Read A Thousand Words For Stranger (10th Anniversary Edition) Online

Authors: Julie E. Czerneda

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

A Thousand Words For Stranger (10th Anniversary Edition) (10 page)

BOOK: A Thousand Words For Stranger (10th Anniversary Edition)
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I still felt cold when I looked at him, met those blue eyes I couldn’t read. The compulsions in my mind were silent, deadened by this sudden success.
Perhaps Morgan read something in my silence. He moved one hand, held it palm out. On his palm lay not one, but a matched set of tiny handles. “You didn’t kill Roraqk,” Morgan said regretfully. “But it was a good try.”
I shrugged, still reluctant to trust my voice. The movement shifted the hood back from my face. Morgan’s hand reached toward my wounded cheek, but drew back at my involuntary flinch. His voice roughened. “Come on. The sooner we’re offworld, the safer we’ll both be.”
“The pirates know you,” I said around a tongue too thick to move easily. “Roraqk kept me alive—” I paused—“because I said your name.”
Morgan spoke with exaggerated care, as if afraid I wasn’t able to hear. I didn’t blame him, finding it difficult keeping his face in focus. “I’m not one of them. No matter what they said or how it seems.”
Fragments of conversations I had overheard floated in my mind. How easy to interpret them in his favor—or not. I closed my eyes for a moment against the pain so much thinking caused. “Captain Morgan,” I answered with a voice much steadier than I expected. “It doesn’t matter whether I believe you or not. I must get off this planet.”
“And go where?”
A nightmare would be simple compared to the maelstrom in my thoughts at that question. I opened my eyes, surprised when icy moisture escaped down my cheeks. “I don’t know,” I whispered. “I don’t know.”
His level, matter-of-fact voice probably helped as much as what he said. “You’re welcome on the
Fox.
She’s not set for passengers, but you can bunk as crew till her next planetfall.”
I released some of my tension in a sigh. “Agreed,” I said, at last able to smile. “And thank you, Captain.”
Morgan frowned, dropping his eyes from mine. I stared at him, startled and uncertain again. “This way,” he said, leading the way through the inner portal into a narrow, curved corridor. Silently, I struggled to move my leaden feet, wishing the deck wouldn’t persist in moving. I stepped over the sill carefully. My immediate surroundings grew vague, less important than the need to stay upright. Warm, unexpectedly gentle hands offered support. I accepted, losing the battle of pride and consciousness almost gratefully.
INTERLUDE
“A mess.”
Terk kept his expression fixed in what he hoped was a neutral expression, although he winced inwardly at the icy condemnation in his Commander’s voice. “They were tipped—”
“A mess,” Bowman repeated, choosing to stare out her window at the shipcity rather than look at the two uncomfortable officers standing before her cluttered desk. “Not only did you lose every witness; not only did you lose four good beings from my staff; you lost most of the recruiters as well.”
’Whix tried unsuccessfully to control a tendency to pant, a species-specific reaction to distress. Like Terk, his uniform was marred by battle, scorches revealing the gray gleam of body armor under the fabric. “She was there,” he insisted. “We were close.”
Bowman came back to her desk and sat down. “A bit of good work,” she conceded. “But we’ve more important things to do than clean up Auord. Prepare my cruiser for lift.”
Terk brightened. “We have a lead?” he said with obvious hope. It wouldn’t be the first time his Commander suddenly improved the odds.
“Less than that,” Bowman corrected dryly. “Six ships got off without being searched. Seems the grounders were too busy with some smugglers we flushed for them to watch their port. And you two were busy checking bodies.” She passed a noteplas to ’Whix. “Opinion.”
He read for a moment. “Two are local ore carriers. But— interesting—the Torquad.”
Terk scowled. “Port Authority’s always suspected Roraqk of transporting recruits outsystem as a favor to his buyers. He’s mixed up in this to his scaly neck, you can bet on it.”
Bowman nodded. “So pirates have our missing celebrity? Or has she given them the slip and taken other transport?”
’Whix chirped thoughtfully. “The remaining ships are a Regillian passenger transport headed to Camos, a trader, and a private yacht with no listing. Do we contact their captains?”
“Not with the Clan involved. Barac has likely headed offworld as well, possibly with her. I don’t want him scared off. I’d like to talk to that one.” Bowman pursed her lips and half-closed her eyes in thought. Terk and ’Whix traded glances. “How do we find them?” she said finally.
Terk had taken the ship list from his partner. As he read it, his heavy shoulders tensed, straining his already suffering uniform. “That trader is the Silver Fox,” Terk announced. “There’s our target.”
“Why?” ’Whix protested, before Bowman could respond. “The Fox is a one-man operation. Captain Morgan’s lift was scheduled well in advance; three planetfalls’ worth of cargo are registered against his ship. Hardly a profitable time to become involved with an illegal passenger or two.”
“Call it a hunch,” Terk said, his heavy jaw thrust forward stubbornly. “Commander, I’ve run up against this Morgan and the Fox in the past. It’s nothing I can prove—his record’s clean. But I don’t trust him.”
