Chapter 9

            Lunch was an educational experience on multiple levels.
            Kith guided me through the scattered crew to the microcook. Automatically, I accessed the menu and goggled at the lengthy list of exotic foods. So many! And most were foods I’d never even heard of. Scanning the list of new foods to try, my mouth watered, and I hesitated, my hand hovering over the selection screen. What to start with?
            “Foods with ingredients available to you are marked.” Kith’s mammoth hand moved to the display, and I quickly jerked mine out of the way. I winced mentally, but he didn’t seem to notice. When his hand paused a millimeter away from the screen, I realized that he was pointing to a little symbol next to several of the meals. “Others require personal property.”
            Personal property. That had to mean unique spices or ingredients which meant – I leaned closer. Yep. There went most of the exotic options. Oh well. With a little shrug, I picked one of the remaining mysteries.
            “If I pay for the extra ingredients, would I be able to try some of the others?” I asked as the microcook lit and began to hum. There was no answer. Turning to lean back on the counter while it worked, I looked up to find Kith giving me another of those long considering glances. His eyes really were well made. They conveyed emotions better than any man-made eyes I’d ever seen before. They had to be expensive. Just how much did this crew make?
            “It would be up to the crewmember who purchased the item,” he said slowly. “Are the offerings insufficient?”
            “Oh, no,” I said hurriedly. “But there are foods here I’ve never tried before.”
            “You do not recognize most of the available foods?”
            “What?” I frowned. “No, I know most of those foods.”
            “Then, what is the problem?” Kith’s expression didn’t change, but I could hear the frown in his voice.
            “I wouldn’t call it a problem,” I said, blinking. “I don’t have to try the new foods if it’s too difficult.” Which, apparently, it was. Oh, well. I could always ask again later.
            The microcook dinged. Pulling out the plate, I caught a whiff of strange spices and flavors I had no names for. The question of the other meals was forgotten as I carried it eagerly to the table. Something new to try!
            Setting the meal down with exquisite care, I inhaled deeply, savoring those mysterious scents even as my eyes devoured the enticing mix of colors and textures. The brown and cream shapes reminded me of some of the small grains we commonly ate at home. Some of the bluish shapes looked like leaves, yet the color didn’t match any vegetables or herbs I knew. On the top, there were medium-sized chunks of some kind of protein along with a smaller medley of minced pieces in browns, greens, and reds. They could be nuts, berries, roots, tree bark – I’d been to one planet where meals included bits of clay. They claimed it was good for digestion.
            With slow reverence, I scooped a bit up and lifted it for a closer inspection. As I did, I unobtrusively passed my left hand over the bowl.  Even after sniffing deeply, it was hard to tell which piece was responsible for what smell. An inaudible vibration near my left wrist, however, told me that, whatever it was, at least it wouldn’t poison me.
            Taking a mouthful, I held it for a moment and catalogued each flavor. Savory yet sweet with hints of an almost earthy, even metallic taste. Hmm-ing softly, I slowly began to chew. The consistency confirmed the grains, but some of the other parts surprised me. By tasting each piece individually, I found that what I had taken for some sort of fruit was actually tiny scraps of flavored meats. The others were either nuts or tubers, I wasn’t sure.
            “You do not like it?” Kith’s voice was soft, but somehow it still managed to boom in my ear.
            Jumping only slightly, I looked up – and up. Someday maybe I’d get used to his height.
            “What?”
            “The food,” he repeated with the slow emphasis of someone speaking to an idiot. “You are not eating.”
            “Huh?” I said inelegantly, blinking at him. Glancing down at the food then back up, I did a double-take. Somehow, several members of the crew had seated themselves around me at the table without my noticing. Directly across from me, the black-haired woman rested her head on her hands with an amused expression.
            “Kith isn’t used to anyone eating with such…,” the curve of her lips deepened, “restraint.”
            I stared blankly for a moment. Restraint? She pointed at the tiny bit of food I’d scooped up.
            “Oh!” I was feeling slower all the time. “I’ve never had this before.”
            “I see,” Kith said reprovingly. “You may get a new meal this once, but in the future, I suggest you pick foods that you know you will eat.”
            “What?” I blurted. I had lost track of the conversation somehow.
            “In space, we cannot afford to waste food,” he explained slowly. I closed my eyes and took a long, deliberate breath. He acted like I was 5 years old.
            “I do not want more food.” I replied in the same slow, condescending tone. “The Kaihmi do not waste food.” Ever. Nomadic life simply did not allow it. Or rarely. Aunt Apikalia never allowed it.
            “You are not eating.” His tone got worse if that was possible.
            I held it in. I don’t know how, but I kept from snapping the obvious response (Because you’re talking to me!). But I didn’t dare try to say anything else. If I opened my mouth, that’s what would come out. I was sure of it.
            Jaw locked tightly enough to twitch, I turned back to my food. My instinct was to shovel a huge bite into my mouth as a kind of “There! I’m eating!” But I was not going to let him ruin my meal. I was going to enjoy this new food, and if he didn’t like it, he could go watch someone else eat.
