Contest #24 shortlist ⭐️

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Jan 17, 2020

Science Fiction

Welcome Interruptions

On the thirty-third day in the deepest black Daltz woke once again to the gnawing of the navigator. His presence rummaged in her mind, as insistent as it was unsubtle. Swearing softly at the uncaring confines of her hab, she was surprised to find her eyes watering, her wince having drawn frustrated tears. A month of broken sleep and zero privacy could do that. Still drowsy, she fancied she could feel phantom fingers on the inside of her skull, mapping the contours and wrinkles of the bone.

‘Itching powder for the brain.’ She muttered, rising on unsteady legs to stagger to her cramped bathroom. It wasn’t a bad assessment. Torv had been closer when he called the intrusion a ‘constant hangover’. Low-grade headache and little nausea? Nail on the head. Splashing recycled water on her face did little good, but beneath her feet the vast plasma engines of the scrap-scavenger Marabou thrummed on-and-on, reassuring in their constancy. They must be getting close by now. Close to home, to making some money and to getting some blessed sleep. It was an unworthy thought. The Navigator couldn’t help his nature, and they relied on him so much to ply their trade amongst the stars. Fragile electronics and delicate instruments would always be a poor substitute for psychic precision.

Daltz considered herself in the mirror, already resigned to a sleepless night and in no hurry to return to the dissatisfaction of her bed. Her hair was a lank mess, the deep black of its colour lessened somehow. Her skin was pallid, her eyes shot with red.

‘You look like a vampire.’ Came a thoroughly unhelpful mumble from the bedroom. Daltz could just imagine Torv’s cheeky grin set into a face puffy from blissful sleep. She swore the man got some kind of kick out of the psychic invasion. Perv. She scowled at the engineer tangled in her sheets until he raised his hands in surrender. ‘Fine, fine. Sorry.’ He tried again. ‘You look like a sack of kicked crap?’

‘You look like you’ve outstayed your welcome.’ She shot back, hiding her sudden smile by shutting the door between them. Through the burnished metal she offered an obscene gesture in response to the soft sound of his chuckling. Sleep deprivation was torture. No two ways about it. Slumping down to sit on the toilet, she felt the weariness right down to the marrow of her bones. With her temple pressed to the cool walls, she relieved herself in a waking doze.

<Science Officer Daltz.>

Her yelp of surprise turned to a stream of curses as her knee jerked into the unyielding shower cubicle.

<I waited until you were not in bed.> The words arrived in her mind unheard, as though they’d always been there. Through the Link she could sense the Navigator’s vague reproach at all the ‘strange customs’ humans had about conversing.

‘So far from the point, Nav!’ She could feel her face burning red as she hiked up her underwear as quickly as she could.

<I confess, I do not understand. You were awake, were you not?>

‘That’s a matter of opinion.’ Her words were bitter, and she regretted them immediately. The Navigator was good at regulating the Bleed, but strong emotion still seeped through their Link from time to time. She’d hurt his feelings. She could sense wisps of badly hidden shame mingling with her own thoughts, swiftly disappearing like steam in air.

<I have upset you.>

‘Yes.’ She started, fumbling for words and still mortified beyond belief. ‘No. I… I was peeing, Nav.’

<Impossible. You are all impossible.> Grumbled the psychic seabeast. <I lose track of which biological processes I am meant to consider embarrassing. Should I avoid you all when you sweat? When you sneeze?>

‘Of course not, it’s just-’

<I did not disturb your lovemaking at Torv’s request, though my need is urgent.>

‘And I appreciate that, but… Wait what?’

<Edify.> Came the response, carefully neutral.

‘At Torv’s request?’ Her eyes narrowed. ‘When was this?’

<Not relevant.> The Bleed went curiously blank in her mind, like hard vacuum pulling all the air out of a room. Even her non-psychic and sleep-deprived human mind couldn’t fail to notice that. She could taste copper on the tongue at the suddenness of the change. The Navigator was being evasive.

