Chapter 8

            The awkward silence lasted longer this time, and there was no question in my mind as to why. Or who would have to break it. Still facing the now blank wall, I glanced cautiously to my left. All the captain’s teeth were bared and grinding together so hard I imagined I could see them sharpening each other. Suddenly, she snapped them apart with such abrupt violence that I flinched.
            “Metss.” She bit off the word sharply. That was it. And as soon as she spat it out, she turned on her heel and left. The others parted for her wordlessly, and the silence returned.
            I stared after her, a bit nonplussed, and filed the word away to look up later. New curse words were always handy, but I liked to know the meaning behind them before I used them.
            “It is left arm.”
            What? The Teg had made the statement in that overly helpful tone people used when they pointed out the obvious. Only nothing was obvious in this case – the grammar was too bad.
            Turning back, I was about to ask what on ancient Earth he meant when I noticed that both he and Gri were looking down at my left side. At the same instant, I felt a presence next to me. And a tug at my sleeve. Shit! I spun away, simultaneously taking a step back. And stopped, staring.
            It was the crew member I hadn’t been able to see before. It had to be. Bald head, big dark eyes – eyes that stared up at me from about the height of my elbow. The facial features were fairly humanoid, and I would’ve guessed female (If I had to guess, which I was going to do my best to avoid). Despite the neutral expression, I knew from the stir behind me that I was making a bad impression again.
            Smiling apologetically, I repeated the sign of greeting I’d made originally. Wincing a little as it pulled the slice on my arm.
            “Sorry. I didn’t realize someone was next to me.” It sounded weak to me, but it earned me a slight smile. I think it was a smile.
            “My apologies for startling you.” It was said extremely politely in a voice that was high but sweetly resonant. Almost choral. I found myself wishing she(?) would speak again.
            “This is Metz,” the Teg asserted, alighting on a chair back next to us. “She is ship doctor.” The ship doctor. I was afraid of that. And I really wanted the tell the Teg that articles were important.
            “It’s nice to meet you,” I said, instead, smiling while I frantically tried to think of some way to get out of being treated. She nodded politely, and her serious expression warned me that my task wasn’t going to be easy.
            “The captain asked me to look at your arm.” A part of my brain noticed absently that unlike the Teg, her grammar was perfect. The rest of my brain screamed to stop paying attention to useless stuff and find a solution to the problem.
            “Oh, that’s very nice of you,” I hedged, turning to face her fully (and put my arm out of her reach). As I did, my hand brushed my travel kit again. That was it! “But that won’t be necessary!”
            My smile beamed as I lifted the kit, dug through, and hastily removed the MiniDoc. In one smooth motion I slid it up my sleeve and over the damaged area.
            “MiniDoc on.” I commanded casually. A low buzz and a dim glow of white through the fabric of my shirt confirmed the machine’s activation. “Scan and restore.” As the little machine took on a high whine, I noticed the doctor’s eyebrows raised slightly. My own furrowed. Something about her eyebrows seemed off.
            “Puncture wound, semi-clotted with moderate bruising. Low levels of foreign contaminant,” A metallic, emotionless voice stated, only slightly muffled by my sleeve. “Cleaning and sealing.” There was a low hum, and the pain in my arm intensified for an instant then died off into numbness. “Operation complete.” And with one more buzz, the glow under my sleeve faded.
            “MiniDoc off,” I ordered. There was no discernible response, but I knew the kit had shifted from autosleep to off, a distinction that could save me considerable pain and trouble if something happened before I got a chance to recharge it.
            “It is finished?” Metz asked. Her eyes were aimed at my arm like a focused laser.
            “Cleaned, closed, and covered,” I replied as I reached up my sleeve to remove the device. Feeling Metz’s gaze on me, I resisted the urge to inspect the wound myself. Later.
            “You trust the device that much?” Again, her eyebrows raised, and again, something about them seemed off. “I had heard they were unreliable. And the captain was very concerned that the wound be properly treated.”
            A rough laugh burst from the dim seating area. It sounded like gravel over glass, and the entire group started like a surprised herd. Everyone but Metz. Her focus was truly disconcerting.
            “Oh, well phrased, doctor!” the deep voice guffawed. “Very diplomatic!”
            I peered into the darkness where I vaguely remembered legs being earlier. About… there. I could make out was the vague impression of a humanoid. But whoever he was, he was going to give himself a hernia laughing that hard.
            “Did you catch that, kid?”
            “Well?” Metz’ melodious voice was calm, completely unperturbed by the noise beside us.
