If this whole saving-the-universe thing didn’t work out and the Zelnads ended civilization, at least Geddy and Dr. Tardigan would never again have to teach a giant lizard how to use articles of speech.
“Vop– er, I see you across room?” asked Voprot hopefully.
They hadn’t even introduced “the” into the mix. Too soon. Though, he did say I on occasion. It wasn’t that he didn’t grasp the concept. He just didn’t like doing it.
“It’s a classic for a reason.” Geddy gave a shuddering yawn as he leaned back in the stool behind the rarely used workbench. “And hey, if she’s your age, she might not have heard that one before.” Taking Doc aside, he whispered. “This still feels weird. Isn’t he like twelve in Kigantean years?”
The lessons were his idea, but Doc was concerned about Voprot’s social acclimation. In this scenario, he was supposed to talk to a female at a party. A ludicrous premise on multiple levels, but Geddy didn’t have a better one.
“He is an adolescent. Using his language skills in social situations is essentially … what is your human expression?”
“A Sisyphean ordeal?”
“No, I believe it is, ‘Killing two birds with one stone.’”
“I like my answer better.”
Voprot pretty much always sat on the floor of the For Sale Make Offer’s capacious cargo hold during a crew meeting or the language lessons. His gigantic, swishy lizard tail limited him in many respects on the ship, which was made for short, snail-like Ghruk. But even on his haunches, his eyes came level with Geddy’s and Doc’s, which made it hard to think of him as the adolescent he technically was.
The hold felt depressingly empty. Empty crates were stacked to the ceiling along the starboard side. Sturdy shelves ran down the port wall and formed the back of the raised breakdown area called the deck. All empty, all spotless.
Their long and dicey trip to Old Earth had paid off. His old friend, Balzac, took all the metal from their scrapped satellites, which bought them a ton of needed repairs and upgrades to the Fiz. It still resembled an abandoned warehouse welded to the back of a service vehicle, but it was nicer on the inside now. The water ran clear-ish, he didn’t have to crouch to shower anymore, and the slapdash hull repair they got as a parting gift from Prince Bransel, Oz’s father back on Temeruria, had been reinforced. Morpho even got most of the items on his wish list.
It was only mid-afternoon, but Geddy could’ve racked out at any time. The fatigue that had kept him feeling run down and groggy for days had only deepened. It didn’t make sense. Once again, he’d slept through the night only to wake up in a complete fog that never quite lifted. At least they were stocked up on coffee now. Hard to believe that counted as a win these days.
Bored with the monotony of Voprot’s language lesson, Geddy’s eyes drifted over to the Penetrator, his ship he stole back from the Zelnads. Without its shinium skin, it couldn’t cross the barrier surrounding Sagacea, and he couldn’t get Eli home. It was parked tight with a bunch of other junk, naked, useless, and sadly unfinished. Not unlike his reflection.
Thanks to Balzac, though, the Fizmo’s engines’ familiar low-frequency hum was even and strong. He’d gotten so accustomed to its cyclic vibration under his feet that its absence still made it seem like they weren’t running at a full burn toward Gundrun.
As nice as it was to get on the ground and kick back on Zorr, it lost its charm after a couple of days. The Fiz was their only real home.
“Voprot have question.” His giant reptilian head often tilted to the side, making him seem perpetually curious, and the shape of his mouth suggested a permanent grin. Happy, affable, curious people got under his craw after a while.
Geddy’s open palm arced into his forehead. The slap echoed through the empty hold. “I! I have question! Actually, you have a question, but we only cover that in the advanced class.”
Doc’s burnt-orange, oblong face pinched in concern. “Are you okay, Captain?”
Dr. Tardigan brought a lot to the table. A flawless memory. Broad academic knowledge, including medicine. And, most vitally, infinite patience. Geddy hadn’t told him about the fatigue yet, but apparently, it showed.
His instinct was to say yes. But he wasn’t okay at all. Worrisome thoughts pummeled his brain like a meteor shower. Maybe that’s why he was so tired. Engaging with the world was a recipe for anxiety even in the best of circumstances. He scratched at his right ear.
“Just tired and crabby. My ear itches.”
Squinting, Doc leaned in to get a closer look. The ridges across his forehead pinched into sergeant’s stripes. “You have a rash.”
“I do?” he reflexively brought his fingers back up and gave it another quick scratch. “Bad?”
He shook his head. “No, just some contact dermatitis. We should keep an eye on it, though.”
Great. On top of everything else, he was allergic to something on the ship. Probably Voprot.
“But I am concerned about your mood. You’ve been more surly than usual, and that is saying something.”
“I’m fine. Let’s just finish up here.”
Doc returned his attention to Voprot. “Let’s try it in conversation. Imagine you were attracted to a female. What might you say to her?”
“Voprot lick you,” he said without hesitations, unironically cleaning one eyeball, then the other with his prodigious forked tongue.
“Like,” corrected Doc through gritted teeth. “I … like you.”
He grinned. “Voprot like you, too.”
Geddy closed his eyes and let out a long, cleansing sigh before he hopped off the stool and strode away, fistfuls of hair bunched in his fingers.
— I’m worried about you.
Eli, his microscopic, freeloading spore friend, had been silent for hours.
— Oh, now you chime in.
— You do not have the patience for teaching.
— This isn’t teaching, it’s punishment. On second thought, maybe it is teaching.
“Take ten?” Doc said to Voprot.
“Okay. Voprot butt numb.”
Had Geddy been alone, he might’ve cried.
