Page 36

Author: Rachel Bach

He must not have expected me to lean back, because when I did, my back bumped into his chest. We both froze. Pressed against him, I could feel his heart thudding and the tension in his muscles as he held his breath. And then he was gone, clearing my plate away with a soft apology for bumping me.

Nova noticed none of it. She just kept telling her story, hands waving excitedly, but I couldn’t make sense of her words anymore. My brain was caught in a loop, replaying the last few seconds over and over. I hadn’t seen Rupert’s face during the exchange, but somehow I was sure he’d been looking at me. In the split second we’d been pressed together, I’d felt him stop just as I had.

It might have made me a terrible person, but the knowledge that he wasn’t actually as calm as he put on, even just for a second, was a huge relief. But even as the discovery comforted me, it started my thoughts down all kinds of dangerous paths. Paths that led to me doing something dumb, like cornering him and kissing him until we both couldn’t breathe. I was actually planning how I could do it when my good sense slammed back in like a kick in the teeth, and I knew I had to get out. So, with a hasty apology to Nova, I excused myself and headed for the cargo bay.

There is no better cure for a traitorous brain than exercise. I ran twenty laps around the empty cargo bay and then did push-ups until my arms gave out. I was about to start on my sit-ups when I heard someone open the door from the lounge. For one stupid moment, I hoped it was Rupert, but when I looked up it was Hyrek who was standing on the stairs above me.

He held out his handset. I need to run a few more tests. Are you free now?

“Free as I’ll ever be,” I panted, standing up. “Do you want me to shower first, or can I be sweaty?”

Hyrek wrinkled his snout. You stink either way, so let’s just go now.

I shook my head and followed him up the stairs.

The tests he wanted were blood tests, so I sat on the table while he drew three vials and took them off to the machine in the corner. I’d pushed my muscles too hard in my little hissy fit exercise session, and now that I was still, my body was knotting up. I stretched my shoulders and arms while he worked, trying to ease the burn that ran through my upper body. I was flexing my calves in a futile attempt to head off the cramps when a light moved across the top of my vision. I looked up more out of habit than anything else and froze in place, legs still extended.

The glowing bug from outside was crawling on the ceiling.

The first thing my brain did was list all the sensible reasons why I couldn’t be seeing what I was seeing. First, the thing from earlier had been outside the ship. We were sealed against the vacuum, so unless it had come in with me, there was no way it could be inside. Second, the ship had air, pressure, and gravity. A deep-space creature should have been smashed flat by any one of those, but the little glowing bug was skittering along just like before, hopping delicately on its long, bouncy legs. The lights didn’t seem to dim its glow at all, either, though its frosted glass body was harder to make out against the white ceiling than the dark hull.

I slid off the table very slowly, trying for a better look, but as before, the thing shied away from me. I couldn’t even get close enough to be sure it was the same one from outside, though considering I’d never seen anything like this up till now, I was skeptical that there would be two different glowing space bugs on the ship today. I was trying to think of how I could get around behind it when I heard Hyrek’s claws clicking.

I looked up. He was standing over the analysis machine, staring at me strangely as he held up his handset. What are you doing?

“I’m trying to catch that bug thing,” I said, pointing at the glowing creature on the ceiling.

Hyrek followed my finger, and his expression grew bewildered. Bug thing?

“Yes, look.” I pointed again. “It’s hard to see against the white, but it’s there, left of the light about three feet and moving toward the wall.”

Hyrek gave me one more skeptical look and walked across the room until he was standing right under the place where I was pointing. I started to yell at him not to get so close or he’d scare it away, but the bug didn’t seem to notice him. It just kept gliding silently along the ceiling, its antennae waving right above Hyrek’s head.

“Hold still,” I said, creeping forward. “I don’t think it sees you.”

The second I moved, the bug bolted, running toward the corner. I froze, but it was spooked now. It turned its antennae toward me one last time and then ran straight through the wall like a ghost.

“Did you see that?” I cried, running over to the wall. I jumped up, slapping my hand against the place where the bug had passed through, but I felt nothing at all, not even a change in temperature. I looked over my shoulder at Hyrek, but the xith’cal was standing very still. I was about to ask what his problem was when I met his eyes, and then I knew.

He hadn’t seen it at all.

After that, I had to sit through a lot more tests.

“I’m fine, Hyrek,” I groaned, trying to pull the IV out of my arm. “I’ll swear it by the Sainted King if you want. Will you please let me go?”

Hyrek swatted my hand away. I don’t believe in the Sainted King, he typed furiously. You should just be grateful I didn’t strap you down.

I flopped my head back on the bed with a frustrated growl. “I’ve been under a lot of stress. People see things when they’re under stress, right?”

I’m more inclined to believe it’s a lingering reaction from the drugs, Hyrek typed before setting down his handset to poke another needle into my poor, bruised arm. I’ve never heard of any of those particular compounds causing hallucinations, he wrote when he was done. But then, I’ve never heard of anyone taking all of them at once either, so I wouldn’t be surprised by anything at this point.

