CHAPTER FIVEThe Body
Charlie, in his increasingly infrequent quiet moments, has noticed something strange: he actually misses commanding the Burgundy. Not the piloting, but simply being in charge of the whole ship and crew. For her age, she's a fine ship, he's been forced to admit. Six hundred meters from stem to stern, and two hundred meters wide. She moves silently through space, spinning more than eighty times a minute, and her average speed for a trip of this length is ten percent of the speed of light. Charlie thinks that perhaps, if Blanchet keeps his secret, that he might get a ship of his own in the New Kingdom. Something a little smaller, maybe. It might be a good occupation to while away a few decades.
That's assuming, of course, that he actually survives the next few weeks. It's been three days since they received the signal, and Charlie has been busy. He's been avoiding Bell, regularly conferring with the Captain, and enduring the glowering presence of Blanchet, who seems to be restraining herself from killing him by the barest of margins.
Charlie sits in the dining room, eating a sandwich. Bell is in the network center trying to clean up the video by hand, so he's safe there. Blanchet hasn't been seen all day. Adams is in the meeting room with Hyde, trying to work out a defensive battle plan for the Burgundy.
Charlie hasn't slept well for the past two nights, mainly due to his quite reasonable fear of the overwhelming number of people on board the ship with the means and desire to murder him in his sleep. Not to mention god knows what they're rocketing into on Ilium. He's taken to sleeping in a pressure suit with his gun, and rigging motion detectors in the vents. So far they've been set off twice by cockroaches.
Charlie reaches out to get his glass of water, and notes the slight tremors in his hands. He has a splitting headache. He takes a sip of water, and leaves the dining room.
He slowly rounds the corner into the long hallway, and walks to the far end of the passenger deck, just over the helm. It's slightly cooler here, since all of the engine's fusion systems are farther back. He reaches the long circular hallway which separates the forward ship from the rest of the passenger deck. He walks around it a ways until he gets to the hospital bay, which he's never been to before. He steps inside. It's not a large room - just a dozen tables, set below wall mounted tracks. As soon as he steps inside, a doctor appears in front of him and smiles.
Charlie nods politely. The workmanship is very good. It takes him several seconds to identify the doctor as a Turing Persona. It's probably modeled off of a real person. He looks vaguely familiar, maybe a TV doctor. The broad, pleasant face, white coat, and stethoscope all conspire to create a comforting effect. Charlie feels himself relaxing slightly.
"XO Frost. What can I do for you?"
The voice is familiar as well. Definitely someone famous. A little flat in affect, but recognizable.
"I need something to help me sleep. And, uh, do you have anything to help me calm down?"
"Of course. Please sit down."
Charlie seats himself on the edge of one of the beds. A large box slides down the wall on the tracks, and stops on top of the bed. A dozen jointed, vaguely arachnid arms are attached to it. Most of them (the ones carrying syringes, knives, and what appears to be a tiny sewing machine) remain folded at the ready. The remaining three or four extend to examine him. A small sensor on the end of the arm touches his chest. The TP makes a show of peering into his eyes with a pen light. It's for his benefit, of course. The TP can't see him.
The robot moves the sensor over his face, and he feels briefly dizzy. The magnets in it are making the buttons on his jacket dance. After a moment, another arm with a syringe unfolds.
"Extend your left arm, please, palm up."
Charlie complies. A few seconds later, the sensor sweeps by, and the needle comes down a second later, finding and puncturing the vein with inhuman speed. The vial fills with blood. It withdraws back into the machine. Another arm extends and deposits a tiny drop of glue onto the puncture wound, which suddenly goes numb. The arm withdraws.
After a few seconds, The TP nods, and the bed folds up into a chair. A blood pressure cuff is mounted on one arm. Charlie sets his arm into it, and straps it into place. A few seconds later, it inflates briefly. The doctor produces a clipboard out of thin air, and examines it critically for a few seconds. Then it drops it back into non-existence, and nods to Charlie.