’Whix fluttered his vestigial neck feathers in disapproval; his was a methodical mind, and he disliked Terk’s mental leaps. “The Torquad,” he said firmly.
Bowman, however, raised one eyebrow, considering them both. “Interesting choices,” she commented after a moment. A theatrically fatalistic shrug could not conceal the gleam of anticipation in her eyes. “Regardless of our quarry, it means lift from Auord by dawn. Put your business in order. We won’t be back for some time.”
“Who gets copied on this?” Terk asked, his mind already running through a checklist of what Bowman would justly assume would be done before lift.
The commander sighed. “No one, yet.”
’Whix fluttered uneasily. “Commander? Surely there are species whose position within the Trade Pact might be affected by our current actions and findings. It is our duty to send that information simultaneously to all concerned representatives on the Board, is it not?”
“That’s what the regs say,” Bowman agreed. She began clearing her desk, using her favorite strategy of bringing her travel case up to one side and shoving anything on top into it. “But it’s a judgment call, ’Whix. And in this case, I judge it best to let the Board wait a while longer.”
“May I ask why, Commander?”
Bowman’s voice was very quiet. “Because this time, I think we are on to something that may affect every member species, as well as several that are not. So we’ll keep this matter in-ship until I give the word. Any more questions?”
They had none that felt comfortable to ask.
Chapter 5
“WAKE up.”
Unfair,
I grumbled to myself, burrowing deeper under my warm blankets, hoping to escape that annoying voice.
“Wake up!” This time the voice was sharper and definitely aggravated.
I pulled my covers down so that I could peer over the edge with one eye, cleverly not committing myself to being awake. The room was dim enough to be featureless; I had the impression the walls were unusually close together. But sufficient light came in behind the figure in the doorway to show me who it was. “Is it morning, Captain Morgan?” I asked doubtfully, poking my head farther out.
“Not by shiptime, it isn’t,” Morgan announced, yawning as if to prove his point. “You were having a nightmare.”
“You woke me up because I was having a nightmare?” I repeated rather stupidly. I hadn’t been dreaming. Had I?
“I woke you because your yelling woke me up.”
“Oh.” I was wide awake now, and embarrassed. I sat up, catching the edges of my bed as it swung slightly in response. “This is a hammock,” I said with some alarm. An instant later, realizing I was not being immediately dumped to the deck by uncontrolled and erratic movements, I relaxed. Then apologized, “I guess I was dreaming a bit louder than usual. Sorry—”
He waved away my apology almost impatiently. “How’s your face?” Morgan asked, a change of subject I thought was quite deliberate.
I touched my cheek and felt a neat patch of medplas. When had he done this? My memories were definitely hazy after arriving in the
Fox.
There was no heat or tightness remaining. “It doesn’t hurt,” I told him, realizing at the same time that I could no longer feel the burn on my shoulder.
“It’ll probably leave a scar, but you can always get that fixed.” He paused. “There’s a stall with a fresher just off the galley when you need it.”
“Thank you, Captain.” My gratitude included the too loose comfort of an unfamiliar tunic as well as the bed. My hair tumbled into my eyes as I dipped my head to stare awkwardly at my bandaged wrists, clean-smelling hair freed of fastenings and tangles.
The compulsions that had driven me here must still have been asleep; in their place was a confusing emptiness, with odd useless bits of knowledge rolling around my thoughts like marbles in a bowl. I didn’t know what to say or do. I hadn’t expected kindness.
Morgan paused; possibly he sensed my discomfort, because he said: “Go back to sleep, chit.” He turned to leave, hand ready to close the door.
Chit? It sounded like something you’d call a child, and a not too bright child at that. “My name is—” I started to say. Morgan stopped politely, looking back at me, his face unreadable in the shadows. “My name is Kissue. I’m Human—a spacer, like you. The Tulis took my clothes before they put me—” I closed my lips tight, sealing in the rest. I found myself shaking.
“Lights.” At Morgan’s command, a portlight winked on at ceiling height, making me squint. He took a step into the tiny room. “We went outsystem hours ago. You’re safe now, Kissue,” he said, dropping to one knee beside my hammock, his quiet voice full of concern. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
Seen this close, Morgan’s eyes were very blue, so vivid they might have been lit from within. I stared into them, unable to say why I believed him, or why my cheeks felt suddenly warm. I amazed myself by daring to touch my fingers to the side of Morgan’s face.
My hand might have been a force blade from his sudden flinch to avoid it. Confused, I curled up the offending fingers and shoved both hands back under my blankets. Standing, Morgan backed away from me, his face oddly red under his tan. “Get some sleep, Kissue.” This time he closed the door.
I ordered out the lights, slipping down under my blanket, curling myself into as much of a ball as the protesting hammock would allow. But not to sleep. I had new thoughts filling my empty mind. Why had Morgan avoided my touch?
And why did it hurt?
 
