Chapter 66: In Ship
27 August 3076, 5:00 Standard Time (ST), Sixth Federal Era
Theo unfastened her security harness with a shaky left hand. Outside the porthole, Eridan was a dark blue ball spinning fast into space.
Declan, Washone and Ashta had united and forced her to leave.
Now, her future loomed uncertain and scary.
She pressed her left hand against her forehead to drive out a thriving migraine. As a shield against despair, she would store away her memories about Eridan, forget Evetha. She would be Theo Maddiogga again, always on the run, forever lonely.
“I’ll see about our cabins,” the SpaceSS agent said. “Wait for me here. I’ll be right back.”
Her bones and muscles seemed to have melted into a lump of exhaustion. Her temperature rose; her wounded hand hurt; her legs tingled. She stretched them one after the other.
The SpaceSS agent laughed with the male receptionist. He glanced her way, he talked some more, and finally he crouched beside her.
“There’s been a space storm. Passengers from another ship will board ours. One of our cabins has been requisitioned. So we’ll share the other until Nuong.”
She was too tired to care. She wanted to lie down, sleep and forget.
He grabbed her backpack. Clenching her teeth, she stood up. Her legs shook so hard that she gripped the seat, unable to contain a moan when her bandaged right hand brushed her side.
He grasped her elbow. “This way.”
“Don’t touch me!” She wiped her face. “I’m not an invalid.”
He shrugged and she followed him slowly.
Their cabin was on the upper deck. He pressed a cherry-shaped card to unlock the door. Like an automaton, she staggered through the large room to the bunk bed, noticing the dirty red carpet and matching old curtain in front of a blind porthole.
She must do something before giving in to sleep, something important.
The sheet under her body tautened as the SpaceSS agent sat beside her, holding a glass. He helped her drink. The typical ship-acid water taste revived acrid memories. She lay back down. She blinked.
He stood up. His face remained blurry.
“You can sleep now.”
“Declan said I should trust you. I can’t. You’re too good-looking. Don’t touch me, or you’ll regret it.”
Had he chuckled? Sleep engulfed her.
She woke up slowly. Eyes closed, she assessed her state: no longer feverish, lingering fatigue in her back and limbs.
Beside her, huddled in a winged armchair, a man slept. Her heart fluttered before she remembered who he was.
The SpaceSS agent.
Hate had frosted Declan’s eyes when she said she loved him. How could she have been so wrong?
She smothered her shame; she squelched its stinging memory.
She sat up. Her right hand throbbed. The SpaceSS agent had changed her bandage during her sleep, removed her grime-encased sandals, pulled a crisp clean blanket over her.
His head rested on his folded arm. An unshaven white cheek; locks of black hair hid the rest of his face. She couldn’t recall his features. Her last clear-cut memories revolved around her mental clash with Keith and talking to Declan in his bubflat.
She spread a blanket over the sleeping man. When she emerged an hour later from the bathroom, he was snoring, his head thrown back. She gobbled the nuts scattered on the nightstand and drank the contents of a soya fizz bottle. The bubbly and spicy drink whet her appetite. A glance inside the fridge confirmed what she had surmised: empty.
Not wanting to wake up the poor agent from his obviously much-needed slumber, she grabbed a wad of fedgads from her backpack, slid the cabin card inside a pocket and left.
She easily got her bearings. Nothing resembled a passenger spaceship more than another one: cafeterias, restaurants and pubs occupied the starboard side; sports facilities, gaming rooms and hypernet comps the port side. In the cafeteria, empty at this late afternoon hour, she chose the cheapest dish, a cluexxan roast with rice and three slices of a honey and dried-fruit cake. She drank two glasses of apple sissli. She battled her way through her meal, fighting tears each time she remembered Eridan. She clutched her fork; she chewed and forced food down. Fun, friendship, adventures. It was all over. To overcome this new, shattering disillusionment, she must resume her old survival habits.
The sooner the better.
“Where were you?” The SpaceSS agent stood away from the embedded wall-computer which showed the ship layout. “You’re not allowed to leave this cabin without my permission.”
She clasped the bags from her errands, taking in his disheveled hair, crumpled shirt, shean pants and bare feet.
“Well? Don’t you realize how dangerous it is for you to stroll around this ship?”
Her mouth dried up.
“You don’t have anything to say?” A muscle jumped in his cheek. “Still determined to pretend I don’t exist?”
She had hoped he would understand on his own why she had given him the cold shoulder since Declan had introduced him to her.
Subtlety wasn’t his strong suit.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you a fugitive? Isn’t there a price on your head?”
She gripped her bags tighter. What did he know about her? Washone’s betrayal stung.
