Crimson watched the Pincho police carry off the small spoor crate, filing out of Keffler’s personal green house. She waited impassive, but from Keffler’s pinched right eye and protruding lips she guessed the gardener was more than a little steamed up by the inter-system customs crackdown.
She didn’t care. When she gauged the police were out of earshot, she leaned into the gardener’s ear; her voice black, burning motor oil, “If you ever make an insinuation like that again, I will break every working appendage you have left, no matter how much Potency Wood you have in you.”
The ornery gardener cast his weight onto his further armrest and darted a fierce look up and down, measuring her seriousness. She let her fury burn through her eyes into his for a moment, and then stalked after the police.
In under 20 minutes the investigation was concluded. In less than 50, they were off the ship. Crimson climbed to the cockpit to boil.
Braevel didn’t tend to eat with the crew as such. His water-suit made it impractical. Most of the cooked food wasn’t to his liking anyway. But often he sat with them at mealtimes. It was the only time they tended to gather as a group. With the domed observatory window, and conversation, it could be quite nice. Kaldus Major filled the window with blue most of the time, but at intervals the Rival angled away, and the smaller Kaldus Minor shone hazy brown in the distance.
Of course those on the Boatman were not with them, and Crimson, too, did not show up. Those that were left gathered one by one, while Keffler scraped and banged together a meal with less civility than usual. Upon hearing yet another pot crash violently onto the counters within the kitchen, the ornamented Vizavian Tager leaned into the group and explained, “I heard they took his bubble spoor.”
“Ah!” Braevel drew circles with his gauntlet, his finger swishing inside the watery suit. Apparently their little concoction had been unnecessary. He hoped the Syrric Polodus wouldn’t suffer for having so much of its nectar drained.
Finally Keffler’s chair whirred into the Mess and he tossed a big pot into the middle of the closest table.
“There it is,” he grimaced, “Eat it or don’t.”
Shaak-Rom stood up, plate in hand, and leaned over. His red lips split in a smile, exposing his pointed teeth. “Mmmm. Spa-get-ee…” Using the hooked fork from Keffler’s culinary arsenal Shaak-Rom pulled out a clump of the stretchy noodles.
“Oh! Meatballs today!” Braevel chimed in cheerfully. “You really have outdone yourself!” He did like meatballs; they tended to sink slowly and were more fun to eat in his personal tank.
Keffler shot him a guarded glance, “It’s a special frikkin’ day. The cops stole my stuff. We nearly chucked the Boatman into a comet. What’s next? Just be glad yer eatin’.”
“Why’s that?” asked Jumondo. The Grobaxian’s massive shoulders and hairy jaw both lifted in alarm at the thought of not having food.
Keffler sniffed. “I was told to pack enough food for Andross and the bug for two days. Now they got a Megladyte on board!”
“And P’Xak,” Shaak-Rom said sitting back down to hunch over his portion. His striped tentacle dreads dangled over the food, twitching.
Keffler gave a short laugh, “Oh, great.”
“I did not realize he was still on the Boatman helping Gator when Crimson sealed the shuttle bay.”
“Is that what happened?” Braevel cocked his head, finally understanding.
“Had I known, I would have erased our logs more correctly.” Shaak-Rom shook his head. “An important detail that nearly cost us our cover story.”
“Oh I don’t know,” Braevel chirped, trying to console the duty-bound Trivven, “Crimson covered it, and apparently we’re not the first ship to have records not up to date.”
“Yeah, well,” Keffler jutted back in, “four humanoids on two person rations for two days would be bad enough. But make one of them a Megladyte, and we might only have one crewman return.”
The crew thought about this for a miment. Braevel wasn’t sure if it was another human ‘joke’ or a real possibility.
“Do they have water?” Shaak-Rom asked.
“Hmm? Oh yeah,” Keffler grumbled, seeming distracted. “Cort and I keep the Boatman freshly tanked up. They’ll be peeing like sieves.”
They fell into silence again; each helped themselves to piles of the pressed wheat noodles in the red sauce. Braevel began to think of the health concerns of the hungry pilots, and what preparations he should make to receive them. Keffler continued to brood. Finally he grunted, “All right boys, don’t leave any left overs.” Then he drove off.
