“No clue,” I answered. “But burned or not, nothing good comes out of that tribe ship. Let’s just keep an eye out.”
Cotter looked nonplussed. “You really think he’s that dangerous?”
“Let me put it to you like this,” I said. “Whoever that man was, he didn’t flinch when I dug a gun into his stomach. That means he’s either very well trained, very crazy, or he knew my shot wouldn’t hurt him. Whichever of those is the truth, I don’t want to mess with it.”
Cotter shook his head. “You’re bad as the captain about attracting trouble, you know that?”
I shrugged. “It’s always been a talent.”
Cotter snorted, and then he gave me a once-over. “Kind of sad to see you back in your suit. I was enjoying watching you scrub the floors.”
“I’ll scrub them with your face if you like,” I said.
Cotter laughed long and loud. “Good to have you back. Honestly, I’m really sick of working double shifts.”
I nodded sympathetically. “I’ll put in some extra once we’re back in flight.”
“You sure?” he said. “Caldswell ain’t paying you overtime.”
“Caldswell doesn’t pay me if he can help it,” I replied. “But it’s no problem. I owe you for covering, and anyway, I’d like the extra work.”
“Needed it” was closer to the truth. Work was my way out of the hole Rupert had put me in. Fortunately, Cotter didn’t argue too hard.
We spent the next three hours in surprisingly companionable company staking out the ship. It was good to be back on my game, and by the time we lifted off, I was almost feeling back in control.
The next day I threw myself at my work with a vigor that surprised even Caldswell. I double-checked all our security records and then spent three hours in the cargo bay recalibrating my suit, since the repairs had undone all my custom settings. I changed my emergency lock code, not because I thought Rupert would use the old one against me, but because I didn’t want to be beholden to him for anything ever again. This time, though, I made sure the number was encrypted into my ship record. No point in having my lovely Lady ripped to shreds again just because no one knew how to get me out.
When I was on duty, I patrolled like we were in a war zone. When I was off duty, I exercised and did target practice. I also went through my catalogs and researched new thermite blades that would fit Phoebe’s empty niche in my suit.
I couldn’t afford anything right now, but I was pretty sure I could guilt Caldswell into fronting me the money. After all, it was his fault I’d lost Phoebe in the first place, and it was in his interest to make sure his mercs were well equipped. In the meanwhile, Cotter let me practice with his ax. The huge blade was too heavy for my suit and utterly ridiculous, but I enjoyed it all the same. I enjoyed anything that kept me busy and safely away from the things that weren’t a part of my life anymore.
I must have done too good a job distracting myself, though, because I’d completely forgotten about the glowing bugs until I almost walked into one.
I was going through the lounge on patrol. It was very late, well into night cycle. Other than Caldswell, who was watching the bridge, I was the only person awake, so I was being a little more casual than usual, walking around with my helmet and gloves off. I stopped the moment I saw it, and then, since no one was around to report my weird behavior to Hyrek, I took a chance and leaned forward for a better look.
This glowing bug was different from the one I’d seen before. It was about the same size, but where that one had long antennae and scuttling legs, this one was perfectly circular with a hole in the middle, like a tire. It glowed with the same beautiful blue-white light though, shining like a star in the darkened lounge. A long tail covered in short, glowing fuzz extended from one side and moved with tiny flicks, propelling the creature through the air away from me.
Just like before, the thing wouldn’t let me get close to it, so I stopped trying before I drove it off. Instead, I put my helmet back on to get a look at it through my cameras. But when my cameras came on, the glowing bug had vanished.
It reappeared when I lifted my visor but vanished again when I put the visor back down. For whatever reason, it seemed to be invisible to my cameras. I took my helmet off again and leaned back against the lounge windows to consider what that meant.
It was very possible the thing was, in fact, a hallucination, but I just couldn’t believe that my brain would make up something as pointless and random as a tiny glowing bug to express its displeasure. But if it wasn’t a hallucination, I had no idea how to explain something only I could see that didn’t appear on cameras, could live on ship and out in space, and didn’t want me getting close to it. Hallucination or not, though, the creature was pretty as it floated through the air.
I was watching it turn in little circles when the sound of a door opening made me jump. My hand went to Sasha at once, and I looked up to see Rupert and Ren come into the lounge. They were both dressed and awake like it wasn’t four hours before the morning alarm. Rupert looked as surprised to see me as I was to see them. The captain’s daughter, as usual, didn’t seem to notice me at all.
I let go of my gun and straightened up, putting on my gloves quickly before Rupert noticed I’d been slacking. “What are you doing up?”
“Ren was hungry,” Rupert said, helping the girl to the couch before heading for the kitchen.
I started to make a joke that this was an intergalactic crisis when I remembered I wasn’t joking with Rupert anymore, so I said nothing. But I didn’t want him to think he was driving me out either, so I leaned back on the window and watched Ren instead.