            “Hmm?” I responded automatically, caught up in the gales of laughter coming from the shadows. “Catch what?”
            “Deathwalker Sephtis.”
            Her stern tone finally dragged my attention away from the mystery man. Too late, I registered the tense expressions of the rest of the crew. What now?
            “Is the device reliable?” Metz asked it calmly – as if the interruption had never occurred. As if the man weren’t still chuckling to himself. Although the outburst was dying down a bit.
            “Um…,” I floundered, “well, it depends on the model.” And who modified it. “Mine’s lower-end but good enough for minor cuts like this one.” Or when I don’t have a Kaihmi doctor handy.
            “Hmmm.” She wasn’t sold. Any second, she would insist on seeing the wound herself. Now that it was sealed, it would be less risky. Still.
            “And as I told the captains, this,” I said quickly, gesturing to my arm, “is far too small to worry over. I would be horribly rude to monopolize a doctor’s time with such a scratch.”
            This time the burst of laughter was even louder.
            “Rude to monopolize the doctor’s time,” the low voice chortled. “Nat’ll love that.”
            “It is no trouble.” The doctor continued as if she couldn’t hear the mocking laughter. That was a little too much. Her expression hadn’t changed since that slight smile, but the Light One’s lips were pressed together, Gri’s nostrils had flared, and someone behind me might’ve growled.
            “That’s right, kid,” the man snorted. “She’ll only be in trouble if you refuse. Oh, this is golden!”
            “Farisss,” Gri’s annoyed hiss sounded strangled. Judging by the low laughter, the man sprawled on shadowed couch wasn’t phased in the slightest.
            “Don’t you see it? You’ve got them in a corner now, kid! They can’t hold you down and heal you, or they might hurt you. They can’t let you heal yourself, or Nat might hurt them! What a conundrum!”
            Gri spun around to glare down at the man. Instead of sitting up, the man lounged deeper into the cushions – still chuckling to himself in that rough growl.
            “What? Upset because you’ll have to tell Nat the kid took care of himself instead of letting her get points back?”
            Captain Nat. Doesss. Not. Hhurt. Hher. Crew.” Gri towered over the man. Rows of diamond-sharp teeth flashed as he snapped off each word.
            “Riight,” the man jeered, completely unintimidated. “Just passengers.”
            With a soundless snarl, Gri dove forward. In that instant, a strange, high-pitched sound blasted through the room. Wincing, I hunched over and covered my ears. A glance showed me the rest of the crew in similar positions. Except Metz. She swayed for an instant, then stumbled, and sat abruptly. Her eyes were tightly closed, and a fine shudder ran through her. I watched, dazed.
            After a moment, Gri dropped his hands and straightened, shaking his head as if to clear it. Cautiously following his lead, I heard his low-hissed curse. Then, two gigantic hands covered my shoulders and applied gentle but inexorable pressure to the right. Faced with the choice of moving or being moved, I shuffled swiftly to the side. The hands and pressure disappeared, and Kith stepped past me to Metz and knelt beside her.
            “Al,” he said in a soft, reproving tone that was somehow more dangerous than Gri’s snapping teeth.
            “I forgot where I was.” The other giant stepped forward to kneel on Metz’ other side, concern in his chocolate eyes. “Sorry, Metz.” His voice was surprisingly high but extremely rich and rounded, even in a whisper.
            Silence settled over the room, and even the man in the shadows seemed disinclined to break it. No one moved. Watching Metz with the others, I found myself holding my breath. It felt like an eternity, but I’m sure it took only a few seconds for her expression to steady. Then, she opened her eyes and dispelled the enchantment: the tableau broke, and the room breathed a collective sigh.
            “A little lower next time, Al.” She turned her head and gave him a mild look. “At least in the kitchen.”
            “Sorry,” the giant said again. “I did not think.”
            “There was several not thinking,” the Light One said casting a stern glare at Gri and the man on the couch. I couldn’t read Gri’s expression. The other man’s amusement was gone. Now, he looked bored if anything. He looked like he hadn’t moved at all – who stayed lazing dismissively on a couch with an angry Caldling diving at him?
            And as the Light One spoke, the man raised his eyes up to the ceiling like a disdainful child listening to a familiar and tiresome lecture. The Light One’s glittering eyes narrowed, and I took a reflexive step back.
            “Enough, Mor,” Kith said as he stood. “Gri has learned a lesson, and Faris cannot be taught one, whatever you wish.”
