Author: Rachel Bach

“Hyrek,” Caldswell said, completely ignoring my wariness. “This is Devi Morris, our new security officer. Devi, this is Hyrek, our doctor.”

Forgetting protocol for a moment, I reached over and grabbed Caldswell’s arm, pulling him back out of the xith’cal’s earshot.

“Are you kidding me?” I hissed over my suit speaker. “Doctor? Xith’cal eat people. Having him for a doctor is like having a butcher for a vet!”

A sound like someone was running a metal plate through a shredder made me jump, and I glanced in my rear cam to see that the xith’cal was laughing. He tapped his claws against the handset again and held it up for me to see.

Actually, the text read, I was a butcher before I joined Caldswell, which is where I gained my excellent understanding of the anatomy of the lesser races. Also, xith’cal hearing far surpasses human. Just thought you should know.

I ground my teeth, though whether it was from anger or fear, I wasn’t quite sure. Finally, in a last-ditch effort to recover some of my dignity, I put my hands on my hips with my fingers resting comfortably on the butt of my pistol. “And I suppose you’re body cleanup as well, then?”

Sadly no, the xith’cal typed. Our dear captain is still rather squeamish about some things and we are forced to waste good meat. If it makes you feel better, though, Basil is the first on my list if we’re ever stranded in deep space and forced to eat one another. Aeons are most delicious.

From anyone else, I would have called that a joke, but xith’cal didn’t make jokes. Beside me, Caldswell had given up trying to keep a straight face and was now smirking openly. I liked being the butt of a joke about as much as I liked standing next to a xith’cal and not shooting it, but for good or ill, it looked like Hyrek was a permanent fixture.

“I guess I’ll just have to make sure I don’t end up in your infirmary,” I grumbled. The way he was looking at me, I wouldn’t be surprised if I woke up with one less arm and Devi on the menu.

You can hardly avoid it if you’re going to be a guard on this ship, Hyrek typed. He smiled wide at me, showing all his teeth, and then turned back to Caldswell. The others are on their way. They did not share my enthusiasm for a swift departure. Now that you’re here, I’m going inside. Would you mind coming with me to ensure the other half of your new pair of gun-happy meatshields doesn’t try and blow my head off? He turned the handset toward me. No offense to present company.

I didn’t like the meatshield comment any better than I liked being laughed at, but the lizard had a point. Cotter would have the same reaction I’d had if he found the xith’cal in the ship without the captain. Caldswell clearly understood this as well, because he told me to wait on the ramp while he escorted the doctor.

I stood in the shade where he’d pointed, taking my helmet off so I could feel the sea air. I was still trying to work my brain around the idea of living in close quarters with a xith’cal when I spotted another figure walking across the landing pad toward the ship. Fortunately, this one appeared to be entirely human. She was a tall, lithe, middle-aged woman in a bright pink sundress with a towel draped over her head against the sun. She had a small crate under one arm, while the other was guiding an enormous pile of boxes stacked on a very battered hover platform floating along behind her.

“You must be the new security,” she called when she was close enough for her voice to carry. “Congratulations on passing the test! I hope you didn’t beat Brian too badly.”

It took me several seconds to remember that Brian was the captain’s first name. “Not at all, actually,” I said. “It was Rupert who got shot.”

The woman stopped in front of me with a broad smile. “Poor boy,” she said. “Where’d you get him?”

I pointed at the center of my forehead, and the woman winced. “Well,” she said. “That’s what he gets, going along with Brian’s schemes. I’m just glad you’re still around. We’re five days behind schedule already. If we had to wait around while Brian found another team, I’d be forced to call this route off altogether.” She stuck out her hand. “Mabel Cobb, engineer and cargo.”

I shook her hand, careful not to squeeze too hard with my armor. “Devi Morris.”

“Paradoxian.” Mabel sounded impressed. “Good. Last time Caldswell went to Paradox he got a pair of Terrans. Horrible waste. Why hire on Paradox if you’re not going to get actual Paradoxian armored mercs?”

I decided right then that I liked Mabel very much. “Can I help you with your luggage?” I said, nodding toward the crate under her arm.

“No, no,” Mabel said. “Pickers stays with me.”

She held the small crate up, and I peered in to see an enormously fat cat curled up in a miserable ball.

“Poor old lady.” Mabel sighed. “She hates leaving the ship, but Brian doesn’t tolerate her if I’m not around.”

“Cute,” I said, reaching a finger in. Mabel caught it before I’d gotten close.

“Wouldn’t try it,” she said. “We named her Pickers for a reason.” She curled her fingers into claws and made a scratching motion.

There was no way a cat, no matter how mean, could scratch my armor, but I didn’t push the issue.

“You can get the cargo, though,” Mabel said, tucking the cat crate back under her arm.

“Cargo?” I said in mock astonishment. “I was beginning to think the Glorious Fool didn’t ship anything but trouble.” We shared a laugh at that, and then I asked, “What are we hauling?”

“From the Fishermarch?” Mabel wrinkled her nose. “What else? Fish. Tons of it, pickled and fresh frozen.”

I wrinkled my nose as well. Shipping fish seemed so … unglamorous. But work was work.