“What are you even looking for?” I asked as he carried another vial of my blood to the analyzer. “It’s not like you’re going to see hallucinations in my blood.”

Hyrek typed something and held the handset up over his shoulder. You never know. And for your information there are certain chemical markers that can indicate the presence of hallucinogenic conditions in humans. Just because I haven’t found any yet doesn’t mean I won’t.

“It doesn’t even matter,” I said. “I know they’re hallucinations now, so I’ll just ignore them. No problem.”

What fantastic logic. A gun-happy merc who sees things—I’m feeling safer already.

“It’s not like I’m seeing hordes of xith’cal,” I said. “They’re just bugs, and not even real-looking bugs. I’m pretty sure I can handle it.”

He turned around. Have you seen any more?

There was actually one walking across the table right behind him, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him that. “Of course not. All I’ve seen is a lizard wasting both of our time.”

Hyrek made a sound like tearing sheet metal which I’d heard often enough by this point to guess was some kind of xith’cal curse. I can’t find anything wrong with you physically, he typed at last. But that doesn’t mean you’re healthy.

“What else could it mean?” I said, exasperated.

The xith’cal tilted his head and clicked his handset several times, like he was writing and erasing something over and over. You smell odd, it read when he finally held it up.

I rolled my eyes. “I thought I smelled terrible.”

You do, he typed back. But it’s a different kind of terrible than usual. At first I thought it was something lingering from the tribe ship, but that would have faded days ago. This smell is only getting stronger.

“Great,” I sighed. “I stink and I’m seeing things.”

I don’t think the two are related, Hyrek typed. But I don’t know anything at this point. I’d like to keep you here overnight for observation.

“All you’re going to observe is me sleeping,” I said. But Hyrek was immune to reason, so I spent the night tossing and turning on a gurney with four machines hooked up to me. By the time the lights came on for day cycle, even Hyrek had to admit I was fine, and I was given the go-ahead to get back to work.

As I walked toward the door, the xith’cal stepped in to block my way. You will tell me immediately if you see anything else, he typed, sticking the handset right in my face. That is a direct order given on the captain’s authority.

“Yes sir,” I said, doing my best to look docile and contrite. Hyrek didn’t buy it for a second, but he stepped aside, and I stepped into glorious freedom.

Thankfully, I didn’t see the glowing bugs again before we reached Seni Major.

Unlike most places named Major I’ve been to, Seni Major was actually pretty big for a moon. The colony it supported was large as well, mostly logging companies lured by the shallow-sea rain forests that covered the entirety of the planet’s equator. We landed at Station One, the largest city and capital, which looked like a village compared to Kingston but was a thriving metropolis so far as colonies went.

Because Seni Major was covered by one enormous shallow sea that never went more than a hundred feet deep, Station One was built on pilings, the buildings standing on stilts above the turquoise water. Even though the whole place had been logged thirty years ago to make way for development, the enormous trees were already back, shooting up from their root knots deep in the water below wherever there was room between the houses.

This overgrowth shaded the city beneath a huge green canopy. Several of the trees were blooming, and the boardwalks were littered with deep pink flowers as large as I was. If I hadn’t been in such a terrible mood, I would have thought it was lovely.

But I wasn’t here to gawk. The moment the ramp came down, I’d marched off the ship with my armor case bumping behind me and caught the first water taxi I saw to Kingston Armor Repair. It turned out to be a short trip. The shop was less than five minutes by boat from the spaceport. I felt better the moment I saw the king’s flag above the door, but what really brought a smile to my face was the professional-grade refactory attached to the shop’s rear.

When employing mechanics to work on something as complicated and expensive as custom armor, dress is very important. Fortunately, I was an old hand at these things, and I’d come prepared. I was dressed today in my favorite dress, a long, thin, clingy sheath in a rich dark purple that made my skin glow. I’d even dug out my makeup and done up my hair in a twist, and though I refuse to wear any shoes I can’t run in, I did have on my nice sandals. All the pieces were pretty standard, but put them together with the right attitude and I looked like an incognito noblewoman, which was exactly the point.

I had the armor mechanic’s full attention the second I stepped into his shop.

“My lady,” he said in King’s Tongue, bowing low. “How may I help you?”

Paradoxian law requires that you correct anyone who mistakes you for a noble the second it happens, but while I am the king’s servant unto my death, this wasn’t Paradoxian space and I was no longer in a Paradoxian company.

“I need this repaired immediately,” I said in the airy, haughty voice I’d heard nobles use as I slid my armor case onto his counter. His eyes widened at the Verdemont crest, and I knew that if he hadn’t believed I was a noble before, he certainly did now. Verdemont is quality.

“I don’t know if I have the expertise to repair a suit like that, lady,” he said apologetically. “With that sort of custom work, I—”

“I know,” I said, cracking the case open. “That’s why I asked the Master Armorsmith to load my schematics in the repair system’s memory.”

His face brightened considerably when I mentioned schematics. All armor aficionados love getting their hands on custom design sheets. But his smile fell to horror when he saw my suit’s condition.