There were a lot of things Rod Allbright only put together years later.
Admittedly, he'd grown up pretty quickly there for a while, what with the being press-ganged into an intergalactic police force, and being crammed full of mental and martial arts training in a short space of time, not to mention saving the universe -- yeah. In short, seventh grade had held no terrors for Rod.
But during those weeks with the crew of the Ferkel he'd almost always been living at his maximum rate. Later, as he settled back down to suburbia, he was surprised to find that instead of forgetting details from his adventures, he began to remember more things, things he hadn't had time to dwell on. No doubt Snout's training helped, but since he still had read no farther than the first chapter -- "Stay calm" -- in Secrets of the Mental Masters, he had no confidence that his improved retention would continue indefinitely. He wrote everything down. Seymour added his observations, from time to time.
It wasn't until high school that he realized that a lot of moments that had been inexplicable as he lived them--Grakker shedding tears over Snout after the disastrous training transfer, Snout's license to criticize or even tease the captain without even a retort--had a simple explanation. The shared room he'd never seen; the mental bond. Rod was just glad he'd never asked any stupid questions about it.
Doing his homework in front of CNN, two pundits arguing fiercely about gay marriage and family values, Rod felt the profound squirm of inadequacy he was used to feeling by now when contemplating his modern human heritage. He could hear Madame Pong now: "Earth's reluctance to allow marriage rights to all its citizens is another perplexing aspect of its culture, and one certain to keep it from admission to the League of Worlds..." She wouldn't want to make him feel like shit about it; it was just the obvious reaction.
It made sense, he admitted. After all, one of his shipmates had been a plant. If sentient plants existed on Earth, and if for some reason they wanted to marry the meat population -- Rod grinned, thinking of Phil's distaste -- it would tend to normalize any relationships between two humans, even if they were of the same sex.
Rod was twenty-one when he left Earth. He'd wanted to activate Madame Pong's ring many, many times before that. The first time was in eighth grade when Rod was getting picked on by yet another school bully. After a couple token attempts to walk away, Rod used what the Tar had taught him and took the bastard apart. When he saw the crying boy on the ground in front of him, bleeding, he remembered that not all bullies are alien supervillains.
Mr. and Mrs. Allbright were called in. The supervising teachers who witnessed the event knew that Rod hadn't started it, but were alarmed by his almost supernatural calm. No one said it, but Rod was reasonably sure they thought he was a sociopath, and when they got home he went crazy, threw things, started yelling about not belonging on Earth and how he was calling the aliens immediately.
Jean told Art, who was still unused to crises in parenting, to take the twins out for ice cream. She didn't match Rod volume for volume, or argue, but she watched him rage and eventually held him until he calmed down. Later she made him promise that he wouldn't contact the Ferkel until they both agreed it was for the best. Rod said he wouldn't, and he didn't want to lie to his mother. He had just about learned to lie to evil masterminds when the fate of a loved one was at stake, but his mother was another story. In any case, he wasn't ready to abandon his mother in the night. His father was home for good now, but that couldn't erase the memories of Jean's pain.
Every couple of years, maybe less, something would happen to make Rod sit Jean down and make his case for joining the Galactic Patrol. But Jean was firm about going to college. "You don't want to get on that spaceship and be an ignoramus," she said. "It was fine when you were a kid, but when you go back I want my Rod to be on an equal footing with all those captains and mental men and tars." Art didn't really agree, having a more realistic idea than Jean of what one of Earth's college educations might actually be worth to the GP, but he was also not anxious to lose his son to a lengthy mission, not yet.
In the end, Rod studied physics at the University of Syracuse for three years. He stayed at home, partly because Seymour and Edgar might stick out in a dormitory setting, but also so Art could continue to train him, as he had ever since the end of the BKR adventure, in the mental arts. Rod wasn't really sure he wanted to be a Mental Master -- the Ferkel already had one, after all, and Snout wasn't ever going to be replaceable on a ship Grakker was the captain of -- but it was his father's passion, and it was useful stuff. The day he was finally able to pull off a temporal disruption was one of the finest of his life, not least because he made it to class on time.
The plan was to resume active duty after graduation. But circumstances intervened.
The summer before Rod's senior year, he was tramping around Seldom Seen with Bonehead (now an elderly dog, but still cheerful), Edgar, and Seymour when he heard a voice in his head.
Rod? Rod, can you hear me?
Rod's entire body tensed, and his face split into the widest smile it had on offer. Oh no! he thought. The hallucinations are back. What will Dr. Brown say? I thought I was better, I want to be better!
Wait until I tell everyone you're pursuing a career as the worst actor in the known galaxy, Snout thought drily.
Rod ignored Seymour's mental cackles and focused on thinking, with all the warmth he could muster, It's good to hear you again, old friend.
