Cael and Alberich were pretty much left to themselves after the incident. They kept to the kitchen and dining hall, sleeping on the tables, wrapped in blankets given to them by the boss. They spent the first couple of days deep cleaning the kitchen in silence, which was just fine as neither one of them much felt like talking just yet. Unfortunately, it gave Cael’s mind too many opportunities to return to Ilya; to worry and make plans, imagine scenarios and make new plans, only to throw them all away and worry some more.
The others methodically burned, bleached and scrubbed every surface inside the ship when they weren’t working their shifts on the cattle levels. All but a few of the UV lights had been returned to the water filters, and the men used the remaining lamps to obsessively check and recheck their work. Cael made sure to cover up and hang back during those sweeps.
When the men filed in to the dining hall with their bowls, there was no joking, and no eye contact, barely even amongst each other. Cael had spent the last three years with a constant companion, and by the end of the second day he could already feel isolation getting to him. He scraped left over curry into a couple of bowls and looked over at Alberich, shoulders deep into one of the massive vats rotated down onto its side. Soapy water splashed out around his hanging belly, completely soaking the payjama pants he still wore from Bhara. Backing out, the large man reached up for the hanging water hose. After a good rinse, he knocked the vat to rotate straight down, letting the water flow to the line of drains at the center of the narrow kitchen’s floor. Cael handed him the bowl as he pulled himself up.
“Here, I’ll mop up.”
Alberich tried to quickly wring the excess water out of this ruined kurta and looked out to the dining room as the last group of men walked out.
Cael pulled the sponge mop down from its hook by the door. “So, how are you holding up?”
He sighed, “They all hate me.”
“Well… you did kind of… incite a mass panic….”
Alberich shot him a hurt look, “You should have stopped me.”
“Tried that, if you’ll recall.”
“They shouldn’t have listened.”
“Look, I hate to say it, but it’s not as if you were wrong….”
“Killing anyone is wrong. Killing out of fear is wrong.” He recited angrily, pulling open a drawer to grab a serving spoon to eat with.
“…aaaand you’re kind of intimidating when the carrier memories take over. I would cut them some slack.”
“I just can’t wait to get off of this ship.” He heaved himself up and sat back on to the counter as Cael pushed the mop under his feet. “But then as soon as we get to port, we’ll have to deal with Lukas again. I feel so goddamn trapped.”
“It is a predicament.”
Alberich shook his head and scooped a bite into his mouth.
Cael crouched down to get the mop handle in the right position to push any soggy debris out from behind the vats.
“Do you have anything planned this time? Like a real plan, not just rushing him.”
“If he’s a strong as you, rushing definitely won’t work. Not if I’m hoping to get Ilya out of this safely.”
“That’s right, your wife… who called you a coward.”
“Yeah… she was pretty mad.”
Alberich cocked an eyebrow as he dug into his bowl.
“Look, it wasn’t my finest moment, but I was going crazy, or maybe I was already crazy. It’s too quiet there, no excitement, no trouble to get into so far away from everything. I’ve never left a place by choice. There was always some kind of immediate danger to run from, you know, sort of forcing the decision. But on Bhara, it was too easy to stay. Ilya made it so easy to push back the decision another day. I had been thinking about leaving within that first year, but there was never any reason to.”
“So I come along and to rescue you from this… horrible life of peace and marital bliss.”
“I thought; I guess I thought it would worry her less, if she saw that we had to leave to help you, meaning I would have to leave while she stayed behind. And then this Lukas fellow turned out to be much scarier than I had anticipated, and waiting around for her to get used to the idea wasn’t an option anymore. I knew she would figure it out. I just never imagined just how quickly, or that she would come after us. Leave her family behind? Ilya already had two husbands when we married, you know; and a baby.”
“A ready-made family. Who wouldn’t run from that?”
“It was just a business deal. Not long after I had arrived on Bhara, I found myself caught up in a bar fight in the city. It’s a little hazy, I may have started it. I may have just offended the local patrons with my presence; but by the end there were several people with glass cuts and nasty bruises. Being the good sport that I am, I decided to tend to them until the police arrived and threw us all in jail.