‘When, Nav?’

<Recently…>

‘You pair of freaks!’ she gasped, kicking open the door. Torv had vanished, lucky for him. ‘I’m in the depths of space trying to seek a bit of damned human connection on this endless voyage and it turns out my lover and the nosey Navigator are carrying on a conversation the whole time!?’

<Not the whole time.> At least Nav had the grace to allow his abashedness to seep back into the exchange. Daltz expected no such tact from Torv when she confronted him.

‘He’s dead. Dead meat.’ She vowed, pacing out the tension in her tiny cabin. She was spitting mad, but also, deep down, felt like collapsing in a heap of laughter at the surreal situation. In the end she let out a gasp of inexpressible emotion, lost somewhere between hysteria and rage, and flopped onto the bed.

After long minutes of pondering silence Nav offered his tentative interpretation of events. <I will not do this again.>

‘You’re damn right.’ Her jaw was bunched, but she was suddenly embarrassed, bizarrely concerned for the feelings of the hapless Navigator, alone in a ship where every mind he tried to touch resisted him at capricious, unknowable times. They asked the impossible of their most valuable crewmember. How would a human feel expected to forgo the use of their tongue, their hands, the expressiveness of their face for months at a time?

<I did not know this was transgressive. I am not tactless. I am trying.>

Daltz sighed deeply, feeling the last of the tension sloughing from her. ‘I know you are.’ She said, attempting a reassuring smile for the benefit of the empty room. The nature of psychic communication was an impossibility to those species not born to it. ‘Just do me a favour.’

<Yes?>

‘Next time you are unsure, ask me, not Torv.’

<Yes. Yes, this seems wise.> The disembodied voice seemed thoughtful. Wry amusement bled through to Daltz, setting her to smiling in sympathy. <He appears to be a poor exemplar of normative behaviour.> The damning assessment was delivered with so little inflection that it had her doubled over in cramping laughter in seconds. When she had controlled herself, she spoke again, wiping away tears of mirth and feeling better than she had in weeks.

‘What do you need, Nav?’

<Visit with me. I may have a health concern.> Just like that, her burgeoning good cheer was doused. Fumbling for her jumpsuit and bag in the dark, she kept her mind as blank as she was able. Her first concern was for a sick crewmate, but she couldn’t help the natural selfish thoughts of her racing mind. If they lost Nav they would drift in the vacuum until their supplies ran out, then they would die; cold, hungry and utterly alone. One human could hide such a natural yet spectacularly unsympathetic worry from another with ease, but could she hide it from Nav, to whom reading minds was as instinctive as breathing?

‘I’ll be there as soon as I can.’

<My thanks.> There was an awkward pause and Daltz felt her eyes drift shut in resignation. Nav knew. <You are a good friend, Science Officer Daltz.> The thought was tender, almost floating in her mind, such was its gentle arrival.

‘Why do you say that?’

<Your concerns are natural, but your attempt to hide them is… kind…>

‘I… I don’t know what to say.’

<Ahh. I have erred again. I have made things awkward.> For the first time, Daltz felt embarrassment radiate from the vast mental impression she had of Nav’s psychic presence, sprawling and ever-present at the other side of the Link. As she hurriedly walked through the cluttered and run-down hallways of their battered but beloved home, her footsteps were the only accompaniment to the growing silence. <I only meant… I appreciated your response. Ensign Torv…> Nav trailed off.

‘Torv what?’

<Ensign Torv insinuated I had contracted ‘space clap’ and offered to find me a penicillin shot… And he laughed… A great deal…>

Daltz couldn’t help but grin, shaking her head at the utter stupidity of the man. ‘A poor exemplar of normative behaviour indeed.’ She snorted, feeling psychic amusement wash through the Link in relieved waves.