And you, Rod, Snout answered. There were many times I was tempted to resume contact, you know, but we thought it would be best to let you forget about us if you decided you preferred civilian life.
Seymour, who was feeling left out, jumped in. Don't worry, Snout. Uncle Rod is still completely unequipped to handle normal life.
What Seymour means, Rod added, is that I was planning on contacting you next summer after finishing college. I do want to come back.
I'm glad to hear it. A...situation has arisen here. Rod, would you have any objection to joining us early? I would not ask if it were not a matter of profound importance.
Of course. Of course! Come get me now! What is it? Rod demanded. Is everyone all right? How soon can you get here?
Seymour interjected: Is this one of those end-of-the-universe things again? I knew I should have transferred my bond to Little Thing One.
Snout said, It will take us a little over three days to arrive. As for the situation, it will be best to explain in person. It is a delicate matter. He paused. I won't forget this, Rod. Suddenly Rod felt the warmth of Snout's presence slide from his brain, as if someone had opened the drain. As he left, Rod felt the edges of Snout's anxiety, fresh and prickling. He went back to the house to tell his parents.
Elspeth was roused out of the sleep of the righteous by the sound of her phone singing, "I'm your biggest fan, I'll follow you until you love me, pa-pa, paparazzi..."
She squinched up her face and answered it without looking at the screen. "Hello?"
"It's one in the afternoon, don't tell me I woke you up."
"Roddie, just because some of us are spending our college years with mommy and daddy doesn't mean the rest of us have to go to bed at nine."
Elspeth had just finished her freshman year at Bryn Mawr and it agreed with her. There was something reassuring and noncompetitive about a bunch of women living in close quarters without men around making them act all crazy. She had friends; she played rugby. She studied international relations; she thought she might pull a Madame Pong and work for the State Department one day. She was taking summer classes because she couldn't bear being under her mother's roof for a whole three months. In high school she had always stuck with tradition and stayed with Aunt Jean and Uncle Art.
Rod said, "I keep forgetting how you girls like to party."
"Women. Not girls. What's up?"
Pause. "I heard from Snout."
Elspeth sat up and ignored the lurch her dorm room gave in silent protest. "Well, it's about time! I knew that mental bond crap didn't just lapse. Jesus, how are they?"
"It wasn't a very long conversation. I think something's wrong. They're coming for me."
She sat in her bed, fingers twisting the comforter, waiting to be able to speak. She cleared her throat. "Fuck! That's great, Rod. It's totally time. Oh God, I'm so jealous of you!"
"I think it sucks you can't come. We still have to change that law."
She laughed; it felt like crying. "Oh man, growing up. If I was still an awful little shit I could just sneak on board, hide in your closet again. Not sure I'd get away with it now. They'd jettison me for sure." Rod chuckles.
A silence hung between them, for a second, full of the things they couldn't say. Then Rod said, "I wanted to see if you could come see me off. Or if you had any messages for them."
Elspeth said, "I'm not -- how long do you have?"
"Three days. More like two and a half, now."
Elspeth wasn't sure she could handle seeing the aliens. In her personal mythology, they were the turning point, the first ones to actually accept her and expect more from her than the usual histrionics and bullshit. Elspeth had fought through it all and had become a person. She was proud of it. She wasn't sure, of course, whether her improvement would be as noticeable to the aliens. It would hurt if it wasn't. It was easier to be around people who didn't know her back then, women who just knew she was capable and witty and able to take a hit on the field.
"You can think about it," Rod said. Roddie was still a prince. She'd needed him a lot when they came back to Earth; he'd gotten it. It had taken her a while to realize that he'd needed her too.
"I will," she said. "I'll call you later. I have to hurry if I want to use my lunch swipe. Oh, and hi, Seymour."
She could feel Rod smile. "He says hi and goodbye. Have a good afternoon, cousin."
Jean wanted to pack things, fold shirts, form slabs of cardboard into boxes. There was no need, as usual. She liked having Rod live at home, but she'd been robbed of the opportunity to send him off into the world that time, possessions at his back in a reassuring bulk, prepared for any weather, any situation.
Now he was flying off again, and as usual he'd only take the book and the ring. She flipped, once again, to the first chapter of Secrets of the Mental Masters. Stay calm.
She was calm. She'd had ten years now to come to terms with her accidental slide into a less-than-ordinary life. (Art being back made a difference. All the difference.) And after what she'd seen, it would be stupid to think Rod couldn't handle himself.
She snapped Snout's book shut and opened another, a blank photo album she found in the den, and started methodically transferring photos of her and Art and Linda and Eric and Bonehead into it. He could handle one more possession.
