a little, teach me a lesson. Unless he’d heard about what happened 12 years ago, he wouldn’t have known the risk he was taking. And as tired as I was, I’d only been thinking to fight back, to show that I wouldn’t be pushed around. But if I’d lost control… I shuddered.
            I could’ve killed him.
            And not only him. My stomach turned as I realized that if Gri had been close enough, I might’ve killed him, too. Bile rose in my throat, and the chills grew until my entire body shook. My heart raced in time with each tremor. Huddling in on myself, I wrapped my arms around each other and dug my fingers into my own flesh. My chest felt like it would burst, and I was shaking so hard I accidentally smacked my head against the wall. Oddly enough, it helped. So I did it again.
            Think, Seph! Think! I banged my head lightly against the wall all the while arguing with my insides. Could. I could have killed them. But I didn’t. It didn’t happen. And it wouldn’t. My pulse started to slow. If I could just think, I could fix it. I could keep it from happening.
            With each thought, the chills and the nausea started to fade. Collapsed like a Leytling in higher gravity, I lay slack and gasping in reaction and relief. I repeated the last thought like a mantra: I could keep it from happening. When the last of the reaction faded, I reached out a shaky hand to pull a cover over my cold, limp body. Closing my eyes, I focused on what went wrong.
            I had been tired. What an understatement. Exhausted and brain dead was more like it. After Tomas, headquarters, Ter Dryst, and Ter Fless, frazzled was probably the nicest word for my brains. But how could I avoid that? The panic wanted to rise again. No. I squashed it firmly. No, it wasn’t only being tired. I’d been tired before and never put anyone at risk. It wasn’t even my temper because I’d been a lot angrier and never threatened anyone.
            But not when I’d been that tired. And not when people kept poking me and prodding me to test me. I realized that my teeth were gritted from the thought alone. Well, shit. I blew out a long breath. I was going to have to put a stop to that. For all of our sakes.
            The only way I could think to do it was to get more information. Ter Dryst was right: I’d been running blind too long already. Once I knew more, I’d be able to make better decisions. I sighed and felt some of that manic energy drain away. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it dulled the instinctive panic. And the more I fleshed it out, the more in control I felt.
            The first thing I needed to do was to find out as much as I could about Caldlings, especially the captain. I closed my eyes. Ter Dryst had introduced us. I was sure of it. What had he said? Captain… Nather? Naythare? I made a rude noise. My brain definitely hadn’t been functioning yesterday. Looking up the captain would have to wait – I didn’t even know his name.
            Come to think of it, I didn’t even know the name of the ship I was on. I opened my eyes and scanned the room. It had the usual bare walls and minimal furniture of passenger quarters, nothing to indicate what type of ship it might be. Or more accurately, nothing to narrow it down from the dozens of models it might be. From the layout I’d seen on the walk here, it was some kind of trader and passenger combo. Unfortunately, that still left a lot of options. Sitting up, I looked again, a sinking feeling growing in my stomach.
            I was on a strange ship, heading to an unexplored sector, and I didn’t even know the name of the captain. If Neith or my family found out about this… I threw an arm over my eyes and fell back on the bed with a groan. I was never telling anyone about this. Ever.

            It was easier to worry about my family’s reaction than survival, my loss of control, or where I was going. But I couldn’t ignore the negatives for long. With a sigh, I raised my arm. Clicking my fingers together, I waited for the screen to load and glumly tried to convince myself that this would be the lowest point of the trip. It was far too easy to believe that yesterday was an omen of my luck for this job. Or possibly my career on Ialu.
            On the other hand, I’d talked to Tomas. Successfully. Without prep. I dropped my arm. I passed their stupid tests, too. I landed a big job. And avoided hurting anyone. Barely, but I did it. Maybe, I needed to look at this another way.
            Suddenly, I remembered a man in a trade station Neith and I passed through who’d been offering advice on the power of positive thinking. He was handsome and charming, and the crowd nodded or laughed whenever he said something. The more he talked, the more people gravitated to him like he was handing out free money (he wasn’t). Neith had snorted and pulled me through the crowd without hesitation.
