The Leviathan city was a teeming variety of culture. Uniform wasn’t even in the vocabulary when describing this city. There were no two copies of a thing to be found anywhere. Hundreds of different alien species mingled about without a second glance at each other. Dozens of architectural styles were on display among a thousand buildings or more. Even determining what street you were on became a challenge as they grew more and more densely packed the closer we came to the center of the city. If such a distinction could even be determined.
And Guhle drifted through it with ease. Never pausing to gawk in amazement or stare in confusion. Better yet, he led with ease. While I would glance around and be drawn this way or that by some unexpected sight, he would press determinedly onward, forcing me to refocus my attention on movement — a constant in this place, it seemed.
Even when he disappeared into the crowd, seamlessly blending in among the inhabitants, he would soon reappear without warning and in the exact proper place for me to notice him and resume my discipleship to his path.
Through it all, I wondered where we might be going, and how Guhle knew the city so well. Clearly, he had to have visited before. Perhaps even lived here. I often got the sense from Guhle that he had had a long and varied career as a pilot before joining the captain and crew aboard Bessie.
In any case, we continued on, passing a menagerie of sights and sounds until it seemed more like I was at one of the carnivals of my youth, rather than a city of wonders drifting through the depths of space dozens of lightyears away.
We lost sight of the docking yard almost immediately, and soon the entire city began to blend together in my mind until I could not even remember what any of what we had passed had looked like. It was all just colors and noise.
At last, I looked up, and found Guhle had stopped. Reaching his side, I looked up to where he was staring.
A human woman leaned out of an upstairs window, shouting at a crew of construction workers across the street. She was topless and her breasts hung low and full from her chest. She apparently didn’t care, as she maintained an easygoing way about her, almost as if taunting the world with her unorthodox behavior.
“Hey, you lot! Do you have to go working on that so bleeding early in the morning? I don’t care if you’ve got a schedule to keep, some people need their sleep.”
Some of the more mammalian workers glanced up and smiled, understandably transfixed. Others glanced, but pointedly returned to their work. A few, including an insectoid that reminded me of Sys, didn’t even raise a glance.
“Beautiful girl,” muttered Guhle before wrenching his gaze away and marching determinedly on. I spared one last glance at the woman’s olive skin, dark hair curling down her shoulders, before turning to follow him.
She really was beautiful, especially by a human standard. But why would that have caused Guhle to stop as he had? I hadn’t known much to disrupt Guhle. Perturb? Yes. Annoy? Sure. Outright bother to the point of grumbling? All the time.
But to cause him to stop, stand, and stare. Transfixed. That was something new to me.
I pondered the encounter for a long time as I followed him. But I failed to reach any plausible conclusions before he had stopped again. At least, none that were plausible for Guhle as I knew him.
“Finally,” he said as I reached his side. “There’s one in every city boasting a dockyard, hatchling. Sooner you remember that, sooner you can feel like home again.”
I didn’t know what he meant by that last part, but I did recognize the bar we had stopped at for what it was — an almost exact duplicate of Dox’s bar back on the station around Migo III. It had the same industrial sensibilities about it, right down to the enormous pipe used to hold up the bar counter. Steel tables and chairs — built to last, not to look nice — and slick concrete floors that were easy to mop down at the end of the night. If there ever was an end of the night this far out into space.
There was no mistaking it. And it quickly taught me something very important about Guhle and the way he had found me.
It was no accident that he had been in Dox’s bar that night. He was probably in there or a similar bar on whatever station the crew had found every time he received shore leave. There’s one in every city boasting a dockyard, he had said. A haven for drifters and spacers and the malcontents.
People like me and Guhle. People who didn’t belong anywhere else.
Suddenly, as I puzzled through this thought, Guhle’s second comment made sense. A place to feel like home again.
Of course. Where else were we supposed to go, drifting through space more often than not as we were?
My mind zoomed out to encompass not just the past few months, but the years of my life stretching both forward and backward where I could see the full breadth of my loneliness. Years without an anchor, save for the familiar sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of a drifter’s bar.
In that moment, I felt I could maybe understand some part of how Guhle had come to be the way he was. And how I would be heading down that same path if I continued to follow him.
It’s what Mearr had tried to warn me about. Had maybe even succeeded at. It was too soon to tell.
Before I had reached the end of this revelation, however, Guhle had led me into the bar, sat me down on a stool, and ordered drinks for the both of us. I found myself sitting there, wondering whether I had any choice in what direction my life would take from this moment on, and yet finding myself completely unable to leave. There was no sense offending Guhle and sowing discord among the crew. It was best that I stay and drink with him. Even if it did set me on a path that I was less and less certain I wanted to follow.
As I nursed my drink — a tall glass of colorfully mixed liquids — I watched Guhle steadily drain glass after glass after glass of his own drinks. He was favoring a bold mix of half whiskey, half soda. Rye on both ends. The kind of drink that burned going down and sizzled once it got there.
Guhle’s behavior astonished me. He always seemed so controlled when I saw him about the ship. Even when the crew got him to “relax” — if such a word can be applied to Guhle’s personality — he still maintained a measured sense of reserve and control that left me feeling as though he held life at arms’ length.
But now? Here in this Leviathan bar, Guhle had no inhibitions. As drink after drink chased each other down his throat, I felt an uneasiness creep into our company.
We talked some. What about, I don’t remember. Until he dropped the big one.
“So I notice you’ve been spending a lot of time around Mearr lately,” he said.
My blood froze. Had he found out? If so, how?
“What d’you mean?” I asked hesitantly, not wanting to reveal any more cards than Guhle already knew.
