Chapter 6

            I sure knew how to put a damper on a conversation. And a day. Trudging back to my quarters, I studied the floor absently as my mind turned around the problem of finding the Kaihmi dead in space. I’d worried it so many different ways over the years that the edges of the problem were worn smooth. Every time I thought about it, I came to the same conclusion: this was one freezer that was simply too big.
            Making a face, I kicked an imaginary speck of dust with my toe. Normally, this was where Neith would smack my shoulder and tell me to worry about now. That would definitely raise my spirits – I was doing so well at solving my current problems. I kicked another piece of dust and shook my head. So far today, my biggest accomplishment had been to learn Caldling eating habits and to meet a Teg. (I’d’ve liked to say made friends with a Teg or at least gotten a start on that. But I’d promised not to lie to myself.)
            A strange tingling in the back of my mind made me lift my eyes to the corridor – like earlier. I’d almost forgotten about it. Now, as I studied the door numbers, I was sure it was the same section of the hallway as before. I took a cautious step forward. The feeling got stronger. My eyes narrowed, and my lips curved. This was one mystery I could solve.
            Newly energized, I began methodically stepping forward. With each slow step, I analyzed the strength of the feeling. There was no question that it was getting stronger, but judging from this morning, the cause was still somewhere in front of me. I eliminated one door and took another step forward. At the same time, my ears strained for any sign of occupancy. The last thing I needed was a passenger complaining to the captain that I was snooping around their quarters. Or worse, decide to deal with me personally. I winced and cautiously edged a little more to the left.
            Frowning, I made sure I stayed closer to the middle of the corridor but didn’t stop my steady advance. My eyes were locked on the wall and the doors. Three left in the area I’d passed through before. I considered them thoughtfully. I had a feeling about R48. Without taking my eyes off it, I forced myself to take another measured pace forward when what I wanted to do was rush to the door, throw it open, and confirm my suspicions – except what did that mean, exactly? All I knew was that something was causing my deathwalker senses to react. Something that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Only it didn’t feel precisely like a graveyard either. There was more to it than that. And less at the same time.
            I had to shake my head at that. It didn’t make any sense, and somehow, it was absolutely true.
            Huffing an annoyed breath, I eyed the generic gray door. What would they keep there that felt like the dead? There was no way they’d transport a corpse in the passenger quarters. They’re not cold enough, for one, and I’d hate to think how hard it would be to get rid of the resulting smell. Inching another step forward, I searched my brain for possible explanations. The obvious ones were dismissed – serial killers on space ships were fine for vid serials, but, honestly, trying to hide on a ship this small simply wasn’t feasible anymore. The cost of the sensor blockers alone made it ridiculous to try. And the whole crew would have to be in on a plot to kill passengers (not the most reassuring thought).
            As I moved gradually closer, I listed and dismissed possibility after possibility. It definitely helped distract me from wanting to rush ahead, but I didn’t feel any closer to having answers. What I had was plenty of questions.
            Could it be a passenger from a culture where they keep parts of the dead? I vaguely remembered an ancient tradition where they turned the deceased’s ashes into jewelry. Was that still done? Could that possibly cause such a strong sensation? I wasn’t sure that it could. Unless the jewelry was really large. Or didn’t people use to stuff their dead pets with sand? What was that called?
            “Botulinum?” I muttered, frowning as I edged up another step. No, that didn’t sound right. I think it started with a t. “Taxiforming?”
            “Tax-what?”
            The question boomed out over my shoulder, and I jumped straight up and spun around like a startled cat, landing awkwardly on my butt. As I hit the ground, the feeling of death cut off like someone flipped a switch. Or somehow erased the dead in an instant. The idea sent a chill through me, and I stared, trembling, at the remaining doors. How was that possible?
            “What are you doing?” The voice was deep, loud, and completely unfamiliar.
            “He speaks to himself of strange things.”
            That one, I knew. Which meant the Light One had followed me and brought a friend. And here I was, sitting on the floor. I scrambled up and about halfway to standing. Then, I made the mistake of looking up and froze. I had seen large races before, but I had never seen someone take up room on a spaceship quite like that.
            It…he?… was broad and squat in a wall kind of way – an ancient Earth wall kind of way. One that was thick and dense and made for defense. But that wasn’t what made me stare: his skin was covered in fragments of… stuff. There were sheets of metal, flecks of rock, and bits and pieces of brightly colored I didn’t know what. It was like a suit of eclectic armor attached directly to his skin – though my mind winced away from how they’d been attached.
            As my gaze traveled up and up, he moved, revealing that what I’d taken for flat pieces of metal and rock were actually chunks thicker than my arm. The biggest was comparable to my torso and deeply imbedded. It was like being able to see through someone to the bones – big bones made of stone and metal. My eyes widened. Could that be what they were? They were all joined together with an almost clay-like substance. I marveled at how strong it must be to hold all that metal and stone together. And move them. I wasn’t sure I could pick up one of the bigger pieces. But all of them? Gaping, I wondered if the ship had a sensor for his location so that it could adjust the engines.
