Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
There was little distinguishing the darkened Yshot Station from the other minor satellites that orbited the rocky planet below them and Boro knew this had been a major reason why the station was chosen for their mission. It didn’t make it any less disheartening though that after a month of flying under the stealthy cloak of the Forseti’s “ghost” technology, the scenery was hardly less drab than the complete darkness at the edge of subspace.
“We’ll be at Yshot in less than ten minutes,” Surch Guraty announced, sitting in the pilot’s chair in the recessed centre of the bridge, appearing to be more at ease flying under propulsion engines than having to do minor course corrections to the mostly autopiloted flight that brought them there.
“Everything look normal down there?” Captain Timofie Pueson asked.
“Nothing unusual, far as I can see.” The answer came from Maggie Okoth, the starship’s Techever. The visual display that covered the back half of the wall of the rotunda-shaped bridge was a video display, rather than a true window to the outside of the ship, as the Forseti’s bridge was located closer to its centre, away from exterior walls. Maggie, however, with the five wires running from underneath the fingernails of her left hand and plugging into her computer terminal, could see so much more, as the Forseti’s systems were essentially wired through her brain at that moment, allowing her to process all of its visual and other scans into a coherent picture.
As Surch indicated, in ten minutes the ship was ready to dock with the recently decommissioned Iastret Station. Decommissioned solely to accommodate their arrival. The planet Yshot itself, after which the station that was orbiting it and the entire stellar system were named, was an uninhabitable rock located in the fuzzy borders between the Iastret Commonwealth, the Vaparozh Interdependency and the Thorian Empire. Until about a century ago, it was home to a mining colony, until a glut in the resource it produced forced its abandonment. After that, Yshot Station was staffed by a skeleton research crew studying the adaptability of a non-native lichen on the planet below. And now several months ago, the local Iastret government ordered a recall of the science crew pending a needlessly bureaucratic review of its research mandate. It was an advantage of bureaucracies – a single cog moved the whole mechanism that was not aware of why it was moving. For good measure, it had also done the same thing to two other innocent research teams, just to keep whoever may have been watching on their toes; most likely the Thorians.
Surch eased the flat forward part of the ship against one of the docking ports of Yshot Station. The pilot’s hands were placed on the dome-shaped controls built into each armrest of the pilot’s chair, corresponding to the similarly-shaped propulsion engines on either side of the Forseti.
“Ship is safely docked, Captain,” the Techever announced from behind them.
“Thank you, Lieutenant Guraty,” Pueson said in his soft, almost-quivering voice. “Commander Stevin, I trust that you’re still planning to supervise the onboarding of the cargo.”
“Yes, Captain, I’ll get the team ready right away,” Boro answered. “Indario, I’ll see you down there.” There was no rational reason why Boro couldn’t wait a moment and head to the cargo bay doors together with the Forseti’s Parsk Nahur weapons specialist. Boro found the smell emanating from the digestive sacks of their species, located between their sagging cheeks and their shoulders, to be overwhelming and the less time he spent in closed quarters with Indario, the better.
The task of overseeing the loading of cargo from an empty station was a babysitting job that didn’t really require Boro’s presence, but protocol was protocol and with his Comms Officer in a cast and walking boot, Boro was the next logical candidate to oversee the operation.
The Thorian, as Boro had predicted, was alive. Boro checked with Dr. Sufai if he’d been in to see her, but citing patient confidentiality she refused to confirm or deny it. Even then, the fact that he hadn’t appeared since the stasis rotation ended meant that the Thorian was probably in need of some serious convalescing, which was consolation enough for the second-in-command of the Forseti.
What Boro did not expect, even with his prior knowledge of the general fighting prowess of the Thorian species, was how much damage Mikarik would inflict to Boro’s crew. Not only did he now have an officer with a broken leg, a third of the engineering team was also laid down. As far as he heard, Chief Engineer Aimi Ishikawa really let her crew have it for their lack of judgement, and if the full force of Engineer Ishikawa had already descended on their concussed heads, Boro found no reason to follow up personally.
After exiting stasis, Surch seemed to Boro to have been in a changed mood. Or at the very least, the fact that the pilot failed to make a quip about Boro’s exciting cargo transfer mission as Boro left the bridge was an indicator that something was amiss. If Surch was still troubled by Boro’s methods – the Commander’s decision to let the fight between the Thorian and his crew play out undeterred – all Boro could say was that no one suffered any permanent injuries, save possibly the Thorian, and he could tell that already some tension had left the ship.
When Boro reached the cargo hold doors, everyone who needed to be there, except for the Parsk Nahur, who would join them momentarily, was already gathered. There was Meeron Thuliga, the ship’s steward and quartermaster, as well as Tuka Rose and Ryo Sutanto, two Human members of the maintenance crew.
“How are things looking from this end?” Boro aske no one specifically.
“Docking sequence went pretty smoothly,” Tuka answered in a heavy rockhopper accent – a form of Earth Standard Commercial that was careening towards being unintelligible. “I thought she may be a bit rusty with the crew being off for a few months but she did alright.”
“Good. Meeron, you have everyone you need?”
“Doesn’t need to be complicated,” the shaved-headed quartermaster said, “Everything we need is nearest the door, so we should be quick.”
“Just the essentials?”
“Of course, of course,” Meeron steepled his eyebrows in a show of innocence.
The Parsk Nahur arrived holding a neural devastator gun, his fleshy fingers a hair away from the trigger.
“You think that’ll be necessary?” Boro asked. A neural devastator in the hands of anyone but a Human had always made Boro uncomfortable, doubly so in the hands of a Parsk Nahur, though by all accounts their species were not known for violence, just everything else unsavoury.
The Parsk Nahur merely nodded, a gesture that Boro had figured out was for their species the equivalent of a shrug. Indario could talk, he just chose not to most of the time, and Boro wasn’t sure if that bothered him more than if the Parsk Nahur was incapable of speaking at all.
“Alright, let’s get it over with,” Boro said and gestured to the loading doors’ control panel, which Tuka was quick to activate. The doors whirred to life, rising slowly and revealing not only the stack of crates that they expected to be waiting for them, but two accompanying Humans standing to either side of their cargo.
The pace of their exit from the Raire was determined, boots ringing hollowly in the corridors as they made their otherwise silent way back to the cargo hold. They were almost out, Hilosh already daydreaming of removing his helmet and taking a refreshing breath of the recycled air inside the shuttle, when the clang, long silenced until then, rung out in their ears through the wall they were passing.
The three Vaparozh stood in a tense triangle until Yarmar, one hand firmly on the neural devastator, placed her other hand on the wall. It didn’t take long for the sound to ring again and for her to conclude, “It’s coming from inside.”
Charosar took a step back examining a low-security door with a simple metal handle. “What is this place?”
“The galley,” Yarmar answered approaching the door, but looking at Hilosh before she made a move to go inside.