My avian shipmate tossed back the remnants of his drink and ordered another one before speaking to me again. “Just that, you and he’ve been spending a lot more of your off-time together lately than when you first got on board. I also notice you’ve been keeping the cockpit cleaner than usual these past few weeks.”
Shit. I suppose it was only natural that someone would have noticed. I had hoped it would be Mearr that gave me such attention so I could finally speak to her about this very issue. Such had not been my luck.
“So, I’m just wondering — as one friend to another — what’s going on, hatchling?”
It wasn’t as much as I feared, but I still had to tread carefully. Mearr would be pissed if I told Guhle about us, and there was also no telling what Sys would do. I still didn’t understand the extent of their relationship, whether it was just a sexual fling like my own relations with Mearr or sem deeper bond, but it was obvious to me that there was a measure of possessiveness that Sys felt toward Mearr, and I didn’t want to get in the way of that. For my own safety more than anything else.
“You can’t expect my attitudes and friendships at the start of the flight to be the same at the end, can you, Guhle?” I sipped my drink through its tiny straw. Usually, I favored heavier drinks, but I had decided on something a bit less knock-down-drag-out this evening, in the face of Guhle’s ongoing quest to leave himself in a stupor. Fortunately, nursing such an overly sweet drink afforded me time to gather my thoughts. “Mearr’s been a good friend lately, that’s all. She’s been helping me get to know the rest of the crew.”
I thought that’d be enough to dissuade him from further questions. It might have, too, except for one critical mistake.
“‘She?’” said Guhle. “I noticed you’ve been using that pronoun when referring to Mearr lately. What’s up with that?”
I paid very close attention to Guhle’s tone and Guhle’s eyes as he downed another glass. They shifted and scanned over me as if evaluating my components. I’d seen him make that same look when piloting, glancing at the system readouts to evaluate the situation. While we hadn’t had any major emergencies that I knew of yet, it was obvious that Guhle was a very precise analyst when it came to his piloting duties.
That same precision was now being directed at me, and I nearly squirmed under its scrutiny.
“Well, I mean, look at her,” I said. It was difficult, but I kept myself from fidgeting. My tone was likely suspicious, instead of the nonchalant I was going for, but under the circumstances I’m still confident I did the best I could.
I was going to go on. Point out the breasts and the curve of her hips and all the other things that could drive me crazy in my pants, depending on the day. But Guhle apparently understood what I was referring to and had words of his own to share.
“It’s true, Mearr has taken on a more feminine figure. But he’s still Mearr. This happens from time to time and we all just roll with it while he straightens himself out. There’s no need to draw attention to it or make it any stranger than it already is by confusing the pronouns. So, if that’s all it is, let it drop, hatchling. Let it drop.” He swigged back another gulp of his new drink.
‘If that’s all it is.’ That’s what he’d said. Clearly, he suspected more, and I hadn’t helped matters by using the feminine pronoun.
So, instead, I decided to distract him with a question. “Is this the same talk you had with Em?”
Guhle paused mid-drink and looked over the top of his glass at me. “What?” he said. “What’re you talking about?” Despite the number of drinks he had downed, Guhle’s words still weren’t slurred. I wondered to myself if perhaps avian species experienced the effects of alcohol poisoning differently from mammalian ones, but then I pushed the thought from my mind and returned my focus to the question.
“You drew attention to Mearr’s changes first,” I said, switching tactics slightly as the thoughts began to all come together through the haze of liquor. “You taunted me with the promise of breasts, and then told a story about how Em had experienced a similar whiplash when she realized Mearr had changed into a man during her first voyage.”
“What’s your point?” said Guhle. His voice was low, simple, and flat. No threat, but no life either.
I had him on something, I could tell. But what?
“You sat Em down for a talk just like this one, didn’t you?” I said. “Warned her against making things weird between the crew members. The whole package,” I finished, waving my hand in the air indistinctly to wrap everything together. Then I added, “Maybe even including drinks, right?”
Guhle sipped at his drink for a long moment before setting it down on the bar. He stirred it with his fingertip, not looking up at me. “Em was the hatchling and needed to be told how things work on our ship. She had been fawning over Mearr without realizing it, and she needed help coping with the realization.”
“But who put the idea to fawn over Mearr into her mind?” I said slowly, leaning toward Guhle as I spoke. “It was you, wasn’t it?”
Guhle continued staring at his glass.
“You manipulated her for your own amusement,” I said, more confidently this time. “You pointed out Mearr’s masculine shape. His feline precision. Whatever qualities you would have known Em found admirable. All so you could watch her dance and swoon.”
My hand was gripping the glass so tightly that my knuckles were turning white now. I didn’t know what else to say, yet I couldn’t stop talking. The more and more I spoke, the more and more I thought, and the more and more it all made sense.
“You’ve been toying with me since I got on board, haven’t you? Maybe even before. Is this what you do to all hatchlings? Play with their emotions so you can have a good laugh?”
“So you do feel something for him?” said Guhle, looking up at last with a mischievous twinkle in his beady, black eyes.
I threw the rest of my drink in his face.
At that moment, Mearr and Sys sauntered up to the bar.
“There you are,” said Mearr in her — I mean, his — purring feline tones. “Did we miss anything?”
“Speak of the devil,” muttered Guhle, just loud enough for me to hear.
“Hey, I know you’re still breaking in the hatchling and all, Guhle, but do you mind if we take him off your hands for a bit?”
Guhle turned his back on us as he leaned over the bar and nursed his rye drink. With an indiscriminate wave of his hand, he muttered, “Take him, he’s yours.”