"I'm going to dispense a dose of Zolpidem to help you sleep, and Alprazolam for the anxiety. Don't take them within four hours of each other. If you die of drug interactions, the cost of your new body will be deducted from your paycheck. Also, I'm going to recommend that you take up some form of exercise. Your heart walls are slightly thin, and your blood pressure is dangerously high. Try the gym on the engineering deck."
The pills rattle out of a dispenser on the wall into a plastic cub, and Charlie says,
· · · — — — · · ·
Charlie dry swallows a pill in the elevator, on his way up into the engineering deck. He's following a flowing stripe on the floor that the TP created for him. The elevator reaches the deck, checks his rig, and opens the door automatically.
The engineering deck is essentially the lowest deck in the ship. Everything beneath this is engine, except for the small hallway and room of the helm, buried in the very center. There are six engineers on duty now, the day shift. Three of them are playing cards, two are examining a small piece of machinery, and the last is pulling on a yellow pressure suit to go fix something. He smiles and gets stiff salutes and a few odd looks. He follows the glowing line through the small kitchen, through an airlock, and up a flight of steps onto the deepest engineering deck.
The ceiling is low here, and he finds himself ducking to avoid coolant pipes. In spite of all the pipes, it's surprisingly hot down here, underneath the engines. He can't shake the feeling that he's accumulating slow radiation poisoning, and he hurries. He's always felt that there was something unsafe about setting off hydrogen bombs inside a ship. All the shielding does not to much to ease his mind.
He goes through a big, heavy old door, and finds himself going down a strange corridor. Unlike the rest of the engineering deck, which is structural diamond covered with titanium, this looks to be steel, subtly warped from acceleration stress. He blinks. It's like wandering into another era. Flickering old LED lamps provide a dim bluish glow. He finds himself slowing down. He glances down at the pill bottle. What the hell did the doctor give him, anyway? This can't be right. This looks like an ancient ship. Well maintained and ancient, but -- ancient.
He taps his mapping application, and it shows him where he is. He's still on the Burgundy, alright. It's all in the schematics, but not in any part he's ever heard of. There's no-one here. Not crew, not passengers, not even corpsicles. It's dead. Charlie hurries along, following the line. The hallway is inclining upwards, the ceiling getting lower, and the engine getting hotter over his head. He's just about to turn around when he reaches the end of the ship. It's a hull wall; nothing on the other side but the cold place.
He realizes that the line turned a few steps before into an unmarked door. He turns around, tries to go through, and realizes that it's an elevator. He checks the schematics. It's not listed. He waves his hand to bring up an interface, and gets nothing. He stares at it a moment longer, and then realizes that it has a button built into the wall. He hesitantly pushes it. It lights up. There's a low grinding noise, and then the door opens. Charlie steps through into a wide room. The flowing lines extends to the center of the room and vanishes. As he steps inside, it blinks twice and vanishes.
Charlie opens his mouth, and then closes it again. The 'gym' is, in fact, a modified freight elevator. It's a room twenty meters long and twenty meters wide. The walls are covered with mats, and a large bin of exercise equipment sits in the middle. It's made out of steel. The aft wall is warped from some massive force, possibly the latest one. Charlie makes a note to have someone come down and fix it. Beside the recessed bins of equipment, there's a small, more modern looking console with an actual consensus projection. Charlie finds that it's a slider that can adjust the gravity anywhere from three to eight meters per second per second. He leaves it where it is for the moment, and begins some calisthenics.
Starting from the right side of the room, he runs as fast as he can towards the other, scrambling up the wall. He narrowly misses the handhold he was aiming for, and tumbles backwards in the low gravity, building up speed at a slow but inexorable pace. He hits the floor with surprising force. He rolls off the mat, shakes himself, and tries again. This time he makes the handhold, and leaps off, aiming for the ceiling. He follows a long, lazy arc upwards, and makes the handhold. He hangs from the ceiling for a moment, and then casts himself down. This is equivalent to about a meter and a half drop, which'll sting a bit. He spreads his arms and legs in the hope that air resistance will slow him down. It doesn't.
