Things didn’t come to a head then, miraculously. But I knew it would only be a matter of time before someone found out about Mearr and me, and before someone else took issue with it.
How could I have been so blind? I spent days down in the lower levels, berating myself for missing the relationship between Sys and Mearr. It was only a matter of time before that one mistake became my undoing, I knew, and I had to figure out a way I might have prevented any of this from happening.
Funny thing was, I couldn’t. Mearr had come to me. I’m not going to pretend that I was an unwilling recipient of her attention, but even if I had been I have a feeling she would have proven persuasive.
Damn it. What was I supposed to do?
Talk to Mearr, I realized. If I ended it now, before things came out on their own, maybe I’d be able to find some leniency from the crew. A little understanding, or perhaps at least a little respect for recognizing and taking control of a volatile situation.
That was it. Of course. I had to talk to Mearr.
Talking to Mearr was, however, easier intended than accomplished. She was often busy during the waking hours with one piloting duty or another, or else she was in the company of Sys — who, for obvious reasons, I didn’t want around when I talked to her.
I could have waited, I suppose, until she came to me in the night. But somehow I didn’t think my resolve would be quite the same in the soft confines of my sleeping pod.
Instead, I took to cleaning around the cockpit on a more regular basis than any time before this. While I steered clear of the cockpit proper — the mess that was Sys and Mearr’s recalibration of the system networks still hadn’t been fully resolved and I didn’t want to even have the opportunity to mess things up further — I inhabited every hallway, compartment, and system bank nearby.
It did little good. Every time I saw Mearr, she was in the company of either Gator, or Sys, or — on a rare occasion — Em. Never Guhle, though. I wondered why this was at first until I remembered that, as copilot, Guhle’s primary role seemed to be as Mearr’s nighttime replacement, and not as her flight partner.
In any case, no opportunity presented itself for me to talk alone with Mearr. Though I kept my vigilance for over a week, there was never a quiet moment where I could catch my lover alone, aside from our nighttime rendezvous, of course.
I knew I had to find a different way to talk to her. Some excuse to get her attention away from the rest of the crew. Or perhaps find a way to slip her a private note so we could have this conversation in writing.
But by that point, we ran into the Leviathan.
I was finishing up my vigil near the cockpit on the day we spotted it. I had come to the conclusion a few days before that my plan wasn’t working, yet I had persisted in lieu of a better one. While I mulled over the logistics of possibly slipping Mearr a note, she suddenly poked her head out of the lift and glanced around, clearly searching for something.
“Hey,” I said. I couldn’t help myself. I had been waiting for a moment like this for over a week. Finally, a chance to clear the air.
She spotted me and I jogged over.
“We need to talk,” I said.
She didn’t hear me. She just jabbed a finger down the hall and turned me in the direction she was pointing. “Get Gator,” she growled.
At first I started to protest, but when she followed up her command with a bellowed “Now!” I decided it’d be easier to obey.
Racing down the hall, I suddenly found myself at a loss for direction. Where was Gator? In his office? Did he have one? I realized I had never seen where Gator worked or what it was he did. Despite my seemingly exhaustive knowledge of the ship, important areas were suddenly blank in my mind. Were they off-limits to me? Was that why I had never been there? Or did the ship simply not have a medical ward, or a navigation station, or weapons emplacements?
I reached the main lounge and turned about, looking for any indication of where I might find Gator.
Down the hall, I noticed Tic-Toc bobbing back and forth in the galley.
Bursting into the galley, I shouted my question before noticing who was even in there. “Where’s Gator?”
One of our Farseer guests looked up from his meal in one of the booths off to the side.
“Trouble?” he said.
I froze. How could I have been so reckless? While we hadn’t been trying to keep our guests entirely in the dark, the crew hadn’t had entirely friendly relations with them either.
Especially Sys and I. Ever since we had overheard them talking to the Farseer scouts, the two of us had made an almost pointed effort to avoid our guests.
But it was impossible to avoid anyone for long on this ship.
“Maybe I can help,” said the Farseer, standing from his booth.
“That won’t be necessary,” I said stiffly. “I just need to find Gator.”
“That Dreaming dropout?” The Farseer scoffed. “I assure you I’m far more capable. Allow me.”
I stepped back as he entered the galley. Before he could take a step forward, however, Chief turned toward him with one of his tentacled appendages wrapped around an enormous meat sledge.
Chief hissed. The Farseer stepped back. He seemed to adjust his posture, as if offended, and then he turned back and returned to his booth and his meal.
“Thanks,” I said. “If either of you see Gator, can you send him to the cockpit?”
Chief growled something before Tic-Toc tottered over to my side and saluted.
“The supremely honorable and beneficent warden of the edible multitude has indicated to me that the wayfinder in the dark has secluded himself in the room of many paths.”
I blinked. “How’s that again?”
“This way,” said Tic-Toc, turning away from the galley and tottering down the hallway.
I looked back at Chief, but the big alien had turned his attention away from me and back to his meal preparation. Apparently I had been dealt with.
So I followed Tic-Toc down the hall until he stopped by an access hatch that I honestly hadn’t paid any attention to up until this point. I realized later that it hadn’t been part of my schematics, which explained why I hadn’t found it during my rounds. But at the same time, I had the uncanny feeling that I literally had never seen this door before.
