His eyebrows shot up. I don’t think he expected me to talk back after that display, but I had business to settle. “Do Cotter and I get our hazard pay for exploring that ship?”
“Yes,” he said, eying me cautiously. “It should already be in your ship account.”
I nodded. “Then, if you want me to keep doing my job, I need your approval to take the ship on a detour to a repair shop on Seni Major so I can get my suit fixed.”
Caldswell frowned. “That’s pretty far out of our way. Jero’s a big colony—isn’t there someplace there you can use?”
“I would shoot a Terran mechanic before I let him touch my Lady Gray, sir,” I said. “Seni Major has a Paradoxian shop. If we can’t go there, then I’ll be doing my job in my skin until we can find a Paradoxian operation that’s closer to your route.”
Caldswell heaved an enormous sigh. “Fine,” he said. “Tell Basil to set the course.”
“Yes sir,” I said, waiting.
He glared at me. “Dismissed.”
I bowed and marched past him, desperate to get out while I was still in control. But I must have used up all my luck, because when I got to the door, Caldswell caught my arm.
“Remember what I said, Morris,” he said, his eyes boring into mine as he held me with surprising strength. “Don’t go near Rupert again. You disobey me on this, I’ll kick you off so fast your head will spin, and you can kiss any hope of being a Devastator good-bye. Understood?”
My breath caught, and I actually had to fist my hands in my clothes to keep from punching him. “Understood, sir,” I said, proud that I kept most of the murder out of my voice.
He let me go, and I stomped out into the hall. I heard his door close behind me, but I didn’t look back. I didn’t even look where I was going, which was how I almost ran into Rupert, who was waiting at the top of the stairs.
“You,” I snapped, putting a good foot of distance between us. “You knew this would happen.”
“I did,” Rupert said quietly.
I lowered my voice to a whisper as well, which meant my next words came out as a hiss. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He looked at me skeptically. “I did try to warn you.”
“Well, you could have been more specific with your doom and gloom,” I said. “Or at least warned me you’d have to tell the captain.” Not that it would have stopped me, but at least Caldswell wouldn’t have caught me flat-footed.
Rupert had the good grace to look abashed, and I heaved a long sigh. “You shouldn’t have taken the punishment yourself, either. What’s he making you do?”
“Nothing too bad,” Rupert said, pushing a stray lock of hair out of his face. I watched, envious. I’d liked his hair before, but after last night, running my fingers through it was one of my new favorite things. “I think the captain’s more disappointed than angry. I let him down.”
“Why, because you had a good time?” I scoffed. “Just because he’s a sad sack doesn’t mean everyone around him has to be.”
That made Rupert smile, and the expression made my heart clench. Suddenly, the idea that I couldn’t kiss him right then was unbearable, and I closed my eyes in disgust. When had I turned into an infatuated teenager?
“Well,” I said, getting hold of myself. “I guess that’s that.” I held out my hand. “Thanks for a good night, then. Sorry we won’t be doing it again.”
“Me too,” Rupert said, taking my hand gently and then letting go at once, like touching me was painful.
“Come on,” I said, forcing a smile. “We’re still friends, right? I mean, he can order us not to talk all he wants, but I still need drinks.”
Rupert nodded seriously. “Can’t cut Devi off from her drinks. It would mean her death.”
“I’m not that bad,” I said, glancing at the hall camera. Caldswell hadn’t come out of his room yet, so I would have bet my suit that he was watching us right now. Mature woman that I am, I gave the camera a nasty look and turned back to Rupert. “I’m off to go yell at a bird. See you around, okay?”
“Take care,” Rupert said.
I waved at him and jogged away. I still wasn’t quite in control of myself, so I didn’t look back. If I did, there was no guarantee I wouldn’t start crying out of pure frustration, and I would never live that down. Instead, I set my jaw and pulled myself together. I was Devi Morris, decorated war hero, former squad leader of the Blackbirds, and future Devastator. I was not going to get all mopey over a man, no matter how funny or handsome or good in bed he was. I was going to get my armor fixed, and then I was going to do my damn job, just like I always did. Rupert and I had both agreed it was over, so that was that. All we had to do was let last night go and everything could return to how it was before. Shouldn’t be hard. We were both adults, after all. Rational people with careers and things in our lives we cared about more than each other, things we could easily lose by being stupid. With that in mind I was sure, absolutely positive, that we would have no trouble obeying the captain’s orders and keeping our hands off each other. True, it might be hard at first after our intense connection last night, but given a few days I was sure life would go back to normal. No doubt. One hundred percent positive.
And that’s what I told myself all the way back to the bridge.
Of course, it wasn’t that easy.
We were on our way to Seni Major with only a minimum of complaining on Basil’s part. I’d packed my suit into its case as best I could, but though the cleaner had gotten most of the blood out, the automated nano-repair had barely made a start on the damage. Finally I just turned it off altogether and resigned myself to waiting.
That in itself was bad enough. Without my armor, I was useless. Unlike Rupert, I couldn’t fire Sasha barehanded without risking a broken arm or worse. I could have fired Mia, but while a sixty-pound plasma shotgun is nothing in armor, it’s pretty impractical in any other situation. I had my concealable pistol, but it was a weak, unmodified little peashooter I’d only bought because I couldn’t stand going unarmed. It wouldn’t even tickle a xith’cal, but I wore it anyway, mostly so I wouldn’t feel so naked. Having it on my hip didn’t help my mood at all, though, and that was a real pity, because something needed to.
