Gator and I eventually did clean up Chief’s body. Once we’d finished dealing with our mutual suspicion of one another and agreed to actually do the work Cap had set out for us, we made it down to the galley and tended to the chore in short order. Chief was bulky, and larger than anyone I’d ever known — even Dox — but between the two of us, and with the help of Gator’s Farseer armor, we managed to drag it to the morgue and make it presentable for whatever kind of ceremony we might hold for him.
And Em, I mused. We still hadn’t really respected her memory yet. I wondered if we would, at this rate, or if whatever had killed Chief would hunt the rest of us down.
“Are we sure it can’t be a stowaway?” I said.
“Between my suit, the other three Farseers, and the ship’s own biometric scanner, there’s no doubt that the only lifeforms aboard this ship are our own,” said Gator. “Now, I suppose you could argue that the murderer might be a robot, but I still wager on one of the crew.”
“Why’s that?” I said, looking down at Chief’s body. The enormous gash up his abdomen was still hanging limply open, but most of the viscera had been cleaned off of it by Gator and me. Now he just looked sort of pale and small, compared to the big, imposing monstrosity he had been before.
“You’ve never seen Tic-Toc near another bot,” said Gator with the smallest of chuckles. “Nor Chief. He would have made short work of any would-be assassin robot.”
I nodded, not fully comprehending what Gator was getting at. Still watching Chief, though I knew he wouldn’t move.
Gator sighed. “No. No, whoever it was, Chief clearly trusted them enough to let them near him. And in his kitchen too.”
“Which rules out our Farseer guests?” I said.
I figured that’d be the case. Even so, I felt a hollow constriction in my stomach. The number of suspects was shrinking the longer Gator and I talked. On the one hand, that was a good thing. It brought us closer to unravelling this mystery. But on the other hand, the potential killers were slowly tapering away to people I respected and cared about. People I knew. It would’ve been a lot easier if it had been a stranger — whether recently boarded or with us the entire way.
It also brought the suspicion closer to me, but that was my selfish side talking.
“It also kind of rules out me, don’t you think?” I said after a momentary silence. “I mean, I’m still new. Barely with you guys a year. Surely Chief would’ve trusted you or Guhle or Cap more.”
“Sure,” said Gator. “But I think you’re selling yourself short. You’ve managed to weasel your way in amongst us fairly well. You’d be surprised, I think, to learn just how much we all trust you.”
I thought about that for a moment. He might have been right. I had, at one point or another, shared some level of confidence with almost everyone of the crew. Even Sys, it seemed, was starting to come around to me. Especially now that I’d saved her life. And that had ingratiated me to Cap, along with my heroics aboard the Farseer vessel.
Maybe I really was starting to become one of the crew. A part of something. Maybe I was at last starting to belong again.
“Y’know, I used to have nightmares about him. When I first came aboard the ship. He would rear up with those awful tentacle-talon things and rip me to shreds night after night after night…”
“I know,” said Gator. “I could see it in the Dreaming. Your fears mixed with the visions of our journey. I never saw this, though.”
“Yeah. I felt kind of bad after I got to know him. Or her, I guess. I never did learn what gender Chief was.”
Gator tilted his head. “You know…I do not think anyone ever did.”
I laughed. Then cried. Just a little. Whether it was because of the pathetic comedy of the situation or the deep tragedy, I couldn’t tell you. Perhaps a bit of both.
“He was rough, and a bit ill-tempered maybe,” I said, wiping my eyes. “But really just a big, bony teddybear. A lot like Em, but without the fur.”
Gator laughed. Just once. And it was all mechanical, as usual. But it was enough to set me going again. This time, I felt a choking in my chest. Em gone. Chief gone. Tic-Toc — bloody damn Tic-Toc — missing. Sys and Mearr in the hospital. Guhle holed up in the cockpit, not speaking to anyone.
“We aren’t really holding together very well, are we?”
Gator shook his head.
“Are all your trips this messy?”
“No,” said Gator with a sigh. “But I guess they never go as planned either.”
“Cap always seems to find us the odd requests. Whether he does it on purpose, or out of some odd, retired eccentricity, I still can’t figure out. The only reason he chose this ship over any other was because of Chief and Tic-Toc, actually. Well, Chief, mostly. Tic-Toc didn’t show up until we had already gotten underway.”
I laughed. “That had to have been an unsettling surprise.”
“Quite. After acclimating the initial crew to the presence of a nightmare chef, we were all surprised by the sudden appearance of the nightmare’s assistant.”
The image conjured by Gator’s phrase “the nightmare’s assistant” — like a little, boxy robot dressed in a tuxedo or something — brought forth another chuckle from me.
“At first we thought our ship had been boarded — this was when we were doing more puddle-jumps from planet to planet within a single system, getting our feet wet. Pirates were reported to be in the area and we thought Tic-Toc was an enemy scout of some kind. That was until we heard him talk and watched the adulation he showered upon Chief. Still, though, we kept our eye on him for that trip. By the time we were ready to ship out for another one, though, he was as much a part of the ship as Chief was.”
I nodded. “And now they’re both gone. That’s gotta be hard on you and the captain.”
Gator was quiet, his attention fixed on something else. “Not quite,” he said after a moment.
“Not quite what?”
“Not quite gone.” He pointed.
Tic-Toc floated on thin maneuvering thrusters just out of sight around the corner, peering at Chief’s body on the slab of the morgue.
“Tic-Toc?” I said, stepping toward him. I could hear him saying something, but it was too quiet to make out. Gator and I glanced at each other before approaching together, slowly.
“He’s repeating it,” Gator said as we grew near. “By the silence, he’s gone mad.”
I didn’t know what Gator was talking about until I took another few steps. Then I heard what the little robot was saying.
“Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, the shadow will rise at five o’clock; tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…”