He gets up again, and tries just bouncing around, trying to really appreciate the low gravity. It feels oddly good to be running around, his heart pounding honestly, flying through the air like he's on a trampoline. The mats are rubberized spider silk, and have a surprising degree of spring. He ricochets off of a wall, and lands near the bins, sweating, breathing hard. He wipes his face off and wishes the room were air conditioned. He looks inside, and finds a bunch of weight vests, a series of rubber-coated sparring staffs, boxing gloves, and rope.
He repeats his two jump trip to the ceiling, and ties a butterfly knot around the handhold, letting the rope trail away in slow motion towards the floor. Once it gets there, he slides down about three quarters of the way and begins to swing. He builds up momentum quickly, and within minutes, he's touching both walls on the swings and kicking off them. Then, on one particular swing back, he waits until he's exactly in the center of the room, and lets go the rope, launching himself into space.
Without the resistive force of the rope restraining him, he suddenly realizes that he's moving rather fast. Maybe thirty kilometers an hour. Towards a wall. He slams into it before he has a chance to think much about it. He sees stars, and finds himself tumbling through the air. He hits the ground, bounces, and lies still for a long moment, meditating on the matter of human folly.
He becomes aware of a figure standing over him. It offers him a hand, and he allows himself to be dragged to his feet.
"It looks softer than it is, doesn't it? Pity low gravity doesn't affect inertia."
Gwenneth Kyle Bell picks up a sparring staff, and spins it easily around her arm.
"Broke my arm down here the first time."
Charlie rubs his shoulder slowly, and stretches. He feels a cold chill running down his spine. If Cross wanted to take him, this would be a good place. Out of the way. No cameras. He ought to run screaming. Instead he smiles and nods.
She tosses him a staff. He catches it, and spins it between his hands experimentally, trying to get a feel for the way it moves under this gravity. Not much different. He can probably kill her with it if he has to. Cross is wearing a body without much upper body strength. She cocks her head at him.
"I didn't know you knew about this place."
She begins to circle him, spinning the stick in long, slow revolutions. He shrugs.
"I didn't. The medical TP recommended it. Exercise."
She laughs, and gestures with the staff at his midsection.
She keeps circling, making experimental sweeps towards him. He smiles and shakes his head.
"Maybe. You come down here often?
"All the time."
Charlie is starting to get dizzy turning to face her.
"You going to do that forever, or are you actually going to try to hit me?"
The staff spins towards his head at shocking speed. He barely manages to interpose his own staff at the last possible moment, feeling the jolt in his hands. The next blow comes instantly after the last, catching him in the side, a line of hot pain down his ribs. She presses the attack, driving him backwards. He leaps backwards, gets some space, and flails madly at her with the stick. She deflects his blows with surprising ease, striking him again in the shoulder and the leg. She stumbles on the last strike, and he lashes her across the back with a popping sound. She laughs, but retreats a little, giving him time to regain his breath, and reflect on how much that hurt. He stares at her.
"What is this place?"
"Burgundy used to be a cargo ship on Plymouth Rock. Freight elevator. Adams had this part left in when the Burgundy was modernized. Improved it."
He blinks. He'll have to ask Adams about that. See if Cross is just bullshitting.
Limping slightly, he swings the stick around in long, defensive figure-eights, trying to keep it straight and get a feel for the thing. She lungs, he blocks, and it glances off his arm. He swings at her again, trying to keep it more controlled. She blocks it, but she takes a step back. He pushes, aiming for legs, arms, anything that takes a while to block. He gets a couple of minor hits in. He imagines Cross, dripping sweat and breathing hungrily across from him, and he fights harder, coming in closer and closer, backing her into the corner, ignoring sharp flashes of pain on his arms and legs.
He spits words out in between blows.
"How did. You. Get. This. Good?"
Hit hit block hit block hit ow hit block ow. Sweat runs down his face. She's panting hard in the corner. His heart is pounding dully in the back of his head. He takes a swing at her, and she misses it. It bounces off her chest without doing much damage. She swings back at him. He tries to block, but he's too tired to do it properly, and the stick slides out of his hand. She straightens up and runs at him. She jumps, goes too high, her midsection sailing for his head. He grabs her by the torso and rolls, launching her at the wall. She drops the staff and hits the wall with her shoulder, bouncing off. Dragging himself to his feet, he slaps the controller in the middle of the room with his palm, increasing the gravity to its maximum, and throws himself at her.