Crimson couldn’t go to her room. There was no one else to fly the Rival Bay. At the moment they were safely settled into a cislunar orbit. The sun, YG98729648, or Pincha to the inhabitants of Kaldus Major, rose approximately every hour with their rapid rotation. She sat casually, her booted, human foot propped up on the console. Below her Kaldus Major looked surprisingly like Earth II—like Earth I for that matter—according to her Mindframe; blue, green, white, mountains, forests, ice caps, shallow seas… But it did nothing to make her feel connected to her humanity. Her cold, hollow pelvis, and hauntingly numb leg and arm left her nothing. She rotated her robotic left wrist and closed the metal fingers, glaring at the primitive action.
Bumping and a caustic curse came to her from down the catwalk. Keffler. She did not want to talk to him; for a moment she considered sealing the bridge, blocking him out. It would be pointless.
The whirring of his electric chair brought the rattling contraption to the back of the cockpit.
His gravelling voice rattled mercilessly, “Ya’ know for a tin can, you sure took that personally.”
She stood up so fast she nearly broke her seat from its support rod. “I warned you Keffler! I run an all male crew, not because I’m your sex toy, but a slave driver. If you or anyone else wants a piece of me, so help me I’ll—”
“You’ll what?!” spat the gardener, eye glinting fiercely in the light of the blue planet. “Break every working appendage I have left? Try it, princess! I’ll take you over my bad knees and spank your tin cheeks!”
Crimson sucked in a sharp breath and lurched over him, balling both her fists. Keffler remained slouched in his chair, about as intimidated as a coiled rattlesnake.
“I’m not done!” he puffed, “You keep walking around this place like you think the universe owes you something. Well, it doesn’t! There’s only one constant in this universe and you know what it is?”
“Gravity,” Crimson sneered.
Keffler rolled his head like pinball, “No! Oh, fer crying—what’re trying ta do, woman, win a science fair?”
“Death,” Crimson spat sarcastically, playing into his hand.
“No! Pain. Pain is the only constant in this crazy ol,’ messed up, spinning, black merry-go-round of a universe. It happens to everybody in one shape or another. It either kills you, or you survive!”
“Oh, and you’re a survivor?” Crimson jeered, spit flying off her lips on the ‘v’s.
“You don’t know anything about me!” Keffler snarled back, “I lost everything! But I’m not gonna’ sit around Earth II, pining for Earth I. Yeah, the universe sucks! But if it’s gotta’ suck, then it might as well suck interesting. That’s why I packed my crippled butt onto a flying cupboard: to see what else is around the next corner—besides pain! The sooner you get it the sooner you can get on with your surviving business.”
Rage surged along the implants on her spine, and the blood in her veins pounded against every metallic and synth interface. It one movement she wrenched open her heavy leather belt buckle with her good hand, and yanked down her denim shorts, exposing her metal pelvis. In another swift movement she peeled off her sleeveless top. She tried to fling it away; it caught on her robotic elbow joint, and dangled like a rag. She stood before him bare chested and exposed. Whatever life and curve her breasts had once had was dry and flat. Her skin was pale. Jagged scars and red irritation showed when her skin met the crudely grafted prosthetics. Robotics took over well before any chance of finding human reproductive organs. “You call this surviving!”
Keffler sat there. He did not feign shock, or embarrassment. Instead he maintained an even chew on the inside of his cheek, scowling. Deliberately he raked his eyes down her pale chest, middle, and robotic pelvis; suddenly she regretted her choice. Keffler’s eyes snapped back to hers. His face registered no change in emotion.
Be shocked, damn you! thought Crimson. Her rage stood frozen, impotent against a strange wall.
Keffler finished his chew. His sandpaper voice was low.
“Yeah, I know.”
She didn’t know what to do. She looked at the shirt hanging awkwardly from her metal elbow. Put it on again and Keffler would win. She felt nothing; but for some reason her tear ducts pulsed. Nothing came out. “You’re a jerk, Keffler!”
Keffler was impassive. “Yeah, you’re a jerk.”
Angrily she turned her head away, to Kaldus Major and the rising sun.
The hum of Keffler’s motor turned her back. He was maneuvering around to leave. But he stopped and said, “If yer human half gets hungry, I left spaghetti in the walk-in fridge.”
He drove away.
Crimson jacked up her shorts and re-buckled the belt. She put her shirt back on. Then she turned and plopped back in the pilot’s seat, facing the window for her third dawn that day. She didn’t know where the anger had gone; but for the moment she felt quiet.