“Yes, the package is still secure.” T’Vosh’s voice came in clear over the surveillance headset. He sounded tired. “Are you going to tell me what is happening out there or not?”
“Make sure you file your reports,” said the Farseer scout. “The Prophets want consistent updates to verify their insights.”
“I do not understand. Why would they need verification. Is the Dreaming not enough?”
“Of course the Dreaming is enough. But, as of late, there have been some…irregularities. Minor things. A missing ship here or there. Late arrivals. Unpredictable interstellar conditions.”
“What do you mean unpredictable?” said T’Vosh, voice rising in agitation. “Is our route secure or is it not?”
There was a long pause, during which my heart skipped a beat. Had they realized we were listening? Were they heading our way? I almost dropped the headset and dashed off down the hall, until I realized that if the Farseers knew we were listening in on their conversation, then they’d be able to see where I fled.
That’s when the scout spoke at last.
“Your route is secure, Vigilant One. Have no fear. Simply assuage the doubts of an aging council with your regular reports.”
“It will be done,” said T’Vosh, voice firm with resolution.
I didn’t hear anything else of importance. There were a few closing pleasantries exchanged by the two Farseers, but then the Scouts turned and headed back to their ship. Sys and I hurriedly dismantled and stowed the surveillance equipment, and then scurried for the galley.
“Well,” said Sys, after folding herself into a bench. “That was interesting.”
I held my hands folded in front of me, to keep them from shaking. “Do you think the scout is lying?”
“The safety of our route.”
“What does it matter? We’re making the trek either way. Best we can do is make it through, regardless of the safety or danger.”
I nodded, as if taking her words as encouragement, but they were far from. While her rigid determination was inspiring, in the way that blind confidence in an ability to improve one’s fortunes is somehow admirable, it did little to assuage my fears.
The relative safety of this trip was dependent on the Farseers’ protection, which was both efficient and uncontestable because of the Prophets’ foresight. But if those things had faltered for some reason, if our future was unclear…
I tried to call some passages of scripture to mind, but I was never good at memorization, and I prayed so seldomly that the practice did little to comfort me. And if anything, the handful of tunes I had learned growing up in the church only reminded me of my own doubts about the existence, or nature, of God.
After all, “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” takes on a darkly subversive meaning when the Earth’s been blown to pieces.
Tic-Toc brought over a bowl of protein stew with blueberry garnish for Sys and I. Apparently it was lunchtime.
Even though we were heading into interplanetary space, and had a limited supply of foodstuffs, Chief still seemed to take pride in the presentation of his work. One example of that was the blueberry garnish on an otherwise grey-brown slop of meal. He had sliced each individual blueberry into halves and then set them on the rim of the bowl like limes in water glasses, all the way around.
The effect was comparable to salting the rim of a margarita glass. While the soup itself was…unsatisfying, lifting the bowl to your mouth and drinking some soup down with a mouthful of blueberries was a huge step in improving its taste.
And the color didn’t hurt anyone’s mood, either. On the otherwise grey palate of the ship’s decor, the only source of color besides our food were the various shades of neon represented on the couches in the lounge.
As Sys and I ate together — perhaps the first meal I remember ever sharing with her — I found my mind drifting to Mearr. It’s natural, I suppose, that that would’ve happened. After all, the only context I had to place Sys in my mind was beside Mearr, since I only ever saw them together. This meal should have been a glowing opportunity to try to get to know Sys a bit better.
And yet I turned the conversation toward Mearr.
“Hey, Sys, is Mearr okay?”
Sys’s spoon clattered as she dropped it into the bowl and shot a look up at me. Suddenly, every ligament in her chitinous body seemed tense, poised for action. I knew she could move fast, I’d seen her operate comm, scanners, engines, and shields all at the same time at her operations board up on the bridge. But seeing her readiness at such a close range…was frightening. The air almost buzzed with her anticipation.
In fact, I’m not so sure it didn’t.
The reaction caught me off-guard, to be sure. I knew those two were close, but I had no reason to expect Sys’s reaction to my question to put her on such high alert.
“What are you talking about?” she said.
I stirred my soup a few times, trying to give the impression of nonchalance, when in fact I was just as tense as she was — only in preparation to run. “He just seems…different today. Diminished, somehow. Does that make sense?”
Sys deflated instantly. All the tension in the air between us evaporated as she chittered out a laugh. “Oh, hatchling,” she said. “You had me worried.”
As if I wasn’t confused enough already, this tipped me over the edge. “What’s going on? You’re acting like this is normal, yet there’s only about half as much Mearr up in that cockpit today than there was when I boarded this ship. No one loses weight that fast.”
Sys hemmed and hawed for a moment — or, rather, performed her insectoid equivalent — as if she were trying to decide between two separate responses, before finally settling on one. “It’s almost time for his period.”
To my credit, my jaw did not drop.
All the same, it took me a few moments to recover. “Excuse me?”
Again, the chittering laughter. “Mearr belongs to a hormonal changeling species. All of them are hermaphroditic. And every so often, at least once a year for him, he goes through a menstrual cycle. The sudden explosion of estrogen in his body triggers an autonomic response that changes him into a female. You’ll start seeing breasts soon. Humies seem to like breasts.”
This time, my jaw fell open. I made several non-communicative noises before resigning myself to leaning over the table and staring into my bowl.
“Don’t feel bad, hatchling. Em thought we had a stowaway when Mearr first decided to take on this feline form. He had been scaly before, so she hadn’t expected to see another furry species on the ship.” Sys leaned forward conspiratorially. “If you want my opinion, I think she was secretly hoping to develop a crush on the ‘new crew member,’ but then she found out it was only Mearr.”
I still didn’t know what to say, so I stood up and took my bowl back to the kitchen, delivering it to Tic-Toc at the door.
“What’s the matter, hatchling?” Sys called after me. “Are you too squeamish about the thought of big, bad Mearr being a pussy with a pussy?”
“Shut up,” I said, though I don’t know why.
“God, you squishies are all so weird when it comes to gender. What’s the big deal if someone changes from one to the other?” Sys hopped up out of the bench and landed in front of me on four appendages. I had the sickening impression of an enormous cicada as she stood there in front of me. “I got it,” she said. “It isn’t because Mearr can change from one to the other — humies do that all the time, I’m told — it’s gotta be because he can change back, or can change whenever he wants to, right?”
I turned to leave.
“Yeah, I’ll bet that’s it. Gotta be weird for species that’s more-or-less locked-in at birth to encounter one that can flip-flop like two sides of a playing card. What’s your God say about that? Or are angels natural hermaphrodites?”
“Sys. Shut. Up!” I froze in place as my bellow echoed both back into the galley and down through the hall outside. Sys, also, stopped buzzing.
Unfortunately, my head had begun to buzz in the absence of the insectoid noise, so with the throbbing annoyance pressing even more on my patience, I stormed down the hall and as far away from Sys as I could get.