Today's Reading

There was a certain kind of finality in the click of the locks and the ear-popping pressure of a new atmo system kicking on, as if to say, 'You're stuck now, boy.'

"Out-fucking-standing." He kicked the door, once, steel-toed boots against a metal much, much harder. She was built solid, that old ship, and for want of a code for that door panel, he figured he wasn't getting out the way he came in.

'The rest is just noise'. His pulse pattered on the back of his tongue, sweat gathering under the layered collars of his ratty button-up and 'refurbed' blue coat. He straightened his back and turned away from the hatch, eyes on an open doorway on the other side of the cargo bay. Either he'd find a way out, or he'd find whoever crewed the ship—whichever way, it'd serve him better than standing there, beating on a three-dec-deep hunk of metal and screaming himself blue.

'Nice folks, nice folks, nice folks.' A new mantra, fingers crossed at his sides because you never regretted the luck you didn't need. 'Please be nice folks'. They kept a homy ship, at least—much homier on the inside than the outside. He passed the makeshift gym tucked into the corner of the cargo bay, with a punching bag and weights all packed up nice and tight in case the gravity got shifty. A toolbox sat against the wall, wrenches nestled side by side with bags of dried fruits and wafers in case whoever was working got peckish, and Jal's stomach gave an impatient snarl to remind him it'd been nearly a day since anything'd passed his lips but water. Colorful little hand-knit creatures watched him from the top of the box with seed bead eyes as he ducked through the doorway and into a narrow hall.

Somebody'd painted the walls. Not the plain old white or beige or gray the manufacturers usually slapped on the walls to hide the metal underneath— this was some kind of soft blue, or maybe lavender? He was shit with colors, and his specs didn't help. Everything looked a little greener through the tint.

"Hello?" He peeked into an open door to his right. Sick bay was his guess, less from the bed and sparse setup of equipment, and more from the sharp stink of antiseptic. An alcove sat opposite the sick bay, with an open porthole and a ladder plunging down into the belly of the ship, but he didn't hear anything coming from below, so he walked past. Between hanging planters and covered bulbs, loose string tapestries hung on the walls. He'd never seen anything quite like them, some woven together in patterns too abstract to guess and some streaked with phosphorous strands that glowed against the rest. The glowing ones reminded him of the augmented's hair, pops of bright against the dark. He fought the urge to touch them, to wind them around his fingers, but nothing ever felt as soft as it looked.

Ahead, the hallway forked around one more room, and Jal knew before he even looked inside that it was the galley—a spartan kitchen setup on the near left wall, shelves stacked along the others. He probably could've spat from one doorway, cleared the four-top in the middle of the room, and hit the door on the other side. Small but lived-in; ship had a theme, and—fuck, were those apples on the shelf? He couldn't remember the last time he'd had fruit that didn't come out of a sealed foil pack.

His mouth watered, and the low-grade headache he'd been ignoring gave a quick spike behind his eyes. 'Fasting' was right up there with 'thinking' on the list of things he wasn't designed for, and it took every ounce of his self- control not to swipe himself some breakfast. Dinner? Hard to keep track of time with all the traveling. Hard to keep track of much of anything.

He was halfway through the galley when something darted out from the shelves. Dark and small—barely shin height—and so quick he couldn't make out what it was as it streaked past his legs. Some kind of animal, maybe? Startled the shit out of him, whatever it was. He stumbled back and nearly knocked a potted plant off the middle of the table, peering off in the direction the blur had darted. Toward the bridge, he thought, if he hadn't gotten turned around, but a dividing wall blocked the view from the galley. On his side of the wall, somebody'd put up a glass board, and what looked like years' worth of paint pen marks had been scribbled, erased, and scribbled over again. Little notes like 'add nori to req list' and 'fed bodie this morning, the asshole is lying,' and in a different hand, 'NO SPARE PARTS IN THE GALLEY'. He paused over the last line, angling his head. The straight, heavy lines looked vaguely familiar; he nearly read them in a different voice. Gruffer, to-the- point, like—"Something I can help you with?"

Jal jumped again, like a flea on a hot plate. Twice in as many minutes. 'The fuck is up with this ship?' People didn't 'sneak up' on Jal. People were noisy, even when they tried to be quiet— sometimes 'especially' when they tried to be quiet. They also smelled. Good or bad, they always smelled, and he'd never in his life been in the room with another human being and not known it.

And yet.

A whole-ass person stood in the doorway of the galley, so close he could've reached out and touched them if he hadn't been too busy backing into the glass panel. 'First time for everything'. Wry was better than panicky, but his muscles had already tensed to bolt.

The stranger smiled pleasantly enough, standing in the doorway like they'd been there the whole time. Close-cropped hair and proud shoulders, round features shaped in a patient smile. Their clothes flowed like water over their skin, silken robes in fluorite shades of blues and greens and purples that somehow looked vibrant even through Jal's specs. For a beat, all he could think about was the way their skin caught the lights, like a clear night's sky dusted with stars, but even that wasn't right. Didn't do them justice. Theirs was the kind of beautiful that words didn't quite grasp—not the kinds of words Jal knew, at least. His world hadn't had much use for poetry. Or for pretty things.


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