“Nothing much,” I lied. “The drugs take as much as they give. Considering how I woke up, I don’t think I want to know. Why do you ask?”
I knew I’d made the right choice when Rupert’s body relaxed against mine. “Just wondering,” he said, pressing me close with one arm while the other reached up to stroke my hair.
I buried my face against his smooth chest, breathing in his warmth. I hated lying to him so blatantly, but the more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself it was for the best. If Rupert thought I didn’t know what he was, then he wouldn’t worry about exposing his secret. So long as my ignorance kept us both safe, I would happily play dumb. Right then I’d have played anything if it meant he would keep holding me like this, petting my hair so gently, like it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever felt. With every stroke of his hand, the contentment sank deeper into my bones until, at last, I drifted off.
I don’t normally sleep with my lovers. It goes against too many years of ingrained paranoia for me to let myself be that vulnerable, and then there’s the part where I’ve never been quite sure I wouldn’t attack them when I woke up to something moving beside me. I don’t know if it was the lingering effect of the drugs, exhaustion from my injuries, or just something about Rupert himself, but I slept the whole night pressed right up against him. I woke when the lights came on for the day cycle to find Rupert up and already dressed, sitting on the bed beside me.
“Hey,” I said, rolling over.
He grinned and leaned down, kissing me long and languid until I was very happy to be awake. But when I tried to put my arms around his neck and pull him down to join me, he gently caught them and pulled me up instead. “Time for you to get back to the infirmary,” he said, handing me my clothes, neatly folded.
“You still have doubts about my health after last night?” I said as I stepped into my underwear.
Rupert just stood and walked to the door, watching me dress with a smile on his face. When I was decent, he caught my hand and pulled me into him. He’d kissed me when I’d woken up, but that kiss was nothing like this. That kiss had been slow and sweet, this one started hot and quickly grew to the intensity he’d had last night. He kissed me desperately, like he’d never kiss me again, his arms clenched so tight around my waist I couldn’t do anything except lean into him.
Like I needed encouragement. I kissed him back with everything I had, matching passion for passion until we were both panting. When he finally pulled away, I thought it was to pull me back to bed, but he didn’t. Instead, he straightened his jacket and stepped aside, opening the door to let me out.
I shook my head and stepped into the hall. “Get a girl all worked up…”
He chuckled, but he didn’t touch me again. I pursed my lips at him in an invisible kiss and started for the stairs. He watched me the whole way, a strange, almost sad expression on his face. As I hit the second spiral, I saw him turn and walk the other way, down toward the end of the hall where the captain kept his quarters.
Hyrek was waiting for me when I walked back into the infirmary. He did not look happy, though I couldn’t actually be sure of that. I’ve never seen a happy xith’cal to compare.
I won’t ask where you were, he typed, claws moving over the handset with accusatory clicks. But I would remind you that ignoring your doctor’s orders and gallivanting around with a very recently healed compound fracture and the remnants of mind-altering battle drugs still in your system is only slightly less stupid than taking the drugs in the first place.
“Sorry, Mother,” I said, hopping up on the table. “For what it’s worth, I feel fantastic. If you’re half as good at carving up humans as you are at putting them back together, I’m almost sad you’re not a butcher anymore. A great loss for the xith’cal race.”
Hyrek didn’t seem impressed by the compliment. Butchering is male work.
“Ah ha!” I cried, stabbing my finger straight at Hyrek’s snout. “You are a female. I knew you were too small.”
I’m not a female.
My face must have been a sight, because Hyrek laughed with a sound like a knife across glass. Xith’cal are born genderless. We live in the hatchery until we come of age, doing both male and female work, and then we pick the gender that suits us best. I didn’t like either, so I didn’t choose.
“You mean you’re neither?” I said. “What, are you still a child then?”
Hyrek snorted. Hardly. By human reckoning, I’m almost sixty. Neutrals live as long as females, who live twice as long as males.
“So you just decided to be genderless?” I said. “You can do that?”
Obviously, Hyrek typed with a droll look.
I rolled my eyes and Hyrek sighed. It’s not a common thing. Tribe structure is rigid. Everyone has a place. Females are our thinkers, males are our warriors, females run the ships, males hunt. A genderless adult doesn’t fit into the established order, so you can see how life could be difficult for those who don’t choose.
I remembered his sleeping arrangements with new appreciation. “That’s why you’re here, then? Because things got ‘difficult’?”
Among other reasons, Hyrek typed. I find living outside the tribe ship to be my safest option. Humans aren’t exactly welcoming, but Caldswell has been my captain for many years now. He gave me a job and a haven when no one else would have me. I take my duties on this ship very seriously, which is why, the next time you come into my infirmary, I’m going to tie you to the table so you don’t embarrass me again by wandering off in the middle of the night.
“Sorry.” And I meant it, sort of. “But I really am fine.”
Hyrek’s yellow eyes widened. Are you a doctor?
“No,” I said. “But neither are you.”
On this ship, I’m whatever Caldswell says I am, Hyrek typed. Right now, I am your doctor, and when it comes to your level of “fine,” my opinion is the only one that matters.
