Sometime later, I don’t know how long, but it was after I regained control of my limbs, I wormed my way up to where I could look Mearr in the eye. Some of the fur was creeping back onto her face, and her eyes had already regained their catlike shape and sheen. I cupped her head in my hands and just stared at her for the longest moment.
Then I kissed her. Disregarding the fur and the whiskers and the shape of her face, I kissed her.
Her pointed teeth nicked my tongue as it slid inside her mouth. Her own tongue was rough against mine, but I didn’t care about any of it. I just desired to stay close to her.
When we came up for air, I wrapped my arms around her shoulders, and felt her wrap her arms and tail around my waist, and we lay there just feeling each other breathe as we each recovered from what had just happened.
Eventually, I became aware of the cold, wet spot directly beneath us. Mearr had no doubt missed it due to the fur on her body, but it was an immense distraction to me. Rolling over, I stripped the sheets from the bed, which solved most of the problem, leaving us to lie naked on the bare mattress.
“Why don’t you open your viewport?” she said, nuzzling my neck.
I shrugged, though of course I knew the reason.
“It’s a lovely view. Even after all these years, I still find it beautiful.”
I leaned back and turned my head to look her in the eyes. “Do you want me to open it?”
She seemed to shrink back a moment at the directness of my question, or maybe it was something in my tone. I was too tired to tell. But then she nodded and smiled. It was a cute smile. It made her look so much younger than she had a moment ago.
“Okay, then,” I said, planting a kiss on her forehead. “I will.”
I climbed out of the bed just enough to hit the switch beside the viewport, then I fell back beside her and roped my arm around her shoulders. The hatch over the viewport slid away with a soft grinding noise, opening up my sleeping pod to the light of a hundred thousand stars staring across the depths of space.
It was beautiful. The innumerable pricks of light twinkling in the distance as our ship floated silently past their sight.
I reached up a hand, as if to grasp them in my palm. But of course it was nonsense.
“See that,” said Mearr, pointing. “That’s my home star cluster.”
“Really?” I said, gazing up at the small points of light.
I felt her nod into my shoulder as she lowered her hand back onto my chest. “I was born out there, before the system was destroyed of course.”
My chest tightened as the pieces clicked together in my head, and further implications wormed their way in from there. Did she have sex with me because both our species’ home planets had been destroyed? If so, I wondered if I’d be able to stomach the fact in the morning. Already, I could feel the heat of the night beginning to die down. By morning, it would likely all feel like a bad hangover.
“I’m sorry for your loss.” It was the only thing I could think of to say.
She shrugged against me, turning to look up at my face, and draping a leg across my thighs. “It’s not my loss. I was gone long before it blew. And changelings have never been much for feeling kinship or loyalty to anyone, especially our home.” She settled back onto her side as she looked back up at the sky. “It’s just a novelty. That’s all. A hobby or something.”
“What?” I asked, though I suppose I already knew the answer.
“Finding it,” she said. “Amidst all the vast constellations.”
She raised up a hand as I had, twisting it about in the air as if she could grasp the tiny points of light that represented life and warmth and civilization to so many trillions of inhabitants.
“It’s funny,” she said. “After all these years, you can still see its light, even though the sun is gone.”
I shifted to my side so I could wrap my arms more securely around her, and also to absorb some of her warmth. It gets cold in space. Who knew?
“I’ve travelled the length of the galaxy too many times to remember,” she said. “And still that damn star hasn’t winked out of existence in the sky. Seems I’ll never be rid of it.”
“What happened to it?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Not really important, is it? Only thing to know is that it’s gone, along with my home.” She twisted around to face me again. “That makes us survivors, you and me. We’re like kin in that way.”
I didn’t want to think of someone I had just had sex with as being related to me in any capacity. And while the logical portions of my mind fought it out to see if clarity would win out over association — she was, after all, an alien, but it’s difficult to remember that when lying naked next to someone — the rest of my libido simmered down to a colder realization that I was lying in a sweat-and-semen-soaked bed in the dead of night with the changeling pilot of a realspace freighter that was only two months out on its fifteen-month journey.
“What’re we going to do?” I said suddenly.
“Survive. Just like we always do. You humans haven’t given up yet, not that you were ever in danger of doing so. But that’s what sets people like us apart. We persevere.”
“No, I mean…about us…”
Her eyes narrowed before dropping away from my face.
“Don’t say my name. Please. That’s for outside. During the waking life. Not here.”
“Ok…but what’re we going to do?”
She chewed on her lip, pointed teeth digging into soft flesh, before finally looking back up at me. “What is there that needs doing?”
At first, I was at a loss for words. With such a direct question…well, she caught me off guard. I of course assumed that this whole situation — a pilot-deckhand relationship, especially one starting like…like this — would never work out, especially in the eyes of the crew. But then when Mearr asked the question, I couldn’t find any objections to raise.
“Nothing to say?” she asked as I continued to search for a reply. “Good. Then listen.”
She flipped up off of the bed and over the top of me, pinning my arms down as she straddled my stomach.
“It’s very simple. I like you. I’m fascinated by you. You were good tonight. But you can’t tell anyone about what happened. If I hear a peep, a hint, or a rumor work its way around to my ears…” She flicked her ears like satellite dishes searching for a signal. “I’ll find you. And you won’t be happy to see me.”
I gave up trying to break my way out of her grasp and merely settled down on my back to listen.
