I looked up and, sure enough, Mearr stood over me, leaning with one hand on the table, bent over to look me in the eye when I raised my head. His once-broad shoulders were now narrow and in keeping with his thin-yet-agile arms. His breasts hung low — noticeable, but not large — adding additional curves to those created by his now-enlarged hips. Spotted stripes of black and brown lined his golden-white fur, giving the impression of a human woman who wore animal-fur underwear all the time.
For some reason, I wasn’t surprised to see him. I hadn’t recognized his voice at first — that, by far, took the longest for me to get used to — but I wasn’t taken aback by his appearance.
Instead it seemed…fitting. I hadn’t really spoken to Mearr, much like Guhle, since I had learned he was a changeling. So for him to slink down here to my side, after talking to Guhle about him before the end of his shift, was either a sign from God or karmic justice. I didn’t have any strong feelings about which one it was at the time, so I’ll let you take your pick. Whatever lets you make sense of the universe.
Again, Mearr asked, “Are you alright?”
I nodded, a bit sleepily. It must’ve been later than I had thought, for everything seemed a bit bleary to me.
“I just had a bit of a heart-to-heart with Ghule,” I said feebly.
“Oh, that crone,” said Mearr with a scoff. Then he leaned in closer. “Don’t worry about him, humie. This is his nest. He won’t hurt you while you’re in his brood.”
I grinned. “That’s what I keep telling myself. But then he goes all mysterious and looming on me.”
“Kind of like Gator?” said Mearr, settling himself on the edge of the table, tail whipping out into the air and swinging back and forth lazily.
“Yeah,” I said with a laugh. “Kind of.”
“Hm,” purred Mearr. “Y’know, they probably wouldn’t bother you as much if you just relaxed a little.”
“No, no,” I said, shaking my head with a laugh. “I’m pretty sure they would only pay more attention to me, and probably send me up to see Cap to find out if something was wrong.”
The captain doubled as the shipboard medic. Apparently, Cap had been a successful doctor before turning to the shipping business after his retirement. If it took months-on-end of empty space to help him relax, I couldn’t imagine the type of clientele he must have gotten.
“You know that’s not what I mean,” said Mearr, playfully pawing at my shoulder. I let him, laughing along, even though I didn’t know. When I didn’t respond, his tail drooped and his whiskers turned down into a frown. “In all the time you’ve been here, you still haven’t really let yourself become one of us yet.”
Now it was my turn to be disappointed. Though instead of frowning, I feigned outrage and disbelief. “What d’you mean I haven’t become one of you? I’ve been hanging around the lounge, visiting with each one of you every spare moment I get. I eat with you, I speak with you, I open up about my personal beliefs to you people. How much more involved can I be?”
Mearr just shook his head sadly. “That’s not what I’m talking about at all, humie. You’re around, sure. And you participate, yeah. But you always keep yourself at arms length. You open up and you ask questions, but only when it’s expected of you. You don’t offer any of yourself to us. Not really.”
I was surprised. Honest. This was a depth to Mearr that I had not previously encountered. Before this, I had found him to be boisterous, argumentative, occasionally provocative — first in his speech, and now in his appearance.
But sensitive? Insightful? No. Never. This was new.
Or, maybe, it had merely been hidden the whole time.
I shook my head to clear it of all the human gender roles and stereotypes I had grown up with. The caring, insightful, mothering female. Nurturing, that was the buzzword in church when I was growing up. Then it changed to Sheltering shortly before I left. Every generation, every decade seemed to bring with it a new set of buzzword teachings in the church — especially among the mothers.
“Problems?” said Mearr, reaching up with a tender hand toward my forehead.
“No,” I said, gently pushing him away. “No, not really. Just memories.”
His hand sank to the table. “See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Someone in the crew tries to reach out to you, and you bat them away with a wave of your hand and a mutter of ‘It’s nothing,’ or ‘Just memories,’ when it clearly is not nothing and we have no idea what these memories of yours are.”
Mearr’s agitation had him standing by the end of his speech. After pacing in a huff for a moment, with me not saying anything, he once again turned to face me and collected himself to speak again.
“This’s the first time we’ve ever had a humie aboard since I’ve been here,” he said quietly. “So I’m sorry if we aren’t doing a good enough job of reaching out to you, but none of us really have any experience interacting with your kind. So you’ve got to meet us halfway or something.”
I balled my hands into fists under the table as my chest tried to strangle my heart to death. He was right, of course. If I was going to make it through another sixteen months of this trip, I’d have to make friends — honest, truthful friends — at some point. Otherwise I’d end up like Gator or Guhle, paranoid and alone.
I thought of Em, who seemed perpetually happy. I thought of Chief and Tick-Tock — well, okay, Tick-Tock didn’t count, but it was easy to tell he helped Chief stay sane with his antics.
And I thought of Mearr and Sys. Whatever their relationship was, it was clear they were close. And it was clear that they were stronger for that closeness. Wasn’t that enviable? Why wouldn’t I want that?
“Doesn’t your Bible say something about God coming down to meet you halfway? If it’s good enough for God, isn’t it good enough for you?”
“Not quite,” I said with a small laugh. “But the idea is similar.” But which one of us was God in that situation?
Mearr made as if to speak, but I held up a hand to cut him off.
“Look, Mearr,” I said, staring at the table. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I really do.” I looked up into his eyes to make sure he could see I was being honest. “But it’s hard for me, y’know? I’ve been on my own a long time. Just about got used to it when your pal Guhle came along. I’m not about to change overnight, but I promise I’ll try to change before this trip is through. Okay?”
Mearr was looking away at this point, whether from disappointment at my words or discomfort from my gaze I couldn’t tell. In either case, it was a solid enough signal for the end of the conversation. So I slid out of the booth and stood up, turning toward the door.
As I passed Mearr on my way out, I offered one last condolence, the way Guhle had offered one last snipe as he left me. “I’m sorry, but it’s the best I can do. Trust me.”
When no clear response was made by Mearr, I brushed past him and headed out the door.
The sleeping pods, like most parts of the ship, branch off of the main lounge. They’re nestled up in the upper hull, on a level plane with the cockpit, albeit much farther back on the body. Each one has a sizable bunk — appropriate for a variety of space-faring species, though not all — as well as a small viewport for gazing out at the passing stars, should you be so inclined.
Thus far, I had not been so inclined, and kept the security hatch firmly sealed over the small reminder of just how much nothing there was outside our island of livability.
As I closed the hatch between my pod and the ladder that led down into the lounge, I stripped off my clothes and tossed them in a heap in the corner before falling into the bed. It had been a long, draining day, and I was more than ready for sleep.
Darkness was closing in at the edge of my consciousness, making every sound blurry and unreal, when the distinct hissing of pressurized air signaled the opening of my pod door.
In my semi-delirious state, I thought it strange but unworthy of my attention, so I remained where I was, staring at the wall, drifting off to sleep, until I heard another clump of cloth hitting the floor.
At that point, I rolled over.
Mearr stood just inside my now-closed pod door. Naked.
Before I could speak, he took a step forward. “I’d like to test your claim about changing overnight.”