            “It’s all about spin,” the gnarled old woman told me as we cleared the mob. “If you want to see it in action, watch a politivid, but don’t you go trying it. Deathwalkers can’t afford to lie to themselves.”
            I had watched the vids, and the trick seemed to be ignoring anything good about your opponent – and ignoring anything bad about yourself. If I was going to be honest with myself, I needed to keep track of both.
            The decision felt good, but it was definitely time to stop psychoanalyzing myself and get to work. Suddenly energized, I raised the screen and entered my best guess at the make and model of the ship. Options popped up immediately, and I began the painstaking chore of sorting through them and trying to narrow it down.
            It took time: much more than I’d hoped. The longer it took, the more my nerves frayed. Frowning, I gave up on finding the ship with a basic search and added impatience to the negatives. When I shifted my focus to Caldlings, I ran into more luck. Well, more information, anyway.
            One of the first things I learned was that the captain wasn’t a he. He was a she. Probably. Apparently, the lighter shade of the scales was more common to females. The “more common” made me nervous, and I quickly made a mental note to avoid pronouns for the captain until I knew for sure.
            I also found out that what I had taken for a natural coloring difference on Gri’s neck was actually a tattoo. One that Caldling men traditionally get at adolescence. Curiosity had me cuing a vid of that process, and in the seconds it took me to get it shut down, I saw way more than I cared to. It reminded me of some of the horrible things I’d read about humans doing to themselves back on Earth, and the idea of it made just as little sense to me now.
            Having killed what little appetite I had, I was tempted to call up another vid – something that was pure entertainment. Something that would take my mind off of what I’d seen. Instead, I forced myself to keep looking. I needed to find out enough about Caldlings to be able to keep from doing something I’d regret.
            After a while, however, all my effort felt about as useful as wheels in space. Sure, I’d gotten a better handle on Caldlings at first, but now, all I was finding was tourist babble. Knowing their musical innovations or favorite foods was hardly going to help me stop an argument.
            It began to sink in that I didn’t know enough to search anything else. The two Caldlings were the only crew I’d seen. For all I knew, the rest could be from an entirely different system. Which meant I’d run into a wall as far as finding out about who I’d be dealing with on the trip. The next logical step would be to go down to the common areas and see what else I could pick up.
            For a long moment, I didn’t move but stared at the glowing screen between my fingers. Finally, I sighed and clapped it closed. I might’ve tried to put off going out if my body hadn’t been reminding me that there were several functions I couldn’t take care of here.
            Like it or not, it was time to leave my bunk.
            Sitting up, I slid off the bunk and took stock of myself. I’d been tired enough to sleep in my clothes. Grimacing, I added that to the list of things not to tell my aunt. Quickly, I pulled them off and switched to casual shipwear. Clean or not, I couldn’t go out looking like a station sleeper. I’d made a bad enough impression already.
            As soon as I looked decent, I grabbed my travel kit and headed out the door. I’d seen the boltscan last night and stopped to press a finger to the panel. The mechanical snick of the lock sounded an instant later. The next instant, I was headed down the hall. There was no point in wondering if it allowed multiple access. If it did, I’d find out soon enough. And everything I had of value was in the kit. Or in me. My eyes flicked to my hands then back to the hall.
            I had only passed a handful of doors when I began to feel a strange tingle in the back of my mind. Startled, I stumbled then walked on slowly, assessing as I went. It didn’t hurt: it was almost more of an itching feeling. It was like the feeling of being watched, but at the same time, something about it reminded me of walking through a graveyard.
            The feeling grew as I walked thoughtfully down the hall. Then, almost suddenly, it began to ebb again. I glanced at the number plate by the cabin door I’d just passed and continued walking, picking up the pace as I left the itching sensation behind.
            What kind of ship transported dead bodies in the cabins? I thought back to yesterday. And the engine room. You could fit a lot of dead in a ship like this, but why those locations and not the cargo bay? I immediately pictured the captain killing off members of the crew who disagreed with him – her – and stashing them where the remaining crew wouldn’t come across them.
            Shaking my head, I pushed the image away. My prejudice was showing. I needed to watch that. That sort of thinking was not a good way to make friends on ship. Unless the entire crew hated the captain. My lips quirked. Wouldn’t that be nice?