“Another thing,” she said, bending closer. What little light entering my room from the viewport framed her lithe body, and I somehow saw her reflective eyes glowing in the dark. “If I ever notice you looking at me with the vaguest hints of sexual interest, I’ll lock you in the cargo bay.”
“I’ll be missed,” I said with a sarcastic smirk.
“You’ll be fed,” she snapped back. “And I’ll let the rest of the crew come up with their excuses for you. But understand this: You’re my toy, hatchling. I get to play with you whenever I want, and I get to set the rules.”
My heart hammered as the realization of what had happened tonight set in. But soon I nodded, before she could get angry and lash out at me in a more overt method.
She smiled. “Good. Now come here.” She leaned down and kissed me. I didn’t expect anything much more to happen, but moments later Mearr managed to change my mind.
The next few weeks are what I think of when looking back on my time aboard Bessie. The awkward introductions that made up my first few weeks, and the madness that followed our isolation in the storm, both seem like unusual cases for some reason. But this time, the time following my sexual encounter with Mearr and preceding the ion storm, was almost a happy one.
My days were filled with the same menial labor as before, but something seemed to change in my relationship to my crew mates. I thought, at first, that I would be awkward around them, knowing what I was hiding from them. But I found myself falling into casual conversation with my crew mates on a more frequent basis than before.
Em became my near-constant companion, inviting me often to assist her in more mechanical maintenance than before. Chief and Tick-Tock would take time to put on more of a show in the galley, clearly for my benefit — and much to my entertainment. Gator was more visible as well, stopping in to see how I was doing, paying closer attention to my reports, and generally being a more hands-on leader than I had grown accustomed to in the short weeks since we had left Migo III.
Even Sys opened up a bit. While we never spoke of the Farseer conversation we had overheard, she and Mearr did make a point to spend time with me in the lounge. When we were all three unoccupied with work duties, we were like three-of-a-kind. A matched set meant to stay together.
Yeah. If only.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My days were filled with more laughter and companionship than I had previously ever known, and I knew I had Mearr to thank for it. Whether it was because she said something to the crew or else had arranged this shift in attitude by some other manipulation, I do not know.
All I can say is that I’m thankful for it.
As I said, those were my days. My nights on the other hand were filled with a mixture of anxious anticipation and unexpected pleasures. I would lie awake many nights wondering if Mearr would appear. Her fancies seemed to be more erratic and unpredictable than I’d initially assumed, as there were some weeks she would come to me almost every night, and then others where she would not appear at all.
It reached a point where I came to dread the night. The breathless mixture of hope and exasperation exhausted me. Would she come? I wanted her to. But what if she didn’t? I might lie awake all night waiting. And then there was her uncanny knack for arriving as soon as I reached the edge of sleep, only to stroke me awake with her many talents.
But, of course, it could not last. This constant game we played was bound to make someone suspicious, and I dreaded to learn who would figure it out first.
There are many nooks and crannies in a structure that are only ever truly known to its maintenance workers and its sanitation staff. Seeing as I was participating in both of those roles aboard Bessie, I learned many secret corners of the ship that the rest of the crew regularly ignored. This afforded me an opportunity to seek a few moments to myself during the days when I seemed to be everyone’s favorite friend, without going so far away as to be unreachable.
In other words, I had found some excellent eavesdropping locales.
In this instance, I overheard an exchange between Sys and Gator, as they meandered down the hall toward the cockpit.
“I only mean to say that it’s well past his usual timeframe,” said Gator. “I would have expected the estrogen effects to have faded by now. Are you sure you aren’t contributing any…well, y’know.”
“What’re you talking about?” said Sys, bringing their walk to a halt.
Immediately below my perch.
“The captain is just wondering if any foreign genetic material may be interfering with Mearr’s usual biological process. That’s all.”
My heart skipped a beat. Mearr and Sys had been having sex?
But of course, I realized in the next instant. That explained why they were so close. How could I have been so blind? I had had my suspicions early on, but those had subsided during the past few weeks of intimacy with Mearr.
Suddenly my time spent with the two of them seemed far more precarious than it had moments before.
“That’s not how it works between us,” said Sys, a low thrumming building in the core of her exoskeleton.
Gator folded his arms across his chest and bore down on Sys with the full reach of his height, which was, I have to admit, impressive. “Everyone knows, Sys. Don’t think the two of you can hide it from the rest of the crew.”
Again, my heart skipped a beat, jumping into a lump in my throat. Everyone knows… Did that mean they knew…about me? I fought the urge to burst out from my hiding place and race down the hall to find Mearr and demand some kind of explanation.
“First of all,” said Sys, raising herself up on two legs, nearly matching Gator’s height. “The two of us are not hiding anything. Second, it doesn’t work like that because my species reproduces asexually. And third, I haven’t had Mearr to bed with me in over a month. So back off!”
With that, Sys followed her own advice and fell down onto all six of her appendages before scuttling off toward the cockpit, looking for all the world like a giant grasshopper.
Gator stood for a brief moment, perhaps waiting for her to crawl out of sight, before continuing his own tread toward the cockpit.
Toward Mearr, I suddenly realized.
Things were about to become very awkward in the front of the ship, I thought, and it would be best for me to not be anywhere nearby while they sorted things out. Hopefully without my existence coming into the discussion.
I slowly extricated myself from my hiding place and wandered off to find Guhle or Em, or even Chief and Tic-Toc. Any kind of companionship that could show I wasn’t doing anything suspicious with Mearr during Sys and Gator’s conversation.
It wouldn’t save me, of course. But it might help.