“Open it,” Hilosh heard himself say from somewhere very far away, as far away as their little colony world on the fringes of Thorian space, with his son Rachek at his side, his wife and daughter dining in the adjacent room, and he wasn’t asking Yarmar to open the Raire’s galley door but rather telling Rachek that he should go to a Thorian University if he wanted a brighter future than his own people could offer him.
“Charosar?” Hilosh prompted.
He’d tell himself later than it made perfect sense – Yarmar’s hands were occupied holding the neural devastator gun, and as for Hilosh, Hilosh was a co-supervisor, which, he supposed, left him with certain responsibilities, and in this case those responsibilities meant that he also had to hang back. So, by an impartial process of elimination, it had to be Charosar to open the door and head in first. Why did it feel like these decisions were what defined one as a person, small spur-of-the-moment choices that eclipsed anything else one might have done? Charosar though, despite that brief look in her eyes that asked him the same questions he asked of himself, faced the door, pulled the handle and gave it just enough of a push for it to open all the way.
Charosar stepped inside first – again because of various reason that would be later washed out of his memory – and led them into a room that was completely ransacked. Some chairs had been strewn about haphazardly while others were piled into a heap at one end of the room. Containers of food, some opened, others not, lay about the floor, which in places was covered in spills of various hues. There were, to Hilosh’s relief, no bodies in sight, which gave his mind enough space to feel discomfort at finding itself in a place where males and females ate together. To further drive this point home, there was a single ring-shaped table in the room, large enough to accommodate the whole crew, and the one thing bolted down to the floor and not out of place.
Something shifted behind the pile of chairs and Yarmar raised her gun in that direction. Hilosh’s throat seized up but Yarmar seemed to have the right word for the occasion. “Sakhshi?”
Another Native Thorian word, but at least he recognized its counterpart “Sakashi”, the Trade Thorian word for “hello”.
There was no answer.
“Sakhshi?” Yarmar repeated, and this tame there was an unmistakable questioning grunt from the far side of the galley.
“Laitir thosh? Kashikti nishi. Kashikti ifri.”
This one was a bit trickier for Hilosh, but he recognized “nishi” and “ifiri” – the words for “friend” and “help”, which gave him a good indication of Yarmar’s chosen approach.
This time though, the lone occupant of the galley, a Thorian male, emerged from behind his hiding spot. Something was terribly wrong with him.
It wasn’t just that the only thing that remained of his Anthar Kai uniform was his jacket, or that his hair was wild and matted with sweat, but that his eyes, open wide and rapidly darting between the three of them, looked to be infected with a deep confusion. His posture too, was not properly upright, and slouched slightly as if poised to strike whether in offence or defence.
“Something’s not right here,” came Charosar’s voice through Hilosh’s earpiece, a slight quiver in there that Hilosh had never heard before.
“Hold on a second,” Yarmar said, slowly approaching what appeared to be the last survivor of the Raire.
“Taraktir elai? Taraktir shakesh?”
The Thorian cocked his head to the side, the confusion, or fear, or whatever it was, growing in intensity in his eyes, as if he understood of what was said even less than Hilosh did, who only picked up “shakeshe” the Trade Thorian word for “hurt”. He assumed that Yarmar meant to say that they weren’t going to hurt him. The neural devastator held tightly in Yarmar’s hands would have indicated otherwise, though the Thorian seemed to pay no mind to it and only focused intently on Yarmar’s eyes. And that’s when Hilosh realized to his horror that the Raire crewmember had no idea what the weapon was.
“We should go,” Hilosh said with no reservations about the urgency in his voice.
“It’ll be okay,” Yarmar said. Was this directed more at Hilosh or the Thorian? It didn’t matter, because regardless the assertion had been wrong. In the next moment, the Thorian lunged forwarded with an incoherent growl, pushing past Yarmar and heading straight for Charosar, knocking her to the floor and falling on top of her, and proceeded to beat down on her with fists and forearms. Hilosh lunged to try to get the deranged Thorian off her, stopped only by Yarmar’s firm command of “Move!” His fellow co-supervisor was holding up the neural devastator and aiming it in the general direction of Charosar and the Thorian, steadying herself for the shot. Charosar was trying to catch the Thorian’s arms with her hands as they smashed against her helmet and chest, the terrible mix of bangs and Charosar’s grunts heavy in Hilosh’s ear. He wanted Yarmar to hurry up and take the shot, but also feared that Charosar might be caught in the crossfire.
A greenish-yellow starburst escaped the muzzle of the devastator and flew halfway across the galley before absorbing itself completely into the Thorian’s back. His curt gasp was immediately followed by silence and the full weight of him dropping on top of Charosar.
“Get this rotten – ugh – off me,” Charosar wheezed and Hilosh helped drag the dead Thorian onto the floor.
“Are you alright?” He asked, offering a hand to get her off the floor.
“Can’t say I am.”
“Cha, I’m so sorry, he –”
“Forget it,” Charosar stopped Yarmar with a slight wave, “I just need to get off this ship or I swear to the green divinities I will personally set charges to blow it to dust.”
No one spoke a word until the Raire was sealed and their shuttle had left the transfer station into the blackness of space. Charosar carried herself well, considering Hilosh would later learn that she had four broken and three cracked ribs, one of which had cut, but thankfully not punctured, her middle lung. They told Ladis, their designated medic, that a loose crate had fallen on her, which probably wouldn’t have fooled a real doctor but was good enough for Ladis.
If the crew hadn’t yet been suspicious about what happened up on the Raire, then Charosar’s stay at the infirmary and Hilosh’s absence during dinner the following day would have certainly set them over the edge. He knew his people needed him to pull himself together, but Hilosh was coming undone.
The comms room was not where the sound they heard earlier had been coming from, but that didn’t stop Yarmar from having the neural devastator gun at the ready when the door slid fully open. It was quickly apparent that there would be no need for it here. There was a body on the other side of the door, the trapped arm twisted at an odd angle. It lay in a pool of dried blood, though it was not immediately clear where it came from. Further inside there were two others, also both Thorian. They lay close to each other, one on their back, the other bent forward with the side of their face pressed into the floor. Both corpses had significant bruising and bleeding on their foreheads, their Thorian cranial bumps smashed to almost beyond recognition. Sickened to his stomach at even being able to draw such a conclusion, Hilosh thought that it looked like the body that was lying on its back had died days after the one with its face on the floor.
“What in the green divinities happened here?” Charosar whispered, but with the three of them connected by their mics, the chill of her voice was loud and clear in Hilosh’s ear.
“They certainly didn’t go as peacefully as the one in the cargo hold,” Yarmar said, a cold distance in her voice, the muzzle of the neural devastator she was holding still pointed towards the bodies. She was right, if the one down in cargo looked like they passed quietly into the beyond, these were sent there abruptly, and possibly by each other’s hands. Hilosh remembered the voices in the background of the message they received from the ship. In all likelihood, they had come from these grotesque distorted faces when they still ranked among the living, or from whatever or whomever had done this to them.