With no armor, I couldn’t do my job, which meant I spent most of the four-day trip to Seni with nothing to distract me from Rupert. Oh, I tried to ignore him, but as Caldswell said, the Fool is a very small ship. I’d never thought so before, but when you’re trying to avoid someone, it’s like the whole place shrinks. Suddenly, I seemed to be running into Rupert everywhere, and while he just smiled politely and went about his business, usually escorting Ren around or bringing food to whatever crew members couldn’t be bothered to drag themselves to the mess, I stood there watching him like an idiot.
I couldn’t help it. I’d been attracted to Rupert from the moment we’d met, but after our night together, it was like my body had become hyperaware of him. Sometimes I caught myself staring and looked away before it got too obvious, but mostly Rupert caught me, and then I felt nothing but fury at myself for turning into one of those pining, hopeless girls I used to make fun of. Truly, it was a pathetic display.
Strangely enough, it was Caldswell who came to my rescue. Unable to stand the idea of idle hands on his ship, he started finding work for me. I still had plenty of hours left from my punishment for Mycant to make up, so I spent most of my time cleaning. I scrubbed the cargo bay and mopped the hallways, cleaned the kitchen (while Rupert wasn’t in it, thank the king) and the bridge, anything I could get to, really. It was stupid, brainless work, but I threw myself into it because it gave me something to do other than mope. I even put on one of the shapeless metal boxes Terrans have the gall to call armor and went outside to sand down the hull.
I actually liked hull duty. True, doing it in one of the Fool’s spare suits was nothing like doing it in my own armor, but it was still nice to be out. There’s something about the cold silence of space that helps put your life in perspective. There was no rush, so I took my time with the work, picking the bits of shrapnel out of the hull in all the spots Mabel had marked and then sanding the rough parts down again with careful attention. Sometimes I just blatantly stopped working and stared at the stars as they slowly flowed past.
It was during one of these peaceful moments that I first saw them.
I’d just finished sanding down a particularly bad spot on the ship’s belly and I was taking a break, hanging from my magnets as the universe flowed by when I caught a flash of movement by my foot. I looked down, worried that my sander had somehow broken its anchor and was now lost to the void, but what I saw put all other thoughts out of my head. A creature was sitting on the ship not three feet from me. It was small, about the size of a large cricket. I wouldn’t have noticed it at all against the dark hull if not for the fact that the creature glowed with a soft blue-white light.
Entranced, I took a step forward, but the creature moved away before I could get close, dancing across the ship’s hull like a crab scuttling across the sea floor. I tried again, but it was soon clear I couldn’t get more than a few feet from the thing. Even worse, the shoddy Terran suit I was wearing didn’t have a camera, just a large plastic face shield, so I couldn’t even zoom in. I had to settle for watching from afar.
I sat down, staying very still in the hope that the thing would come closer. But while it did skitter around me, it never came any nearer. Seeing it from many different angles gave me a pretty good idea of its shape, though.
It looked sort of like a spider, but with more legs. It was mostly legs, actually. The long appendages made up the vast majority of its size, sprouting off a tiny abdomen no longer than the first joint of my pinky. The legs were curled rather than jointed, almost like the thing was walking on bending wires, and they gave it a sort of soft, bouncing motion, like it was moving underwater.
In addition to the blue-white glow, the creature was semitransparent, like its body was made of frosted glass. It had three large, bobbing antennae sticking up from its head, or what I assumed was its head. It had no eyes that I could see, so I couldn’t be sure.
After I’d watched it bounce around for almost five minutes, the tiny creature vanished right in front of me. Not like I lost sight of it or it jumped or anything like that—I mean it vanished. Poof. It happened so suddenly I actually lunged forward, like I could catch it. I couldn’t, of course, not in Caldswell’s slow brick of a spare suit. I looked anyway, just in case, but I didn’t see it again before it was time to go in.
I thought about telling someone what I’d seen, but as soon as I was back inside, the wreck my life had turned into came crashing back down. It was dinnertime, and most of the crew was in the lounge to eat. Rupert was serving, and, since this was a perfectly normal crew function, I sat down to enjoy some completely irreproachable time in his company.
During the two days since Caldswell had ordered us apart, I’d almost convinced myself that Rupert really had let it go. While I was watching and moping, he seemed completely himself. He was polite, if distant, though that was probably my fault, since I kept staring at him. Still, he never showed any sign that he regretted how things had ended, or that he thought of me at all.
Tonight was no different. He handed me my plate with the same half smile he gave everyone and kept his eyes on his work. I ate in sullen silence until Nova showed up and started into some enormous story about a problem with the scanner array they’d been having all day.
I threw myself into conversation, glad to have something, anything to pull me out of my self-pity. Plus, it made Nova so happy to talk about her job, and her joy was infectious. By the time we were done eating, I was actually relaxed enough to laugh at her terrible Basil impressions, which was why I didn’t notice Rupert behind me until he reached over my shoulder to take my empty plate.