“You’re in danger until we reach Earth Metropolis and eliminate whatever information is floating around about you. Your disappearance for a year doesn’t mean that hired gunmen have forgotten about you. This ship is exactly the kind of place they roam to find clues about missing people …”
He was right. She had acted like a fool. How could she forgive herself?
“Well?” His voice escalated a notch. “Will you answer me? Where were you? Who saw you? Who did you talk to?” In three hurried strides, he joined her, not quite as tall as she was, with a lean, nervous body. And his mother had never taught him to smile. “You’d better stop your little game fast because I’m not in the mood to accept this kind of behavior.”
She could not admit her foolishness to a stranger.
“I was famished. I didn’t … I thought …” She looked away from his piercing blue eyes. “I’m sorry. I forgot …”
“You’re sorry?” His chuckle mortified her. “You forgot?”
“You couldn’t possibly understand!”
“Ah, yes. I’m the stupid guy.”
“I said I was sorry!” She threw her bags at him. He stepped back to catch one while the other crashed to the floor. A bottle of freshly pressed apple sissli rolled out, opened and flooded the carpet.
“Damn it! Stay here!”
She rushed out of the cabin and hid inside the first recess to her right, beside a staircase.
Jack checked the corridor: the woman had disappeared. He slammed his fist against the wall and re-entered.
He picked up the boxes scattered on the floor: except for apple sissli, she liked the same junk food he did.
What a lousy handling! At least he’d gotten her to speak. No scorn. Just real distress.
He must find her, patch things up and hope for the best.
Four hours later, he admitted that she hadn’t forgotten her fugitive habits: she had hunkered down. Since she had their cabin key, he asked the tired-looking woman at the reception for a replacement.
“You’re in luck.” She handed him the key. “A ship guard brought it back to me a couple hours ago.”
“Thanks. Do you know where he found it?”
“A space junkie stole it. Mr. Wong wants to see you, to press charges. His office is on level 5, room 914. The lift next to the sports facility takes you straight down.”
The cabin was brightly lit when he opened the door. He called her name. A message propped up against the soya fizz bottle on the nightstand caught his eye.
Dear Sir—she had scrawled—Thank you for traveling to Eridan to get me, and for helping my friends in The Towers. Thank you for caring for me while I was sick. We should now each go our own way. I release you from the word you gave the kwirimok about me. You were right to be angry. What I did this morning was totally irresponsible. Sincerely, Theo Maddiogga.
Finding her would be an interesting challenge.
First, he needed to question the space junkie. He’d noticed the hooded man crouching in the dark corner of the main karaoke pub, hidden beneath his overlarge Exploplan jacket. Stories about those bums abounded, modern versions of Icarus’s fall.
Jack had experienced the inebriating sensation of spatial flight in apnea several times during his youth. He pitied the clipped-winged former divers who hadn’t stopped in time and ended their lives on civilian ships—mediocre substitutes for the exhilarating dive at the prow of a spatial exploration ship.
When he reached level 5, a curly-haired, gum-popping young ship guard walked him to room 914. Nothing surprising inside: stained walls plastered with posters of nude women, antiquated computers, cigarette butts spilling out from ashtrays, crushed cups, mold-covered glasses, metallic chairs, loud and crude music.
At far end of the room, a figure hunched up in a cell corner.
A squat man with a sports-combat-flattened nose waved a limp hand from the chair where he sprawled. “Come in, mister …”
A third ship guard stood beside him. He had sparse brown hair, and a scar cut his face in two. Sweat stained his armpits. He grinned like an idiot as he rocked back and forth on his heels.
“Budrock, Kane Budrock.” Jack stepped into the room. “I’m here about my cabin key. The one that Mr. Wong found in a space junkie’s hands.”
“I’m Mr. Wong.” A fourth guard with a belly about to pop out of his shirt straightened in his chair. “We got your thief. A stowaway.” He pointed at the cell.
Jack recognized the karaoke pub junkie.
The scarred guard hitched his trousers with his thumbs. “It wasn’t easy getting your key back. The bum said it belonged to him, but he couldn’t provide any ID.”
Flat-Nose rummaged on his desk. “Papers are ready for you to press charges. You’ll need to sign them.”
“I want to talk to him.”
“What for?” The gum-chewer leaned against the door.
Jack waited by the cell. After a long minute, Mr. Wong threw his key ring to Scar-Face, who opened the gate.
Jack stopped him. “I’ll talk to him alone.”
“He doesn’t look frightening to me.”
“I’ll stay here if you need me.”
Jack squatted beside the junkie, whose knees were pressed against his chest, his right hand inside his heavy Exploplan jacket, his left arm folded over his bowed head.