The flashlight beam found another corpse in the far right corner of the room, crumpled unnaturally against the wall, its head displaying a similar kind of damage as the others, the front of its shirt soaked in blood from the head wound and a wound on his neck. Hilosh was reaching his limits. His breath shallow, and a tightening discomfort around the flesh in the back of his head, he had to stop, arms braced against the communications console, and looked at the floor to escape from the carnage, only to find a bloody footprint. He closed his eyes, taking a few breaths, while the other two paid him no heed, continuing to survey the room.
The Anthar Kai, whenever they come to learn of this, would be all over them. Normally they took little interest in small outposts like theirs. Flung so far out into Dead Space, the administration of something so small hardly made it worth it and there were other ways they could exploit them. But this, just being here on this ship, leaving their own footprints in Thorian blood and with Charosar formerly posted on Rosha Chot’hagh. Throwing up inside his helmet was not an option, taking it off to throw up in the comms room was similarly off the table. Hilosh opened his eyes to ground himself again, and peered over the console he was leaning on. There, he spotted the top of another head.
“Come take a look at this,” he said, and waited for the other two to come by before he walked around to have a look himself.
This body was similar to the one they found in the cargo hold, sitting against the console with its knees up against its chest and its head resting on them. The visible skin on their hands and forehead was similarly wrinkled and dry-looking and there were no signs of severe physical trauma that could have contributed to the death.
“I wonder if he’s the one who sent the message,” Yarmar echoed Hilosh’s thoughts. Were these words, spoken across the coldness of space to a tiny mining operation of mostly Vaparozh, where only one person even understood their meaning, the final words of this Anthar Kai crewmember? “Why am I?” indeed, Hilosh thought, completing the sentence with “about to drop on you all like an emissary of death?” Hilosh had just about enough of the Raire and its ghosts.
“I think we’ve seen all that we need to here,” Hilosh said, trying to find a spot to focus on in this room without seeing death and not finding any.
“We still don’t know what happened.” Yarmar had knelt down by the corpse behind the comms panel and gently prodded its shoulder with the muzzle of the neural devastator.
“We can leave that to the Anthar Kai. We did what we needed to, which is check for survivors.” Hilosh wished he could whisper this to Yarmar, away from Charosar’s ears, but they were on a shared frequency. “Now’s not the time to satisfy our personal curiosity.”
“It’s not personal curiosity, Hilosh. Something actually brought down a ship full of Thorians. And you know they would sooner burn the Raire down than let anyone else know how or why.”
From the corner of his eye, Hilosh could see Charosar straighten-up at this suggestion.
“I know. I know if the Anthar Kai takes over, we’ll never know what happened here. But do you really want to know? What do you think they’ll do if they suspect we might have this knowledge? We’re a small group of Vaparozh out in Dead Space and they’ll have no problem making sure that no one will ever miss us. Is that want you want for our crew?”
For a while, Yarmar didn’t move, communing silently with the dead Thorian she’d been studying.
“We might have already seen too much,” Hilosh added.
“You’re right, you’re right,” Yarmar said finally, getting up. “Let’s get off the ship, and pretend we didn’t see anything. Charosar?”
“You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve dreamt of being in a room full of dead Thorians,” the engineer answered, “But now that I’m here, I’m not so sure how much I prefer them to the lives ones.”
They piled out of the communications room, and behind them, Yarmar shut the door over the arm of the body that either never fully made it in or out. It closed on the appendage with a gut-wrenching thump and Hilosh had to remind himself that they weren’t the ones responsible and were just putting everything back in its rightful, or in this case, wrongful, place.
At the sound of the metal clang ringing through the cargo hold of the Raire, the speaker in Hilosh helmet picked up Charosar’s groan.
“And now we need to go in there,” Yarmar said, ignoring the sentiment.
“Why? Why do we ‘need’ to go in there?” Charosar demanded, voice rising.
“Because there could be someone alive out there.”
“Yes, someone Thorian.”
They let Charosar stew for a minute, the heavy exhales whistling through their earpieces.
“I don’t like this any more than you do, Charosar,” Hilosh said, “but Yarmar is right. If there’s still anyone alive in there we need to help them.” As if to sound its agreement with what Hilosh was saying, the faint metallic clang rang again from the direction of the door leading out of the cargo hold. Charosar turned her head slightly towards it. Hilosh may not have not known much about people, but what he did know was that if this had involved anyone but the Thorians, Charosar would have been the first one prying those doors open even in the absence of any signs of life from the other side. Personally, he considered himself lucky to have had few interactions with them outside of Anthar Kai supply runs, yet it was enough to help him at least understand Charosar’s sentiment, though not necessarily agree with it.
“Alright,” Charosar said finally. “You better have a good grip on that thing, Yarmar.” She nodded in the direction of the neural devastator gun in Yarmar’s hands.
“Don’t worry about me, Cha,” Yarmar assured and led them away from the fallen Thorian. Just as they were about to round the corner, Hilosh took one last look at the body, a shadow amongst shadows. Whatever happened to them, it was a lonely death.
The door leading out of the cargo hold also gave way to the transfer station’s safety protocols and soon the three Vaparozh were in the Raire’s main corridors, no less gloomy than where they came from.
“Would it kill them to install a brightness switch or something?” Charosar grumbled, even though the glasses she was wearing allowed her to be the only one of the three to have the ability to see half-decently in that light. For most species, this level of illumination resembled twilight on the planet they’d evolved on. For the Vaparozh, however, with their eyes were built for the bright sun of their own homeworld, this environment posed a particular challenge. The Thorians had a tendency to make themselves at home anywhere they went, even if they only comprised a miniscule minority of the population of the planet or moon they were occupying. So despite the fact that most of them had small surgical implants in the bridge of their noses to attach the darkened glasses they carried off-world to protect themselves from brighter suns, they made sure most interior environments were catered to their sensibilities. It was this exact environment on Rosha Chot’hagh that destroyed Charosar’s eyesight to the point where she had to wear the ocular enhancing glasses that now made her the unspoken volunteer to lead them through the Raire. Yarmar was a half-step behind her with her finger a hair from the trigger of the neural devastator, and Hilosh was at the rear.
Their progress was slow, in large part due to none of them having the appetite for suddenly coming face-to-face with another gruesome sight. They walked cautiously, studying every door and dim corner for any signs of the corpse’s fellow crewmembers, and when they finally found one, it presented itself matter-of-factly, in a take-it-or-leave-it way, just sitting on the wall, at waist level, without commentary, as if they had to simply accept it, and move on about their day. It was a smear of blood, about the width of a palm and twice as long, dried on the corridor wall. They stared at it in silence, Hilosh not even bothering to imagine what the other two were thinking. The body they’d found in the cargo hold, though a body it was, had just been lying there as if to make a simple statement – here is a dead body. This smear, even though it lacked a corresponding body, represented evidence of violence. Gone was any hope that this was an environmental system malfunction that righted itself too late. This was tangible evidence that they’d hardly even scratched the surface of what happened on board the Raire.
