I stretched out my legs on my bunk and stared into the dark, thinking about how Rupert had told me right here a few days ago that it was an honor to serve under the captain. Now that I knew that Caldswell had a Royal Warrant, I was starting to believe it. But even as I tried to guess how in the universe a Terran captain had come into possession of the highest sign of the king’s trust, a new realization was elbowing its way past my misgivings.
If Caldswell had a Warrant, then he was big. Really big. Big enough that he hadn’t been exaggerating back in the infirmary when he’d said he could get me into the Devastators. Hell, if he was big enough to have a Royal Warrant, he could probably get me an audience with the king himself.
My whole body began to tingle with anticipation. My gut impulse to run was still strong, but ignoring it was getting easier and easier. After all, the whole reason I’d taken this job was to kick my career into high gear. Was I really going to chicken out and let a chance like this slip by?
With that thought, my disordered brain fell into place. A few moments ago, the question of what I was going to do with all these mysteries had felt overwhelming. Now, I realized the whole mess came down to a simple choice: did I listen to my instincts and run, or did I take a chance, see it through, and maybe end up a Devastator even sooner than I’d hoped? Did I pick safety or ambition? The slow and steady or the gamble?
I smiled. Put like that, it wasn’t even a question. It was the same choice I’d made when I’d decided to take Anthony’s tip and apply to Caldswell in the first place. Now as then, there was no doubt what path I’d pick. No one got to be a Devastator by taking the safe road.
My decision settled like a joint popping back into place, and I immediately felt better. I was back on target, back in the fight, and while curiosity over what I’d seen was still gnawing at my insides, I was more determined than ever that I would not screw this up. The blessed king had dropped a priceless opportunity in my lap, and I absolutely was not going to let it go to waste.
Riding my new burst of determination, I removed the Bargain chip from my handset and slipped it back into its dock in my armor’s spine. I would have made a backup, but I didn’t want to risk Caldswell discovering I knew more than I should. My Bargain would keep the truth in case I needed it, just like it was made to. Meanwhile, I would act like nothing had changed. I’d keep everything to myself and proceed exactly as I had before with no one the wiser.
Stupid as it was considering the risk I was throwing myself into, I was actually kind of excited. Working for a mysterious and powerful man under the auspices of the king sounded a lot more promising than being a ship guard for a cursed trader captain. And who knew? Maybe if I served Caldswell well enough, he’d bring me into whatever he was doing, and that would look really good on my Devastator recommendation.
No matter what, though, I could never let Caldswell or Rupert discover I’d found out their secret before they were ready to share it. Stepping lightly wasn’t usually my strong suit, but I was pretty sure I could manage it this time. After all, they had no clue I knew what I knew. All I had to do was keep my curiosity from getting the better of me and it was going to be smooth sailing. Well, I thought, gingerly pressing my darkening black eye, as smooth as my sailing ever got.
Of course, just because I was going to be playing dumb didn’t mean I actually had to be dumb. I wasn’t about to do anything really obvious like question Caldswell, but I could do a little poking around using the resources available. Fortunately, I had a pretty good idea where to start, and since it was almost time for my shift anyway, I put on my suit and headed down the hall in search of Hyrek.
The xith’cal was where he always seemed to be, in his room. He screeched softly when I knocked, but the door unlocked a few seconds later without fuss, so it must have been the good kind of screech. I’d never actually been in his room before. Considering what he was, I’d half expected it to be the blood-splattered mess the xith’cal I’d fought had seemed to thrive in. Instead, Hyrek’s cabin was almost homey.
It was a double bunk like the one Nova and I shared, but Hyrek had it to himself. He’d removed the beds and replaced them with an armchair large enough for a xith’cal. There was a large potted plant in the corner behind him, a lamp and a small chest with a thin rack for data sticks set on top, but that was it for furniture. Not that he could have fit anything else with the enormous chair taking up most of the room. I didn’t even know how he’d gotten it through the door, but he was lounging quite comfortably when I came in, reading on his ledger. He put it down when he saw me and pulled his handset out of the front pocket of the large, formless scrubs he always wore, tapping the screen rapidly before holding it out to me.
Come to gawk at the civilized lizard?
“Might as well, so long as I’m here,” I said, not bothering to lie since he was right, I had been gawking. “Where do you sleep, anyway? Do you just live in that chair?”
I sleep standing up, he typed. That way I can get the drop on anyone who tries to come in without my knowledge. The chair is just a luxury for when I’m awake.
He flashed a toothy grin at my shocked expression and nodded to my left. I looked over. Sure enough, there was a blanket bolted to the wall just beside the door. “Are you afraid someone’s going to come for you while you sleep?”
Hyrek shrugged. Old habits die hard.
I nodded and made a note to ask Hyrek about his life before the ship someday when I was feeling brave enough to push a carnivorous lizard. “Listen,” I said. “I need to look up some information about wildlife on Mycant. Do you have anything like that in your fantastically impressive collection?”
Hyrek arched an eye ridge at my comment, but then he leaned over, examining the data sticks on his rack with care. He grabbed one a few seconds later and held it out to me. I took it, turning it over to look for a label, but there was nothing except for a few marks in the xith’cal’s chicken scratch across its front.
