For weeks, I saw no other face but my own, excepting Chief’s when I went up to the diner to eat. I made a point of going at strange hours, and I would always listen for sounds of others eating and turn away if I had any reasons to suspect someone else was there. My isolation was total and complete and I was clinging to it with a desperation. It was my identity then. The man alone. Like Guhle, though the thought didn’t occur to me at the time.
My overflow of work kept me occupied as much as I liked. I made a little progress in diminishing the workload each day, but I knew it would still take me months to completely catch up to where I had been before my hospitalization. Hopefully, we’d be out of this storm by then, and closer to our destination.
The time alone gave me plenty of mental space to think. And it was in that activity that I regained some semblance of my former vitality. I was never much of an active person, mentally. I scraped by, it’s who I was. A drifter. A survivor. And neither of those two things relied too much on an applied cranium.
But I found, in the depths of Bessie, in the silence of interplanetary realspace, that instinct was no longer enough. It could not save me in a social climate. And it could not satisfy me in a lonely one.
It was the wild’s tactic. That border between civilization and isolation. And I no longer lived on the fringe. I hadn’t for months now, I realized. And that meant I had to change tactics. I had to begin applying my mind or else I would find myself washed up and spent. As I had been in the medical bay.
I began sneaking into the lounge while the rest of the crew was asleep. I had been making a point of sleeping during the prime work hours in order to avoid accidentally running into the crew while I made my rounds, so twilight hours were not new to me. We had a small collection of books and data files ferreted away on shelves beneath the built-in couches, and I began to surreptitiously borrow a different book or file each night.
While I made my rounds about the ship, I would listen to the book files, and when I had time to idle in some secluded corner, I would prop open a book and read a few pages.
The practice immediately transported me to my youth. When I would lose myself for hours at a time in the lonely parts of my frontier home, avoiding my mother so that she would not find me reading, fearing that the book I held might fall into the wide range of topics she found objectionable.
Those were happier times, I realized as I once again experienced the depth of immersion that came with a wall of text, or the sonorous notes of a reading. I owed much of my ability to survive outside my home to my wide reading tastes growing up. Though it had left me with some overly dramatized or romanticized views on certain facts of life, the broad strokes and even a few of the details I picked up from my books came through for me on more than one occasion.
Even getting off my homeworld had been made easier by my love of reading. By comparing myself to the likes of David Drake, a popular adventurer in the human writings, I was able to place myself in a favorable opinion with on off-world merchant, who agreed to take me on as a cabin boy.
That was my first and last shipboard job before signing on with Guhle and Bessie. I hadn’t liked it much then either, and ran away at our first stop. An orbital station in a neighboring system. I hadn’t gotten far, but it was a beginning.
From there, I more or less slummed my way from station to station, scrounging up just enough work to pay for a place to stay, some grub to eat, and the occasional transportation to another world. I haven’t set foot on a planetary surface in over ten years, living as I have on orbital stations for most of my adult life.
I was driven by the belief that things would get better. That I would find glorious adventure or a lucky fortune if I was only tenacious enough. Or likable enough. Or stubborn enough. I knew things would be rough in the beginning. And in the middle. They always were in the stories, and I had read dozens of biographies that talked about the hardships and years of difficult labor successful men had to put in before they finally made it to where they were going. And they always talked about where they were going like it was some shining destination meant to happen. Even if they themselves admitted they had only stumbled upon it by happy accident or the miraculous alignment of factors.
My mother would like that explanation. Miraculous.
But my break never came. And I gradually learned that not everyone makes it into the glorious phase of life, envied by all. That’s one of the reasons they’re envied by all. For every Harry Nelson or Jean Quinn or David Drake, there hundreds of thousands of me, looking up at them waiting for our turn.
Over the years, my resolve wore down. And with it, my desire. My needs shrank to fit my capabilities. And with it, so did my desires. No longer did I hope for the wealthy living or the thrilling adventures or the happy home. I was content enough to have something in my stomach and a place to come in away from the madness that haunted whatever street I would otherwise find myself on.
As for love. A family. Any of those luxuries. Well, they really were luxuries in my mind. When I grew really desperate, I would skim enough money out of whatever pay I managed to find to buy a girl for a night. And that was usually enough to satisfy me for almost a year.
Like I said, lowered expectations.
On one occasion, I agreed to share rent with a girl off the street. Both of us were too broke and unemployed to afford places of our own, and the neighborhood I had been appropriated to was too rough for my tastes.
That agreement went as you might expect. Started out equitable enough before turning romantic and descending into bitterness before dissolving into nothing.
It’s a wonder I never caught something, or whelped another child in all those years. I suppose I may have, and never even known it.
I suppose that brings us back to Mearr. As I’ve already said, I avoided the entire crew when possible, but that didn’t mean I was without opportunity to see them. It was almost impossible to completely escape, at least for an indefinite period of time as I was.
On the rare occasion that I did manage to spot her, often concealed as I was among nooks and crannies forgotten by the rest of the crew, I could see that she was clearly showing the pregnancy. By my estimation, it had been almost five months, with who knows how much longer to go before we reached the end of the storm, and the progress of our child was ample.
A notion crossed my mind, as I pictured her in my mind one day while working in the lower decks, that perhaps our child would develop some anomaly of his own, were he to be born inside the ion storm. Perhaps he would develop superhuman powers like the heroes in the stories I read from old Earth. Characters were doing that all the time around weird phenomena. Especially in space.