As Hilosh grimly suspected, it was a sign of what was to come, as up ahead they found the continued blood trail – drops that here and there formed into dried pools, some of them streaked across the floor. Hilosh believed in his crew more than he believed in himself. He wanted to suggest they turn back, that they’d seen enough, that another Anthar Kai ship would come along to investigate, that the clanging sound that drew them in was probably some persistent mechanical malfunction. It would take some time but he could convince himself that it was alright to change his mind, to turn back knowing that fifteen minutes earlier he thought investigating was the right thing to do. The other two, even Charosar despite herself, would not likely be so easily persuaded. Hilosh was thankful to them for not hesitating and, like any good leader, he knew when to follow.
They’d followed the trail of blood up two levels, to the deck where the bridge was likely located, but there it disappeared abruptly, and they hadn’t heard the metallic clang for so long that they suspected it might have stopped altogether.
After a minute of standing motionless listening to the ship, it was Charosar who asked, “Should we turn back? This is a ghost ship if there ever was one.”
“A supply ship like this wouldn’t have had that much crew to begin with, so it’s not a surprise we haven’t seen anyone,” Yarmar replied, conveniently glossing over the one crewmember that they had seen. “We should at least check out the bridge, and then we can go.”
They both turned to face Hilosh – a decision like this required both co-supervisors to be on board – and he wasn’t about to be the one who chose to run.
“I think it makes sense to check as far as the bridge. Then we can head back to the surface so we can think about putting together a proper salvage run.” He added that last part for his own benefit, because it made him feel that much closer to being off the ship.
He wondered what his son, Rachek, would think of his father then. Rachek had a penchant for opinions lately – they burst out of him with a destructive force that leveled everything in their path. What would Rachek make of his father’s fear; his reluctance in the face of the unknown? He’d probably say something like “this is why we lost” – something weighty that meant a lot to Rachek, but left Hilosh feeling mostly empty, like the Thorians had built a wall between him and his son.
They never did make it to the bridge.
Up ahead of them stood the door to the comms room, the source of that initial call that Viri played for them back at the mining facility, and it was only partially closed, because blocking its way was an arm. Presumably, Hilosh thought, the arm would be attached to a body still inside the room, though he wasn’t sure if he preferred that to the arm being disembodied. Perhaps if they never went in, and he didn’t have to find out for sure, he could go on pretending there was nothing beyond the door at all.
Yarmar, though, moved forward with determination.
“What –” Charosar managed to start but against his instincts Hilosh walked past her after Yarmar and Charosar had to join them.
Nothing had changed since the last time they were at the transfer station – the Raire looked the same, still idle and pristine, docked into the station’s main loading port while their shuttle approached the smaller entrance on the opposite side. Inside the station, the panel by the airlock door that separated them from the Anthar Kai supply vessel indicated that there was nothing wrong with the atmosphere or the temperature in the Raire. Still, they opted for full-body environmental suits with their own oxygen supply before they attempted entry.
“Looks like everything’s docked properly,” Yarmar said as the enormous station-side door began to open to fit the dimensions of the Raire’s cargo door. “So as long as the Raire’s crew didn’t bypass any standard security protocols, which I wouldn’t put past them, we should be able to open the ship from this side.”
After a few more keystrokes and some ominous beeping, the seam in the Raire’s doors started to open and as the two halves slid part, it gave the three Vaparozh their first glimpse of the inside of the Anthar Kai ship’s cargo hold.
“Must be an all-Thorian crew,” Yarmar commented. The lighting inside the Raire resembled twilight with a slight red tint – not too dark to make out shapes but not optimal for climbing onto a starship with a mysteriously disappeared crew.
With the reddish colour and general dimness, the cavernous cargo compartment, which was five times their height and one of several that comprised the overall cargo space of the supply ship, looked like the open mouth of an enormous beast. The image had not made it any easier for Hilosh to take a step forward, but Yarmar headed in, neural devastator at the ready, so him and Charosar had no choice but to follow. They had to walk past rows of crates and large containers on the way to the door visible on the other side of the vast room.
“Keep an eye out for anything we might want to bring down to the surface.” Yarmar motioned in the direction of a refrigerated container, which may have been filled with consumable goods. It still didn’t sit fully right with Hilosh to be pilfering anything from the Raire, but having now been on the ship and seeing no signs of life, the idea started to become more palatable. Much to his annoyance, even salvage wasn’t going to be an easy task since most of the containers here were marked only with serial numbers. They’d either need to find a way to access the Anthar Kai ship’s manifest or go through each container with brute force. And this was only the top deck of the cargo hold, with several layers beneath their feet to scour. Going through the daunting task in his head only swelled the desire to find at least one survivor that could aid them in the search.
They had nearly made it to the door leading to the rest of the ship when they encountered the first of the crew.
All three of them almost walked by it, but an unusual dark shape between the crates caught Hilosh’s eye and made his knees buckle momentarily. Yarmar turned sharply at that, devastator pointing at the narrow space. The shape, however, was not moving, though it was clear to them that sometime previously, it would have been able to.
They approached slowly, and Hilosh wondered whether dragging the process out this way was better or worse for his twin hearts that seemed to be competing as to which one could beat the most desperately in his chest. There was a new kind of dread that filled him when they were close enough to distinguish the position the body was lying in – fetal, arms wrapped around its knees and head mostly tucked in. It was wearing the crisp black uniform of the Anthar Kai, with the silver buttons up the sleeves and short coattails on the back. Of the head, only the hair was visible, so it was difficult to tell whether they were Thorian, and no one was eager to move the body to confirm.
It’s not that Hilosh had never seen a dead body before. Working at mine sites and construction sites, there was no avoiding coming face to face with the aftermath of an accident. But there was a sense of obviousness about those incidents – a fall, getting crushed by machinery, malfunctioning equipment that exploded. Here, there was nothing clearly wrong with the victim – no blood, no visible injury, just the crumpled shell of something that used to be alive, now discarded like the outer skin of some insect or crustacean. There was nothing revolting about it, and their respirators would have dealt with any smell, but it left Hilosh feeling hollowed out. He turned away, and noticed for the first time the reactions of his crew – Charosar with the distant stare of someone who’d seen enough senseless death up close and Yarmar with her mouth slightly pursed, her eyes moving in small rapid motions.
“What do you think happened?” Yarmar asked, which made Hilosh worry that she would bend down and inspect the body.
“No idea,” Hilosh answered refusing to look back.