“A couple of the men I had helped turned out to be cousins of Ilya’s. Word got back to her mother, and imagine my surprise when I was released into the custody of this random girl. The women are so small, that’s what I thought she was, a little girl. And then there wasn’t so much of a deal offered as an explanation of how we were going to proceed if I was to stay on Bhara. I would marry Ilya so that I could set up a practice in town. She would assist me in any way that I needed, and her presence would help smooth over my introduction to the townspeople.”
Alberich caught Cael smiling to himself.
“The Sakhimi people are, I would say, benignly agoraphobic of anything off planet; but they never really have to deal with the outside, so the few of us who venture in are kept politely at arm’s length. If I tried to blend in, wear the kurta and payjamas, they would look at me more suspiciously; like I was trying to hide who I really was. I was allowed to live among them, but not as one of them. I never got a chance to see if all of Bhara was like that. I rarely even left that tiny farm town.”
“You wife included? Keeping you at arm’s length, I mean? Did you never…”
Cael stood and cocked his head as the large man fumbled for words. “We were never intimate, no.”
“Are you serious? You’re telling me you went how many years…”
“Well, I was never quite sure how she felt about it.” Cael thought of Ilya’s determined face as they walked through the abandoned streets that last night, watching Alberich from the corner of her eye. What was he going to do with her? “But I was very fond of her, you know.”
Alberich cocked an eyebrow at him again.
“I just didn’t want her to get hurt. So… I decided sex was definitely out of the question. Too messy; and… especially if she got pregnant, too dangerous… for everyone involved.”
“Because she’s so sickly.”
Cael sighed and hung up the mop. “Yeah.”
“If she’s so weak, and has all this family on Bhara, why has she come after you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe some of my crazy rubbed off on her.”
“Maybe she really loves you.”
“God, I hope not.”
Alberich frowned but said nothing as he watched Cael pick up the second bowl of curry and start eating.
They spent the next few days strategizing. Cael was careful to direct their conversations away from the pigeon memories, as they now took to calling them; not wanting to trigger another situation while he was alone with the large man. Yet, he needed as much information about Lukas as possible. He was tempted to try to get the therapy sessions set up on the kampdator, but he wasn’t sure how Alberich would react if he was aware that they were being viewed. Plus, there were literally hundreds of sessions, and it would take more than a few days to trudge through and analyze.
Alberich was even more fearful of a relapse than Cael, causing the conversations to often devolve into frustrated silences.
“What did he say when you first saw him?”
“I told you, I can’t remember exactly.”
“What do you remember?”
“He, he was friendly, like he really knew me.” Alberich’s focus softened, “It was as if I really were a long lost friend.”
Cael snapped at his face until he focused again.
“Just making sure.”
The next day.
“I’m telling you I don’t KNOW!”
“But he had to have told you something, anything to convince you to come back with him. Even if it was a lie, I want to know what he said.”
“Just that he was going to take me back to our people.”
“Did he say why you were taken away from your people in the first place?”
“No he… well, just that it was a mistake. That I was too important to have been let go.”
“Okay, did you ask what he meant by that?”
“No, I…” he watched Cael throw his head back with a loud sigh, “Look! It was really hard to ask him anything. He has this way of dismissing your questions. I would ask him something, and he’d answer it without actually answering it, and at the same time make me feel like I was wasting his time with the question. But I didn’t really need all the details, did I? What kid doesn’t want to hear that he’s unique and important; especially, a giant, fat teenager with no friends? It only took one whole afternoon before he almost had me on the ship. I think it was the first time the pigeon memory surfaced. It started as this horrible sense of foreboding…”
Cael tensed up as Alberich’s thoughts turned inward. The large head rose suddenly, “Can we stop for now?”
“Yeah, let’s take a break and get lunch started for the others.”
The following night, they lay on their respective tables.
“Have you ever seen inside his ship?”
“Not with my own eyes, but the memories being inside did hit me once. I can’t really….”
“Let’s move away from that, then, shall we? Good?”
“… Yes. I’m good.”
“Good. What is the fastest he’s ever caught up with you?”
“Once, about two, two and a half years ago, I had just lost him and arrived through a gate by passenger ship only to find him already waiting for me on the other side. I was so sure… It was one of those places that had a station right next to the gate. Luckily for me, it was a very crowded terminal and I was able to lose him in the resulting chaos. Not… so lucky for some others, though.”
