We peeled away from the derelict battlecruiser, evading the raiders and pushing out into interstellar space again. We maintained a vigilant watch throughout the night. The pilots were on rotation, as usual, but the rest of us were put on rotation to assist them. Watching scanners, keeping eyes peeled for visual confirmation. Ready for the first sign of pursuit.
It didn’t come. For three days we watched and waited, and it didn’t come.
At last, it felt as though the entire ship gave one, collective sigh of relief. We had survived. Mostly.
And so, with a quiet moment to ourselves once again, we counted our costs.
Em was gone. She and Guhle had been caught and pinned down in the engine room. When they tried to break through the enemy lines, Guhle managed to get through, but he heard Em go down. Whether she was taken by the raiders as a prisoner — and, eventually, a slave — or else killed outright in the fight, none of us knew. But it was a surety that she was gone, beyond our reach.
Guhle was even more removed than usual in the days following. I don’t think it really sank in for him until we had gotten the all clear. It probably still hadn’t sunken in for the rest of us.
As we dove deeper into interplanetary space, we began to set about the necessary repairs to the ship. Between the ion storm that had ravaged our hulls for months, and the breakneck pace we set to get out of the battlecruiser, our little freighter — Bessie, as Em had called it — was pretty torn in a few places.
Interior maintenance fell to me and Gator. That’s when it hit me that she was gone. When the big, furry teddybear at my side had been replaced by the cold computer. The aesthetic was all wrong, and it made me feel hollow inside as I mechanically handed Gator the necessary tools and otherwise assisted him with the repairs.
Guhle handled exterior maintenance. He donned one of the still-functioning atmospheric suits and floated out through a pressure-locked door with some heavy toolkits to take a look at the damage. For days afterward, you could see him coming and going from the maintenance bay in between his shifts at the pilot’s chair.
He pulled me along once. Said he needed help hauling some of the equipment — you couldn’t just set it down in zero gravity, after all. Especially with us hurtling through space at near-light speeds.
We used magnetic clamps and wire-steel tethers to hold us onto the ship while we worked. I didn’t think they would hold us down, especially when Mearr would snap us onto a slightly different course — following Gator’s directions, no doubt, but that didn’t make it any less harrowing. We would either get flung out into open space, only to have the tethers keep us from drifting off, or else we would get slammed into the bulkhead, feeling the compression of multiple gees. It’s a good thing the deep-space atmospheric suits were reinforced for that kind of thing, or else we probably would’ve been killed by either whiplash or pancaking.
I didn’t really know what Guhle was supposed to be doing out there. He always said something about “inspecting exterior integrity.” Personally, I think he was doing it just to spend some time alone, away from the rest of us where he could grieve Em his way.
After all, he had been with her when she went down. He was unarmed, racing down the halls, trying to get back to the ship alive. There was nothing he could’ve done to save her. But that kind of guilt still hung around you. Like a fog in a valley, your sorrow catches the guilt and keeps it from dissipating somehow.
So he spent his off-time out on the ship’s hull, going over every centimeter of its surface. Once in awhile, I’d accompany him, but he wouldn’t talk to me, or even show me what he was working on. He just bent over the hull and occasionally asked for a tool or another.
The rest of the time, when I wasn’t assisting either Gator or Guhle with their repairs of the ship, I was cleaning the decks and inspecting supplies.
I don’t know how the job had fallen to me. Usually it was Gator’s responsibility to track supply levels throughout the ship, but with Gator busy on repairs in Em’s absence, I suppose it made sense for him to pass the task off to me. As if I knew what I was doing.
I ended up enlisting Chief and Tic-Toc’s help a lot. They had, by far, been around the ship the longest — as Guhle had told me on one of my first days aboard, the two of them had basically come with the ship. Even though they didn’t get out of the galley much, they still had surprising levels of knowledge about the ship’s storehouses, especially when it came to food. Obviously.
The only challenge that remained was in the communication barrier. I would come into the galley with a quick question clarifying a reading or a position in the storerooms, and Tic-Toc would have to translate Chief’s response to me, using all the superlative honorifics that he could come up with, as usual. It wound up making the entire process incredibly time-consuming.
Which, I suppose, was best. Much like Guhle and Gator and even Cap — who I later found out was keeping himself busy in the medical bay, integrating all of the new equipment and tracking his own supplies — I had a task that was all my own to focus on. It kept me busy, aside from my regular duties, with mundane work that was fill-in-the-blanks easy. There was, simultaneously, no time and all the time I needed to focus on Em’s death. The monotonous work was routine enough that, had I wanted to, I could’ve thought about Em, but it required enough attention that I couldn’t fully dwell on her death.
This was counterpointed with Sys. Who, every time I saw her, seemed to be detached and immobile. She would sit, almost folded up like a chair, in corners about the ship whenever she wasn’t needed as systems operator — which was often enough these days that she was almost always folded up in a corner somewhere.
I thought about approaching her, but my opinion of Sys was such a convoluted mess at this point that I could never decide what to say. I neither wanted to help nor hurt her. And I wouldn’t know what to say on the subject of her bereavement that would carry that neutral ambivalence.