I had to remind myself that they were just stories. They hadn’t really happened and any evidence of such a thing happening was circumstantial at best. As if I even knew how such things were measured.
Then I realized that, as the child of a human father and changeling mother, he would likely have some…anomalies anyway. Would he be a changeling? I puzzled over the question for almost a week. At one point, I considered going to the captain, or Gator, or even GUL, to ask about changeling procreation.
But my resolve to remain alone won out. And so I continued my reading.
One day, while I was reading on the lower decks, I heard some of my crewmates approaching. I couldn’t tell immediately who they were. One of them sounded like Em, another sounded like Sys. But then it seemed as if it was only Guhle who I heard. Regardless, I had no interest in seeing them, especially while I was secluded in the pages of a book. So I picked myself up, grabbed my mop, and headed off in a direction away from the approaching voices.
My mind must have been on the book — it was a dense one, with layers upon layers of plot lines interwoven to leave me scrambling to keep up — because I soon thought I heard voices ahead of me.
Again, not wanting to face anyone, at all, I turned away and headed down another passageway.
Once again, I heard voices, but this time nearby, as if around the bend in the corridor. I glanced around for a hiding spot and quickly ducked into a side closet, away from the approaching voices.
I backed myself in, deeper and deeper in the gloom, until I bumped up against the wall.
But the sound the wall made when I rested my head against it was hollow, not solid. I slowly turned around and found a large pane of glass where I expected solid hull plating.
It was dark, and I could not see what was on the other side of the window, so I reached into my pocket and pulled out my portable light, switched it on, and peered inside.
“What do you think you are doing here?” said a menacing voice from behind me.
Before I could turn and address the speaker, however, steel cords wrapped around my shoulders and neck and pressed me against the window glass.
“You know you aren’t allowed down here. What do you think you’re doing?”
I grunted and tried to utter a muffled reply, but the steel cords were strangling me, preventing me from breathing, much less speaking. Any struggle I gave only served to increase the pressure on my body, so I quickly gave up and tried to fall limp, but my own fear added tension to my muscles that would otherwise not be there.
“Sentinel S’Rah,” shouted a commanding voice as the lights in the room came on. “Put him down.”
The cords gradually loosened their grip on me and I slumped to the floor. As the air rushed back into my lungs, it flooded my brain and I passed out.
My eyes shot open as I felt a sharp jolt in my arm.
“Wake up, human,” said the rough mechanical voice at the edge of my attention.
I looked around, my eyes falling on the glass wall, which I could now see was merely one side of a large containment cube sitting in the center of an aft holding chamber. On the other side were piles and piles of pulsating, violet stones.
My attention snapped back to front as another sharp prod jolted up my arm.
“Up here,” said the Farseer. “Don’t you worry yourself about any of that. Tell me why you are here.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but my throat was dry and clogged. I cleared it, but it was still too dry to speak clearly.
“Water,” I repeated. “Please.”
There was a swish and someone said “Here” as the Farseer in front of me reached out of sight and came back with a cup of water.
“Drink this; then talk.”
I obliged, finding my hands free. Apparently they weren’t worried about a simple, unarmored human.
“Thank you,” I said, falling back on politeness to mask my fear.
“Now talk,” said the Farseer in front of me.
“Calm down, Sentinel,” said another, out of sight. “Be kind.”
The Farseer in front of me hesitated, then folded his arms across his chest as he looked down on me. I imagined him glowering inside his helmet, before I realized that I didn’t actually know what a Farseer looked like outside of his armor.
“Why did you come here?”
“Cleaning,” I said, still nursing the cup of water.
“You’ve never been here before.”
He had me there. This part of the ship wasn’t on my usual routes. It had been labeled “Farseers” on all of my assignment maps, indicating that it was their responsibility to keep it clean. I had to come up with something else. But I couldn’t very well give the real answer — I was afraid of talking to my crewmates. If I did, the Farseers were likely to march me out and make me deal with my problems.
Which, now that I admitted it to myself, I probably needed to do at some point.
My mind raced to find some alternative. Any explanation that didn’t involve my incompetence. It was difficult, I still felt groggy and confused, but I eventually settled on a plausible solution.
“There were some problems,” I started muttering. “Coming from this part of the ship. I was sent down to check it out.”
That was good. Deflect responsibility. Avoid assigning it to anyone specific. Maybe they’d let me worm my way out of this.
“Who sent you?” said the leader. “Let me see the order.”
My mouth dried out again. I sipped at the water.
“Now, if you please.”
I swallowed painfully, not raising my eyes to look at the shadowed features of the armored Farseer.
The other one held forth his hand and the serpentine cables shot out from his gauntlet and wrapped themselves around my neck. “The Vigilant Sentinel T’Vosh demanded your reply. Tell us. Now!”
My mind reeled, searching about for the most inoffensive name I could list. But it had to be plausible, I reminded myself. Someone who wouldn’t be too pissed off about my deception and yet who might also have given me an actual order like the one I described.
“Gator,” I finally said, choking the words through the constricting cables. “It was Gator.”
“The Farseer?” said the guard, lowering his arm and releasing the cables’ hold on my neck.
The Vigilant Sentinel T’Vosh stirred, nodding. “Get him down here,” he said. “We need to have a talk.”