Now, it’s not that I thought Gator was dangerous. Well, let me correct that. I’m confident that Gator is dangerous, in the same way that all Farseers are dangerous. But I wasn’t afraid that he would hurt me or anything. I knew he was, so to speak, on my side.
But when you’re new to a crew and you suddenly find yourself alone in a room with a two-and-a-half-meter pillar of mechanical menace, all deep-violet swaths of cloth wrapped around glittering lights and sharp steel edges…well, you let me know how you fare.
Gator stood there for a long moment, tapping through the display screens projected by his armor, then he closed them all down, sighed, and turned toward me.
“So, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Settling in okay?”
“Well, you’ll get used to everyone soon enough. Hungry? Chief should have something whipped up by now, even if he was too busy with inventory to come to the meeting.”
Food sounded like the best thing I could ask for at that moment. It had been days since I’d eaten a full meal, and most of what I had eaten since had about the nutritional value of a leather shoe, and most of that I had chucked when Dox punched me earlier that night.
So, with the promise of sustenance, I stood and waited for Gator to lead the way.
To my slight horror, he turned toward the room down the hall with the creature. And then he started walking.
I didn’t know what to do. On the one hand, food. On the other hand, horrible monstrous creature. It did occur to me, at some point, that the horrible monstrous creature might be the cook, but then I’d be eating food made by a horrible monstrous creature.
Still, it was better than no food at all. And that’s how I eventually — in the span of about three seconds — rationalized following Gator.
As we approached the galley, the automator Tic-Toc bustled out to greet us.
“Welcome, ingracious invaders of this inviable interspace. How can I help you?”
Gator just pushed past the bronze box and strode into the room.
“Chief,” he called. “Where are you?”
The gaunt, grey visage of the creature I had spotted rose up from behind the center island, knives still dangling from around its neck.
I have to admit, I leaned a bit closer to Gator. If this thing was going to eat somebody, Gator was probably the safest bet for protecting me.
With a long, scythe-like appendage, the creature grasped one of its knives and pulled it out of the sheath around its neck. Then, raising it high, the creature began slicing an oblong purple vegetable on the island’s cutting board surface.
Gator sighed. “You haven’t made the meal yet?”
A low rumbling screech echoed out of, well, somewhere in the creature — who I had to assume was Chief at this point — as it continued slicing the vegetable, undeterred by Gator’s disappointment.
“Oh, well. Chief, this is our new deckhand. I’m sure you’ll be hearing everyone call him hatchling soon enough, so I won’t even bother with his real name. If you could just whip something up fast for him so I can start showing him around, I think it’d be best if our new crew mate didn’t collapse from starvation.”
Another low rumbling screech, like the combination of sounds that comes from sliding a heavy door open on a slightly rusty track.
“I understand that, Chief. But I have confidence in your abilities to multitask.”
With that, Chief lifted two of its many segmented legs toward a cabinet on the other side of the room, swung the cabinet open, and tossed a can onto the island counter.
“Really, Chief? Beans?”
Another screech, though this one was more like a howl. Chief’s head bolted up and its eyes…well, for the first time I paid enough attention to Chief’s face to realize that it didn’t have eyebrows or even muscles, so far as I could tell…so, Chief just leveled its sight at Gator and I took that to be as close to a glare as the creature could muster. Which was impressive, to me, as most non-anthropomorphic species didn’t even bother learning the humanoid expressions. Chief had apparently been around the block for a while.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. You’re right. You’re very busy. I’m sure he’ll be happy with beans. Right, hatchling?”
Chief tilted his head to look past Gator and toward me.
I felt my knees begin to wobble and my skin begin to crawl. “Uh, sure,” I said with a shrug.
Chief made a gesture with his knife-wielding appendage that was somewhere between a stab and a shrug and seemed to say, “See? What’d I tell ya?” Then he promptly eviscerated the cover of the can, whipped out a bowl from the cupboard under the island and poured the beans into it before tossing the bowl in the heater and the can in the cycler.