“I don’t know,” Charosar admitted, “Hands look weird though.”
At this, Hilosh looked over his shoulder in time to see Yarmar take a step forward and push with her boot against the corpse’s hand.
“They look shriveled, almost dried. And what’s that?” Yarmar’s nudge revealed busted darkened fingertips covered in what looked like dried blood.
“We should get out of here,” Charosar said, “We have access to the cargo, so we should just find what we need and go.”
“We need to find out what happened here,” Yarmar’s tone was even, like she was quoting from somewhere instead of speaking for herself.
“What more do we need to find out? They’re dead.” Now it was Charosar who turned around abruptly and walked back in the direction of the main passage between the containers. “The Anthar Kai will come pick up their ship eventually, there’s nothing else we can do.”
They’d all clearly heard it, as even Charosar stopped in her tracks and turned her head in the direction of the sound. Hilosh would never have imagined that within the silence that the curled-up body seemed to have enveloped them in, a single distinct metallic clang coming from deeper within the ship could invoke such terror.
The preparations for their return trip to the Raire passed with little fanfare and involved the same three individuals that had gone up to check on the transfer station earlier – Hilosh, Yarmar and Charosar – to match the number of environmental suits available on the shuttle. As for the rest of the crew, the departure time was chosen to coincide with when they’d already be retiring to their barracks, unaware of the shuttle’s liftoff, Yarmar and Hilosh figuring that no hopes can be dashed if they weren’t made to begin with.
The only thing that was truly different about this flight versus the one five days prior was the neural devastator gun they brought with them and whose presence was so heavy that it sat like a fourth passenger between Hilosh and Charosar on their ascent, as Yarmar had the controls of the shuttle.
“Have you ever used one of these things?” Hilosh asked, deciding to break the silence since the neural devastator didn’t seem to be interested in doing it.
“No,” Charosar answered, her hands clasped at her lap and eyes fixed intently on the weapon, “Been too close to one when it was though.” She leaned in and looked up at Hilosh. “On Rosha Chot’hagh.”
“Oh,” Hilosh straightened up, his hands stiff at his sides. “You were there when –”
“When the Shoaman Kai moved in? Yeah. Five hundred years we’ve had it, as far back as the Exodus. I’d grown up on neighbouring Dayuna, where my family moved from the homeworld around that same time.”
“Mine too, moved early in the Exodus far too close to Thorian space.”
“Tell me about it. We on Dayuna used Rosha Chot’hagh as a supply world all that time. So many of my family worked there over the centuries. Funny how you always think that whatever was there when you were born seems eternal. An easy assumption to make about something that’d been around for half a millennium. Especially since even though we’d officially become part of the Empire after the Last Gasp, they didn’t seem all that interested in us.”
“So what suddenly happened?” Hilosh asked. He’d been stationed on Rosha Chot’hagh early in his career, still had some former colleagues on there when it all went down.
“Who knows with Thorians?” Charosar said and let out a joyless chuckle. “Someone somewhere decided there needed to be more of them. We were just unlucky. Anthar Kai started shipping them onto Dayuna in droves. In one of her letters, my mom said that half her street had been relocated and replaced with them. Our new co-supervisors were both Thorian-educated Vaparozh who chose not to tell us that most of our shipments were now being directed to the Anthar Kai network instead of Dayuna and other nearby systems. They knew damn well we wouldn’t work as hard if we were feeding those bumpy headed sleaze balls, but we found out anyway, and acted accordingly.”
Hilosh wanted to say something but found his throat tight. He’d heard the rumours; it was only ever rumours when it came to the Shoaman Kai, the military enforcement branch of the Anthar Kai, the Thorian corporation that was responsible for running the fringes of its Empire.
“Our cowardly co-supervisors called it in. Couldn’t have been the Thorians since they prefer not to get their hands dirty when they can and didn’t actually have boots on the ground at the time. We were sitting one morning in the mess hall – the early crowd – when we see a flash outside the window. They targeted one of the workers’ barracks, disintegrated it right from orbit. A moment later the shockwave hit us, knocking out some windows and sending us into a panic. They’d already landed a battalion by that point, so when we rushed out of the dining hall, they yelled for us to stop, gave us no time to react, and fired. I was right in that second wave who would have been next if we hadn’t frozen in our tracks. I remember them reading us our rights, but hearing nothing, just watching the breath of the person lying under my feet. Their back rose and fell, and rose and fell, and never rose again, a slight twitch in their leg from their central nervous system disintegrating. Only other thing I remember is the smell. Not of blood or anything, these things don’t make you bleed, but they have their own smell. Smell of electrified evil.”
Her eyes drifted back to the weapon, and Hilosh’s followed hers and rested on the top of the gun, where underneath a plastic safety cover was the trigger, seeming to weigh more heavily than the whole gun itself.
“We’d been told we’re no longer at-will labourers, and that we were working fully in service to the Anthar Kai and its customers and shareholders, and given that the Vaparozh colonies out there were included as its customers, they assured us that we still technically worked for our own people. Only consolation was that there were now Thorians stuck there with us, though they were sure to remind us of their displeasure at this as often as possible. Those of us who were there at the beginning, fifteen years they kept us on Rosha Chot’hagh until the contracts we never actually signed supposedly expired. Still, despite all of that, I was mostly angry for the ones we lost on that first day. Just like that. Not even a chance to surrender, to weigh your options, to chose life or death. Just blinked out of existence. The ones that were left felt like we owed it to them to survive because we were at least given the opportunity to do so. For those of us who did make it to the end, the stipend that they gave us was barely enough to get to Dayuna and most had settled down on Rosha Chot’hagh by then, built a new town from scratch. Not me, I just wanted to get off. My mom though by then had moved as far away from the Thorians as she could – to the borders of Dead Space on a mostly Iastret colony. So I figured if I took this job, I could get a free ride to be closer, then make some proper Vaparozh money and move back in with her.”
“That sounds like a good plan.” What else was there to say? How did people generally know what to say in these situations, how many little noises of disbelief and sympathy did Hilosh need to make to sound caring, how many before he sounded disinterested?
“Well, dying here because an Anthar Kai ship’s life support failed wasn’t part of the plan. Hey,” Charosar put on a smile that seemed to Hilosh to be entirely too wide, “Looks like they managed to get me in the end.”
“We’re going to be docking in a few,” Yarmar called from the controls, the first sound that came from her since Charosar started speaking. They were practically in the same space, the cockpit separated from the seating area by a thin partition with a single door that remained open. How much did she hear, or was she simply too focused on her piloting to respond? “Once we get there, I think maybe I should handle the devastator.”
“Why?” Charosar asked, finally returning to her regular laid-back seating position that vaguely projected some kind of attitude. “You think I might blast whoever’s on that ship just for being Anthar Kai?”