She hurried on, eager to arrive the Navigator’s tower on the Marabou’s spine, where his senses could be amplified to quest outwards, finding safe paths through the inky black. She was a leading xenobiologist by education, but would’ve been a vetenarian by childhood conviction. She knew her worries would abate as soon as she could see the problem first hand, and begin to work on a solution. Navigator. It felt like such a cold thing, to refer to him by his life’s work, but they were left with little option. His true name wasn’t just unpronounceable, it wasn’t even a word. Imagine a sphere of blue smoke, opening like a spiral-petalled flower inside your mind. ‘Nav’ would just have to do…

Daltz stilled her errant mind as the bronze doors slid open before her. She had arrived, and it always awed her into stunned silence to actually lay eyes upon her captive charge. The chamber was a vaulted dome, vast and exposed, as every wall was constructed of toughened, transparent crystal. Nav viewed the vacuum of space from every angle, refractive surfaces feeding him infinite directions of countless shades of black. Dominating the space, Nav’s tank was a ghastly affair, as tasteless as it was ornate. The green amniotics in which he floated were contained by huge panes of concave glass, but between each was the gaudy presence of gold, burnished and wrought in the shape of creeping ivy. It was hideous and captivating all at once. Like a cloudy green jewel set in an ornate cage.

<Welcome.> Nav drifted closer in the gloomy murk. He was huge, dwarfing even the largest whales of Old Earth in size. His carapace was horned and ridged, segmented along the huge sections of his tall body, which floated upright and limbless like the chrysalis of some brutal caterpillar. He leaned as close to the surface as he could, revealing his disturbing features to his visitor. His mandibles clicked in a constant pattern, which Daltz could feel vibrating her feet through the metal decking even from so far away. The air reeked of peat and salt - the tang of the mineral-rich liquid which sustained him. She would have gagged if she hadn’t been used to it.

‘Hey, Nav.’ She answered, smiling. Her cautious grin dropped away a moment later, as Nav nearly send her squealing from the room in fright. Along every section of his body, his chitinous exoskeleton withdrew and retracted from a thousand little nooks and crannies. His eyes, each a depthless nimbus of celestial light yawned open as one. She swore under her breath, squinting in the suddenly too-bright room.

<I understand eye contact is important in human communication. I thought I would try it out.> He seemed tentative and unsure, like a child trying to impress. It would have been truly cruel to stamp down his vulnerable attempt, and Daltz spoke quickly in case her thoughts of horror betrayed her.

‘That’s very kind, Nav, but there’s no need, I’m a guest, this is your home. Make yourself comfortable.’

The piercing, all-knowing regard finally abated, as his legion of eyes sank away without a trace. Daltz let out a pent-up breath. One more potential faux-pas averted… she hoped, trusting to Nav’s discretion. He could read her every thought if he chose, so a certain amount of willful ignorance was the only way he could function within a human crew. Daltz knew her species’ deeply ingrained systems of manners and politeness revolved far more about what you just didn’t say, rather than how you acted and spoke. A thousand lies of omission per-person-per-day amounting to a civilization of billions which spanned the stars. Truly a miracle.

<If you wouldn’t mind joining me, I have become concerned about a build-up of parasites along my ventral plates.>

‘Of course.’ Focus and dedication smoothly slid to the forefront of Daltz’s mind, all thoughts dedicated to the job at hand. She asked for further details as she made her way to the small recessed alcove at the base of Nav’s tank. Building up a better picture of his symptoms, she donned her wetsuit with practiced ease. Before long she was ready to enter the airlock and emerge in the murky half-light of her patient’s bizarre habitat.

Questing through the gloom, she trod the bottom of the tank, fighting against the suction of countless years of accumulated grime and decaying carapace shards. She tried not to think about it. <Sorry for the state of the place.> he remarked wryly. <I need to have a talk with my cleaner.>

Daltz’s awkward laughter at the joke was a relief from the sudden flush to her cheeks. ‘I’ll get to it soon, I promise.’