Mearr would’ve been the same as Sys but for two reasons — first, Mearr didn’t seem to care passionately about anyone but herself, and certainly not Em, and second, the baby was giving her enough trouble to keep her attention focused inward. She had to be nearing her term, though I didn’t know how long a changeling-human hybrid child gestated for. But it had been well over six months since she and I last slept together, so that left a maximum of three more by human standards.
Again, I considered asking someone about it, but there was no way for me to broach the subject. Guhle, who seemed to know everything, was silent to all of us. Mearr, who probably knew down to the day, still wasn’t someone I could really talk to, especially about this. Cap would undoubtedly know — though, when I thought about it, I realized I couldn’t remember ever seeing Mearr go up for a physical or anything of that sort; as if it mattered — but Cap was probably even more pissed off at me now than he was before, seeing as I managed to keep Mearr from having the abortion.
Then there was Gator. I could think of no good reason to not talk to Gator. But neither could I find any reasonable explanation for why Gator would know anything about Mearr’s due date. So I let it drop, until my curiosity built to an unassailable level and I felt my feet pulling me toward the engine rooms.
I was making my way through the lower levels when I suddenly heard a voice speaking out of the dimly lit halls.
“Was it all worth it, you think?”
I looked around, but couldn’t find the source of the voice. Until a spindly shadow unfolded itself from a nearby corner and resolved into the form of Sys.
“Hey,” I said, visibly tensing.
Sys’s head lolled from side to side. I couldn’t tell if it was a greeting or some other gesture. It was too indeliberate.
“The old hatchling’s gone,” she said. “Didn’t even last a full tour.”
She settled a hand on my shoulder, and then fell to the ground. I crouched down as she fell, trying to cushion her as she dropped.
“None of us are expendable. We’re all integral to the ship. If that’s true, why are we still going? Why’re we still flying?” She shook her head. “Crew’s not a family; it’s a hive. A fucking hive.”
I cradled Sys’ head in the crook of my right arm, and steadied her shoulder with my left hand. I didn’t know what else to do. Just a semi-awkward cradling.
“What d’you want me to say, Sys? That I’m sorry?”
Sys’s multi-faceted eyes shifted to look at me. At least, I think they did. I still couldn’t tell when she was staring blankly, out at the distance, or directly at me. Maybe she could do all three — and more — at the same time. That would explain why she was such a skilled systems operator.
“You’re new, hatchling,” she said. Despite the lolling nature of her posture, one that I would’ve attributed to a drunk of any other species, her words were clipped and clear as ever. And for the first time, I felt the humming of her body as it vibrated to produce the sounds that passed as her voice. They thrummed through my hands and arms and up into my shoulders and neck and chest. It was a confusing mix of relaxing and alarming — like a massage from an electrical volt. “You don’t understand how things work here. Neither do I, it seems. Thought he’d never cheat. Didn’t think anyone else could interest him. No one else can do what I do.”
There was a pause in Sys’s meandering talk, during which her body trembled. And it was a trembling, as though cold, not a thrumming to create speech.
“Hey,” I said. “Do you need me to take you to Cap?”
She clicked and shuddered again. It took me a moment to realize that that was her approximation of a laugh. At least, as close an approximation she could muster in her state.
“Look at you,” she said. “Don’t you hate me? Aren’t you jealous? You could finish me off right here, and then he’d be yours. But you…you offer to save me. Where do you get that from?”
I honestly didn’t know. I stared down into Sys’s eyes, unsure of what to search for in them, and merely blinked. There was no answer I was confident in anymore. At one time, I would’ve fallen back automatically on “Jesus,” or “God,” or “The Bible,” or any number of other trite sources. But now…I didn’t even know where I stood with any of that. I still had my mother’s Bible in my jacket pocket, true. But it had been weeks since I’d pulled it out. What did it mean to me?
And then my thoughts continued and expanded. Why had I offered? Sys was right, I could kill her right then and there. Maybe even not that much. Depending on what was affecting her, maybe I could just let her die. Hardly anyone ever came down into these corridors. The lighting was such that if I dragged her to some out-of-the-way corner, what few people who might come through would be unlikely to discover her there.
Then a question struck me. A curiosity that should’ve bothered me from the start.
“Why’re you down here, Sys?”
Sys shifted, propping herself up against the wall of her own power. She shrugged her way out of my embrace. “Isn’t it obvious?”
I hate it when people say things like that. It always makes me feel so stupid. Either that, or it makes it look like you’re gloating. If the reason was obvious, would I have asked? No. I’d like to think I wouldn’t.
But there it was. Floating in the air. Isn’t it obvious?
“No,” I said flatly. “It’s not. So you’d might as well tell me.”
Sys chittered, as though what I’d said was funny. “I’m looking for you,” she said at the end of it.
“Why?” I said. “And if you say, ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ again, I swear I’ll leave you here.”
“You won’t,” she said after another sound that was either a laugh or a cough. “We both know you’re not a killer. Not in that way, at least.”
“Get to the point, Sys,” I muttered, wondering what she was on.
“It’s Mearr,” she said.
My throat tightened and my heart leapt into my chest. Had something happened? Were the complications with the pregnancy somehow? The tone in Sys’s voice was such that it screamed concern.
“He went into labor an hour ago,” said Sys. “I thought you’d want to know.”