HUNGER

All nights are dark and stormy. Dark by distance or by rotational effect, turning from the light. Stormy from roiling internal demons come to hunt and haunt, after the visual distractions of the day have faded. It’s when I do my best work.

“Captain, you have a message waiting.”

“Who’s it from?”

“Captain Fwala, the male you had…”

“Yeah, yeah. Erase that from your memory.”

“Completed.”

“All right, pipe it in.” This new replacement AI is too formal. It insists on calling me Captain even though there’s no one else aboard.

“Sahza! So good to see you if only in a hologram. I fondly remember our last port call together—”

“Get to the point, Fwala. Got a schedule to keep.” Not really, but there’s no need for him to know.

“I’m calling in that little favor you owe me.”

I gave him a fake pause to make him think there’s a smidgen of care at this end. “Okay, what do you want?”

“I find myself in a teeny, tiny bit of a quandary.”

“Go on.” His topknot was twitching, a sure tell he’s lying.

“I need to make a vector change to Vanklu, just business, of course. I have a passenger on board who wouldn’t be well received there. You know how hyper-xenophobic they are. It needs to go to a colonized world where oxygen breathers can survive, a G12 planet. I’m hoping you can take it somewhere suitable. I’d be remiss in my duties if one of my passengers was … Well, you know the Vanklu.”

“I don’t know why you trade with them.” Something smells rotten here. “Are you carrying proscribed elements for them? You know the guild will bust your ass big time for that. Does this … thing need any special environment? What does it eat? Will it stink up the ship?”

“It can easily tolerate your ship’s environment and eat what the processors can produce. I’m sending you a video of it along with its dietary preferences.”

“What’s that thing called? Never seen one of those before. It looks harmless enough, though.”

“It calls itself a Canadian, a human, a young female of its race. They’re quite recent in this sector—still have that new species smell.”

“Never heard of them. After this, we’re square. Back to zero energy ground state, clean start.”

“Thank you. May you forever change for the good.”

“Yeah, yeah. How soon do you want to dock up? I need time to shift into a form that pasty looking thing can identify with. Is it always that hairless?”

“I can rendezvous with you in three days. That should give you plenty of time. I’m sending over the translator files so you’ll be able to understand it. Be prepared for a chatty visitor.”

Fwala signed off too quickly, breaking protocol. Shifting shape on short notice is painful. This present form usually scares the crap out of the two-eyed bipedal types, or at least makes them uneasy while they hide their young.

✽✽✽

When the inner airlock door slid open, there it stood, luggage in each hand—a fragile pink thing, yellow hair pulled tightly back from its face, its mouth such a bright red… might be blood. Has Fwala has been skimping on its rations? “Welcome aboard … ah … didn’t get your name. Do you have one?”

“It’s Amy, and thank you SO much! I didn’t know what to do when he told me about, you know, about those icky … the Vankle. I remember once when my friend Wendy and I got separated and—”

“Okay, okay. You can finish your story later after you’re out of the airlock. Step aside, so the hatch can shut. It’s the Vanklu, by the way. Your quarters are the first hatch on the left … That way. No, the other way.” Is the ship’s gravity too low for this hopper? She bounces with every step, and that swaying length of gathered hair on the back of her head is annoying. An irritation I might cut off.

Passing her hatch, I gave a quick look. She's standing in the middle of her bunk space, one hand on hip, the other pressed against a corner of her thin mouth as if she is making redecorating choices. A quick palm slap on the actuator closes the hatch. Let her figure out how to open the damn thing, there’s work to do.

✽✽✽

“So, you see, I’m traveling to join my daddy. He’s working for our Ambassador on, oh, I get the names all wrong sometimes. I think it’s the planet Barrel or Bartle or Bramble … something like that. Anyway, I had to travel on a moment’s notice, leaving behind most of my wardrobe. The local authorities insisted I be on my way. I have the cutest long frock. Jenny says she doesn’t think it is, but I think she’s just jealous of me being friends with Suzy. You’d like Suzy. She lives on Veeder or Ventor now and has SO many boyfriends. I don’t know how she keeps them straight. It’s probably because her family’s so rich, but Becky says—”

“STOP. Don’t you need to breathe?”

“Why yes, I breathe all the time. Momma says proper breathing is a sign of good breeding, that and posture, and of course a cultured walk …” Three months of this could very well drive anyone insane.

✽✽✽

Aha! A solution—other than placing her in stasis or strapping her to the hull of the ship. She has quite an interest in visual entertainment media, staying silent, mesmerized in front of the screen for hours. I need to look up more about her species. If they’re all like this, it won’t be long before someone comes along to cancel their ticket. Speaking of which, hers will bring a nice bonus at the other end.

                                              ✽✽✽

Well. That lasted about two weeks. Now she wants to know everything. She never shuts up. It’s no use directing her to the data banks. She’s been banned from the bridge; the only place for a peaceful sleep away from her continual self-conversations. Going to start slipping some sleepy-time in her tea.

                                             ✽✽✽

Diverted. Her father has moved on to another planet. Another month now. That’s not a good thing. The molt urge is overwhelming.

Amy’s stories have no start, no endpoint, and if there’s a discernable middle, it’s not evident. She goes on and on about how strange every other race is, throwing out pejorative evaluations in solar bursts. She’s not enamored by many of her own kind either, especially those she calls The French. Considering taking out a contract on her momma if she mentions her one more time.

                                            ✽✽✽

It just goes to show you, like an ever-present stench, your senses eventually become dulled to the stimulus of irritating beings. Beginning to have a less intense dislike for this thing, ugly though she may be.

✽✽✽

It was a race against time, and time won. Molting had been put off too long. There was no choice. If we hadn’t been diverted, she would have been off the ship well before the change came. A small fondness for Amy and the background noise she produces had grown. She would have lived longer if I hadn’t been so hungry. It’s that insatiable hunger after molting you know. The kind that makes you want to burn planets. It’s a craving, a desperate need for air.

Since she wasn’t registered as a passenger in the transit data banks, she still showed as being on Fwala’s vessel. He’s going to be pissed when he finds out. Another favor to owe him. Anyway, my main contract is still not settled. There’s a small moon that needs destroying. Foul moods don’t encourage warnings. Those squatters aren't getting second chance to vacate.

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