<No rush.> he answered, pulsing earnestness through the Link between them. <You would be horrified at the ocean floor back home.> In an instant Daltz’s grasping hands found resistance up ahead. One second all she could see was impenetrable bottle-green, the next, the towering, looming sight of Nav’s colossal body rising up above her. With familiarity, she found the easiest handholds amongst the bizarre topography of his form, lifting herself up until he advised her to stop. It was impossible to register height whilst suspended in the near-opacity of the tank, but she knew that her ascend had been the equivalent of close to 4 stories of a building, taking her only halfway up his form. <Can you feel what we have spoken of? Some build-up of plaque or hard biofilm? It is irritating beyond belief.>

Her skillful hands made an inspection of the indicated area, practiced and brisk, yet thorough with concern. The results left her with a dubious scowl. ‘Are you sure this is the right area? I can’t feel any adhesions…’

<Quite certain. Would you carry out a scouring? These things can be rather serious if left unchecked.> Thoroughly unconvinced by her examination, Daltz still agreed readily. She couldn’t do him any harm even if the procedure was unnecessary, and on the other hand if she was wrong, the parasitic lesions which occasionally plagued his species could rapidly spread beyond the aid of any medical know-how. When the titanic psychic crustacean upon which a hundred-strong crew relies complains of a problem, you try your best to solve it.

‘You got it. I didn’t need to sleep anyway.’ In her mind’s eye she attempted to project the fond sarcasm she intended. Across the Link a billowing of humour met her thoughts halfway, mingling contentedly. Amongst the amusement, she sensed genuine surprise at the deftness of her thought-speak and couldn’t help but feel a little flush of pride. Setting to her work, she removed her scouring kit and started the arduous process of a deep scrub. Humanity was a space-faring race, with marvels of technology in every aspect of life making things easier. Sometimes, though, elbow grease was still required. The scourer was a tangle of abrasive steel wire, superheated by an element in the handle. As she scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed, her companion was a stream of hissing bubbles rising to the surface from Nav’s toughened hide.

With her monotonous task and bone-deep exhaustion, it was easy to drift while she worked, but some nagging sense kept dragging her back to the more analytical part of her mind. Nav was studiously silent, she noted, the first notes of suspicion stirring within her. Concentrating, she dug deeper, finding the Link almost closed off between them. He was hiding something again, and the problem-solving scientist in her wasn’t going to let answers escape. She strained, trying to imagine herself forcing open the wall in her mind. It didn’t come naturally to humans, but a talented individual trying their hardest? She kept up her scrubbing as she searched, and just for a second she received a glimpse of unhidden emotion. She stopped suddenly, open-mouthed, eyes wide with anger. Nav’s thoughts had been of such a familiar, mundane human nature, that it was impossible to misunderstand. Irritation, giving way to pleasure and contentment.

‘No.’ she swore, then swore again.

<What is it?> She had his rapt attention all of sudden, and along with it badly-hidden guilt.

‘No, you didn’t!’

<Didn’t what?>

‘I can’t believe you! You did not just interrupt me on the toilet and drag me to your mouldy tub in the middle of the night to scratch your itchy belly!’

She was incredulous, so far past rage that she was almost awed at the sheer cheek of the ancient cosmic traveler.

<If that was the case…Hypothetically…> he began slowly, choosing his words with care. <How angry would you be?>

‘You’re ten types of bastard, Nav.’ Dumbfounded laughter was bubbling up in her against her wishes. ‘I ought to leave you here to suffer.’

Her amusement at the ridiculous situation was a tempest in her mind, and she could feel Nav’s own impish delight carried along within it, so unutterably human in its inanity.

<But you won’t?>

After a pause to catch her breath, she reluctantly agreed. ‘But I won’t, aye.’ A moment of comfortable silence dwindled quickly, and then she did the only thing that made sense in the circumstances, as she thumbed the switch on her scourer and set back to scrubbing. A few moments later, she set them both chuckling anew as she spoke again.

‘You’re still a bastard…’

<I know.>

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