In the galley, I found Chief still at work. He was now slicing some manner of rehydrated fruit. I didn’t recognize it, but it had stripes of red and yellow with bluish spots. Didn’t look particularly appetizing to me, but I wasn’t about to tell Chief that.
Instead, I made the terrible, unforgivable mistake of trying to find food on my own.
As I made my way toward the cabinets where I had seen Chief stow the beans, a segmented limb whipped up from the floor and blocked my way. When I glanced up at Chief, he was leaning over the counter, knife buried in its surface, head glaring at me not three inches from my face.
He made that screeching growl noise and I froze.
How was I supposed to communicate with this thing? I didn’t know what it was saying.
“Hey, Chief. Um, I was just gonna grab some more beans.”
Chief leaned closer, bringing its hollow eyes within an inch of my own. Then he tilted his head.
It was unnerving how much a simple movement like that could change the entire tone of Chief’s appearance.
Now he appeared quizzical, instead of menacing.
“I, uh, I’m still hungry.”
Another screeching growl, and Chief returned to work on the fruit, but stuck out another appendage to block my way.
“No, Chief, really. You don’t understand. I haven’t eaten in days. Beans just wasn’t going to cut it.”
Chief whipped a glare in my direction and jabbed the knife toward me for good measure, as if to say, “You eat what I give you,” or something.
“Chief, please. I…I lost the beans.”
Again, it was amazing how subtle Chief could be with his expressions, despite the lack of facial muscles. In this case, he showed his sympathy by just slouching his shoulders a bit, removing the aggression and intimidation factors.
For myself, however, I still couldn’t look at him long. But this time it was due to shame and frustration, instead of fear.
Moments later, Chief had toasted some bread, sliced up some fruit, and delivered it to me with a powder-processed juice. I huddled in the corner of a booth for the next half hour, slowly eating my recovery meal.
That’s where Guhle found me.
“Hey, Chief,” he said as he poked his head in the galley. “Have you seen, oh, hey, hatchling.” He sauntered over to my booth and folded himself into the bench across from me. “Where’ve you been? Wow. How’d you get Chief to give you more food? He’s usually really strict about that sort of thing.”
“Threw-up,” I muttered between bites.
Guhle’s brow furrowed but he didn’t say anything about it. “So, have you been down on the lower decks this whole time?”
“You meet the couriers?”
“No, but Em was telling me about them.”
“Ah. Yeah, she’s not too pleased. They told her she couldn’t go to the engine room while they were ‘securing the package,’ as they put it. I thought she was about to tear one of them apart or something. Whew.”
I listened quietly as I chewed the bread and fruit. But something had been dwelling in my mind ever since I came on board. So I decided to ask Guhle about it.
“Hey, Guhle. What’s with the nicknames?”
Guhle clicked his beak a few times before settling into the bench a bit further. “Are you sure you want to know?”
I was in the middle of chewing again, so I shrugged and nodded, and then finally said, “Sure.”
Guhle leaned forward, settling his elbows on the table between us. “Are you sure?”
Now things were beginning to grow a bit…weird. What was the big deal? They were just names, right? I hesitated, but soon decided that I wasn’t about to let Guhle intimidate me out of getting my answers. “Yes, Guhle. I want to know.”
“Okay,” said Guhle with a lighthearted shrug. “It’s really nothing, just a habit Mearr got into.” He laughed. “When he joined the crew, we were rotating members so frequently that he couldn’t keep up with the names. Mearr has a horrible memory, by the way. So he decided, to hell with it, he was just going to give everyone callsigns, based on their station, so he could call them that no matter who they were.”
Guhle sighed and folded his hands. “Things have slowed down a bit now, though. We don’t see crew rotations nearly so often, so the system is a bit unnecessary. But I guess we all just got used to it, you know?”
I stared at him, a slice of toast half-hanging out of my mouth.
“You look ridiculous,” said Guhle with a droll expression in his eyes.
“What the hell is wrong with you!” I said, tearing the bread from my mouth and dropping it on my plate. “You had me all freaking out over here that there was some, I don’t know, a curse or something on the ship and these names were…were protection against…oh, hell, I don’t know. But you were freaking me out.”
Guhle’s laughter cut through the low roar of the engines beneath us — of course, I’m pretty sure his whistling laugh would cut through just about any noise. And maybe a few solids, too.
“Whatever, man,” I said. “Whatever.”
“I’m sorry, hatchling. Really, I am. I just can’t help it. The look on your face was…oh, wow, it was perfect.”
I shook my head and began laughing with him, despite myself. “There’s something wrong with you.”
“Probably,” Guhle said with a shrug. “But isn’t that true for all of us?”
I thought back to Gator’s whole inquiry he gave me the last time I was in the galley. Maybe he’d had a point. I decided not to ask Guhle about it.
“So, I can see where some of the names come from, but…Gator? I don’t get that one.”
“Ah, yeah. You’ll actually appreciate this, since you’re a humie. Oh, sorry.”
I waved off the slur and waited for the explanation.
“So, Mearr heard a story once about the alligators from your homeworld. How they lived in murky swamps and would slither through the muck when others couldn’t find where to go. Right?”
“So far as I know,” I said. Then I shrugged. “I didn’t study Earth biology much.”
Guhle looked as though he was about to say something along the lines of “You don’t look like you study much at all,” but apparently he thought better of it. Instead, he continued the story. “Well, he likened the navigator of a realspace vessel to performing much the same task — finding a way through otherwise murky routes. I think his exact words were, ‘Poking around blind until your nose or your tail bumps into something.’ But, well, that’s Mearr.”
“I see. And I take it Mearr doesn’t have a nickname?”
Guhle shook his head. “No need, according to him. I’m still not sure if it’s because he’s the pilot and so considers himself the most important person on board, so everyone should know his name, or if it’s because he doesn’t care. Either way, no name for him.”
A clanging echoed out from the galley and I looked up to see Chief pulling out some pots and pans.
“What about him? Where’s his name come from?”
Guhle smiled in his eyes. “I guess this contradicts my last thought. Mearr calls him Chief for two reasons.” He held up a finger. “First, a ship’s efficiency more often comes down to the quality of the cook, instead of the quality of the commander. So Mearr says that Chief is the one really running things.”
“No argument from me,” I muttered around my bread.
“Second,” Guhle said, holding up another finger. “So far as most of us know, Chief came with the ship. Any talk of replacing him is always met with…unfortunate circumstances. So we keep him.”
I looked over at Chief again. Yeah, I could see unfortunate circumstances brewing if anyone ever challenged him. Of course, I considered getting too close to Chief an unfortunate circumstance in itself.
“What about me?” I said suddenly, turning back to Guhle. “It makes some sense, sure, but why ‘hatchling?’ Why not ‘newborn?’ Seems more in keeping with Mearr’s…physiology.”
Guhle studied me for a long moment before turning away. “There’re some things about Mearr that you should probably learn on your own. Or at least learn once you know him a bit better. You’ll have your answer then. So don’t worry about it right now.”
Well, I didn’t know what to make of that. Maybe it was just Guhle being intentionally mysterious again in order to pull a similar prank at a later time. Maybe he was being honest and Mearr was more than he seemed. Maybe it was something else, entirely.
Whatever it was, his evasion pissed me off.
But not as much as the couriers did, when they intruded on our conversation.