Although Arnold “Lefty” Swanson’s head was under the communications panel, he heard the clacking of talons as they grasped the projections on the floor and knew it was the captain approaching. And if for some reason Lefty hadn’t noticed it was the captain approaching, the soft gnashing of the captain’s mouthparts, followed quickly by the computerized voice of the translator he wore around his neck–it wasn’t actually his neck, but that’s what the humans on board called it–would have given it away. “Lefty, how’s it going under there?” the computerized voice asked.
“Not good, sir,” he responded. The captain was not a sir or a ma’am either, but the term of address was agreed upon as a necessary and adequately comfortable protocol for all parties concerned.
Although the translator had stopped after the question was asked, the captain’s mouthparts did not–Lefty knew from his training that the Malathan way of speaking was to get it all out in one go. Malathan’s talked that way; first one would give his entire story, then the other would respond to that fully, and the conversation would be over. Lefty understood that there was actually a cultural taboo against exchanges of information that went beyond “he said, he said”–or “it said, it said,” Lefty would have supposed, had he been in the mood for supposing. He was in no such mood now. “It’s the Crater unit, isn’t it?” the computerized voice asked.
“That’s an affirm, sir,” Lefty said. “Just our luck.”
The captain’s rustled his chitlin wings; he would not unfurl them, as there was also a cultural taboo against doing that in the presence of non-Malathans, but it was a behavior Malathans engaged in when they were nervous or stressed–and a bad Crater unit certainly was stressful to a captain who was responsible for transporting forty-one alien prisoners from Point A to Point B. “Okay. How long until you have it out of there?”
Lefty always tried to avoid giving a definite time–the removal of the Crater unit was complicated. It was a large piece of equipment with many mechanical and electrical connections, and internal and external power. The disconnection from external power procedure alone would take three or four hours. But more than that, Lefty was well aware that as soon as you put a time on something–for instance, he could tell the captain that the removal would take five hours–something always seemed to pop up to double whatever time had been promised. “Five hours minimum, sir,” Lefty said anyway. He knew his captain would be stressed and even if he was a Malathan, he was a strong leader and a good man–well, not a man, but the principle was the same. Had not the captain kept his cool during the fuel fire that occurred on Mission Day three and threatened not only the mission but their lives? Had not the captain pitched in when a cloud of vacsuckers latched on to their hull? Had not the captain remained at his post during the entire 61 hour acceleration phase of the mission. Never mind that Malathani didn’t sleep–the man-not-a-man set the example for the crew with his devotion to duty. After three months in space, Lefty had come to admire the brown insectoid alien commanding his vessel.
“Five hours. Okay. You need any help?” the computerized voice asked.
“No sir,” Lefty said. There was a bang; Lefty cursed, and then the captain heard–his hearing was acute–Lefty sucking on one of his fingers.
“You need a band-aid?” the computerized voice asked.
Lefty snorted. “No, sir.” he said.
“Okay,” the computerized voice responded, and then Lefty heard the captain making his-not-a-his way across the projections, his taloned feet grasping the tops of them as he moved out of the engineering space.
“Five hours, huh?” a feminine voice sounded from the other side of the room. Lefty had not known that Pamela was in the space; he peered around his elbow and saw her bare feet on the deck.
“What happened to your shoes, honey?” he asked.
“Don’t call me honey, asshole,” she responded with a laugh. “I came to see how badly you’re fucking up in here.”
“The Crater unit is tits up,” he said.
There was a moment of silence as this registered on Pamela. “Oh, shit,” she said. “You taking it out of there?”
“That’s what the captain wants,” he responded. It was the sensible thing to do, and Lefty agreed with the idea, but he wanted to know what Pamela would say about the removal if he attributed it to the captain, for whom her attitude was somewhat different than his own.
“Well, yeah,” she said. “You think Davey can do something with it?”
“No.” There was another bang, and another curse.
“What the hell are you doing in there?” Pamela said. Lefty peered again and saw that she was squatting down, and then her face–young and pretty, but her left cheek was marred by an ugly-looking diagonal burn scar about four inches long and half an inch at its widest. She made no attempt to hide it, neither through the mechanism of makeup or by shying that side away from people. She simply was what she was, scar and all, and was happy to explain how she came to have such a mark. “I interned on Artois PT Cleveland,” she said when she met Lefty as he came on board at Phobos station. “Got splashed with hot fuel. I was lucky; the fuel didn’t ignite.” The Cleveland accident–an explosion inside a fuel storage area that ruptured dozens of stacked 45-gallon fuel cans–killed half the crew.
“I knew a couple of guys on Cleveland,” Lefty had said. She didn’t seem to be shy about the scar, so Lefty hadn’t been shy about looking at it. He drew closer to her, his eyes on her cheek, and she turned her face so that he could see it straight on.
“There was too much going on for anybody to look at it, and besides, both our doctors were killed. I’m not complaining about it. As I said, I was lucky.” Her abdomen had been splashed too, and there was an equally evil-looking burn scar between her navel and the top of her pubic hair, but Lefty wouldn’t be seeing that.