            I came to the broader door that Gri had pointed out yesterday and hesitated only an instant before going through. I could too easily imagine Gri lying about it being shared space and sending me straight into the captain’s quarters. I know, that’s pretty paranoid. But the whole ship felt like hostile territory, and walking through that door was harder than it should’ve been.
            Happily, he hadn’t lied. I passed the door for the facilities almost immediately, and although the need to use them was getting urgent, I continued on to scope out the kitchen and get an idea of the layout. After a quick glance, I headed back and found the men’s latrine. What was it Earth sailors used to call it?
            “The foot?” I muttered as I ran my hands through the instaclean. “No, the head.” I nodded. That was it.
            “Foot? Head? These are not parts most use in this place.”
            The puzzled voice echoed musically from behind me. I flinched, tensed, and then tried to cover it by moving slowly and casually.
            “No, I guess not,” I said as I turned, smiling in what I hoped was a friendly manner. The smile faded slightly when all I found was blank walls, floor, and the door. Had the stranger already left? My instincts said no. And there was something about that voice.
            “Yet you speak of them. This is some deathwalker ritual?” The voice came again. This time the heavy accent registered in my brain, and I leaned back against the instaclean. My tense shoulders relaxed as I turned my gaze above me. Even expecting it, the shining beauty of the wings and face caught my breath.
            “No, Light One,” I answered respectfully. I had no hope of pronouncing the title correctly in his tongue, so I translated it into mine. His miniature face brightened with surprise.
            “You know Teg?” he asked, gawking at me suspiciously with eyes that shone like liquid crystal. I paused, wondering whether he had dropped a preposition again. Shrugging internally, I decided to answer both questions.
            “You are the first I have met, Light One,” I replied, still formal, “But my family has traded with the Teg before.”
            “Your family.”
            Those gem-like eyes narrowed like a laser sight on a target. The constant pressure of that stare was incredible. Did the Teg not blink? Or was it on purpose? I found myself hoping it was genetic. As the silence (and stare) lengthened, I barely stopped myself from stepping backwards. I wanted to shift my shoulders and look at the floor, and that urge made me grit my teeth and stare back.
            “You are not Ialuan?” he asked finally.
            That was it? After all that?
            “What?” I blurted, blinking enough for both of us. “No. I’m Kaihmi.”
            It must’ve been the right thing to say. Everything about him brightened. Literally. I’d been told about the way they seemed to glow, but I’d thought my cousins were pulling my leg.
            “The seekers!” He exclaimed, beaming. Then, he frowned. “But you are a deathwalker.”
            My eyebrows rose. Hadn’t he said so earlier?
            “Yes, I’m a deathwalker. Deathwalker Sephtis,” I introduced myself with a polite smile and waited for him to return the favor. But as soon as I admitted to being a deathwalker, the welcoming glow faded. His eyes narrowed once more.
            “I thought seekers had no deathwalkers.” He said the last like it tasted vile. Obviously, this crew loved deathwalkers. And they were all really trusting and straightforward.
            “Only two I know of.” I shrugged though my smile faded. This trip was looking better all the time.
            The stalemate continued. The longer he stared, the less I felt any urge to end it.
            “How is this possible?” he asked. “The Seekers leave no dead to talk to.” The words came out slowly like someone whose mind was working very hard. I barely noticed once his meaning became clear.
            “That’s very true, Light One,” I said softly, closing my eyes with a long breath. “I will never get the chance to speak to my own people from before.”
            The Kaihmi had been space travelers for hundreds of years. They kept no graveyards, and there were no monuments to visit. I could speak with strangers from millennia passed, yet once my family crossed over, I would see them only in my memories.
            “You regret this?” His tone had gentled, and when I opened my eyes, I caught a hint of sympathy in his gaze. I paused, trying to put my feelings into words that might reach him.
            “My people are seekers of new worlds… new understandings.” My gaze turned inward into memories. “Yet our lives have changed and will continue to change. There are many old understandings we have lost – much of our history we have forgotten.” I focused on him once more and willed him to understand. “With no dead to tell us their stories,… they will be lost forever.”

Continue to the next chapter…


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