“No, it’s because it seems like I’m the only one’s who’s actually fired a neural devastator before.”
“Of course you have.” The annoyance in Hilosh’s voice surprised even himself. “Did you by any chance learn to use it in the same place you learned Native Thorian?”
“I spent a few years in security work before being assigned here.” Hilosh appreciated Yarmar ignoring his outburst but nevertheless noted that she didn’t answer his question.
Yarmar told him told to sleep; told him that he wasn’t doing anyone any favours by dwelling on the ship that was floating silently above him. Hilosh knew she was right and even went so far as to listen to her. He would close the curtains in his office, crawl into the recessed cot underneath the overhanging shelf, roll up into three layers of blankets to keep the cold out, and stay awake for hours, thinking of nothing but the Raire.
The Anthar Kai supply vessel had sent out no more communications since the last transmission that consisted of mostly a lone voice repeating “Why am I?” in Native Thorian before cutting out. The ship arrived on schedule a day later and its automated systems allowed it to dock with the transfer station orbiting the inhospitable rock that was home to their mining operation and the almost sixty crew that worked there. It had now been there five days, without a single sign of life coming from the ship.
The mining crew knew that something was wrong when the deadline towards which they were pushing had come and gone and there was no word on how well they did against their quotas. What was worse, five days later there was still no word on food rations or increasing the temperature in the barracks, and their dinners were now a far cry from the breakfast that had fueled their labour spree a week earlier. That night, they had to bunk two to a bed to use body heat to fight against the further reduction in heat.
Yarmar estimated that they could last another month, maybe even two if they stretched a handful of the crew past their breaking point. Hilosh was not a fan of her grim math, which she simply dismissed as realistic. Unfortunately, what could not be factored into her math, realistic or otherwise, was the arrival of the next supply ship, as none had declared their mining world on their scheduled route yet.
On the second day after the Raire’s docking with the transfer station, Hilosh, Yarmar and Charosar took the shuttle up to get a closer look at the supply ship. It was a typical long-haul freighter – a great bulbous body attached to a smaller command centre at the front, all properly docked at the transfer station with no visible signs of damage or anything out of the ordinary.
When the three Vaparozh docked with the station, they discovered it empty, the path to the Anthar Kai ship never having been opened. They banged on the doors of the Raire and heard no response back; tried to beam a message directly with a personal tablet and were met with similar silence. For a moment, Hilosh did think that he heard something, a distant scratching sound, though after a while the other two decided it was likely an auditory hallucination brought on by wishful thinking and they called it a day. Walking back to the shuttle, through the fruits of their labour stacked high and ready to load onto the supply ship that would have delivered the product a step closer to its final destination, they dragged their feet as if carrying the silence like sackfuls of ore.
The trip was not entirely a waste. As the shuttle descended towards the silvery cloud cover, Hilosh craned his neck to see the light of the sun one last time. It may have been a dim affair, this being the fourth planet in the system, but it was starlight after all.
They didn’t speak the whole flight back, even as the shuttle landed on the platform adjacent to the mining operation, as if the deathly silence from the Raire had wormed its way into their own heads and they brought it down to the surface. There was a tunnel that led straight from the landing pad to the barracks, one that docked against the shuttle’s exit ramp, to allow for passage without the need to put on atmospheric gear. Hilosh and Yarmar let Charosar go ahead of them and hung back at the shuttle.
“She’s going to talk the moment she gets back,” Yarmar said as she stood leaning with an arm against the door of the shuttle, watching Charosar disappear down the passageway.
“I don’t doubt it,” Hilosh answered and reached with both hands behind his head to massage the mass of flesh that rested there. “They’re going to want to know what happened to the ship.”
“And we know about as much as they do. So what are we going to say to them?”
“What can we say?” Hilosh walked by Yarmar down the ramp and the co-supervisor followed behind.
“We tell them to keep working,” Yarmar suggested and Hilosh glanced over his shoulder at her. “There’s plenty of storage space left on the transfer station, and another ship will be by at some point. That way we can be ready and keep them occupied enough to keep their mind off things.”
“It might be another month before the next supply ship gets here. How will we feed the crew if we keep them working?”
“I’m sure whatever we can salvage from the Raire will be more than enough.”
Hilosh stopped, his hand frozen midway through setting the shuttle ramp to close up again, and stared at his co-supervisor. There were all sorts of death wishes rolled into this scenario, but the one that came to him most prominently had a Thorian face on it.
“Yarmar, it’s bad enough we already have a dead Anthar Kai ship docked overhead that we can’t account for. Now you want to break into it as well? That’s how you get the Shoaman Kai here before we can even blink twice.”
“Good,” she said, her voice even, “Maybe they’ll also bring supplies.”
Hilosh wanted nothing to do with the Raire. If it was up to him, he’d have the transfer station undock itself and give the Anthar Kai vessel a good shove towards the star, then pretend it was never here. In the end, he struck a compromise with Yarmar. They would have the crew work half shifts for five days, and if at the end of that time nothing had changed with the Raire, and the next supply ship wasn’t yet scheduled to arrive within an acceptable time frame, they were going to board the ship.
And now that day had come.
“Well,” Dr. Sufai continued, “I don’t know if this particular taishir is going to fall out, but …” she stepped out of the patient room and into the main medbay area, programming something into a machine that a few seconds later produced a medical syringe. She finished her sentence as she came back inside, “but we can at least try to do what we can to make sure it doesn’t. Hold still.” Almost painlessly the needle went into Mikarik’s arm next to the taishir and after she’d pulled it out, he could feel an uncomfortable cold sensation spreading up his forearm. “How does that feel?”
“Weird,” he said, rubbing the area even though it had no effect on the mixed sensation of pain and numbness entangled within his arm.
“You’re going to have discomfort for a few hours, but you need to come back every day for the next four days so that we can prevent any infection and strengthen the muscle so it gets a tighter hold of that taishir again.” Mikarik had hoped to be done with the doctor indefinitely, but those tales of lost taishir meant he wasn’t going to take any chances.
“Anything else you want to tell me about?” Dr. Sufai asked and when Mikarik looked into her eyes, he saw in them the same penetrating darkness of the medical scanner.
“There’s my back … I guess.” He made the laziest movement to reach behind him to point out the problem but she interrupted.
“I know, I already saw it.”
“Just some deep bruising. There’s a cream I can give you before you go. Use that topically and you’ll be fine in a few days.” For a moment she seemed entirely too pleased with getting that out of him, but then a cloud drifted over her face. “That was quite the fight you were all involved in. And as ship doctor I actually prefer when it’s quiet around here.” Mikarik was about to shrug nonchalantly but her next question stopped him. “So why did you let it get that far?”
“What do you mean ‘I let it’?” It was almost amusing to imagine what kind of twisted version of events the other three have been spreading about what went down in the galley that night.
