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Her Instruments, Book 1
“I was hoping you could help me,” Kis’eh’t said.
“If I can,” Hirianthial said.
“There’s a chemical synthesizer upgrade I’d been eyeing for a few weeks that I didn’t have money to buy. Now that I’ve got the money… it’s just that it’s a little awkward to carry. If it were a single piece I might have towed it myself, but it’s a handful of strangely-shaped pieces.”
“Lead the way,” Hirianthial said.
As usual, she didn’t take him literally; few out-worlders did. He wondered whether the egalitarian Alliance philosophy had been so deeply internalized in most of its members that they simply couldn’t interpret a request that subordinated the speaker… or if most of them simply chose to ignore the words. For a moment, very brief moment, Hirianthial longed for the precision of his own kind; or at very least, for the social habits that simplified their lives.
Kis’eh’t walked alongside him and in this way poorly steered him through the stores along the dockside. Avoiding her body when she refused to walk sufficiently in front of him to warn him of impending turns occupied most of his attention, until she decided to talk.
“You don’t say much.”
“Is that because you like to listen to people or because you don’t like people to know about you?”
He glanced down at the top of her head; she was looking for the next turn.
“Does it matter?” he asked.
“You’re evading,” the Glaseah said. “I know the technique.”
“It’s an honest question,” Hirianthial said.
“I’m sure you’d really like to know,” Kis’eh’t said. “That way you’ll know how you’re supposed to answer me: with what I want to hear, based on your seemingly innocuous question.”
He chuckled. “Is ‘both’ an acceptable response?”
“Yes,” she said, radiating yellow cheer. He was close enough to her to feel it as soft as a towel on damp skin. After a moment, she added, “Quiet people make me curious.”
“Because you’re so talkative,” he said, indulging in amusement.
“Because I’m also quiet,” she replied, missing the humor. She peeked at him through the strands of her forelock. “I know what I’m hiding inside. How can anyone else be less interesting?” Then she grinned. “And now, because you’re polite, you won’t ask me any personal questions.”
“Of course not,” Hirianthial said, allowing her to see his smile. “That would be uncouth.”
She laughed. “And if I wanted to talk about myself?”
“I would listen,” Hirianthial said.
She shook her head, still grinning. “Of course you would. And I know you’d actually care about everything I said. But not a word will I hear from you about yourself.”
“I am far less interested in myself than I am in others. Why then would I discuss myself?”
Kis’eh’t laughed. “Good question! Because everyone wants to know the particulars?”
“The particulars of a life as long as mine are quite tedious,” Hirianthial said. “It’s why we take up so many hobbies.”
“And is medicine a hobby?” Kis’eh’t asked, aura a friendly fuzz of gold, like the down on a baby chicken. “Or is it your calling?”
“It is work worth doing,” Hirianthial replied, amused.
“That describes a lot of things. Is there any other work worth doing? For you?” Kis’eh’t persisted.
“I’m sure of it.”
She waited for more, and when it was not forthcoming white sparks frolicked over her aura as she laughed aloud. “I can see where this is going… today anyway. Fortunately, you’ll live a long time and I have plenty of patience. Ten or eleven years of questions will eventually wear you down, right?”
“I’d be delighted to attempt the experiment, if it means in ten or eleven years I’ll still be with the Earthrise,” Hirianthial said.
Kis’eh’t glanced at him sharply, then grinned and shook her head. “Finally, something interesting and just as we arrive. I’m sure by the time I come out you’ll have hidden that piece of you again.” She chortled. “Ah well. You can come inside or wait here, as you prefer.”
Hirianthial glanced into the shop and saw immediately why she’d offered the choice. The tiny store had been crammed full of used electronics and machinery, and the corridors separating the shelves were so miniscule he wasn’t sure how she’d managed to squeeze her bulky body through them.
“I’ll wait here.”
She grinned again, then vanished into the shop with her good humor. Hirianthial folded his arms and leaned against the wall. The stores nearest the dock had appeared gracious enough, large buildings standing alone, each with an eccentric facade. The rows behind them, where this store was located, became increasingly small and twined in maze-like confusion. The breeze barely found its way between the buildings, and when it came it carried conflicting scents: fried pastries, machine oil, sweat, hot dust. For the most part, everyone hurried through the warren as if chasing errands through the alleys. Their auras blurred into a sense of motion and purpose, and Hirianthial closed his eyes to the visual noise.