She's already up, and plants her feet. He hits her, he has easily thirty kilos on her, and they go down. He starts struggling for a choke hold. Why didn't he bring his gun? Why didn't he bring his damn gun? He can feel the growing weight holding him down, and he doesn't think he could get back to his feet if his life depended on it.
Her fingers sink into his wrist, pointing his thumb towards the sky. She's trying to maneuver him into an arm lock.
"You're... you're good," she pants.
He laughs bitterly, and turns, trying to pull his arm out from between her legs. She pulls back. He rotates, trying to squirm out. She kicks him in the chest, and he swings wildly, trying to get on top, Finally, he rolls himself on top of her and pins her to the mat with his growing weight. The elevator stops moving. She knees him in the face, and he tastes blood. He leans over holding her legs with his. His words come out as an exhausted wheeze as she struggles underneath him.
"Who are you?"
She pants, staring at him. Her eyes are wide and unreadable.
"Who... do you think I am?"
He shoves her down into the mat, and isn't prepared when she lunges sideways. She gets out from under him, getting her feet underneath her, and lunges at him. Her shoulder takes the breath out of him, and throws him backwards into the wall. She grabs a handhold and shoves her body against him, holding him. Her arm comes against his throat. He glares at her, trying to fight in the suddenly strong gravity. He's so tired. Low gravity has weakened him, and now it's going to kill him.
With a monumental effort, he launches her off him. She sails through the air, crashing to the ground. He runs for her, tackles her to the ground, and straddles her stomach. He rains blows down on her face and arms. She kicks his leg out, and he falls against her, arm against her throat, face inches from hers. He has no patience for this anymore. In his exhausted, bruised, fight-haze, he can see Cross's face under him, staring up at him. The heat in the skin and his lungs is pressing in on him with every heartbeat. In a low, tired voice, he asks,
"Why... don't you tell me... why you're really here?"
She stops fighting underneath him. She looks into his eyes for a long moment, and then reaches up and kisses him. It goes on for a long, wet, cool second.
Charlie freezes, and then rolls off her, backing up into the wall. He sits there for a long moment, looking at her. His brain is currently suffering from the equivalent of a snow crash. He wonders if the universe suddenly stopped making sense during lunch and nobody told him. She sits up and look at him, eyes wide. They sit there for a long moment, breathing hard. He realizes that his nose is bleeding. Is she trying to trick him? He looks at her and sees nothing of murder in her eyes. She just looks confused. He tries to get himself back in soldier headspace, but right here, sitting on the ground in the hot room, pouring sweating, gulping down air, he can't quite make it.
After a long silence, he gets up and walks over to her.
"Oh," he says.
"I'm sorry," she says.
He sinks to the ground beside her. He sets a hand on his arm.
"Oh," he says. Then,
"Are you okay?"
She shakes it off and turns away.
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. I just thought - I mean, you said - It doesn't matter. I'm an idiot, but I'm fine. I'm sorry. Can we just pretend this didn't happen?"
Charlie exhales shakily. He needs so badly to think, but he can't. This is such a mess. He nods, but doesn't really mean to.
"Good. We should work."
She gets up, slowly, and limps towards to the control panel. She taps it, and the elevator begins to rumble upwards towards the engine. Charlie feels the gravity increase slightly from the acceleration and then begin to decrease. He pulls himself to his feet, feeling every bruise glow with pain as he moves. She keeps talking, cold and fast, not looking at him.
"I only came down here because Pennycut reported one of her girls missing."
Charlie blinks in disbelief.
"Missing? We're on a spaceship. Where could she possibly go? Out an airlock?"
"I think she's lost it, myself. In case the girl is hiding somewhere, I wasn't in any great hurry to go find her and take her back to Pennycut. Still, we'll have to eventually."
"Well, we'd better start."
The elevator grinds to a halt. They step out into the hallway. Charlie feels his ribs and legs burning with every step. Cross or not, the woman's a monster with a quarterstaff.