            “Is it stuck?”
            It took a moment for the laconic question sink in. When it did, I flushed and jerked up to standing.
            “My apologies!” I blurted and yanked my gaze up to where I assumed his head would be. And stared again. It was surprisingly normal – well, humanoid. The eyes had an unusual shade that gave them away as manmade. Otherwise, there was nothing about his face that would stop him from passing for Ialuan, Kaihmi, or any number of other races. But how could his skin function so differently on his head than in his chest?
            And that was not something I could ask now. For all that they were manmade, his eyes showed a cynical, considering air that told me that he was far too used to people gawking at him. I needed to make up for staring like a two year old. Quick. Maintaining eye contact, I cautiously made the sign of respect for equals.
            “I am Deathwalker Sephtis,” I announced formally. “I am honored to meet you.” Then, I held my breath, hoping that someone would return the introduction for a change.
            His head tilted, and although the cynicism remained strong, I got the impression that I’d surprised him. Then, he turned and looked over his shoulder at the Teg, who had alighted on one of the light fixtures, which curved out from the wall so perfectly that it could’ve been made for him.
            “It is gesture of honor,” the Light One said in response to the glance. “He treats you as equal.”
            “Equal.” The word was said with a weight, a nuance I couldn’t interpret. He turned back slowly and considered me for a long moment. Even the silence seemed heavy.
            “I am Kith.” He said it simply. As if daring me to ask for more. He didn’t realize how happy I was to get a name, let alone a race. I could search his race.
            “I am pleased to meet you, Kith,” I answered just as simply. I glanced at the Light One, hoping Kith’s example would encourage him to introduce himself, too. Nope.
            “What is this tax-thing you speak of? Do deathwalkers have special taxes?” Kith glanced over his shoulder again, directing the second question somewhere between me and the Teg.
            “I know not. Before, he spoke of heads in a place where they are not used.” As he spoke he jerked his head back behind them to indicate the lavatories. I winced and hoped the heat in my cheeks wasn’t visible. Especially since they were both staring at me now.
            “I was trying to remember the term for an old Earth practice,” I explained hurriedly. “I didn’t realize I said it out loud.” That was twice in one morning. If I wasn’t careful, they’d decide I was crazy and throw me out the airlock. From the looks on their faces, they might already be considering it. Although it was hard to tell with Kith. His expressions were beginning to remind me of Ter Dryst – how did they manage to look expressionless and incredulous at the same time?
            “You speak to yourself of old things?” he asked slowly, still eyeing me warily.
            “Sometimes…” I smiled awkwardly. “It’s a job hazard.”
            Another silence as the two of them shared a considering glance. Kith looked at me sideways. I tried to look friendly, professional, and non-threatening (which mostly involved smiling and standing up straight).
            “And this tax-something you said, it is an old law? A tradition?”
            “Something like that.” I got the feeling that stuffing dead pets with sand was something I didn’t want to bring up with these two. And if I remembered right, there were laws related to it. Before Kith could ask for more details, I turned to the Teg. “And Earth sailors used to call the toilet the head.” Those gem-like eyes expressed horror better than any other I’d ever seen.
            “This is horrible name!” he exclaimed. “This is not what head does!” He looked so alarmed that I couldn’t help but laugh.
            “Well, I’ve heard of a pea-brain, but I don’t think that’s what it meant,” I chuckled. Then, I realized they weren’t laughing.
            “A pee…” Kith mouthed with obvious disgust. The Light One shuddered.
            “Oh… no, no! Um, it means that someone has a small brain, the size of a pea, a small bean…it was a pun…” I spluttered slowly to a halt as they continued to stare. “I’m going to shut up now.”
            “You are going to shut what?”
            On a groan, I closed my eyes and buried my face in my hands. Now, I knew how Ter Fless had felt in that business meeting. Feeling their gazes on me, I answered without raising my head.
            “‘Shut up,’ means to stop talking.”
            Another silence.
            “Deathwalkers are hard to speak with.” The deep voice was lightly laced with annoyance.
            “Funny. I’ve heard that, but this is the first time it’s ever happened to me.” I was usually better about staying in the right century. Or millennia at least. Rubbing my eyes, I gave my self a short inner pep talk and dropped my hands. “I apologize for the confusion. I will attempt to do better.”
            They were staring again. What did I say now? Frowning, I went through every word in the statement. There shouldn’t have been any old jargon or slang to confuse them.
            “I begin to see what Gri meant,” Kith rumbled. “Come, Deathwalker. It is time for the crew meal. You will join us if you wish to eat.”
            Well, that was pretty clear, food-wise. I wasn’t sure I wanted an explanation for the first part. I started to reply, caught their expressions, and nodded instead. Kith raised an eyebrow and turned back down the hall. The Light One leapt off the sconce and glided before him.And I trailed behind them both like a small child on a trip to the Intergalactic Zoo.

Continue to the next chapter…


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