Sys arrived a moment later.
“Would you quit dragging your heels, hatchling?” she growled. “I’ve been waiting for ten minutes for you to haul out another load. Now come on.”
The remainder of our packaging for the food supplies was done in a hurry. Apparently we all felt some sort of tension in the air that compelled us onward with the task at hand. I was worried about what Sys might think, and do, about my relationship with Mearr. I sometimes still wonder what was on her mind.
Once we’d packed up the remaining supplies, the three of us hauled the bundles out to the main room, unpacked them, and pushed them through the gap in the door before repackaging them to haul back to the ship. We found ourselves with a minor quandary when we found we had more bundles to haul than arms to drag, but a quick prioritization on Sys’s part eliminated enough to let us get the rest back to the ship.
When we had reached the ship, Chief and Tic-Toc were there to meet us. They helped us load up the bundles onto the ship’s storage bays, and then we checked in with Gator.
“About time I heard from all of you,” came his staticky reply. He didn’t sound pleased. “Do you realize how long I’ve been flagging your line? I’ve tried to get your attention using every frequency and device I have at my disposal. Nothing got through!”
“That is strange,” said Sys. Mearr and I both smiled, silently laughing at the joke. But when Sys looked at us with that tilt to her head that indicated confusion, I realized it wasn’t a joke.
Gator, however, did not.
“Do not toy with me, Sys. You have no idea what is going on here. And neither did I, as far as you were concerned, until you just now showed up on my channel. Did you get the supplies?”
Finally, a reasonable, practical question.
“Yes, we’ve got ‘em, Gator,” said Mearr. “Hatchling helped.”
“Hatchling,” Gator spat my name like a curse. “I sent him to check in on you over an hour ago. I would have thought he’d have the sense to get in touch with me when he made contact, but instead he dropped off the radar, just like you.”
“Nice to know you think I’m not here, Gator,” I said, trying to inject some humor into the situation. I cringed at my own attempt, however, and reckoned it didn’t go over well with the rest either.
“He lives!” said Gator. “Nice of you to show up.”
I bit back a reply. I didn’t know what I would say, but I did want to snap at him for his impatience. Even if he was right to worry.
“Listen, slowpokes,” said Gator. “Cap says he wants to see Mearr down in the medical bay on the battlecruiser here. Think you can get there without getting lost this time?”
A map with directions to the medical bay superimposed itself on our visors.
“Yeah, sure,” said Mearr.
“Why do we need to go?” said Sys.
“You don’t,” snapped Gator. “But it’d be best if you did. Safety in numbers.”
“What aren’t you telling us, Gator?” sang Mearr, clearly goading him on.
“Nothing that you don’t already suspect,” said Gator. “Now quiet down. I’ve got three other teams out there that need my help coordinating their efforts to get us off this floating hunk of junk.”
With that, Gator severed the connection, leaving us staring at each other with wireframe maps floating in front of our eyes.
“Alright, let’s go,” said Mearr.
The route to the medical bay took us through crew’s quarters, an armory, more maintenance shafts, and another set of crew’s quarters. Just as before, the eerie absence of bodies case a spell of unease over me — and, I’d like to think, the others as well.
When we finally made it to the medical bay, Cap was waiting with a pile of boxes and bottles and tubing all gathered outside the entrance.
“Ah, you made it,” he said, scuttling overhead.
Again, I reminded myself to avoid insectoid species — both biological and mechanical.
“And you brought friends,” said Cap with a hint of drawn-out patience as he worked his way down a nearby wall so he could look at us at eye level. “Gator said it might be a good idea.”
There was a strong hint that Cap disagreed with Gator’s assessment of whatever situation was brewing outside. But the fact that he was the captain and hadn’t ordered Gator to do otherwise suggested to me that he was a leader who knew how to value the expertise of his specialists.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of them, which probably goes a long way to explaining the disdain he directed at me during my stay aboard his ship.
“Got a lot of new toys, Cap?” said Sys.
Cap regarded her briefly before turning his attention away from us and dislodging from the wall. “Yes, a reasonable selection. Though much of what I would want to take is either too large or too advanced for our facilities.”