“So, we could arrive to find him already at the port, possibly days in advance. I figured as much. When Dr. Vitor-Bieito told us to expect Lukas the next day, I knew he had to have something way beyond the tech you see out here… this is going to be tough.”
They started to loosely form plans A, B and C.
“What information do you think Lukas will be able to get from Dr. Vitor-Bieito?”
“I’m not sure. She wouldn’t betray me if she could help it.”
“I’m not questioning her loyalty, Alberich. Let’s say, he tortured her, no drugged, he drugged her. Some painless, truthy type serum. What information could he use from her get an advantage over you?”
The man sighed and thought, “Maybe that the pigeon memories still come in uncontrollable fits. That they leave me just as clueless as before they came. That I cared for her and trusted her more than my own parents.” Alberich pulled the blanket tighter around him and rolled over so that he faced the wall.
Cael began to work on plans D and E without him.
It had been a few years since Cael had been through a Zhouwen gate. A rare sight, even for the frequent traveler, who was often strapped to a seat with only views out of the sides of the ship. After days of minimal contact, he and Alberich got special permission from the boss to be in the Ko Thri so they could witness the approach.
The pilot was busy communicating with the gate’s artificial intelligence long before they could pick out its light from the stars. Only in the more populated systems were the gates physically manned and policed.
“Our reservation code checks out and permission has been granted for the next hour, boss.”
Cael watched the pilot flip a series of switches before sitting back to brace himself. A strong vibration built under their feet as the sleeping jets roared to life in front of them to slow down the ships approach. He looked over at the boss, who sat in the copilot’s chair, his arms crossed over his half opened jumpsuit. He tried to say thank you but the roar drowned him out.
The boss looked at him, “WHAT?”
“I SAID! I WANTED TO THANK YOU FOR LETTING US COME UP, TODAY!”
The boss grabbed Cael’s collar and pulled him down so he could yell directly into Cael’s ear.
“MANY OF MY MEN ARE PLANNING TO LEAVE THE CREW ONCE THIS IS OVER! I can’t say I blame them! And I really can’t blame you for what happened either! HOWEVER! Once we reach port, I’LL BE HAPPY TO NEVER SEE THE TWO OF YOU AGAIN!”
The boss pushed him away. Cael adjusted his collar and nodded grimly. He turned back to a screen that showed an straight, unenhanced view of the gate. The blinking lights were distinctive now, though underwhelming. Just red and white alternating at the center with solid blue points of light at the very edges of the dark wings which were extended to catch what little of the distant sun’s rays. Cael thought they were surely getting too close when their proximity finally triggered the gate into action.
A warm ball of red silently began to glow beneath the center of blinking lights. The red turned to yellow, and then extended down to a slit of white before fading to a pale blue and almost disappearing altogether again. The pilot’s screens, however, were going crazy. That faint blue line in space was, for the pilot, a kaleidoscope of color and energy that radiated wildly in every direction. The jets were shut off again, and the quiet stillness of their approach in the face of the chaotic screens made Cael feel discombobulated. He looked back to the screen that showed the unenhanced view and his stomach turned further. He struggled to push down the feeling of vertigo as they seemed to fall toward this crack in space.
It seemed like they had been right on top of it before. He waited for the ship to pull away from him. That slight stretch as the ship would sink through the tear in the fabric of time an space. Why was it taking so long? Why in the hell had he asked to come watch this?? How would Ilya hold up?
A hand on his shoulder made him jump.
“Cael, are you okay?”
He turned around and looked up at Alberich’s concerned face. He turned back to see a new, brighter sun floating in empty space on the screens.
“We’re through, then?”
“Hey, boss. Listen to this.”
The pilot flipped on the radio. It cut into a recording of a woman’s smoky voice.
The boss leaned forward. “Ah, she’s talking that commons speak too fast, what is she saying?”
Cael listened through the recording a couple of times before repeating it in Sakhimi.
“On behalf of de Moun nan Rebellion, you are welcomed to de newly liberated Riga System. All former contracts with de Manana Corporation will be honored in good fait’. Please, come join us in a new beginning!”
The boss’s eyes bulged in alarm. “… WHAT?”