I spent the rest of my shore leave with Sys and Mearr, wandering about the Leviathan city more or less at random. At least, it seemed random to me. Sys and Mearr may have had more purpose behind our movements than I could tell at the time, but I was more preoccupied with avoiding Guhle at every turn.
That’s not to say that he stalked me through the streets or anything nearly so menacing. More like I thought I saw him out of the corner of my eye wherever we went, and I was paranoid about what either of us would do upon seeing each other again.
That’s probably the guilt speaking, but it could just as easily have been honest fear. Guhle was nearing Gator in my prioritization of frightening crew members.
I remember a dozen or more fascinating sights aboard the Leviathan city, but I can’t picture them clearly enough anymore to recount them for you. Nor do I really recall what it was we did while we wandered. As I said before, I was somewhat distracted by my showdown with Guhle.
There is one moment that sticks in my mind still, for reasons that will become obvious as my story unfolds.
It was shortly after we had left Guhle in the bar to explore on our own. We wandered for several hours and I had just begun to quiet my mind enough to pay attention to my surroundings when I noticed Mearr standing beside me, staring off down an alleyway nearby.
Within, were a handful of children from varying species and, consequently, varying ages, all scampering about and roughing each other up. As kids are wont to do.
Memories of my own childhood, playing various ballgames out in the backyard and otherwise associating with kids my age and race, drifted up from the back of my mind as I watched these young boys, girls, and others scampering about under the half-lidded eyes of their parents nearby.
Mearr continued staring at the children, and reached down slowly to squeeze my hand. That’s what made me pay attention to the moment. All thought of my showdown with Guhle, or my regrets about childhood fled from my mind in the face of immediate panic as I glanced around for Sys.
Sys was across the street, examining a nearby stall. Not paying us any attention.
With that concern out of my mind for the moment, I returned my attention to Mearr, who held my hand a moment longer before letting it drop away and turning to rejoin Sys across the street.
I didn’t know what to make of the encounter then, but a few weeks later, after we had stocked up and shipped out, I received some news that made it all make sense.
Cap called me up to the medical chamber, where I found Mearr sitting on his examination table. She looked up and glared at me as I stepped in.
“You wanted to see me?” I said, looking at Cap.
I still couldn’t get used to the way Cap looked. The spidery metal walker suspending an infantile humanoid in a sac of nourishing fluid. It just reeked of everything wrong in my mind. But I had stomached a lot of strange sights in my years abroad, and I put up with the captain when I had to.
“I think our esteemed pilot has something he’d like to tell you,” said Cap. I noticed he used Mearr’s default pronoun, much as the rest of the crew did. I don’t know why, but for some reason I was hoping he’d shift with Mearr’s biology, as I had.
Cap stepped away from the examination table and retreated deliberately to a corner of the room, where he busied himself with the cleaning of some tools.
“What’s up?” I said, turning my attention reluctantly to Mearr. I could feel the aggression pouring out of her in my direction.
“I’m pregnant,” she spat.
My world froze.
We stared at each other for a long time. Her fierce, amber eyes boring into my own, gradually melting my apathy to restart my heart.
“Well,” she said at last, barking out the word. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”
“What’d you expect?”
She gaped at me. “What did you say?”
“What did you expect?” I said, enunciating every word with a controlled precision. My own fury was building, but I didn’t want it to escape. Not yet. If ever. “You’ve been fucking me off and on for the past month and you thought it wouldn’t come out, one way or another?” I motioned at her sitting on the examination table. “This is the price you pay for my company.”
Mearr leapt from the table, feline grace and agility in full display as she landed on my shoulders, forcing me to the ground. Her tail whipped across my face, stinging my cheek, and her claws dug into my biceps as she bared her teeth at me and hissed in my face.
But she was off of me before I even had a chance to react. Cap stepped between us even while his metal appendages pried Mearr away.
“That’ll be enough,” he said. “Now let’s hear an explanation from you.”
It took me a moment to realize he was speaking to me. It was my turn to gape.
“What d’you mean?” I said. “She’s the one who initiated it.” I jabbed a finger savagely in Mearr’s direction.
“He,” and Cap was sure to place appropriate emphasis on the pronoun, “is a member of my crew. While we’ve had our ups and downs with his behavior, he’s always done his job.” Cap turned toward Mearr to look at her affectionately as he spoke, before rounding on me and glaring through his acid-green liquid. “You, however, are a hatchling. You were invited here on good faith and now you’ve upset our balance during a prolonged realspace voyage. Do you have any idea what effect a child can have on a person’s body? Particularly a changeling?”
I shook my head, but I made it clear that I understood the implications.
Cap turned back toward Mearr, raising himself up to her eye-level. “You’ll have to control your chemical output so you maintain your estrogen levels. We can’t have you changing back while the fetus is gestating. Do you understand?”
Mearr nodded sullenly, casting another dark look in my direction.
“Go get some rest,” said Cap. “I’ll have Guhle take your shift at the helm today.”
“I’ll be fine,” snarled Mearr as she stalked past me and out the door, into the corridor beyond.
Cap turned back to face me. “Well?” he said. “Is there anything else you can trouble us with?”
“Why don’t you just terminate the pregnancy?” I blurted before my sullen mood could suppress the thought.
“We don’t have the facilities for that,” said Cap. “Not at her stage. And certainly not for this situation. Changelings are tricky. Bi-special pregnancies are tricky. I might have been able to do something about it within the first week, but we’re well-past that at this point.”
“He’s been carrying it for at least three weeks. No telling when it’ll mature. As I said, changeling species are tricky.”
