“How do we keep ending up like this?” I sighed.
“You keep getting hurt,” Rupert said.
“I’m surprised you haven’t started carrying an ice pack in your pocket by this point.”
Rupert smiled, but he didn’t answer. He didn’t say anything for a while, and eventually I let my eyes flutter closed, giving myself over to the lovely feeling of being taken care of.
“I’m sorry you got hit.”
I opened my uninjured eye. Rupert’s voice was as soft as the pressure he put on my face, but his eyes were lowered, and I couldn’t catch their expression.
“Not your fault,” I said. “I decided to go out.”
“You wouldn’t have had to if we’d gotten back to the ship when we were supposed to,” Rupert said, the words surprisingly harsh. “You wouldn’t have been there at all.”
If I was actually ignorant of what had happened in the clearing, I would have laughed. I’m a merc. A black eye is the sign of a good night, not an injury to be guilty over. Besides, how could he blame himself for my stumbling into wildlife? But I wasn’t ignorant, and I knew what he was really apologizing for. He was sorry I’d gotten involved.
If I’d had any doubt before that the knowledge of what had really happened in that clearing was dangerous, Rupert’s tight, worried expression would have stomped it out right there. But fool that I am, I wasn’t afraid. I was touched by his concern. So much so that my chest hurt a little.
The way he was looking at me didn’t help, either. Even in my suit, Rupert loomed over me, his eyes dark and tender in the low light when he finally raised them to mine. His fingers were still on my chin. They were warm, surprisingly so considering he’d just used them to shovel ice into a bag. They caressed my skin very slightly, and I shivered at the feeling, my gaze going involuntarily to his lips. They were close. All I had to do was push up on my toes to reach them. They would be warm, I bet, like his fingers.
I’d actually started to move before I realized what I was about to do. I froze, dropping my eyes from Rupert’s lips to his chest. That wasn’t much better. His chest looked solid and lovely, perfect to wrap myself around, but at least the reality of his dark suit brought me down a little.
What the hell did I think I was doing? There was a fine line between acting like I didn’t know what had happened and willfully throwing myself into the fire. Rupert might be sorry I got hurt, but he was … I didn’t even have a word for what he was, other than “involved.” Very involved in things that could wreck me hard if I wasn’t careful. But even if there was no danger or secrets, even if we’d been just a cook and a merc, getting tangled in the kitchen while I was on duty was simply too unprofessional for me to bear, and it was that more than anything else that got me to step back.
“Thanks for ice pack number two,” I said, putting my hand up to take the ice from him. “I’d better get back to patrol. Have a good night, Rupert.”
Rupert blinked like he was waking up, and then he stepped back to let me pass. “Good night, Devi.”
Hearing him say my name like that, softly in the dark, did nothing for the lust I was trying to quash, but I forced myself to wave and smile as my feet got moving, taking me toward the cargo bay. When I heard the hallway door close behind him, I stopped and removed the ice pack, placing my fingers against my bruised skin. I brushed the cut on my cheekbone oh so gently, just as Rupert had done in the clearing, and took a deep, steadying breath to gather my wits.
I was on deep breath number three before I remembered I’d left my helmet sitting on the kitchen counter. I whirled around, silently cursing stupid merc girls who let handsome men walk off with their brains. I stomped back into the empty lounge, grabbed my helmet off the counter, and shoved it on my head. I dumped the ice pack in the sink for good measure before setting myself firmly back to work.
My eye ached for the rest of my shift.
True to her word, Nova was waiting with two meditation cushions when I got back to our room the next morning. My eye was throbbing and I wanted nothing more than to take a painkiller and fall into bed, but she was so excited about “realigning my core to the living energy of the cosmos” that I couldn’t say no.
I let her sit me down on the pillow in something she called four corners position. It looked like normal old cross-legged to me, but I tried my best to keep my body just as she’d arranged it while Nova turned on her weird static music again. She sat down on the pillow across from mine and closed her eyes, instructing me in a dreamy voice to breathe deeply and imagine the endless void of empty space slowly filling with stars.
I’d filled my void with stars five times over and was starting to fall asleep by the time Nova announced the session was over.
“Do you feel better?” she asked, switching off the music.
“A little,” I lied. I felt exactly the same, only now my legs ached from sitting still for so long. “Can’t expect too much from my first session, though.”
“It gets easier with practice,” Nova assured me, getting up to collect the pillows. The session must have been much better for her than for me. Nova was practically glowing as I helped her toss the cushions back onto her bunk.
“Well, I don’t have any plasmex,” I said. “So I don’t know if it’ll ever really work for me.”
“Everyone has plasmex, Deviana,” Nova said, beaming. “It’s a fundamental force of the universe, like gravity or the strong force inside atoms. Some humans are more sensitive to it than others, especially with daily practice, but everyone has at least a little.” Her beaming smile faded a few watts. “Well, biologically speaking, humans and aeons have the least plasmex sensitivity of the known races. Xith’cal have significantly more, and the lelgis are said to hold it as the core of their senses, but please don’t let that disturb your harmony. The only thing that truly matters is that we are all connected through plasmex in a great oneness that spans the whole of space-time. On a universal scale like that, minor biological differences become insignificant.”
