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. detectives believe that the disappearances are linked.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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!
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.
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.
If I’d harbored any illusions about the crew’s feelings about having me on board, they were shattered like fragile historic Earth glass the minute I stepped into the eating area. The casual, friendly conversation I’d heard from the hallway stalled to an awkward, even hostile silence. All thoughts of using only modern jargon dropped out of my head under the impact of their stares, and I tried not to wince at the mix of expressions. Looking from Gri’s unreadable expression to the suspicious faces of the strangers to the captain’s outright hostility, I found myself not even wanting to ask about the different races around the table. Although, really, what could it hurt?
Ahead of me, Kith turned and gave me another long stare. The Teg, however, alighted on the back of a chair and gestured towards me as if oblivious to the silence.
“This is deathwalker,” he announced formally. He raised a hand and paused, waiting until everyone’s eyes shifted from me to him. “He is Kaihmi.”
The instant change in the quality of the silence was amazing. And while it didn’t override the suspicion or hostility completely, the entire crew was now looking me over as if maybe I wasn’t quite what they expected.
“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.”
“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.