He motioned us to follow and we did, though all three of us were still gaping visibly at all the shiny devices and polished counters. The room was actually well-lit, and the contrast between it and the rest of the ship — which carried an aesthetic akin to a cheap horror vid, despite the lack of viscera — was enough to make us regard it with awe.
I take that back. Sys and I both gaped. Mearr followed Cap with a fierce determination that I might otherwise expect to see in a true hunting cat, instead of the playful changeling I had come to know.
“Why did you send for me, captain?” she said. She only ever called him captain when she was mad. It was unlike Mearr to be formal, and you knew she was upset when she started dropping the nicknames.
Although, she had always used mine. I suppose that speaks to the sub-human status of the new-recruit.
Sub-human. Even all these years later, I still use the xenophobic form of that phrase.
“I found something that may be of particular interest to you,” said Cap. “Remember how I said we didn’t have the facilities aboard our ship to terminate your pregnancy?”
My stomach clenched. All my attention suddenly snapped onto the discussion ahead of me.
“I do remember,” said Mearr. “What’s your point? You drag us all the way out here to regret together?”
“Hardly,” said Cap. I could see the ingratiating smile crossing his tiny mouth inside that bulbous green sack. It pissed me off all the more, and made my heart race as my stomach clenched even tighter. “I was more wondering if you were still looking to take advantage of such an option, should the opportunity arise.”
“I’ll assume you aren’t speaking of hypotheticals,” said Mearr. “Since, like I said, you dragged us all the way out here.”
The pair paused, almost in unison, and turned to face one another.
“Let’s cut the pussy-footing around,” said Mearr. “This facility is advanced enough. Right?”
“Correct,” said Cap.
“And you brought me here to ask if I still want to abort the baby. Right?”
“Or maybe you weren’t going to give me a choice,” said Mearr. “Maybe you’d be polite and ask because I deserve a say in the matter, but in the end you’d flush it out of me no matter what. Right?”
I was starting to feel a little sick. All this frank chatter about killing my child. I hadn’t really thought about how I felt for what was growing inside Mearr, but now that the possibility of losing it was a real one, I realized I couldn’t bare to let that happen.
“You present the matter inelegantly,” said Cap. “But accurately.”
“I don’t see how you can be elegant about something so indelicate,” said Mearr, now glaring at him.
Sys suddenly stepped forward, touching a hand to Mearr’s shoulder. I hadn’t realized she’d been listening. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Mearr shook her head. “No. He’s right. I mean, he’s probably wrong about his method. Probably. But I wouldn’t have come here if I was planning on keeping the child.”
I stared. What? What was she saying? I couldn’t hold myself in any longer.
Everyone turned and stared. Mearr with a fierce glare that urged me to silence. Cap with a smug expression of indifference and amusement. And Sys…Sys was always difficult to read. But at that moment, I thought I saw…surprise, and a bit of admiration. Maybe I was fooling myself.
“What. Did. You. Say?” said Mearr, very slowly.
“You can’t abort the baby,” I said. “Not now, it’s too dangerous.”
It was the best lie I could come up with. I don’t know why I thought it would work. I was desperate.
“The procedure is perfectly safe,” said Cap. “These machines are at full power and some of the most efficient I’ve ever seen. It’s a bit on the lengthy side, true, but there’s little risk for complication.”
Mearr threw a look back at me that said both “Aw, you’re sweet,” and “There, you see?” at the same time.
But I wasn’t giving up. I wasn’t going to lose my child before I held it in my arms.
Where this fierce sense of fatherhood came from, I had no idea. Perhaps some latent notions from my patriarchal childhood, or maybe I chance to call something my own that nobody could ever take away from me. Whatever it was, it drove me more than the very desire to survive.
“I don’t want you to,” I said.
Mearr’s face fell. “But, you said…”
“I know what I said. But it wasn’t a possibility then. It is now.”
“So you lied?”
“No. Not exactly. I didn’t know how much I wanted to keep the baby until you guys started talking about taking it away for real.”