"I didn't want to bother Adams, but you weren't busy, and you have security permissions, so-"
"It's fine, Il Bell. We'll take care of it."
Charlie pulls up his security menu, and finds the tracking system.
"It she tagged?"
"She's one of Pennycut's servants, of course she is. RFID key is Echo-Charlie-Victor-one-one-eight."
Charlie punches it in. There's a brief pause as the ship systematically checks itself, and finds the tag. He blinks.
"That can't be right. It says she's on the cryo deck."
"Maybe one of the engineers felt sorry for her and gave her a tour."
"Maybe," says Charlie, but doesn't believe it. From the expression on her face, Bell doesn't believe it either.
Charlie opens his main menu and, after flicking through two menus, opens his navigational app. He plugs he code in, and a ribbon appears on the floor. He double taps it with his toe, and it turns green and becomes public. Bell blinks and looks at it. They limp off down the passageway, still slick with sweat, not looking at each other. They go down the long metal hallway back into the more modern part of the ship, across the engineering deck, and to the elevator. They get some odd looks moving through the engineering deck, and Charlie briefly wonders what they must think, but mostly out of habit; he really doesn't care.
In the tight space of the industrial elevator, Charlie can feel his lungs burning, sweat itching on his scalp, and a growing sense of dread. He thumbs the control to send them up to the cryo deck. The door opens, and cold air rushes in. Charlie finds himself in a long hallway. He walks past the doors to the lead-lined resurrection bay and the deceleration caskets. Finally, he reaches the largest room, the cryo bay. Charlie opens the door, following the ribbon inside. This room is cold. Two big thermal radiators at the far end blast heat into space at a phenomenal rate, using it keep the coffins cold. Some of the cold leaks out into the room. Charlie walks past rows of metal boxes the size of coffins, thousands of them, stacked to the ceiling on shelves. Suddenly freezing, he wipes the sweat from his arms and face, and follows the ribbon to the only place it can lead - a casket at the end of the row.
He turns to Blanchet, whose face is white.
"She wasn't durabilis. She wouldn't have survived. God, she wasn't even chipped."
Charlie doesn't respond. He reaches down, opens the latch, and slides the tray out. Billowing clouds issue forth as he removes the tray. Inside, laying on the tray, is the servant girl. Her eyes are staring, open, at the ceiling, smooth glassy orbs. Her dress crumbles at Charlie's touch. Her fingers are curled in a defensive position around her throat. Her facial expression is strangely calm.
Charlie halfheartedly checks for needle marks. None. She doesn't have a mark on her. She's dead, with no chance of post-mortem scan or recovery. Not that she'd get one, anyway, but still. Charlie pulls up his comm app. Behind him, Bell quietly throws up. Charlie calls the Captain.
· · · — — — · · ·
"What the hell happened to you two?"
"Sparring practice, sir."
"Some sparring session."
Adams turns back to peer at the cadaver in the medical room. It's already beginning to melt. The robotic arms have been prodding at it with inhuman speed for the last half hour. Blanchet's using some consensus app to keep track of all it's findings. She's made it public, and Charlie can't even see her face through the swarm of windows, menus, and interfaces around her head. Her hands scroll through it with disturbing speed. She's wearing a grey military uniform again, and Charlie isn't sure if it's smart clay of if she's had it fabricated. He's pretty sure he caught it looking at him at least once.
Charlie examines the corpse. The skin and eyes are brown, and the hair is black. The lips, nail beds, and veins are all a deep navy blue. He thinks he has some idea what that means. He glances at Bell, who's standing in the corner, arms crossed, looking ill. The Captain squints into the eyes.
Bell stares at the corpse.
"Maybe. Cause of death, Om Blanchet?"
The Captain mulls over this for a bit.
"Il Bell, could you please go swab the inside of the casket out? It ought to be done defrosting by now. We can run it for poisons."
Bell leaves, and Adams watches her go. The door slides closed behind her. The Captain turns back.
"Nitrogen asphyxiation. Could have told you that without the scan. Other than that, nothing wrong with her. Not a scratch, not a bruise."