            Deliberately, I separated another of the bits I hadn’t tried yet and took a bite. Like before, I held it in my mouth a moment to analyze the flavor and composition, and then, I slowly started to chew.
            Kith growled (a sound that reached right down to the base of my spine and activated the “run” instinct in my legs). Ignoring both gave me a burst of childish pleasure as I savored the flavors. And another as I took another purposefully small sampling. His growing irritation was like an approaching storm front, a perceptible front of energy at my side. Since I was fairly sure he wouldn’t hurt me (considering the Captain’s reaction to my minor cut), his annoyance added flavor to the meal. Especially since (and maybe I really was 5 again), he had started it.
            “He is eating, Kith.” The woman sounded either amused or sympathetic. I couldn’t really tell.
            “He is picking it apart,” Kith snarled. “It is not meant to be tasted this way. Then, he dares to say he does not like it.”
            “No.” The word snapped out before I could stop it. “You assumed I did not like it.”
            “You won’t eat it.”
            “I’m trying to!” I half rose to face him. “I might have a chance if you’d stop interrupting me!”
            It was harder to ignore my legs when he growled this time. Maybe because I could see him leaning over me. Or because his eyes suddenly seemed metallic and cold.
            “He has a point.” The woman’s voice was a calm, cool breeze. We both spun towards her, and my jaw dropped open. She hadn’t moved – she was leaning on the table as casually relaxed as she’d been at the start.
            “What?”
            “He was eating. You interrupted.” She smirked up at him in a friendly way, not even blinking when he loomed over her.
            “That is not eating!” His heavy fist landed on the table, and the scarred carbon shook. “It is a whole. Not little parts.”
            “True.” She nodded. “But I imagine he’s never seen or heard of some of those parts before.” She looked at me, and I blinked and then nodded slowly. “If he wants to recognize them later, he’d need to try each one, wouldn’t he?”
            “But that ruins the dish!” Kith’s expression wasn’t simply angry. He acted as if tasting each part instead of the whole was somehow offensive. Like an insult. Maybe even sacrilege.
            “Nat! Mor!” A disembodied voice boomed and echoed through the room. I jumped like a startled cat.
            “They’re not here, Raz.” The dark-haired woman took the sudden sound as calmly as Kith’s anger. “Try the-“
            “-Turn on the screen! You have to see this!”
            For the first time, the dark-haired woman showed an emotion besides distant amusement. One eyebrow raised slightly, and her lips pursed. The rest of the crew’s responses weren’t nearly as subtle. They turned abruptly and stared disconcertedly at each other as if unsure what to do. Even Kith forgot his anger – at least, he stopped looming over me and stomped closer to the screen. He tapped the same section of the wall that Mor had hit earlier. A rectangle of light appeared.
            “It is on,” he stated in an edged voice, glaring at the solid white rectangle – clearly unimpressed. I managed to turn my chuckle into a cough. Not quickly enough apparently. Either that, or he considered the diversion over and was ready to yell at me again.
            “Raz, what station?” Metz asked calmly.
            A moment of silence answered her. He must have already clicked off.
            “A waste of time,” Kith growled, reaching out to tap the wall once more.
            “Screen, display the station Raz has playing,” the dark-haired woman called out. I blinked. I’d been wondering why someone didn’t call Raz back and ask. Her way was better.
            The instant she finished talking, the screen darkened to the blackness of space, broken by several swirls of light. An intergalactic map. In front of it, a fashionably dressed Ialuan spoke directly to the camera while gesturing to different areas of the map. As she did, each area she pointed out emerged from the map to form a holographic image of the area.
            “…disappeared on established trade routes to and from the Riyoon galaxy. And while only 2 bodies have been recovered, I.S.L. detectives believe that the disappearances are linked.”
            “Disappearances?!”
            Low, muttered questions and exclamations drowned out the Ialuan newscaster as the image behind changed to several Ialuan women and men modeling the latest fashions.
            “Screen, display the most informative written article on the disappearances in the Riyoon galaxy,” Kith ordered intently. I raised both eyebrows at his order and hoped their screen was better at judging what was informative than the ones I’d used before.
            The rumblings died down as the article appeared on the screen. The crowd of crew members shifted closer until they formed a visual wall. I could read the headline, but that was it. That was enough to make me very nervous.

Riyoon Slave Trade Reopened? 2 Dead 27 Missing

            27 missing? How could there be 27 missing? I stood quickly in a vain attempt to read over the crew’s shoulders. Nope. Straining in vain to see, I kicked myself for forgetting my compwatch again. Huffing out an annoyed breath, I sat back down and returned to my meal. Or tried to. Even the new flavors couldn’t compete with the mystery at hand. Especially not with the crew’s continued muttering.
            “Experimented on?”
            “Tortured.”
            Those 3 words together are pretty hard to ignore. But assuming those details were about the 2 bodies they’d found, the mystery became even more baffling.
            Why didn’t they ask the deceased who’d killed them? That was Deathwalking 101 – our original purpose and still our number one duty. It was also the number one reason for the decrease in murders over the last century.You had to be pretty creative not to give the person you’re killing some clue to who killed them.


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