I hadn’t actually looked at her much since my unnerving disaster the last time, but there wasn’t much to see. She looked exactly the same as she always did. Rupert hadn’t set her chessboard out, so she just sat on the couch staring blankly with her hands crossed in her lap. Even knowing how crazy she was, watching someone sit and stare wasn’t exactly riveting. I was about to drop my visor and get moving when Ren lifted her head.
Such a tiny movement shouldn’t have put me on guard, but it was so quick, and this was Ren. She never moved unless someone made her. Without thinking, I lifted my head as well, following her eyes to see what had caught her attention.
My stomach turned to ice. The glowing creature was hanging above the main mess table like a snowflake, and Ren was staring straight at it. I looked at it, then at her, then back at the creature as it floated off toward the kitchen where Rupert was pulling things out of the fridge. Ren’s eyes followed it the whole time, and then, just as quickly as she’d looked up, her head snapped toward me.
For the first time ever, Ren’s dark brown eyes met mine full-on. It was more like being looked through than looked at, but as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t turn away. Just when I was sure I couldn’t take any more, Ren’s face lit up in an enormous smile.
The expression was all encompassing, the kind of smile you’d see on the face of a true believer witnessing a miracle. The smile changed her, made her beautiful, a dangerous, doomed sort of beauty that was painful to look at. And then, as quickly as it had come, the smile was gone. Ren looked away, and I collapsed against the window.
I raised my head. Rupert was leaning over the counter. “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” I said, straightening up. “Just fine. Go back to your cooking.”
I could see he didn’t believe me, but I didn’t give him a chance to push the issue. I nodded to him and Ren and then turned back toward the cargo bay. I caught one last glimpse of the glowing creature sliding through the wall before the door shut behind me.
The incident with Ren shook me so badly I almost told Hyrek about it the next morning. After all, if two of us were seeing the things, they couldn’t be all in my head. But even if Caldswell let her talk to the xith’cal, relying on the testimony of an insane girl who didn’t speak to prove my own sanity wasn’t an appealing prospect. In the end, I decided to get a neutral third-party opinion, and when Nova took her morning break, I caught her in the hall and pulled her into our room.
“What’s wrong, Deviana?” Nova said, sounding truly concerned.
“Nova,” I said. “What do you see when you see an aura?”
Nova paused, thinking this over like I’d asked her some sort of great universal question, which, to be fair, maybe I had.
“It’s usually a glow around the person’s head,” she said at last. “Most people’s are too faint to see much, but some are brighter. They change all the time, though, growing and shifting color as the person changes.” She looked at me with a frown. “Yours was strong when I first met you, but it’s been dim now for a while. That usually happens because of stress or grief.” Her frown became gentle, and she laid her hand on mine. “Is there anything I can help you talk through?”
“No, but thank you,” I said. I was actually very touched by the offer. Of course, I still wasn’t quite sure I actually believed in auras. Nova had been in the room when I’d had my little breakdown, and anyone who’d been paying any sort of attention would have noticed how snippy I’d been since the tribe ship. But I could see from Nova’s face that she believed she saw something, and considering I was the one seeing glowing bugs, I didn’t have much room to judge.
“Do you ever see other things?” I asked. “Besides auras, I mean.”
Nova furrowed her brows. “Like what?”
“I don’t know.” I stalled. “Just anything odd that can’t otherwise be explained.”
“Oh, I see stuff like that all the time,” Nova said, her face breaking into a serene smile. “The universe is filled with phenomena beyond our comprehension. It’s part of what makes life so beautiful.”
That sounded promising. “Have you ever seen anything on the ship?” I asked. “Anything glowing or floating?”
Nova thought for a moment, then shook her head. “I don’t believe I’ve seen anything that matches that description. Have you?”
“Oh, no, of course not,” I said, scrambling. “Just something I read about plasmex users being able to do.”
“Don’t believe everything you read,” Nova said, her voice angrier than I’d ever heard it. “Some people seem to revel in ignorance and misinformation. One time, News Net called our entire colony a cult.” She gave an insulted huff. “Can you imagine?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “The press will say anything.”
“I know,” Nova said. “It’s awful the way some people attack those who seek knowledge.”
She would have said more, but something in her pocket started chiming. She dug out her handset, which was now bright purple and covered in little glittery stars. She flipped it open, and her face fell. “Would you be offended if I put off our talk until later? Basil needs me on the bridge. The captain changed our course last night while everyone was asleep and now things are sort of chaotic while Basil sorts out the star maps.”
“We changed course?” I said. “Why? Where?”
“I’m not sure,” Nova said. “Some kind of last-minute trade tip. But we’re going to the terraforming base on Republic Colony Falcon Thirty-Four.”
I stared at her, appalled. “What the hell are we trading on a terraforming base?”
Nova spread her hands in the helpless gesture she always used when discussing the captain’s eccentricities. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you more, Deviana.”
Her genuine niceness snapped me out of my frustration, and I gave her a wide smile. “You helped, Nova. Thank you.”