"Not Pennycut, then. Cross."
Blanchet exhales slowly and closes the interface.
"Probably. It fits his usual methods. I'd guess he put a bag over her head and filled it with nitrogen. No odor. She wouldn't have known to hold her breath. You know, if he'd dug the tracking tag out of her ankle, we'd probably never have found her."
The Captain experimentally rubs the skin on the corpse's arm, which is thawing and taking on a purple texture from freezing damage.
"Mmm. The man does love his gas. At least this time he doesn't have a sealed room. Did he steal a bottle of nitrogen?"
"No. He wouldn't have had to. The store-rooms are only code-locked. He could be anyone. Even if he's not on the crew, he'd just have to manipulate any of them into giving him to the code, and he can walk out with a bottle."
The Captain glances around.
"I haven't told anyone my codes. Have you?"
Charlie shakes his head.
"I didn't even get a chance to memorize them yet."
The Captain nods, and looks back at the corpse.
"She was unchipped, yes?"
Charlie starts to reply, but Blanchet interrupts him.
"Yes. Unchipped. Not durabilis, either, and he didn't use antifreeze. Brain matter is a total loss."
He exhales thoughtfully, and rubs his moustache.
"That's what I thought."
There's a long silence.
"What are we going to do about Bell?"
They look at the Captain. Charlie starts to say something, then decides against it. Blanchet replies.
"You think it's her?"
"She'd have codes. She'd be able to get into the store room and the cryonics deck. She's the logical candidate."
He glances at the others.
"I'm concerned about him jumping again. He's got to know we're looking. I'm going to set a code word. If any of us get taken, the echo won't have picked it up yet, so he won't know it. We'll reset it every few days. As of now, the code word is Panama. We'll use notes to confirm. Everyone agreed?"
Charlie nods. Blanchet looks at them carefully.
"Sure. Panama. So, what are we going to do about Bell? Because, if we're sure, there are steps we can be taking. I could have Jack kill her without much trouble, or at least take her chip."
Adams considers this. He rubs his nose, and then shakes his head.
"No. We're not sure. Yet. If we're wrong, it could spark reactive action by Cross. He's already demonstrated that he's got at least partial system access. It's more than possible that he could kill a lot of people by opening a few airlocks or sabotaging life support."
Charlie glances at them, and then says, after a long silence,
"I don't know about you two, but I've got quite a bit invested in this instance of myself. My most recent backup is eight months old back on New Damascus. I'd rather not die if I can possibly avoid it."
Blanchet ignores him.
"If he were to take the ship, and successfully kill everyone, could he actually pilot the ship?"
Adams sits down on the table, and considers it.
"No, probably not. He's a very old backup. This model of ship didn't exist at the time, and he hasn't had time to accumulate the skills to fly it. Besides, if he isn't in a body with pilot privileges, there are limits to how much control he can get over the engine."
"He'd have the resurrection caskets. He could bring back someone who could fly."
Adams shakes his head.
"How would he make them fly for him?"
Blanchet shakes her head.
"Torture. Bribery. Deception. He could be wearing any body by the time he wakes them up. Tell them any story. Om... Frost is right. The only thing that matters is that it's possible. It would be hard, but not impossible. Which is probably why he hasn't tried it yet."
"Alright. So we're not sure. Frost, watch her. Watch her closely. Blanchet, go through her things next time you're out. Frost will give you door permissions - and someone change the combination to the nitrogen storeroom for Christ's sake."
He leans back, looking tired.
"I'll check the body. Frost, go tell Pennycut that her girl broke her neck climbing down in the engineering bay. I'll break it in case she wants to see a body. I'll look for anything under the fingernails or in the mouth, too. We might get lucky. Dismissed."
Charlie salutes, and Blanchet nods. They exit the room. Outside, Blanchet turns to leave. Charlie hesitates, and then turns to look at her.
She turns and gives him a cold stare.
"Was Cross gay?"
She stares at him for a long time, then sighs.
"No, Frost. Cross wasn't gay. Go deal with Pennycut."