Perhaps it was the hiccup in that tapestry that alerted him, or perhaps it was the waking of older senses, honed long before he lifted his hand and swore never to take another life or allow another to be taken. One of the two lifted gooseflesh along his arms and on either side of his spine. His cautious scan snagged on a man standing at a corner. Hirianthial had never seen him before, but he was unmistakably watching the Eldritch… and the moment Hirianthial caught his eyes, the man wandered away, seeming to drift though his aura reported steadier purpose.
“Ready?” Kis’eh’t asked at the door.
Without taking his eyes from the man’s receding back, Hirianthial said, “Surely.”
“Something wrong?” Kis’eh’t asked.
He shook back his hair and picked up one of the boxes at the Glaseah’s feet. “No.”
She squinted at him. “You sure? You’re no longer aimless-looking.”
“Just a passerby,” Hirianthial said.
“Probably curious,” she said, picking up the remaining box. The others were already strapped to her second back. “How often do you get to see an Eldritch in person, after all?”
“Too true,” Hirianthial said, though over fifty years in alien space had inured him to such stares.
After buying the requisite cold weather gear, Reese stocked up on more important things: books, bath lotion and scented candles. Lift-off day found her crew milling at the Earthrise‘s pad with boxes and bundles of their own.
“Did they actually wash her?” Sascha asked, ears akimbo.
“Maybe by accident,” Reese said. “I didn’t pay for it.” She stared at the bulky freighter. “It certainly does look shinier. Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
They filed into the ship; Bryer closed the lock and they all dispersed to their stations. Reese eyed the corridors as she headed to the bridge, hunting for any signs the ship had been mishandled, but it presented an innocuous facade from its clean deck plating to the Harat-Shariin freshness of its air. Satisfied, Reese joined the Harat-Shar and Kis’eh’t.
“New sensors,” Sascha said. “Very nice. And a better power plant! We might get an extra kick out of those.”
“I wanted a little extra to run amenities in-flight,” Reese said. “If we’re going to be in transit for a few weeks I don’t want us to notice.”
“And it’s nice and warm, too!” Irine said.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Reese said. “I had them overhaul the air handlers.” Irine’s whine was so piteous, Reese patted her on the shoulder. “I’ll give you a few hours after we get underway.”
“Way too kind,” Sascha said. “I think she’s happy to be leaving.”
“I’m happy to be making money,” Reese corrected. “Get us off the ground, fuzzy.”
“The environmentals are nice,” Kis’eh’t said, feathered ears perking. “You must have made quite a bit.”
“Hopefully for not too much effort,” Reese said as the engines began to hum. As it rose through the deck the sound massaged her heels, and a tension she hadn’t even noticed released between her shoulder-blades, down her spine and into her hips. Wherever home was, it wasn’t on Harat-Sharii… or Mars. Or maybe any planet. This little bubble of air and sanity, controlled by her: this was where she belonged. It even had enough people on it to keep her from feeling too lonely.
Irine’s soft, continuous patter with ground control faded into the background as Sascha lifted the Earthrise into the blue and then the black. As the stars steadied through the tiny windows, Reese smiled.
“Where to, boss?”
“Sector Tau, and the solar system around Demini Star.”
“Sector Middle-of-Nowhere, on our way. ETA, three weeks, about.”
Reese fuzzled the top of his head and strolled into the lift, hands in her vest pockets. She felt like whistling. Maybe she’d try learning during their downtime. Her state of cheer remained until she stepped into her quarters and realized there was a bit of business she’d been putting off. Usually she didn’t take the time to use the computer locator to find someone—hitting the all-call and just asking was faster—but in this case she consulted the diagram and hit the mess hall pattern on the intercom.
“Hirianthial, can I see you in my quarters, please?”
“On my way.”
Without a “lady,” even. Reese eyed the intercom grate uncomfortably, then shook her head and shuffled through files until she found the one she wanted. She was ready with it when the Eldritch appeared at her door, wearing a mildly curious look.
We are paid through Thursday—thank you, patrons! I’m glad you contributed because this conversation that’s coming is one several of you have been speculating about for a while.