Tic-Toc, however, had. As he stood erect beside the door, holding aloft his hands in a presentary manner, I found myself hesitant to open the door or even to knock.
My uncertainty, however, was unwarranted. The door opened a moment later, and Gator’s voice echoed out from the room within. “Come on in, hatchling.”
Tic-Toc, his purpose apparently having been fulfilled, skittered down the hall back toward the galley while I crossed the threshold into this mysterious chamber.
Inside it was dark, yet a thousand lights twinkled all around. They lent a dim glow just bright enough to prevent me from tripping on the stairs leading down into the main floor of the room, but other than that faint illumination it seemed far darker in the room than it should have been.
The room was round, an almost perfect sphere if I knew anything of shapes. And the lights clustered together, suspended from the ceiling or held up upon pedestals scattered about the room.
Gator stood to the left of the center of the room, examining a cluster of lights there.
“These are stars?” I said, suddenly intuiting the purpose of the room.
At first Gator didn’t respond. He continued examining his nearby cluster, occasionally prodding it with some tool or another projecting from his gauntlet, and then making a note on the screens displayed by his armor. Eventually, however, he turned and nodded.
“This is the navigation room. It’s where I perform the complex science of route calculations that seems more an artful sorcery to your crew mates.”
He stepped to the center of the room and a pedestal, perfectly square with a liquid-blue display in the top, rose out of the floor.
“You have been sent to fetch me, haven’t you?” he said as he drew lines on the display and tapped some buttons on the side, causing numbers to scroll past the bearings he’d marked.
I nodded, then felt a sudden urge to be more directly formal to this being that I had once thought was crazy. “Yes, sir,” I said, straightening my posture.
“The beast approaches our heading and we have an opportunity to be swallowed,” muttered Gator.
So maybe I still thought he was crazy. But it was a crazy that I decided deserved my respect, since it was crazy Gator who was responsible for getting us from the Migo system to our destination. And I didn’t feel comfortable messing with that.
“Mearr just sent me to get you. It sounded urgent.”
Gator nodded. “It is. But I want to figure out how I missed this before I speak to our hot-headed pilot.”
“Sir?” I said after a pause. I wasn’t sure what I was asking about — the cryptic admission of failure or the evaluation of my lover — but I knew I had a question in there somewhere.
Gator drew two more lines on the display before wiping the screen blank and returning the pedestal to the floor.
“You are right,” he said. “It can wait.”
He waved his hand and the star-lights in the room faded as the overhead light came up, revealing dull, tan bulkheads and an otherwise unassuming collection of round pedestals scattered about the room. These soon lowered themselves into the floor as well before Gator and I made our way out of the room.
I could see why everyone else thought him a sorcerer. If Gator could be believed, that is.
Not sure what else to do, and curious as to the urgency of Mearr’s request, I followed Gator to the cockpit.
I was unprepared for what I saw there.
Just outside the viewport — filling the viewport, more like — was an enormous creature, floating in space. It was long and pod-shaped, almost like a whale from Earth. Its maw stretched halfway down the length of its body, large enough to swallow some small moons that I had read about.
Certainly large enough to swallow the orbital stations I had spent that past ten years of my life living on. To say nothing of our ship.
Atop the creature’s back, however, were the distinctive signs of artificial constructions. Steadily blinking lights indicating landing zones, atmospheric spheres protecting inhabitants from the vacuum of space, even a few weapon emplacements, though I doubt anything would try to tangle with something so mind-shatteringly enormous.
“What is that thing?” I asked in a hushed voice.
“Leviathan,” said Gator. And I could hear the respect in his voice even through the distortion speakers. “An ancient creature that roams the stars. The biggest living organism in the universe.” He paused, and then added, “So far as we know.”
“What does it want?”
Gator glanced over his shoulder at me and I like to think he was smiling underneath all that armor. A rueful smile. One that said, “You really don’t know anything, do you?”
But I’ll never know for sure.
“It wants to be left alone,” he said. “It’s like a planet. It doesn’t have ambition. It just exists. And, just like a planet, the intelligent species of the galaxy have been using it as a resource ever since it was discovered.”
“So people really are living up there.” I pointed.
“Okay, yeah, this is great and all,” said Mearr from where she was seated at the pilot’s seat. “But what are we going to do about it?”
“Do?” said Gator, and I could have sworn I heard him laugh. “What do you do with a planet, dear Mearr?”
“Land on it,” said Sys from her corner station.
Mearr turned in her seat and stared up at Gator. “Are you serious?”
Gator turned toward Sys. “Sys, open a channel. See if you can hail their comm tower.”
“Already done,” said Sys. “I have had them on hold since the beast came in sight.”
“Good, patch me through.”
I didn’t hear the exchange that occurred between Gator and the comm officer on the Leviathan settlement. Apparently Gator’s armor was capable of receiving rerouted communications from the ship’s network systems. All I know is that we were given permission to land, which we did soon enough, flying through the maw of the Leviathan to land on a docking pad deep in its gullet.
At that point, Cap came on the overhead PA and announced a week of shore leave.
After two months aboard Bessie, traveling through realspace, we were being given a chance to stretch our legs off-ship and interact with some locals.
In the belly of a giant space whale.