About a minute later, I sat in one of the booths off to the side of the galley with my bowl of beans in front of me and Gator seated across from me. It was the first time I’d seen him sit since I met him.
“So,” he said. “Co tells me that you filled out the paperwork okay, but I haven’t really had a chance to look it over. What’s your story? Have you ever worked on a realspace freighter before?”
My mouth was full when he finished asking, so I just shook my head. While I had travelled on realspace shuttles before, it was mostly between stations orbiting Migo III. The only deepspace travel I’d been involved in had been during my journey from the refugee camps on Umayyadrid to the Migo system when I abandoned my mother. And that had been through tranisium drives, not realspace engines.
“Well, it’s a long job. I just hope you understand that. You’re going to be cut off from the galaxy for over a year. Can you handle that?”
I shrugged, as I had once again shoved a spoonful of beans into my mouth as soon as Gator had finished his question. I swallowed quickly, though, so I wouldn’t give the impression of being rude, or of being an antisocial, homicidal maniac.
“Don’t much see what there is to handle,” I said. “Not much keeping me here. No one that I care to talk to, at least. So a few months of silence might do me good. Who knows?” I took a swig of water to wash out the bean gunk that I could feel getting stuck in my throat, and then continued. “Besides, a job’s a job. You do the work, regardless of conditions.”
Gator didn’t move or speak for a long moment — during which I shoveled a couple more spoonfuls of beans into my mouth. Because of his full-body armor, it was impossible for me to read his attitude based on posture or facial expression. But soon enough, he spoke again.
“I suppose that’s an admirable attitude for an employee to have, but I want you to understand what this is going to be like, before we leave and deny you the chance of turning back.” He shifted his posture, angling himself away from the table, as if his gaze was drawn by something Chief was doing in the galley. “With most jobs, you do the work, and then you go home. If you have issues with the labor, or the clientele, or the co-workers, you can escape it all by retreating to your own solitude — wherever or however you might achieve it. But in the silence, on a freighter like ours, you don’t have that luxury. This is your entire world — your entire universe, even. The only escape you have is into the corners of your own mind, and I’ve known men who would rather face the void than whatever lurks there.” He fell silent for a moment, and then muttered, almost to himself, “After all, the silence is impenetrable, but the mind can be broken,” before seemingly rousing himself to be reminded that I was still sitting here, with a spoon half-hanging out of my mouth.
I lowered it into the bowl, swallowed, and cleared my throat before speaking. “So, are you wondering if I’m able to do the work? Because I’ve done all kinds of heavy labor around the stations, so if it’s a question of strength, stamina, or even technical expertise, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to match your expectations.”
A sound escaped Gator’s voicebox that his recognition software apparently had trouble replicating, because it sounded something like a sigh, or a scoff, or even a soft laugh, and yet was none of those things. “I have no doubt that you can perform the menial tasks that are assigned to your station. And I have confidence that you’ll pick up on the tricks and techniques that the other crew members require of you, when they ask for your assistance. But what I need to know, before I let you accompany us on our journey, is if there are any parts of who you are that you fear, more than death.”
As Gator spoke, I leaned further and further back with increasing intensity, almost as if I were trying to burrow through the back of my bench to the booth behind me. Suddenly, across a table seemed too close to Gator for my comfort zone.
And for some reason, my thoughts strayed to my mother.
But Gator looked like he was waiting for an answer, so I gave him one. “Don’t worry, Gator. I’m not a psycho-human mourning the destruction of my homeworld or anything like that.” Then, as I dipped the spoon back into my bowl of beans, I muttered, “Wasn’t even alive at the time anyway.”
Again, that sound from Gator’s voicebox somewhere between a sigh and a scoff — maybe he should get that fixed or something. “Welcome aboard, then, hatchling. I’ll have a list of pre-departure duties in your hands within the hour.”
He stood, turned toward the door, and then paused.
“You do know how to properly clean shipboard deck plating, don’t you?”