The thing is, there aren't very many of them on board. Well, there are a lot of Them. But there's only five of them, and Nick hasn't seen Kevin in a while. The trip was long to start out with, even before they had to detour around Hule Limne gone supernova, and Nea Aoide still feels very far away.
"How're you doing?" Howie asks when Nick comes into the galley before his shift.
Nick shrugs. "Okay," he says.
Howie still looks concerned, but he doesn't say anything more.
After breakfast Nick climbs down the ladder into the passenger hold and starts walking up and down the rows between Them. All the still faces, closed eyes, lax hands. He doesn't like it, but who likes their job? Some things you just have to do, whether you like them or not.
He stops in front of a shell and looks through the glass at TIMBERLAKE, J's close-cropped curls. They're not getting any longer. When the ship reaches Nea Aoide, Nick will be old and tired, and TIMBERLAKE, J will still be young and strong and whole.
Nick presses the com with a shaky hand.
"What's up, Nick?" Howie says.
"There's-" Nick says. "I- I found another one."
Howie pauses. "What node?" he says quietly. Nick tells him, and Howie says, "I'll be right there."
This time the missing chunk is out of the leg, the left calf. Dry-frozen blood doesn't spill, but it flakes, and the flakes make little heaps in the bottom of the shell. The raw surface makes Nick think of the mice back on Gaea. Mice and rats, nibbling.
AJ laughed at him when Nick said that. This isn't Gaea; they have seeds locked away in the cargo hold, but no livestock. And like the other two, the shell and its locks are undamaged. But Nick doesn't know what else to think of.
Howie nods to Nick when he arrives and sets a hand on Nick's shoulder. Then he turns to the shell's panel and starts keying in queries. But after some minutes he shakes his head. "There's nothing," he says. "No history- nothing."
"What should we do?" Nick asks.
Howie presses his lips together. "Just keep going," he says.
Nick keeps going.
After his shift ends, Nick goes to Brian's cabin. Brian is awake but still lying in his bunk. He shifts over to make room, and Nick climbs in next to him.
"What's wrong?" Brian asks.
Nick thinks of mice, their little sharp teeth.
"Do you think we'll ever get to Nea Aoide?" he says.
"Of course we'll get there," Brian says. He moves again to wrap his arm around Nick. Nick turns his face into Brian's shoulder. It feels nice to lie like that, until Brian has to get up for his own shift.
"Who needs fucking Nea Aoide?" AJ says when Nick asks him the same question. "I say let's stop at the next viable planet, break into the cargo hold, and set up our own damn colony."
Nick snorts. "Yeah, right, we'll break into the cargo hold. No problem."
AJ shrugs. "Okay, so we'll start waking Them up until we hit one who knows the passcodes."
That makes Nick laugh. "What, and airlock the ones who don't?"
"Sure. See, no problem! We'll get out of this, Nickolas."
"Maybe," Nick says.
The next few shifts are uneventful, no more discoveries. It puts Nick even more on edge. Something is on board with them, he thinks- he can't help thinking- and he keeps looking over his shoulder.
"How're you doing?" Howie asks as he passes Nick his bowl.
"Okay," Nick says. What else can he say? It's not like there's anything they can change.
When he leaves the passenger hold he goes back to his own cabin and lies down. Then he gets up again and goes over to Brian's.
"Do you think we can still get Them all safely to Nea Aoide?" Nick asks.
"Of course we can," Brian says. He lays his palm on Nick's arm. Nick nods, feeling the warmth of Brian's fingers, and closes his eyes.
He draws a shift walking the peripheral corridors, for a change. Howie is keeping the lights and the temperatures pretty low in those areas to save fuel, but at least there are no glassed-in faces. There is, however, a pair of shoes on the floor outside the airlock portal.
They are Kevin's.
Nick reaches for his com, then lets his hand fall back. He picks up the shoes instead and brings them back with him to the galley.
Howie's face twists when he sees them. "Where did you find those?" he asks.
Nick tells him. "Fuck. Fuck, he actually did it," Howie says.
"Howie?" Nick says.
Howie wipes his palm across his forehead. "Kevin told me," he said. "He didn't want- he couldn't stand the, the trip, any longer. He wanted out. He told me, but I didn't think that. That he would- actually."
Howie wipes his palm across his eyes. Then he fumbles for a chair and sits down, elbows braced on the table. Nick goes over and touches Howie's arm. Howie leans into Nick for a moment and then rests his head on his own hands.
Nick goes to Kevin's cabin and leaves the shoes on the floor next to the bunk.
"Well, I'd say he had the right idea," AJ says when Nick tells him. "Fucking get out of this fucking hellhole, and start fresh."
"But-" Nick says. "AJ, I don't think-"
"Just wish he would have let us in on it before he went. That's pretty damn selfish, don't you think?" AJ is pacing in a tight circle, angling one step in every eight to avoid the jut of his locker. "I mean, maybe he only had enough for one- but still, wish he'd said something. Next planet we pass I'm fucking going to land myself, viable or not- better than just drifting into space forever like we are now- fucking brilliant idea, if he just wasn't so damn-"
Nick backs out of the cabin and closes the door.
"Do you think Nea Aoide even exists at all?" Nick mumbles, face down into Brian's pillow.
"Of course it exists," Brian says. He squeezes Nick's shoulder once and lets go.
"How're you doing?" Howie says.
"Okay," Nick says. The portion Howie ladles into Nick's bowl looks smaller than before, but Nick doesn't say anything. He isn't that hungry anyway. Recon stew tastes pretty much the same as reconstituted anything, and they're all kind of tired of it. But they have to eat to keep going, so Nick spoons up what there is in methodical bites until it's gone.
He walks up and down the rows, up and down. All the eyes are closed, and no matter how many times he looks over his shoulder, there is nothing there. The only ones there are the four of them.
"Do you think we have enough rations left to make it to Nea Aoide?" Nick asks.
"Of course we do," Brian says. He's lying on his back staring up at the ceiling of the bunk. He isn't touching Nick anywhere.
Nick turns down a row and finds Howie keying something into the panel of a shell.
"Howie," he says.
Howie turns to face Nick, and then just stands there looking at him. Nick swallows hard and breathes in and out, looking back.
"Another one?" Nick says at last. There's no need to ask what happened; he can see for himself the chunk gouged out of KIRKPATRICK, C's belly. Howie looks back at the shell with bleak eyes.
"We just have to keep going," he says in a low voice.
Nick keeps going.
He goes to his own cabin after his shift and lies on his side in his own bunk.
When it's time for his next shift, he gets up and goes into the galley. Howie passes him a bowl. "How're you doing?" Howie says.
Nick says, "Okay," and picks up his spoon.