I did sleep a bit more, then hunger and other needs became more important. I ordered on the light and found Morgan had left a pair of used but clean coveralls by the door. I dressed slowly, using the time to think over my situation.
I agreed with Morgan. I probably was safe—at least from Roraqk. I’d also left behind whoever had chased me through the dark on Auord.
Unfortunately, despite safety and a decent rest, I hadn’t regained any more of what was missing from my mind. Knowledge of what was around me seemed to float up when I needed it, but I was no closer to knowing who I was. Nor was I any closer to understanding what it was that had compelled me to certain actions, such as getting on this ship. Frustrated, I bundled up the hammock and tucked it back in its cupboard along the wall.
Maybe the compulsions were over. I’d achieved their purpose—to find my ship and leave Auord. Maybe I’d be left in peace aboard the
Fox.
I felt an itch. But it had nothing to do with my skin. It was inside, somehow.
The feeling subsided the instant I began worrying about it.
Then it snuck back, when I deliberately thought about breakfast. I closed my eyes for a moment to concentrate, not sure what I was feeling. The itch disappeared. I opened my eyes again, frustrated, only to find I’d turned without knowing it to face the wall my hammock slid into, instead of the door of my little room.
And I knew Morgan was that way, somewhere beyond that wall. How I knew was beyond me.
I spun away from the wall and banged the door open with unnecessary force.
Great,
I said to myself.
I’m ready to take some control of my life, and a man I don’t even know has become an itch.
My door opened into a galley. I glanced back, realizing that I’d been sleeping in a storeroom—the cupboards lining the walls were probably loaded with galley supplies, not clothing as I’d thought. Well, Morgan had warned me the
Fox
wasn’t a passenger ship.
The galley was a good size, though, with a gleaming yellow table and four waiting stools. The room itself was longer than it was wide, one long wall taken up by a counter with cupboards overhead and the other broken by two doors, one leading to my cubbyhole and another opening on a compact fresher stall. I quickly availed myself of that comfort, then stepped back out into the galley, thinking firmly of breakfast.
An older but quite sophisticated servo-kitchen beckoned. I moved around the table, noticing that it and the stools could retract into the floor if necessary. The short, slightly curved wall to my left was open to the hall, its airtight door withdrawn. The remaining wall was open to the blackness of space.
A memory conveniently surfaced before I could panic, telling me that this was not a hole in the ship but simply a vis-wall, one set to show a very realistic depiction of vacuum and stars. I let go of my death’s grip on the table and breathed more easily. Breakfast.
“Good morning, Fem Kissue.”
So much for breathing easily. “Morning, Captain,” I managed to mumble, every thought driven from my head by Morgan’s arrival and that damnable mental itch. I sat down hurriedly.
“Have you eaten yet?” Morgan looked rested and cheerful. When I shook my head, he went to the control panel of the kitchen. His hand hovered over the first row of keys. “What do you like to have for breakfast?”
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