“Can I even read this?” I said.
I have every reason to believe you are literate, Hyrek typed back. That’s a collection of the official Republic Fauna Surveys from the last ten years as well as the Republic Exploratory Council’s Census of Known Nonhuman Life.
“And you think Mycant will be in here?” I asked, holding the delicate stick gently between my fingers.
If it’s anywhere, Hyrek typed. Unlike the Paradoxians, who never met a planet they couldn’t terraform with bots before they’d even looked at it, the Terran Republic is usually very good about cataloging the native life on their colonies before they stamp it all out and repopulate with more human-friendly species.
That insult wasn’t even worth a comeback, so I just smiled. “Thanks, Hyrek. I’ll get this back to you soon.”
Take your time, he typed with a grin. I completely understand if it takes you a little while to read something that doesn’t have to do with killing or armor.
I rolled my eyes as the xith’cal’s unnerving teeth-on-metal laughter filled the room, but as I turned to leave, Hyrek made a trilling sound, and I glanced over my shoulder to see him holding his handset high.
You should put some ice on that eye.
“Thanks for the timely advice, Doc,” I said, letting Hyrek’s door slide closed behind me just in time to cut off another metallic snicker.
Thanks to the planet layover, my shift switch was later than usual. We were already an hour into the Fool’s night cycle by the time I took over from Cotter, and most everyone was either already in bed or headed there. I lifted my visor to say good night to Nova when I saw her coming from the bridge, but rather than her usual cheerful reply, she stopped cold, hands going to her mouth.
“Deviana!” she cried. “Your eye!”
I winced, and then I had to stop myself from wincing again at the pain from the first one. I’d forgotten Nova had been on the bridge when we’d gotten back, which meant this was her first glimpse of my face. Must have been quite the sight, judging from her reaction.
“What happened?” she said, running up to me.
For a second I debated telling her. Not about Caldswell, of course, but about the invisible whatever. But even that suddenly felt like too much, especially since I liked Nova. She was one of the rarest things in the universe, a genuinely nice person, and I didn’t want to tell her anything that could be dangerous for her to know.
“My own recklessness,” I answered at last, which wasn’t exactly a lie. “Took a spill when I was looking for the captain. But don’t worry, it’s nothing.”
“It looks awful,” Nova said, her pale face stricken. “Have you seen the doctor?”
“Yes.” Again, not a lie. “But I’m fine, really.”
Nova’s worried look didn’t ease up, but she eventually relented, though not before promising that she’d do some meditation therapy with me tomorrow to awaken my universal connection and speed my body toward wholeness. I had no idea what that meant, but I could listen to some weird space music with her for a while if it made her happy. Truth be told, my eye did hurt. I’d had far worse, of course, but unlike the leg I’d whacked on Rupert, I couldn’t use my suit to take the strain off my face.
I put up with the ache for two hours before I decided I was being stupid and went to the kitchen for some ice. It was well into night cycle and the lounge was dark, but the runner lights on the walls were bright enough that I didn’t need to switch on my suit’s night vision. I took off my helmet and set it on the counter before going over to the freezer. I propped the door with my foot, using the extra light from inside to search the drawers for something to put the ice in so I wouldn’t drip everywhere. I was still searching when I felt someone standing behind me.
My gun was in my hand before I could think. I whirled around, Sasha raised and ready, and found myself facing Rupert. He held his hands up, and I blew out a frustrated breath.
“Don’t do that,” I snapped, holstering my gun. “I’m going to shoot you one of these days.”
“I thought you already did,” Rupert said, lips quirking.
“Without a shield,” I growled. I hate people sneaking up on me, especially in an utterly silent room where I really should have heard them coming. Rupert always seemed to move like a ghost, though, so I shouldn’t have been surprised.
“What are you doing?” Rupert asked, putting his arms down.
“Getting some ice for my lovely new eye patch,” I replied, pointing at my shiner. “What are you doing?”
“We have an alarm on both freezers and the fridge,” Rupert said. “I was up anyway, so I decided to come check.”
Elegant lady that I am, I snorted. “You wired your fridge?”
Rupert shrugged. “Can’t have food going missing in deep space. And now that Cotter knows where I keep the beer, I’ve had to chase him out a few times.”
The idea of Rupert running big, mean Cotter out of the kitchen was just too much. I burst out laughing, which was a really stupid thing to do with an injured face.
“Ow ow ow ow,” I groaned, pressing my fingers into my cheek.
Rupert took my shoulders and gently pushed me out of the way. He grabbed a plastic bag from a cabinet I’d never have thought to check, filled it halfway with ice, and wrapped it in a clean towel. I put out my hand, expecting him to give it to me, but he didn’t. Instead, he stepped closer and gently touched my chin, turning my head so he could see my injured eye in the dim light.
For a split second, his smile faded, and I caught a glimpse of the anger I’d seen on the video when he’d cleaned my cut. But even as I saw it, the look vanished as Rupert pressed the ice pack gently against my eye. The cold was an enormous relief, and I leaned back, letting my armor hold me up as the pain slowly drained away.