“Hey, I’m not here to hurt you. I won’t press charges. I need to know where you found the key.”
The junkie did not answer.
“Help me and I’ll help you.”
A slight movement. Had he heard a moan?
“This guy is doped up. You won’t get anything out of him,” Scar-Face called from the threshold. “Time’s up.”
“I haven’t finished yet.” He turned to the junkie. “Don’t worry. It’s only a key. Will you look at me?”
The junkie lowered his arm.
“Stella Zadar, Theodan!” Jack used the name he and Farren had invented for their guest. “What happened to your face?”
She bowed her head. Riding on his rage, he stood up. “What happened here? You’ve made a dreadful mistake.”
He helped the woman to her feet.
“Can you walk?” He didn’t like her subdued expression. She gripped his arm fiercely. Her face was a mess: a swollen eye, marks on her cheeks, dried blood across her mouth.
They stopped in front of Mr. Wong. “This so-called junkie is my nephew. And I’ll press charges against you.”
Mr. Wong buttoned his shirt. “Calm down, sir.”
“You’re telling us that a whitie like you belongs to his family?” Flat-Nose asked, joining them.
Theo’s head jerked up. Jack exerted a soft pressure on her hand.
“What did you say?”
Flat-Nose opened his mouth. Scar-Face cut him off. “He’s right. There’s no family resemblance.” He held out his hand with authority. “Show me some identification.”
Jack eyed the five ship guards surrounding them. “Do I need to remind you that this is an inter-federal civilian ship? Nothing obliges us to show you any kind of ID so long as we are in space. My nephew told you that the key belonged to him. Why not believe him?”
“He’s a space junkie.”
“He’s much too young to be one. Did you look at his face before knocking him about?” He turned towards Theo. “Where’s your backpack?”
“They took it.”
He hated her raw, defeated voice.
“Mr. Wong? Give it back to us. Now.”
“There’s no backpack,” Scar-Face said.
Jack smiled. “They’re getting into more trouble.”
“Look at them, holding each other. I say the junkie is his boyfriend, not his nephew!”
In other circumstances, he would have stroked her back to provoke Flat-Nose. But she needed immediate care. He flashed his SpaceSS badge. “This should get you to hurry up.”
This pack of mediocre bullies reacted the way that everyone did when they recognized SpaceSS’s red octagon. Scar-Face pulled Theo’s backpack from behind a desk and Flat-Nose removed a wallet from a drawer. Honey dripped from Mr. Wong’s chubby dimples when he explained that this arrest had obviously been a tragic error.
Jack chuckled at their pitiful attempts to placate him. On their way out, he threatened them with a report to the Regulation Transport Service in Nuong.
Inside their cabin, she collapsed on the bunk bed.
“Why did you go after me? Didn’t you read my note?”
He removed his jacket, grabbed a glass and a bottle of apple sissli, and pulled the winged armchair next to the bed.
“I don’t want to be your problem. I’m sorry.”
“I’m the one who must apologize. Not you.” He handed her a glass of apple sissli.
“Thanks.” She took a tentative sip. “I thought dressing up would help. I traveled this way for months.”
“On civilian ships?”
“Travel companies implemented new rules about space junkies six months ago.”
“When I put on my Exploplan jacket, it was as if I was the old Theo again.” She shrugged and winced. “It was stupid. You were right. I acted foolishly. I never expected to be the ship guards’ target.” She shuddered.
“I need to check on you.”
“You’re not and you can’t stay like this. Where did they hit you, besides your face?”
“My back and here.” She showed her chest.
“You’ll have to undress.”
“In front of you?”
“I’d let you do it on your own if you could. But you can’t.”
In the bathroom, he wrung two washcloths under hot water and took his medikit. She hadn’t moved. He set everything on the nightstand and sat beside her.
“I’ll do everything I can not to hurt you. Your face first.”
He washed away grime and blood, then disinfected her bruises.
“You’ll have a big shiner in a couple hours.”
She sucked in air when he touched the side of her head.
“Don’t pay attention to me. Do what you have to do.”
“You have an ugly cut behind your ear. I need to put in a few sutures.”
She gripped the mattress with her left hand while he worked. She tensed once or twice but never made a sound.
“There, it’s done.” Her silence grated on his nerves. “It can’t have been easy to pass for a man.”
“I shaved my head and darkened my skin. This Exploplan jacket protected me. I felt secure.”
He unclipped her jacket and helped her out of it.
“Don’t throw it away!”
“Of course not.”
He hung it in the narrow closet by the bathroom. She wore a long-sleeved jersey.
