The next few weeks were a nervous drudgery as we all discussed the Farseer Scouts and their visit — what it meant, what they were like, how it must be to patrol the Dominion borders, and so on. But the excitement soon wore off as nothing out of the ordinary happened and we were left to assume that their visit was just as routine as the rest of this trip.
In the same time span, my thoughts of the Farseers had been replaced with thoughts of Mearr’s transformation, which became readily more apparent as the days and weeks wore on. Sure enough, as Sys had said, breasts appeared while the rest of Mearr’s once-chiseled physique melted into soft curves and sultry grace. Even his voice changed, which was the second-most frightening transformation, coming in right behind the change in his face.
It was as if Mearr wasn’t even Mearr anymore. While, granted, I didn’t know him very well at that point, I had been around the crew long enough by necessity to pick up on some of their quirks and mannerisms and to grow accustomed to their presence and appearance.
Gator and the Cap still freaked me out at times, but I chalked that up to them being in command, and needing to maintain an aura of mysticism because of it.
But the rest of the crew…well, they wouldn’t ever be family, but they were close-quarters co-workers, so how could I not know a thing or two about all of them?
Chief’s pride in presentation had finally revealed itself to me, and Tic-Toc’s once-annoying glorification of the nightmarish chef — well, I’ll admit, it was still annoying — but it had proven to merely be a desire to help. Nothing sinister.
Em’s fanatical overprotection of the ship extended to people too, I learned, and she had quickly taken me under her…well, wing isn’t the appropriate metaphor here, but you understand what I mean. Even when she was mad at me, which happened frequently enough in my bumbling attempts to clean the ship, she still stood up for me when others made me the butt of their jokes.
And Guhle. I was still convinced that his loner angle hid a nesting tendency that had him watching over us all — not because he feared us, but because he didn’t want to see us get hurt.
Then of course there were Sys and Mearr. Whether their dynamic was brother-sister, less friendly than it appeared, or more intimate than I cared to believe, there was no denying that they were a tight pair.
But I had affixed their roles as strictly male-female.
It’s not that I couldn’t understand or appreciate an alternative pairing. It certainly wasn’t due to any dogmatic system of belief that the others likely would have ascribed my discomfort to.
No. More subtle than that. And yet, simpler too.
Which makes it the most difficult to try to explain, doesn’t it?
In any case, my discomforts — such as they were — did little to change what happened next.
It started when I found Guhle one night in the galley. I hadn’t spent any time with him in several days, and it had been weeks since our last real conversation. So long, in fact, that I hadn’t been able to confide in him my newfound knowledge about Mearr. With the majority of the crew already asleep, I decided it would be safe for a more delicate conversation, and sat down next to Guhle.
“Hatchling,” he said without looking up from his reader. He clutched a steaming cup of something in his right hand, not moving an inch until I spoke.
“You know,” I said as he picked up the cup and dipped the tip of his beak into the liquid. “You never gave me the whole story about where that nickname comes from.”
His eyes narrowed in that way I had learned to take as a wry smile. He sipped the liquid for a good long while before finally setting it down on the table and returning to his reader.
“I told you,” he said. “You need to get to know Mearr better before I tell you that bit.”
“I know he’s a changeling,” I said.
That got Guhle’s attention. Placing his reader to the side and interlocking his fingers, he leaned forward across the table. “Really? That was quick.”
“Hard not to notice.”
He shrugged and his eyes again creased and twinkled in amusement. “Who told you?”
“I asked Sys about it. I thought Mearr might be sick.”
“Oh, there’s no doubt of that,” said Ghule. “Mearr is sick in several ways, but nothing so overt as an illness.”
I didn’t know what to make of that comment, so I let it slide past. While I knew that Mearr and Sys liked to push the limits of their piloting capabilities — usually at Mearr’s insistence — I had yet to see it place anyone in harm’s way. So if that’s what Ghule was referring to…I chalked it up to jealousy or frustration on his part. While it’s true he was officially copilot, everyone knew that Mearr preferred to run things with Sys at his side instead.