She turns her back on him and leaves. Charlie walks to the dining hall, and had a quick dinner of rolls and gritty porkchops before he walks to Pennycut's cabin.
He waves his hand to bring up the interface, and rings the bell. An alert comes up. He speaks into the air very clearly, "XO Frost." After a moment, the door clicks, and is pushed open from the inside. There's a girl standing there in the door. She's maybe fifteen, really fifteen, wearing a neat brown dress.
She has straight black hair, dark coffee skin, and Charlie suddenly notices, bright blue eyes. The interbreeding is getting more common in the colonies. He wonders if Pennycut picks them out that way. Maybe she's got astigmatism and is shopping for a replacement. He shudders, slightly.
He looks at the girl, who bows and then looks up at him.
"Mistress will be with you shortly."
Charlie looks past her. Pennycut's cabin is still small, but it's one of the larger ones, with two rooms. It's bigger than his. There are mats on the floor for the girls, and a broad couch on the wall, with a table set with chairs across from it. Another girl, this one with brown eyes and slightly darker skin is scrubbing a stain on the wall with something caustic. There's a noise in the bathroom, and Pennycut emerges from the bathroom. She smiles pleasantly at him.
"XO Frost. You have news about my girl?"
Charlie takes off his hat and bows.
"Madam Pennycut. Yes, I do."
"Have a seat, Il Frost."
Charlie hesitates, and then remembers that he's not Captain anymore, and she is a Madam. He bows politely, and sits down. Pennycut gestures, and a girl approaches behind her. The girl, Charlie notices, is missing the last two fingers on her left hand. Very clean cuts.
"Something to drink? One of my girls can make you a cup of tea from real tea-leaves. None of this fabricated stuff."
Charlie shakes his head.
"I'm only here for a moment, but thank you."
"As you like."
She waves her hand, and the girl vanishes. She looks across the table at him, and he makes a noble effort to avoid her gaze.
"So, Il Frost, what news do you have?"
Charlie shakes his head.
"I'm sorry to report, Om Pennycut, that the girl is dead."
Her eyes narrow and her tone suddenly becomes very cold.
"What? What happened?"
"One of the engineers let her into the engineering deck. She snuck into one of the life support rooms and broke her neck falling from a pipe. The Captain is examining her now, but we don't suspect foul play."
She stares intently at him, and he allows himself to match her gaze. He remains quite calm, channeling a weird, sudden cold rage into the attempt. His heart rate doesn't even quicken. He suddenly realizes that, whatever she's done, it likely isn't as bad as what he's done, and it isn't a scratch on what Cross has done. She's nothing.
"How unfortunate. I'd like to speak to the engineer responsible."
"So would I. None of them have come forward."
"I'd like the body back, please."
"As you wish. It's been damaged, though. When one of the mates found the body, he attempted to chill her for later recovery, but accidentally made her much too cold. There's significant freezerburn."
"I see. When can I have it back?"
"In a few hours. I'll contact you."
"I'll be billing Morningstar transit for the cost of training and raising the girl."
"In that case, I think we're done here. Goodbye, XO Frost."
Charlie bows, and leaves.
· · · — — — · · ·
Back in his cabin, Charlie takes a pill, and sleeps. For all the bruises and loose teeth, he's also very, very tired, and, for the first time in days, he's too exhausted to be afraid. If anyone tries to kill him in his sleep, it'll take a few hours for him to notice. In fact, the only thing that bothers him at all is the last niggling, inconvenient fact - Cross is not gay. Charlie does not have much time to mull this over, though, before he drifts off. Charlie sleeps like a baby.
Charlie wakes up the next morning, and gets out of bed. He gets dressed, brushes his teeth, and, after finding his comb, he runs it through his hair. It's about this point that a little alert comes up in front of his face. He taps it absently. Il Bell appears in a floating window. She looks very pale. He briefly wonders if his fly is up, and then remembers that she can't see him anyway. She stares out of the window somewhere to the left of his head.
"I'm here, Il Bell. What's going on?"
"We just got eyes on the planet. You're going to want to see this."
LAST INDEX NEXT
I'm so glad this book is entirely in English. You have no idea.