I nodded absently. Three weeks. How had she not noticed? Of course, having never been pregnant myself, I suppose I didn’t know what I was talking about.
Cap cleared his throat. “There’ll be no keeping this from the crew in the long run,” he said. “But Mearr wants to keep it quiet for now, until he’s decided how he’s going to tell everyone else.”
The order was clear: shut up. As if I were about to go out and blab this news to Guhle and the Sys and the rest. I knew better than that.
The thought of Guhle brought a sad pang to my stomach. I hadn’t spoken to him since our showdown on the Leviathan. Hadn’t even seen him, really. I wondered if maybe that was for the best, as I would be free of his manipulations that way. But even so, his companionship and advice had been encouraging during my time here aboard the ship.
Then my thoughts returned to Sys, and the pit in my stomach hollowed out into abject fear. There was no telling what consequences this would have if Sys found out. She and Mearr were close. Perhaps closer than I knew.
I reached up and raked my fingers through my hair, then rubbed my hand down my face.
“So,” said Cap. “You’re starting to see the impact your actions are going to have? Good. That’ll teach you a lesson better than I ever could. Now, unless there’s something you want to talk to me about, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
I nodded slowly before picking myself up off the floor and turning to leave.
Somehow, I thought becoming a father would be…simpler.
I went in search of Em. It took me a long while and a meal to realize that she was probably the only one I could still relate to without some form of guilt or terror welling up in my gut. Mearr wouldn’t look at me, Sys I feared, GUL and I weren’t speaking, and the captain and Gator were basically the same person as far as I was concerned. That left Em, Chief, and the Farseers.
Well, the Farseers aren’t actually people, within the context of the crew. And Chief is…well, Chief.
You don’t relate to Chief.
That left Em. And the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. We had both suffered at Guhle’s taunts. We’d both fallen for Mearr. We were both hatchlings, essentially, and had no place among the other crew mates, except for that which we made ourselves.
Em had survived, and become a part of the crew. I, by all estimation at the time, had not. My sole remaining goal was to survive until the end of the voyage, another four hundred days, by my estimation, and then never see any of these people again — hopefully with paycheck in hand, but that was optional at that point.
I knew I couldn’t live for four hundred days in the belly of the ship, however, and that some manner of social contact was necessary for my own mental health. For this and other reasons, I turned to Em in the hopes that we could forge a friendship that would help me through the remainder of the trip.
She found me before I found her. I was wandering around the lower levels, partially to avoid the rest of the crew and partially because I knew Em was likely to be down amongst the machinery down there, when she stepped out from behind a compressor and greeted me with a toothy grin.
“Hey,” she said brightly. “Heard you had a good time on the Leviathan. How was it? I was busy down here most of the time, but I did get to climb out and check the machinists’ shops. Decent selection. Enough to patch together some more stabilization for ol’ Bessie here. Anyway, what’d you do?”
I didn’t bother pointing out that, seeing as she had already heard how my time on Leviathan was, her eventual question was pointless. That was Em. Either too preoccupied or too self-absorbed to really notice her own inconsistencies.
“It was fine,” I said meekly. “Went to a bar. Wandered about.”
“That’s cool,” said Em, turning back toward the compressors. “So do they use biotic integration for the city’s power or do they have standalone generators? I didn’t get a chance to go see.”
“Yeah, uh, neither did I,” I said, not knowing what she was talking about.
“Oh. That’s a shame.” She sounded honestly disappointed. As though knowing that would have made the entire trip worth it to her.
“What’re you working on, Em?” I said, not wanting the conversation to die so soon. Anything to keep my mind off of my own troubles.
“This air compressor has been acting sluggish lately,” she said, nodding to the machine. “Atmospheric stabilization has been fluctuating as a result, so I thought I’d take a look at the spare parts we have left over from the Leviathan stopover, now that I’ve finished giving the main engines an overhaul, and see if I can’t do something about it.” She turned back to look at me with two of her eyes. “You might have noticed how the temperature’s been dropping on all levels of the ship?”
I had, and said so.
“That’s because of this guy. An increase in nitrogen and decrease in carbon dioxide has left the entire ship’s atmosphere a little bit lower than normal. Nothing our bodies can’t compensate for, or so Gator and Cap tell me, but still something to be concerned about.”
I shuddered to think of the number of things that I didn’t know were going wrong on the ship, and how many of them were things we didn’t need to be concerned about now, but that could grow to be a big problem in the future.
“Besides,” said Em, turning back to the compressors and reaching for a wrench on her toolbelt. “I’ve mostly been able to contain the defective air to the fifth deck. The living quarters are more-or-less unaffected. Again, that’s what Gator told me. And I guess he’d know better than most.”
I nodded, trying not to think about the other things Gator and the captain might know.
“Hey, Em. Are any of the crew friends with you?”
Em shot a sharp glance in my direction. “What’s that supposed to mean, hatchling?”
“Sorry, sorry,” I said, hastily throwing up my hands in supplication. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. It’s just…I guess I feel kind of alone sometimes. I mean, I’m ‘hatchling,’ right? That’s not a name, and you can’t be a person without a name, and you can’t be friends with someone who isn’t a person. Right?”
Em studied me for a long moment. Then, apparently satisfied that I wasn’t insulting her, she turned away again.
“Mearr and Guhle seem to like you well enough,” said Em.
“Not so much anymore,” I muttered.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
A klaxon blared as Gator’s voice came over the intercomm. “All hands, secure positions. We’re headed into an ion storm.”