But I knew Guhle still respected Mearr, and not just because he had to. The changeling pilot was clearly skilled. I’d seen some of his simulator records, and even spectated a few scenarios where he and Guhle flew together.
There was no contest.
So whatever issues Guhle had with Mearr, I knew it was personal and didn’t extend to the professional level. Which meant I should have been able to count on his word about Mearr.
“So what does Mearr being a changeling have to do with my nickname?” I asked into the silence.
Guhle cocked an eyeridge. “What makes you think it has anything to do with anything? It’s what Mearr is. Isn’t that enough?”
“You made it sound like I had to understand Mearr better before I could appreciate the name. Or else that I would think less of Mearr after hearing the justification behind the name, and so you wanted me to get to know him as a person before hearing the last about him as an efficient prankster. And frankly, I don’t see how he could have many more secrets beyond being a hermaphroditic changeling who may or may not like to get it on with bugs.”
I took a deep breath at the end of my rant and immediately turned red. I shouldn’t have gone so far. Guhle was a professional. He kept his feelings detached from his work. And, if his and Gator’s comments were anything to go by, I was willing to wager that that was the reason he’d lasted so long on a realspace freighter.
In other words, I wasn’t impressing him with my emotional outbursts and baseless accusations.
“You’re right,” he said at last breaking the silence. “Maybe there aren’t any deeper mysteries to Mearr. Maybe he is just a thrill-seeker. But even thrill-seekers have their uses and until you recognize that, I think it’s clear you don’t really know Mearr as a person.” He stood from the table, clasping his reader in his hand as he did so. “And you’re right in assuming that that’s what I wanted from you. Apparently you can’t deliver.”
I reached for Guhle’s arm as he turned away, clutching a handful of feathers in my fist. “Guhle, wait. I’m sorry.” I released my hold on his feathers as soon as he made it clear he wouldn’t be going anywhere. “You’re right,” I said. “I gave you the wrong impression.”
“How do you mean?” he said without looking at me.
“I do respect Mearr. He frustrates me sometimes. He almost seems to go out of his way to do so. But I admire his relaxed nonchalance. It’s…liberating, in a sense. Like he just chooses to unwind, even though we’ve got to be at the top of our game all throughout this trip or we don’t make it to the other end alive. Somehow, that helps me relax too. Which is definitely a different feeling for me, after scraping by for so long. And I appreciate him for that. Okay?”
For a while, as I held my breath, Guhle didn’t move. Then he said, “Relaxed nonchalance? Big phrase for an undereducated street-sleeper.” After that jab, he turned his head to look down at me and I saw the wry grin back in his eyes.
“I read a lot as a kid,” I said, by way of explanation.
Guhle nodded, as if that were enough for him. Then he said, “All changelings lay eggs. Regardless of what species they’re mimicking at the time of conception or delivery. So a newborn changeling is always called a hatchling. Hence why he passes the name onto the new crew-mates. You’re all hatchlings to us, squawking for help and toddling around nearly helpless. It’s a wonder we survive a hatchling journey at all.”
I held my steam in. It wasn’t the nickname that bothered me anymore, so much as the connotations that Guhle was drawing to it. But it made sense, especially following my whole speech about how important it was to stay on top of our game.
In fact, he probably threw that elaboration in there because of my speech.
“Don’t worry, hatchling. At least there’s only one of you, and at least you aren’t the pilot.”
With that, Guhle left, but not before he managed one last comment. “Speaking of which, I have to go relieve him now. Goodnight.”
Well, I somehow reasoned above the swirling sea of my frustrations, that explained why I didn’t see Guhle as often as the others. He was the night shift pilot. Made sense. Brainless for me to not have figured it out before now.
For the first time in a long time, I found myself in the galley, at a table, with a sea of emotions and no food to stare at in contemplation.
So I settled for the table.
I’m not sure how long I sat there, staring at the small scratch in the table, but I was roused out of my contemplation soon enough.
“Hey,” came the soft purring voice. “You alright?”