I tried a few more arguments but eventually gave up. Arguing with Hyrek was like arguing with a dead apple tree—fruitless. Still, I wasn’t above giving him a smug grin when he was forced to admit after thirty minutes of tests that I was, in fact, fine.
“So what do I call you now?” I asked as I hopped off the table. “He? She? It?”
“He” is fine, Hyrek typed. Humans are a backward sort of species that puts one gender before the other. Seeing this, I’ve found it’s much easier to be thought of as male rather than female, especially looking as I do. And since the designation is meaningless to me, I don’t see why I shouldn’t take the easier choice.
“Sounds sensible to me,” I said, walking toward the door. “I’m going to check my gear and report in. Last chance to poke something.”
Hyrek made a face. I’ve had more than enough of that for the moment, thank you. I know staying out of trouble isn’t exactly your forte, Devi Morris, but do try not to mortally wound yourself again anytime soon. You might not feel it at the moment, but the bone knitter and skin grafts did hurt you, and there’s the trauma from the initial injury plus whatever you did to yourself with that poison you injected. The drugs seem to inhibit your response to normal painkillers and sedatives. I had to give you enough to knock out a warrior xith’cal this time. It might get better, but I can’t say for sure. Next time they might not work at all. So, please, save us all some trouble and try not to get anything else stabbed through you.
“I’ll do my best,” I said, trotting into the hall.
I had absolutely no intention of getting my shoulder bitten off again anytime soon. Of course, I hadn’t intended to get bitten this time either, but there wasn’t anything to be done about that. Some mercs throw themselves into danger, but I’ve always tried to be practical. Still, taking shots was part of the job, and there was no way in hell I was going to start pulling my punches now.
For some reason, I’d thought my armor would be in its case. It wasn’t, of course, because I was the only person who could open my case. But if it wasn’t there, then I didn’t know where it would be. This kicked off a small panic as I went through the ship looking for it. Finally, I asked Cotter, and he led me down to the far corner of the cargo bay.
At first, I almost didn’t believe the torn pile of silver metal on the ground was my suit. I fell to my knees, frantically gathering the Lady Gray into my lap. The ripped shoulder I’d expected, same for the large dent in my helmet, but the rest was a complete shock. Every single piece was damaged. My boots had huge claw gouges. So did my gloves. My four leg pieces were so mangled I was amazed I could still fit them together, and my chest piece was practically crumpled from the bite that had taken out my shoulder, plus three other bites that hadn’t made it through.
It was astonishing to see. I hadn’t even realized I’d been hit that much, but that was part of what battle drugs did—no pain and no fear meant you didn’t notice when you’d been wounded. Still, the scariest thing by far was the condition of the suit’s interior.
“God and king,” I muttered, turning my chest piece over so I could get a better look. “I’m amazed I had any blood left in me.”
“You started bleeding like a hose once the foam came out,” Cotter said. “Charkov was the one who got you out and carried you to the doctor. He was scary intense. I didn’t know a cook could move that fast.”
I ran a finger over the suit’s torn shoulder, and my chest tightened. My beautiful baby. My lovely suit. I forced myself to put the chest piece down before I cried in front of Cotter and set about looking for my guns.
I found them beside my suit and, praise the king, they were both fine. Out of ammo, but neither Mia nor Sasha had more than a few scratches. Phoebe wasn’t there, of course. I’d lost her forever, broken and abandoned in some xith’cal’s chest cavity. Fortunately, aside from the custom jointing to make her fit in my armor, my blade had been fairly unmodded. Replacing her would be nowhere near as impossible as replacing my other girls.
Cotter watched as I set my guns carefully aside, his suit creaking as he shifted his weight. “Listen, Morris,” he said at last. “About what happened inside, how I left—”
“Forget it,” I said, grabbing my left glove, the least damaged piece. “Getting out was the smart thing to do. If you’d stayed, we might both have gotten chomped. All I care about now is getting my suit fixed.”
“It’s a Verdemont suit,” Cotter said. “Those come with a self-cleaner and auto-repairer in the case, don’t they?”
“There’s no way all of this is coming out with the self-cleaner,” I said. “And this damage is far beyond what the repair system can handle. Not if I want my suit back this year, anyway.”
Cotter shot me the most earnestly sympathetic look I’d ever seen on him. It was so sudden it made me tip back in surprise, though it really shouldn’t have. He was an armored merc, after all. He felt the pain of a damaged suit just as much as I did. “What are you going to do?”
“Find a repair shop,” I said, gently laying my glove on top of the rest of my suit before standing up. “A good Paradoxian one. There is no way in hell I’m handing my baby over to a bunch of pig-handed Terrans.”
“Where are you going to find a Paradoxian shop out here?” he said, following me up the stairs.
I didn’t answer because I didn’t know, but I knew how to find out. Leaving Cotter to patrol duty, I jogged down the hall and burst onto the bridge. “Basil!” I called. “I need your help.”
Basil and Nova were both standing at the top of the bridge by the sensor console, and they turned in unison to stare at me. “Well,” Basil said. “Hello and good morning to you, too.”