This repetitive task played itself out for about three more runs before I came back and found Mearr standing over the wide table, holding herself up with both hands and breathing heavily.
I rushed to her side, unbidden and unable to help myself. I clutched her elbow with one hand and set the other at the small of her back. She glanced up at me, but then returned her eyes to the point on the table that she had been staring at before, breathing steadily in and out.
“Are you okay?” I said, still on a proximity channel.
“Fine,” she ground out between breaths. “Just give me a minute.”
As I stood there, she steadily regained her composure. There were a few times, between breaths, that I thought I saw her form flicker, as though her face were beginning to melt into wax, but her feline features returned each time as she breathed out again.
“Alright,” she said at last, when the world was still once again. “I’m fine. Now get your hands off me.”
I did as commanded, stepping back as far as I could from the table, without making it look like I was trying to escape.
She still clutched the edge of the table with both hands, though it was clear she no longer needed them to support herself. She nodded to the stacks of boxes and piles of rope on the table.
“Bind them,” she said. “I’ll get back to it in a minute.”
I sprang to action, stepping gingerly forward and gathering the boxes into collections mimicking the size and shape of those I had delivered to Sys as near as I could manage. I wound the ropes around the boxes on every side — horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and the like — until I was sure of the materials’ security.
Every now and then, I would glance over at Mearr. But whenever I thought she might look up and notice me watching her, I would return my full attention to the work in front of me.
I felt her pain. Somehow, I could feel the weight on my own stomach. The pressure of the child yearning to break free of the confining space. I knew it probably wasn’t even half of what she was really going through. But it was distinctly there. When she was breathing, struggling to hold herself together, I felt as though my own heart would burst from lack of oxygen.
How could this be? I hated Mearr, didn’t I? Or at least feared her. Right?
And what about her? Didn’t she hate me? How could I care so deeply about someone who tried to kill me?
“I’m…sorry,” I said. I don’t know why I said it. It just slipped out. But once it was out there, floating in the static between our comm units, I found myself searching for more words to say. And finding them. “I’m sorry you have to go through this. I know it’s probably weird, after spending so long as…I mean, y’know. Without a womb. To suddenly find the space filled by a growing, living thing. I mean…yeah, I’ll bet it’s rough.”
She didn’t look at me, but I knew she was listening because I noticed her posture tense with…something. Some emotion that I couldn’t identify.
When I ran out of steam and fell silent, she picked up the conversation and added, slowly, “You have no fucking idea.”
That’s when she looked up at me. And I could see…tears. Not flowing, no. That wouldn’t have been like Mearr. But just a faint glistening at the edge of her vision. She blinked them away before they could fall once she noticed me staring. But that brief moment, the instantaneous vision of her pain, was enough to send a jolt through me.
“This…thing inside me. It’s yours. Not mine. And if I could get rid of it, I would.”
That bit deep. For some reason, it felt like she wanted to rip everything that was me out of her. Had I really hurt her that deeply?
“I know,” I said, instead of expressing all my doubts and insecurities. “And I would want you too.”
That made her pause. For a moment, I thought she was actually listening to me. That she might take a moment to hear my side of the story.
But what was my side? What could I say that didn’t throw all the responsibility back in her face?
Oh, yeah, Mearr, I’m really sorry about what happened, but it’s your own fault because you were the one who started sleeping with me. I didn’t want it. In fact, I was actively fighting you on the inside the whole time. Every time you came to my cabin, for that whole month, I prayed you wouldn’t fuck me, but you were just so forceful and enticing that I couldn’t do anything to stop you. So, you see, it’s really on you. You brought this on yourself. Etc. Etc.
Yeah, somehow I didn’t see that working out too well. Besides, half of it wasn’t true. I shared the blame as much as she did. If I had actively resisted her, instead of wallowing in a sea of indecision and pathos while she seduced me over and over and over again, maybe we could have avoided this.
If either of us had been using any kind of countermeasures, we could have avoided this. But I wasn’t particularly active and Mearr wasn’t usually a woman, so we each lacked the appropriate components.
Besides, did contraception even work on changelings? That would be a topic to research, if we had any kind of relationship to speak of once all this was over.
I chastised myself for daring to hope that anything good could come out of this. It was difficult to admit to myself that the subtle, small, quiet belief that somehow we would be together after the baby was born had been growing in the back of my mind ever since I learned that she was pregnant. Maybe even before.