“So,” I said, grabbing a two-hundred-pound cargo crate with one arm. “How long have you been in this outfit?”

“Forever,” Mabel said, stepping aside so I could grab the next box as well. “Caldswell’s my brother-in-law. This ship’s sort of a family business. My son worked on the Fool as well until I sent him to school last year.”

The idea of Caldswell having anything so normal as a sister-in-law and a nephew struck me as absurd, but like a good merc I kept my mouth closed, unloading the crates as Mabel directed. Surprisingly, Cotter came out to help when a truck arrived with another three platforms of goods. He introduced himself to Mabel briefly but said nothing else while she was around. Soon as we were inside, he opened a private channel to my com.

“Did you know about the xith’cal?” he whispered in King’s Tongue.

“Met him right before you did,” I answered.

We shared a look. Whatever our differences, killing xith’cal was something all mercs could bond over. Letting one onto your ship felt like letting a rabid animal sleep in your bed.

“We’ll just have to live with it,” I said. “It’s not like we can do anything anyway.”

“This damn ship just gets weirder and weirder,” Cotter said, tossing his box on top of the pile. “First that bullshit on the bridge, and now a lizard for a doctor.” He shook his head. “I thought the stories were made up, but I’m starting to believe Caldswell really is as crazy as they say.”

“Too late to run now,” I said, handing him the next box. “We already passed the test.”

Cotter snorted, and then his voice took on a note of grudging respect. “I hate to say it, but that was a stone cold shot. Glad to see you’re not all bravado.”

I didn’t have to ask what shot he meant. “We do what we gotta do,” I said. “It’s weird having a man I shot in the head cook for me, though.”

“At least he’s a good cook,” Cotter said, eying the mountains and mountains of fish crates. “God and king, I hope we’re not eating all these.”

“Me too,” I said, turning to get the next crate.

By the time we were done loading all the crates, the enormous cargo bay was almost full. So was the ship. With the crew back, the Glorious Fool was finally the packed box I’d worried it would be, but it wasn’t actually as bad as I’d imagined.

I’d always thought of spacers as constantly being in each other’s noses with every square inch given over to cargo, but the Fool felt more like a house than a trade ship. The lounge actually meant we had a good bit more room than I normally had on merc ships, and, except for meals, everyone seemed to stick to their own areas. Mabel stayed mostly in the engine room or the maintenance shafts fixing the seemingly endless problems that kept cropping up on the Fool. Our xith’cal butcher doctor stayed in his room or the infirmary, and Basil never seemed to leave the bridge.

Pickers went wherever she pleased, which mostly seemed to be under my feet. Fortunately, I have cameras looking down at all times, so I didn’t have to add a fat cat to my death toll. She got tired of me eventually and went to sleep on the lounge couch next to Ren, who didn’t seem to notice.

My shift ended just as we were clearing orbit. I switched off with Cotter and went to my room to get out of my armor and into a much needed shower. I was so caught up in the thrall of cleanliness and sleep, I didn’t see the changes in my room until I was three steps in.

The once bare walls of my tiny bunk were now festooned with pictures of stars and nebulae. Long transparent cloths covered with gold moons hung from the ceiling like seaweed, and the tiny port window had been framed with silver ropes like a shrine. The previously empty top bunk was now made up with a pink and gold bedspread and piled high with colorful pillows. Several strings of bells jangled as my helmet brushed them, filling the room with silver music.

“Hello Deviana,” said a girlish voice. “You have a lovely aura. I think we’re going to be friends.”

It took me a moment to find the voice’s source with all the decorative confusion, even though the girl was standing right in front of me. The first thing I noticed was how pale she was. She was almost translucent under the ship lights, small and thin with short-cut white-blond hair that curled around her ears. Her eyes were wide and dreamy but so light they looked colorless. Her lips were faded too, little more than a pink blush around her mouth, and my first thought was that she had some kind of iron deficiency.

“Novascape Starchild,” she said, taking my armored hand and holding it between her palms in a motion that looked both ritualistic and utterly ridiculous.

I had no idea what “novascape starchild” meant. I mean, I knew the words, but they didn’t make any sense, and the fact that the girl was still holding my hand was throwing off my translation attempts. Finally, I gave up.

“I’m sorry,” I said, pulling my hand away as gently as I could. “I don’t understand what that means. I’m a little rusty at Universal.”

“No worries,” the girl said, smiling beatifically. “All languages are but crude translations of the music of the cosmos. We are all of us struggling to speak to true meaning.”

That time I was sure I’d translated correctly, but I still had no idea what she meant. My confusion must have been plain, because the girl started to laugh. Softly at first, and then harder and harder as I grew more and more confused.

“Novascape Starchild is my name,” she gasped at last, flopping down on my bed. “You can call me Nova, though.”

That, at least, I understood. Nova was the girl Basil had mentioned, the one he was afraid I’d corrupt. Now that I’d actually met Nova, I wasn’t surprised Basil had treated me like some kind of barely domesticated dog. If this dreamy girl was the bird’s idea of a good human, I probably seemed like a violent ogre. “I hope you don’t mind I took the bottom bunk.”

“Not at all,” Nova said. “There is no top or bottom in space. We are all exactly where we are meant to be.”