— Shouldn’t I be rewarded for heroically saving him?
— If you say saving him was its own reward, I’ll sneeze you back into space.
— I’m not kidding.
Doc put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “He’s trying.”
Geddy turned to him. Voprot had gotten up and was stretching each leg out to the side like he was peeing on a shrub. “Is he, though?”
They’d only left Zorr three weeks ago. Usually, time had no meaning out here, but it felt like months had passed. After finding three quantum cubes in a vault at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, he brought them to his rich old friend Zirhof for analysis.
It seemed they were some sort of doomsday storage media, where a good chunk of the world’s accumulated data was stored. Almost an entire cube was dedicated to porn, which had never been done better or to the same degree in this galaxy. That technically made it one of humanity’s most enduring contributions to all civilization in the universe.
The other, Zirhof believed, was a jump technology so advanced that it could only have been conceived by an ancient Sagacean, beings created during the birth of the universe. Beings like Eli, who was so much a part of him now that they no longer seemed like separate entities.
It would take Zirhof a long time to pore through everything on the quantum cubes. Even then, there was no guarantee he’d find anything concrete about the mythical jump tech humans almost certainly used to reach their galaxy.
The sale of their scrap and the old Virgin Galactic space plane had their finances in fine order for once, and the novasphere hopper was full, but their sense of urgency was lacking because they needed a break. They’d only been a working crew for about three months, during which they’d hardly had a moment’s rest. With the Zelnads out there threatening all civilization, taking time to relax felt indulgent. But everyone, especially Doc, said it was crucial that they rejuvenate. And so they’d enjoyed Sumbakh while on Zorr, which made them realize they still needed to live a life worth fighting for. That meant slowing down occasionally.
“You haven’t been wearing the device I gave you, have you?” It wasn’t a question so much as an accusation. “If you don’t want to get to the bottom of this, then I won’t waste my time trying to diagnose it.”
The fingernail-sized disc stuck to his forehead while he slept. It was unobtrusive enough, but the whole idea of it made him uncomfortable. He couldn’t even stand jewelry.
Or maybe he didn’t want to know if something really was wrong with him.
“I’ll wear it again tonight.”
Doc still looked doubtful, and rightly so, but his reproachful expression softened. This fatigue issue flummoxed him. “The sooner I can get diagnostics, the sooner you can get some real rest.”
The device recorded brain wave patterns, vitals, and everything about his blood chemistry as he slept. “At this point, I’d eat a pan of snapping assholes to wake up rested.”
Tardigan cocked his head like a perplexed dog. “How would that ever be a condition of your treatment?”
Human idioms always got him in trouble. “Never mind.”
He glanced over at Voprot, who had shifted to stretching his hamstrings with his hands pressed to the hull like a hurdler. Then he arched back so far that he met their eyes upside down, then licked them again. So gross. Contorted like that, he looked possessed. You had to hand it to the big Kigantean. He never missed an opportunity to be himself.
Geddy gave a grim shake of his head and muttered, “This was an absurd idea. Why would you let me try this?”
Doc’s eyes roamed over Voprot with clinical fascination. “Because beneath that simple exterior is a shockingly sensitive and thoughtful being. And what he craves more than anything, besides globzoiks, is the approval of his captain.”
— That’s what I told you yesterday.
— Hmm? I wasn’t listening.
— I am literally in your head. You can’t not listen.
They were right, of course. Voprot was pure of heart and incapable of lying. Who else could he say that about? Geddy had neither been patient nor empathetic enough with him since they met, and he didn’t know why. Maybe it was because casual jokes at Voprot’s expense just sailed right over him like lob shots. It was fun to swing at someone when you knew they’d duck every punch.
The airlock door slid open and Oz, his Temerurian First Officer, strode through with the look of a disapproving mother. “You’re still at it? Why don’t you get some rest?”
Her limited rotation of outfits typically combined sturdy, lace-up boots with dark tights and a fitted vest. It suited her very well, and nothing she wore ever looked dirty or used.
Doc checked his watch and gasped. “My goodness, have we really been at it for three hours?”
“Are you trying to say it’s our bedtime?” Geddy winked at the lithe redhead.
“I’m saying we might have a long day tomorrow.”
He stifled another yawn. “Why?”
“There’s still a lot of chatter on the salvage bands. Whatever’s going down on Gundrun sounds big.”
Oz liked to peruse the net or read while monitoring the old radio frequencies used by salvage vessels. Sometimes, she said, high-paying gigs were discussed, and you could get an inside track. One such conversation hinted at a lucrative commercial opportunity on Gundrun, and for want of any better ideas, they were en route to a clear vector there.
After nearly running out of novaspheres on the way to Old Earth on his account, she certainly deserved the benefit of the doubt now. But considering how far it was to reach their vector, the information didn’t feel too solid.
“I’ve got a feeling about this one.”
Burning an increasingly expensive novasphere on Oz’s hunch wasn’t the issue. It was whether they should still be going after salvage work when the world might be ending. But they couldn’t fight the Nads if they couldn’t find them. Until then, there wasn’t much else to do but try and make more money.
Geddy gave her shoulder a pat as he passed. “Then we’d better check it out. Voprot, we’re done for today.”
He righted himself and shrugged. “Okay.” The giant lizard loped over to his sleeping area in the corner and disappeared behind the privacy walls Balzac’s people installed.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” Geddy said.
“Eli, make sure he sleeps,” Oz called after him.
— Tell her I will do my best.
“He says you aren’t the boss of us.”