“Now, your back.” He rolled up her shirt, surprised at the new—and old—marks which marred her skin: they reminded him of the faded welts scarring his own body. Her courage humbled him, made him feel as naked as she was. His hands shook as he fingered her ribcage beneath the cloth awkwardly wrapped around her chest.
“Take it off if it’s easier.”
“Did passengers pick on you when you traveled before?” His voice sounded hoarse to his own ears as he unrolled the cloth.
“I never went by unnoticed. But I could easily spot troublemakers. I avoided them. When it was impossible, I confronted them. I was in good shape back then. Not like now.”
“You got into fistfights?”
She glanced at him over her shoulder, a smile lurking on her lips.
“I’m fast with a knife.”
“It was a brave yet dangerous thing to do.”
“It did the trick. Afterwards they left me alone.”
“Your jacket and the cloth protected you well. You don’t have any cracked or bruised ribs. It will sting, though, when I disinfect you.”
She was as tough as a soldier. He imagined that she gritted her teeth to keep silent.
“You never answered. Why did you come after me? I released you from your word.”
He put salve on all her bruises. When he was finished, he helped her into one of his shirts.
“Why did you come after me?” she repeated. “I was awful to you.”
He sat beside her again and this time picked up her right hand. He cut the bandage. Drops of sweat covered her forehead. She whimpered as he unglued the gauze from her wound.
“You need a painkiller shot. I’ll get one from the infirmary.”
“No, please. I don’t want any shot. I’ll be fine.”
Anger washed over him as he examined her swollen hand. “Tell me what happened with the ship guards.”
“When I saw you in the karaoke pub, I was sure you were looking for the cabin key.”
“I was worried about you, dimwit, not the damn key!”
“You looked upset. I was about to give it to the barman for safekeeping when Mr. Wong noticed me. I tried to hide it. He jumped me. He claimed I’d stolen it. I didn’t want to give it to him.”
“It would have meant admitting I stole it. I’m not a thief.”
“It gave them a reason to beat you up.”
She tugged at her hand. He held on to it gently. “It’s not that simple.”
“The ship guards didn’t win. Thanks to you, they lost everything. You were great back there.”
“Which one stepped on your hand?”
She shrugged. “The one with the heaviest boot.”
“I don’t have enough medical training to take care of your hand. I’m afraid I’ll hurt you more.”
Head held high, back straight, she faced him. “Clean the wound, use your spray and salve, put a splint to keep the fingers straight, wrap a bandage around my hand, and that should be enough. It’s only broken.”
She was one of a kind.
“This kind of fracture hurts a lot. There’s nothing in my medikit strong enough to help.”
“I want to feel the pain. I need it.”
She hesitated. “Leaving Eridan the way I did, against my will, is a hardship. I was happy over there.” She smiled sadly. “I had friends. They were like family. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back or see them again, and that hurts. When I had the fever, I couldn’t stop you from tending me. Now, it’s different.” She raised her trembling right hand. “I need the pain to accept the reality of what’s happening to me, to control my emotions. Without it, I’ll fall apart. Do you understand?”
He nodded, even though he didn’t share her point of view. He had been abused growing up. He knew all about pain. He had thought for a long time that he would never get rid of it.
However, everybody carried his burden his own way. He wouldn’t have made it alone. Farren had been the one to heave him out of a bottomless hole. Without his love, his bright presence, he would have acted up and died.
“All right. No medicine, but on one condition: we ask the nurse to put a splint on your hand. Agreed?”
“Yes.” Her smile was lopsided but genuine. “And thank you. Thank you for everything.”
He threw away the dirty bandages and put his medikit in order. “If I hadn’t frightened you away, you’d be safe and sound. I apologize for my behavior this morning.”
She emptied the glass of apple sissli. “I deserved it. I’ve been horrid to you since we left Eridan. And I apologize. I hope you’ll forgive me. I was terribly upset. You were handy; you stood in for everybody. I can be insufferable when I’m in a bad mood.”
Her honesty charmed him.
“Why don’t we start over?” She stretched her left hand out to him. “Hi, I’m Theo Maddiogga. I’m twenty-three, and I spent about a year in Eridan. What about you? What’s your name?”
He sat down in the winged armchair and shook her hand.
“Jack. Jack Finch. Pleased to meet you. I work for SpaceSS. I’m twenty-nine and married to my partner, Farren Megan, and we live in Earth Metropolis.”
“Nice to meet you, Jack. I’d love to keep up this conversation, but,” she yawned, “I need to lie down because I’m …”
“Theo!” He lunged forward to catch her as she swayed. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
He helped her to lie down on the bunk bed and pulled the sheet over her.
She smiled sleepily. “Why should I?”
She was going to be trouble.