“Thanks,” I said, eying my bed longingly. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Nova caught my look and blushed, her paper-white cheeks turning bright red. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to keep you up.”
“No, no, no,” I said hurriedly. I was almost frantic to reassure her. The thought that I’d hurt Nova’s feelings made me feel like I’d just kicked a puppy. “It was really nice and it helped a lot. I’d love to do it again.”
Nova peeked at me. “Only if you’re sure. I don’t want to bother you. I know how busy you and Mr. Cotter are.”
I couldn’t help it—I reached out with a grin to squeeze her bony shoulder. “Nova, you are a piece of good work, you really are. You are way too nice for this ship.”
Nova’s cheeks went scarlet again. “Oh, no,” she said quickly. “It’s the captain who was nice to take me in. I wasn’t actually fully qualified to be a systems engineer when I started. Captain Caldswell did it as a kindness to my father.”
I didn’t stop smiling, but suddenly I was paying serious attention. “Really? How does your father know Caldswell?”
“I don’t know, exactly,” Nova said, suddenly looking sheepish. “Father always says that remembering the past is impossible when you are at one with a universe where time only moves forward, which makes it kind of hard to ask him questions like that. But I do know that my father put me here because he meant me to help with the captain’s good work.”
I had to fight not to look too interested. “Good work? What kind of good work? You mean charity?”
Nova shrugged, her brilliant smile returning. “I have no idea, but Captain Caldswell has always been good to me. We harmonize so well, I’m happy to help him any way I can.” She glanced at her handset, and her pale eyebrows shot up. “Oh dear, I have to relocate! Basil’s balance will be upset if I’m late.”
“Basil’s balance is eternally upset,” I said, but Nova was already out the door, waving at me as she went.
When she was gone, I hit the lights and fell into bed, but tired as I was, I didn’t pass out immediately. First, my eye was throbbing, and second, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Nova would think if she saw the footage hidden on my Bargain. What part of that, I wondered, would her father call “good work”? But, of course, fretting gave me no more answers, and eventually sleep took me.
Even with the knowledge of what had actually happened in the clearing rattling around my head like an armed grenade, over the next week I did an excellent job pretending nothing had changed. As much as I’d love to attribute this to my fantastic acting abilities, the real reason was that I was too busy spending every moment of my free time cleaning in accordance with my punishment deal with Caldswell.
I scrubbed every shower, toilet, floor, and sink on the whole damn ship, and every time I thought I was finished, the captain somehow found more. But if Caldswell thought to break me with all this drudge work, he’d picked a sorry target. Like all Paradoxians, I’d spent my first two years out of school at the bottom of the Royal Army, and I’d scrubbed far worse than this.
When I wasn’t cleaning, I was working. Cotter and I had adjusted our patrol schedule so I got more time on the day cycle. Even so, I was often bored, and while I would never slack on my duty, I wasn’t above doing a little reading while I was walking in circles. I’d loaded Hyrek’s compiled survey into my suit’s memory, and I read it whenever I had the spare time.
It was slow going. Not that I would ever admit it to the lizard, but the book he’d lent me was hard to read. This was partially because it was in Universal, not my first language, but mostly because it was exactly the kind of dry, overly specific scientific writing you’d expect from an official Terran survey. Also, it was huge. Unlike Paradox, which kept its colonies to a reasonable number, the Terrans had claimed so many planets I don’t think even they could name them all.
Fortunately, the listings themselves were well organized and fascinating enough to keep me going. The survey was full of strange and sometimes wonderful creatures I’d never heard of. I found a whole list of critters I’d love to see in the wild, but there was nothing remotely like the thing I’d fought in the clearing. There was also no mention of anything like the black alien I’d seen standing behind Ren, among the xith’cal tribes or anywhere else.
By the time I finished the survey’s last entry, I had a much better understanding of alien ecosystems but none of the answers I’d picked up the survey to find. I hadn’t actually expected to find anything, of course, but I was still disappointed. Hyrek’s survey had been a long shot, but reading it was safe and made me feel like I was doing something. Once I had no more reading to keep me occupied, patrol duty left me with way too much time to think, and my damned curiosity had started pushing my mind toward the more dangerous mysteries. Specifically, I started watching Ren.
Before Mycant, I’d paid the captain’s daughter only cursory attention. I’d actually kind of liked her since she didn’t bother me when I was working like most kids did. Now, I watched her whenever I got a chance, and what I saw only creeped me out more.
Even if I hadn’t seen her drag me around with her mind or burn an invisible monster with her hand, one day of watching Ren for real would have been enough to tell me that Caldswell’s daughter had something very weird going on in her head. First, while she clearly understood what people told her, she never spoke out loud. I’d seen her whispering to the captain and Rupert, but I’d never heard her voice or seen her talk to anyone besides those two. Second, she didn’t make eye contact, didn’t move unless someone guided her, and never showed an emotion except her usual blank stare. She was like a doll, or one of those creepy androids they used on the Terran core planets. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’d seen her eat, I would have wondered if she was human at all.