“Hatchling,” said Cap. “It’s not your body. It’s not your ship. There are no dangers inherent in aborting the fetus. But there are distinct logistical problems involved in keeping a growing child on board our freighter. We just don’t have the infrastructure to take care of that.”
I took a deep breath, even though I badly wanted to lash out at him. At both of them. I wasn’t going to give up, but I knew I had to remain calm. They weren’t going to respond well to emotional pleas.
Then Sys set her hand on Mearr’s shoulder, pulling Mearr slightly away from Cap and toward herself.
“I think you should keep it,” she said.
I gaped. Sys was backing me up? Why?
I could see my own confusion mirrored in Mearr’s face, though she didn’t have the poor grace to let her mouth hang open as I had. Cap turned away from all of us, presumably to check on some technical matter, but I got the impression that he was trying to give us some privacy.
Maybe he was more sensitive than I gave him credit for.
“Why?” said Mearr.
Sys shrugged. “I always wondered what it’d be like to have our own hatchlings. Since I can’t give them to you, maybe you can give one to us.”
She didn’t smile. Sys couldn’t smile. But the slight shifts in her antennae, in her posture, even the tone of her voice — which I now know to be vibrations in the air created by her exoskeleton — all conveyed a sense of cautious encouragement. Almost like she was saying “It’s okay.”
Whether that was an “I don’t blame you,” or it was an “I really do want this,” kind of “It’s okay,” I couldn’t tell. But it was a much improved attitude to the Sys I had come face-to-face with in the galley a mere hour or so before.
“And what about him,” Mearr said, tossing her head in my direction. It was meant to be flippant, but I could tell there was no force behind the derision.
Sys pressed herself closer to Mearr as she shifted her eyes to look over at me. “If he is the means for us to have a hatchling, so be it. I can’t blame him for wanting you or I’d be doing a disservice to myself.”
I felt awkward with Sys standing there, showing Mearr the affection that I had so recently — it seemed at that time, at least — enjoyed. Maybe it was a jealousy thing. Maybe it was a social propriety thing. In any case, it was definitely a weird thing.
“And you?” Mearr snapped, pulling my attention back to the conversation. “You’d be okay with Sys and me raising the child?”
I shrugged. “Sure,” I said. “I just don’t want it dead.”
That wasn’t entirely true. Sure, I cared about the baby’s life. But I really did want to be the one to raise it. I was it’s father. Shouldn’t that grant me some privileges?
I didn’t dare venture such a proposition. The entire situation was dangling on threads as it was.
“I’m still not sure,” said Mearr. “Obviously, I don’t want to disappoint you, Sys. But…Cap’s right. We can’t deal with this aboard Bessie. We don’t have the resources.”
Sys held her hand on Mearr’s shoulder, leaning her head to rest against it. It was a consummately humanoid expression. I wondered if she’d learned it from Mearr. “Surely we can find a way? At least until the end of the trip. Then you and I can take some time off to care for the hatchling. Or even pay for alterations to be made to the ship.”
She added that last bit when Mearr visibly stiffened. There might’ve been a row if Sys hadn’t tempered her suggestion.
Mearr shook her head. “I just don’t know.”
At that moment, Gator’s voice came over the comm. “Attention. All personnel, report back to the ship. Immediately. Repeat, this is priority one. A red alert. We have hostiles aboard the wreck.”
Everyone looked up at everyone else, confirming with our eyes that we had all heard the same thing. It wasn’t unexpected, not exactly, but it was a surprise to hear Gator being so blunt about it.
Cap scuttled over a moment later. “Come on,” he growled. “You have all wasted enough time. We need to get out of here. Sys, you and I will take to the ceiling. That way, if we come across any hostiles, maybe we can get a drop on them. You and Mearr,” he glared at me, “Just try to stay out of sight. And grab as much of those supplies as you can carry. I don’t want this trip to be a total wash.”
We proceeded as Cap had described. He and Sys clung to the ceiling, moving on ahead to warn Mearr and I of any upcoming dangers. Mearr darted out of the medical bay with Sys, gathering some of the supplies in her arms as she went.
Me? I lingered just long enough to stare at the machine that almost took my child from me. Then I too gathered up the supplies and headed out to follow the crew.