“Well I’ve read your file.” Her voice, which until then carried with it a breezy aloofness, had grown more serious, complemented by her dark eyebrows crowding into a furrow.
“You know, it would be really nice if someone shared with me this secret Mikarik file that’s apparently the preferred choice of leisurely reading on this ship.”
“Why didn’t you tell them what you did after you deserted? That you fought for the Nabak?”
Not for the Nabak, but for those two words – blockade runner – and what they meant to him.
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” Mikarik said, looking at his hands as he buttoned up his sleeve.
“Why wouldn’t it have?”
“Because they weren’t fighting me, they were fighting a Thorian. So what I’d personally done would make no difference to them. And besides, what I did or didn’t do three years ago doesn’t change the fact that I still wear my Thoriannes on my sleeve.” He held up his arm and gave it a little shake, which failed to get a laugh or a smile out of Dr. Sufai. “What I mean is, I’m still Thorian. Those are still my people.”
“And you see yourself that way even though you fought them during the Insurrection?”
“That’s not entirely true. I never fired on my people.” He was fully dressed by then, fully medicated except for the cream she’d promised. He could have left the conversation, but found himself continuing to sit on the edge of the bed.
“What did you do then?”
“Got goods through siege lines.” The ship rose and disappeared into the clear sky, as it should have done that day until it didn’t. For years the fireball had not appeared to him in his memories. And now twice in a few days. “Let’s just call it a family tradition.”
“I’m guessing there’s a whole lot more to that story.”
“Maybe for some other time, Dr. Sufai,” Mikarik said, hopping off the bed, surprised to find that he meant it more than he thought he would.
“Ah, that name still sounds weird.” The doctor went ahead of him to grab his other medication from the dispensary machine before he headed out.
“You haven’t been a doctor for long then?” Mikarik asked, a notch more skeptical of his treatment.
“No, I’ve been fully trained for almost ten years now.” She handed him his cream, her hands still wearing her gloves. “The name just doesn’t fit. My mom had always been ‘Dr. Sufai’, and anywhere but inside this office I’m just Ory. So hopefully the next time we run into each other won’t be here, but in the galley. You should sit with Aimi and me.”
“Not sure if Chief Ishikawa would be too pleased with that.”
“Oh you’d be surprised how much she –”
There was a crack of dulled thunder that reached them through the walls of the medbay and in the next moment the ship lurched, sending Mikarik forward, bracing against the wall with his hurting arm, while Dr. Sufai was knocked backwards, hitting her head on a wall and almost falling to the floor but catching herself.
“You okay?” Mikarik asked, offering his hand.
“I’m fine,” she answered and ignored his gesture. In the glow of the red lights that now flashed along the seem between the wall and the ceiling, gone was the warm friendly demeaner that was there moments earlier, her face now showing the same kind of edge as the sirens that blared throughout the ship.
“We’re moving already,” he observed; early, by his estimates.
“I know.” Dr. Sufai peeled off her gloves and dumped them in a receptacle before picking up a new pair and pulling them on. The intercom sounded and Mikarik tapped it for her.
“Dr. Sufai, this is Officer Meslina.”
“Doctor … you have incoming.”
Mikarik did as Dr. Sufai told him, stretching out the length of the patient bed, hardly realizing then how it would be far from the last time. Dr. Sufai again scooted closer on her wheeled stool and reached down below the table to pull out a glossy black arc, about the width of a hand, and after raising it over Mikarik, clipped it to the other side of the table. Mikarik stared up at his faint reflection in its smooth surface for a few moments before the arc started slowly gliding down the track in the table towards his legs, while the doctor rolled herself away to the computer display in the corner of the room.
“Hmm,” Doctor Sufai murmured several times as the machine did its work, at its core the same kind of black droplet that powered the ship, though this one the size of a large grain of sand.
“Everything looking good?” Mikarik asked after a fourth such “hmm”.
“Well, it’s not like your people exactly like sharing your detailed medical information, but as far as I can tell, your head will be just fine. There does seem to be something going on in your arm area. Mind if I take a look?”
“It’s nothing really.” Mikarik hadn’t come here to be scrutinized in this level of detail, but at least his back hadn’t caught her eye.
“Please, for my curiosity’s sake,” she asked, rolling into his field of vision. He agreed and she waited for the scanner to reach his toes before disconnecting the machine and letting him sit up. He didn’t have to take off his shirt to reveal his arm, since in typical Thorian fashion his sleeves were buttoned up with hard dome-shaped buttons all the way past the elbow. Meanwhile, she’d rolled to her desk and back, grabbing a pair of surgeon’s goggles and putting them on.
As he pulled back his sleeve, he exposed the four stubby bony structures rising out from his skin along the outer part of his forearm. Once in the not-so-distant evolutionary past, they were legitimate bony blades, several inches in length and with a significant point to them. Along with their skulls, they were once used by prehistoric Thorian ancestors to determine which of them was worthy of carrying their genes into the next generation. With the advent of Thorian collective consciousness, the point in their pre-history that Thorians considered themselves to have been elevated above all other creatures, the need to carry these specific genes lessened, and now the former deadly weapons lived on only in media entertainment set in Kai Thori’s brutal past, and as remaining vestigial bone structures, which still included some tactile sensitivity, and were used to manually operate technology affixed to their arms, a set-up that in turn formed the basis of most Thorian weaponry, thus completing the full circle of their original evolutionary function.
It was one of these bone spurs that was causing Mikarik the most grief – tender to the touch and bruised purple, it continued to ooze more than just blood. He studied Dr. Sufai’s slightly open-mouthed stare.
“It’s fatal, isn’t it?” He asked.
“What? Oh, sorry,” she looked up and seemed startled at how close she’d gotten. “Like I said, Thorian medical information isn’t an easy find, so it’s my first time seeing these …”
“Right. May I?” Mikarik lifted his elbow slightly in her direction and Dr. Sufai took his arm in two gloved hands, turning it this way and that, adjusting some settings on her surgeon’s goggles, presumably to increase the magnification. She pressed one finger against the tip of the affected taishir and a pain surged through Mikarik’s arm and elbow and up into his neck, causing him to wince with a barely audible grunt. “Sorry about that,” the doctor said distractedly, just as she pressed the taishir in the opposite direction causing the same sensation. “Sorry,” she repeated, this time more earnestly and actually making eye contact.
“It’s fine,” Mikarik answered, feeling more and more exposed as Dr. Sufai conducted her examination.
“These are so interesting, you know?”
“Never thought of them as anything more interesting than my thumbs.”
“Thumbs are interesting, too. But lots of us have thumbs. These … I’ve seen them in anatomy books, obviously, but it’s a whole other thing to see them up close.” Again, there was nothing comfortable for Mikarik about seeing himself as a living and breathing anatomy illustration. “It’s very neurologically sensitive, but I guess you know that better than I do. Yet if I remember right, they’re used in combat by your ancestors.”