            The Light One sniffed and settled his wings like an annoyed sterrling. Kith’s lips curved slightly as he extended one massive hand to Metz. Her hand as she took it was unusually thin and slender. As his hand closed around hers, effectively hiding it, I frowned. How many fingers had she had?
            She stumbled a little as she stood, and her voluminous skirt twisted, outlining her lower body briefly before swinging back out. I blinked, mentally adding up what I’d seen. Fighting to conceal my excitement, I stepped casually to the side so that I could examine her silhouette. The loose skirt hung stiffly and with a very specific, deliberately stylish curve in the back. I nodded with approval. Make a fashion statement, and no one would look any deeper. The proper shoes would take care of the rest.
            “Amazing,” I mumbled under my breath.
            “Deathwalker?”
            I looked up to find Kith and Metz regarding me with identically blank expressions.
            “You said something?” Kith asked. Despite his polite tone, I got the impression that I had better give the right answer. Or else. My mouth dropped open on a quick surge of envy. How did he do that? If I tried that, people would laugh at me.
            And now he was giving me that look again.
            “I was admiring Metz’ dress,” I supplied, thinking fast. “It reminds me of a sketch I saw of historic gowns from ancient Earth.”
            Kith raised an eyebrow. The Light One, however, laughed.
            “More talk of old things!”
            The man on the couch snorted. I tensed, hoping he would stop there.
            “Nice cover.”
            “Enough, Faris,” Kith said in a tired tone.
            “Then, give the kid a break. So he doesn’t like-”
            “Excuse me,” I interrupted forcefully and loudly. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
            Even with the word unspoken, the air felt suddenly heavy with the fury of a storm about to break, and the crew stood like statues, muscles tensed and giving off a energy that was downright chilling. Didn’t this guy have any sense of self-preservation?
            “Hisss name isss Farisss,” came a silky sibhilance from behind me, and the temperature in the room dropped to freezing. “You were sssaying, Farisss?”
            For a second, there was a flicker of anger in the man’s eyes that told me that he was seriously considering saying it. Then, his eyebrows raised with that same disgusting arrogance, and the flicker was gone. At long last, he closed his mouth.
            “Perhapsss,” the captain continued deliberately, “you meant to sssay that it isss time for your sshift.”
            It wasn’t a question, and if she’d said that to me in that tone (or any tone like it), I’d’ve been off and running to get to my post. The man – Faris – stood casually. Instead of rushing off, he stretched lazily, turning his back on me. And the captain behind me.  As if leaving was his idea and not hers. The arrogance of the gesture left me speechless.
            After leisurely finishing his stretch, he strolled past us. His craggy face and lanky form were too plain to explain his attitude. But something about his clothing looked familiar. A sideways glance as he passed me confirmed my suspicions. Ialuan make. Of course, that didn’t necessarily mean anything. It could be a coincidence.
            He caught my glance and smirked with all the charm of Enna’s squawking. Then, he did the unthinkable. He stopped, ignoring the captain’s hiss, and moved directly in front of me.
            “Faris Myles Lanik, Rh,” he said in the condescending tone of someone granting a favor, one he was sure I wouldn’t fully understand. I sighed internally. Definitely Ialuan. And he’d effectively trapped me.
            “Tor Lanik,” I replied with forced respect, forming the sign for a learned scholar. His head jerked up, and some of the condescension was buried under shock. For all of a second.
            “Huh.” He looked me over as if seeing me for the first time. “Finally, someone on board with some decent manners.”
            “Take notes,” the Light One suggested coldly.
            Faris actually sniffed. He seemed about to comment again, but whatever he saw on the captain’s face changed his mind. Not that he’d ever admit that. With his nose held high, he sailed slowly out. Torn between disgust and amusement, I stared after him. If Faris was the only Ialuan on board, I could almost forgive the captain’s reaction yesterday.
            Some of my incredulity must have shown on my face when I looked back to Metz because her lips quirked.
            “Tor Lanik?” she asked.
            “The title of respect for a scholar in the Ialuan system,” I answered distractedly, still somewhat stupefied by the sheer size of the man’s ego, “for those who have not earned the full Ter but want a title to proclaim their importance to the world.”
            I was so caught up, I didn’t notice Metz’ startled expression or the disbelief on the faces of the others. Not at first. I had an instant to wonder what I’d said. Then, Metz threw back her head and laughed. It was like a choir of tinkling chimes. In a wave, snickers and chuckles spread across the room in an intoxicating chorus. Last was a short, deep rumble, like an avalanche of boulders in a ravine, and I felt like cheering. Kith had laughed, too, however briefly.
            “Are you hungry, Deathwalker?” he asked.

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