In the end, I didn’t have the words I thought. There was nothing I could say that could really encapsulate how I felt about her, about us, about the baby. About the whole fucked-up situation. To say nothing of Sys and Guhle and the ship and everything else.
So I remained quiet. I may have muttered something like “I really am sorry,” or something equally pathetic, but it wasn’t worth remembering so it’s really not worth mentioning.
We worked in silence for a few moments more. When I had an armful of bundles finished, I carried them back to the entrance and handed them over to Sys. She indicated her impatience and may have asked — in her own way — what was going on back in the prep room, but I ignored her. I was too lost in my thoughts, trying to muse over what I’d say to Mearr.
When I got back, Mearr was back to work, wrapping up stacks of boxes in a far more efficient bundling technique than I had been using. She was already finished with the first and halfway done with the second, and I could see that she would be done with that in less than two minutes.
“Why did you even have that fucking knife on you?” she said as she worked.
The question startled me. What did that have to do with anything? Was she going to blame me for her attack against me? That kind of recursive logic made my head hurt. How could anyone blame someone else for their own actions?
But then, I realized, I guess I wasn’t immune to that kind of thinking. Anything to shift the blame away from yourself.
She wasn’t looking at me, but I could tell her attention was more focused on my potential answer than it was on her handiwork with the rope and boxes.
“It’s a memento from an earlier time in my life,” I said. “Used to come in handy whenever I got into a fight, too. Though it usually got me thrown out of wherever I was at at the time.”
I could feel myself beginning to babble. Anything to hold her attention, to keep up this tenuous link of connection. I wanted so badly to feel near to her. It was startling. I hadn’t realized how fervently I needed this. My words tumbled into my mind and out of my mouth with little regard for what I was doing.
But she cut me off before I could embarrass myself too badly. Apparently, she was really fixated on this knife.
“I saw you wearing it when I was watching you work in the cockpit one day,” she said, tying off the final threads of a bundle. She pushed it aside and pulled the next stack closer to her. “You hid it well. I actually thought maybe it was something else, but…well, it wasn’t.”
If she were a human, I might’ve thought she was blushing. As it was, I just saw her ears twitch and her gaze focus more attentively on her ropes.
“Where are we at?” I said, trying to hold my breath as I spoke. This was the moment of decision.
She looked up. By God, she actually looked up at me. And it wasn’t with any malice or anger, as though the question were an affront to her or something like that. She simply looked, and frowned.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Obviously, I’m kinda pissed about this whole pregnancy business. But…well, neither of us can do anything about that now, can we? And you were a lot of fun, if a bit stiff at times.”
I smiled, despite myself.
“Oh, dear…” she said, smiling as well. “I guess that was poorly worded, wasn’t it?”
I nodded, not wanting to speak for fear of silencing her words. Like a rabbit, I imagined them, skittish and ready to dive back into cover should they be frightened.
“I wish I hadn’t stabbed you,” she said, staring down at her hands, fiddling with some string. “It did let off a lot of my pent up aggression, but…well, it makes things a little weird between us now, doesn’t it?”
“Kind of,” I admitted, though I was secretly beaming inside. “Sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot.”
She nodded. “I’ve had a lot of time to think.”
The reprimand was clear. Another crewmate disappointed about my disappearance. Had she been worried about me as well? It wasn’t unreasonable to think so. But I didn’t want to get into all that. So I simply settled for, “Yeah, me too,” and left it at that.
“I don’t think we can go back to the way things were…before.” The way she said the word “before” was as if it were an era of history all its own. “But I don’t think we have to hate each other.”
I nodded, and it was all I could do to keep myself from wearing a stupid grin of victory on my face. I tried to remain calm, cool, detached. I wanted to show that I cared, but also that I could be mature about it. Whatever that meant. For some reason, the image I depicted in my mind involved a lot of calm discussion.
“I think you’re right,” I said. “Just so long as there isn’t as much stabbing this time around.”
She winced. Wrong thing to say. I instantly regretted it.
“I’m sorry,” I said for what felt like the billionth time. “I’m not going to hold it against you anymore.”
She grinned at that. Now it was my turn to chuckle in embarrassment.
“Poor word choice?”