“That’s right.” She went back to the computer, pulling up an image of Mikarik’s completed scan and focusing in on the damaged taishir. “The connection from these taishir into your arm and your central nervous system, just from a biological perspective, it’s really fascinating. It looks like this one though can be a little loose in its socket.”
“That sounds bad.”
“It doesn’t sound good, I guess. But hard to say how bad it is.”
“I hear they can fall out if they get roughed up too much.” Mikarik was somewhat surprised at suddenly discovering this hypochondriac side to himself. He’d generally been in pretty good health, and despite some of the risks he’d taken over the years, tended to steer clear of injury. So maybe it was the novelty of the experience that gave him the jitters, or possibly the insurmountable distance between him and nearest Thorian doctor who actually knew what they were doing. Or even that, on the whole, he was starting to reach the age were things were no longer running at full efficiency. At his age he was at least a decade younger physically than the average comparable Human, but this was the time where he could no longer expect to be as hardy as he was at the height of his youth. It was in that moment that he decided that he generally did not like doctors.
The Forseti returned to its usual hustle and bustle a few days after Mikarik’s confrontation with the two Humans and the Nabak in the ship’s galley, and the next day the ship docked with Yshot Station on the edges of the Iastret Commonwealth, with the intent of being out of sight of both friend and foe alike. Mikarik spent all that time in his quarters. He figured that if he were to at least give the impression that he was off licking his wounds, it would give the rest of them some added satisfaction without any additional cost to him.
Still, even his thick Thorian skull could only take so much abuse before he started feeling the ill effects and he was not so stubborn that he would unequivocally refuse to see a doctor. In any case, the ship’s doctor, Ory Sufai, struck him as one of the more reasonable members of the Human species.
He picked the timing for his medical visit to coincide with the docking at Yshot Station. While the transfer here wouldn’t involve any crew boarding the station for time off or a change of scenery, the expectation being that they would only load the supplies necessary for the remainder of their journey and cast off as soon as possible, it should have made the maintenance crew, engineers and officers busy enough to pay little attention to Mikarik’s own activities. Mikarik may not have had too much pride that he would avoid heading to the medbay entirely, but that was no reason for him to be seen doing it by anyone but the doctor, and surely Humans had similar oaths of confidentiality that the Thorians’ own medical professionals took.
It was an odd sensation, being enveloped in silence after weeks of the hum that filled the ship as it skimmed along the surface subspace. Mikarik was one of the few who’d claimed that he actually felt this low vibration, a sound and feeling just above his level of perception, though a number of crewmates over the years had told him it was all in his head. Sure, everyone felt the occasional jolt when a ship was flying on sub-light thrusters. Skimming along the edge of subspace and regular space, on the other hand, was supposed to evoke nothingness – the great void before there was even a universe.
It wasn’t nothing to Mikarik, though. Then again, most people also failed to perceive the moods in the drops that powered that skimmer to begin with and he wondered if this connection he experienced is what moved into the hole left by his inability to hear the mood of his own species.
As he walked down the corridors of the Forseti towards medbay, Mikarik ran his fingers along its walls, the wood grain just out of reach of his touch, separated by a thin film of preserving plastic. He admitted that the windows were a nice touch, and surprisingly realistic for a video screen. His fellow Thorians would have likely found them tacky as any wall decorations on Thorian ships were limited to light screens meant to simulate the Thorian sun streaming in through opaque glass, while the freighters he’d been on chose the “metal coffin” aesthetic. On the Forseti, though, they were flying over some lush deep green forests, possibly on Earth, though at other times he’d recognized Mrabr and the now-pristine wilderness of Vaparozh.
When Mikarik entered the Forseti’s medbay, a round open space with six private rooms radially adjacent to it, he could see Dr. Sufai through the glass window to her tiny office whose entrance was at the far right of the main room. She had been staring intently, almost angrily, at the tablet on her desk as she twirled a pen in her hand and looked up almost at the exact moment he popped his head into the medbay. The intense expression on her face melted away, replaced by a smile that seemed to go out of its way to hide her teeth.
“Mr. Mikarik, how can I help you today?”
“‘Mikarik’ is fine.” What was it with Humans and trying to slap a label on everything? A name was a name and that should have been enough.
“Right, sorry, habit.” She stepped out of her office, wiped her palms on her shirt and extended her right hand in the customary Human greeting, which Mikarik returned.
“Come in, please,” Dr. Sufai gestured in the general direction of the patient rooms. Mikarik took a hesitant step forward as her small wave covered at least three of them. “Oh, whichever one, it doesn’t matter,” she clarified and Mikarik split the difference by choosing the middle one. “Sit, please,” Dr. Sufai waved at the cot while she herself pulled up a small rolling stool. Mikarik lowered himself on the bed, which was soft yet somehow stern, a patient bed meant to be comfortable but also easy to clean. He could hardly remember the last time he was at a doctor’s office, likely for a checkup during his last few months at the Navy, which would have put it at almost four years ago. There was something always so awkward about the process, more so when you were out of practice and even more when you couldn’t just leave the doctor behind you in their office and had to co-exist with them in closed quarters for an indefinite period of time.
“So,” Dr. Sufai was sitting on the stool, her hands in her lap, one hand holding onto the thumb of the other one, “What’s troubling you?” It was actually a trifecta that was bothering him, but Mikarik thought he’d keep to just one, which, upon later reflection, he shamefully had done to appear more gritty.
“It’s my head, actually,” he winced, though he experienced no new pain up there.
“Really? And I’d heard that Thorian skulls were practically indestructible.” She scooted her stool closer to him.
“‘Practically’ being the operative word here.” Mikarik raised his hand to pull back hair that now reached down to his brow but was normally combed back, and revealed the bruise that crept all the way up under his hairline.
“Wow.” Dr. Sufai leaned in closer, her right eye half-closed, and gently ran her fingers over the bruise, “That’s quite the disagreement you must have gotten yourself into.”
“You should’ve seen the other guys,” Mikarik said with a crooked smile.
“Mmm-hmm,” the doctor murmured, pushing back in her chair and putting her hands on her knees, “I have. How do you think I’ve heard about the sturdiness of a Thorian skull?”
“I see.” Mikarik wasn’t sure why he was suddenly so embarrassed about the incident now that he was under the doctor’s gaze, when up until a minute ago he would have worn the scuffle as a badge of pride. In any case, that smile of his was now in retreat. “How is Officer Meslina’s leg?” He asked when he found nothing else to say.
“She’ll have to wear a brace for the next week, but otherwise she should heal just fine.”
“And the other two?”
“Concussions for both, but they’ll also recover. I would say it was getting too lonely here before your fight, though it’s never good news when I’m woken up early from stasis.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Oh it’s fine. It’s what I’m here for. Now lie down for me please.”
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.