Madame Pong usually spent little time on the bridge of the Ferkel. Her considerable skills weren't technical ones and, among all the crew, her relationship with Phil was probably the most professional, the least inclined to bouts of chit-chat. But she found herself there as Phil navigated the ship towards Earth, peering through the viewscreen at the lovely blue-and-white of her pet planet.
Earth was a hobby of hers, and she'd kept up with the last ten years of history and culture. Plenty of tragedy, and no marked improvement in their entertainment, she'd noted to her sorrow. Still. An African-American president was nice to hear about. A slightly larger drop in the bucket, one felt.
"Excited?" Phil burped as he wrapped a tendril around a lever and tugged down.
Madame Pong smiled slightly, smoothing her lavender shift over her hips. "I am. Time will not have stood still for the Allbrights, and I'm anxious to see how they've changed."
"You don't think Little Thing Two still eats paste?"
Madame Pong took too much time deciding whether a chuckle would be appropriate at that remark before the moment passed. "Okay, here we go," Phil said. They were entering the atmosphere.
"I'd say twenty minutes if we don't get attacked by a hawk on the way," he burped.
"I'd better prepare," she said.
Preparing meant finding Grakker; she found him in the exercise room, bench pressing without a spotter, she noted with a trace of annoyance. She stood in his eyeline, and he grunted in acknowledgement of her presence. She had to admit it: she did miss, a little bit, the early days when he'd treated her with cold formality. Politeness didn't come easily to the captain but he was certainly capable of it. Now they knew each other too well and she got grunted at like a farmhand.
"Good afternoon, Captain," she said anyway. He grunted again. "Phil believes we will arrive at Seldom Seen in twenty minutes."
Grakker replaced the weight on the rack and sat up, huffing a bit. "Is the crew set for language implants?"
"Yes, Captain, updated for slang, though I couldn't obtain data on speech patterns later than 2007. We will have to live with being slightly unfashionable." The side of his mouth quirked up a bit at that. "As for your personal module..."
"Ah, yes." Grakker toweled at his face, digging into the deep furrows in his green brow. "What do you recommend, Madame Pong?"
She held her breath. "Jovial module, sir?"
The captain wrinkled his face at her. "You know my feelings on the matter, Madame Pong. My least favorite modules are the ones that take me farthest from myself."
Yes, she thought. That's why berserk is your favorite.
She stifled a tiny sigh and said instead, "I expect we can make do with diplomatic, Captain."
"I expect so." He rose and let her withdraw his recreational module and insert the new one. "I'm going to change, madame. Alert the rest of the crew to our ETA. I will inform Snout." They went their separate ways.
The good ship Ferkel touched down lightly in Seldom Seen. It would have been dwarfed by the humans that stood waiting for it, had they rushed forward as they all wanted to. Rod had told them the aliens would no doubt prefer to enlarge the ship before exiting, and he was keeping his family at a safe distance.
He stole a glance at Elspeth, who had turned up early that morning just in time for Jean's waffles. Her dirt-blonde hair was cut short around her face, somewhat asymmetrically; that was new. She wore a white tank top, jeans and a complicated facial expression.
I'm not sure I would have come, Seymour thought.
Really? How could you miss the opportunity to see them again? Rod thought back.
Seems like a lot of self-torture to me, coming here to emo-gaze at what you can't have. Probably if I was Elspeth, I'd pretend I'd had an overactive imagination as a kid and say there's no such thing as aliens, thought Seymour.
Bit rich coming from an alien, Rod replied.
The ship seemed to shudder, and then it grew, filling the clearing. Rod couldn't help but notice that it looked a little smaller now than it had when he was eleven.
Elspeth exhaled: "Oh, fuck." Rod took her hand and tried to smile in an encouraging manner. They walked forward together, and the ship's door opened. A gangway extended, and out walked Captain Grakker.
Rod felt a brief surge of annoyance at himself for being human. The captain, a monumental figure in his memories and dreams, no longer came up to just above his waist, but rather his pelvis. He squelched the desire to drop to his knees before Grakker and instead saluted. "Deputy Allbright, reporting for duty, sir."
Grakker surveyed him for a moment, critically, Rod thought, and then smiled, reached out, and took Rod's other hand. "Rod," he said.
Then things got a little crazy. The other aliens piled off the ship en masse; the twins surged forward, anxious not to be forgotten. Madame Pong immediately embraced Elspeth, who in turn promptly burst into tears. Tar Gibbons stretched his neck up to put his head affectionately on Rod's shoulder, but seemed too excited to keep it there long; he seemed in danger of spontaneous dancing, Rod observed with a dangerous amusement.
Art, who hung back, determined to not make this about him, was sought out by Phil almost immediately for shop talk. Linda monopolized Grakker, who seemed completely nonplussed by her immediate attempts to network.
"I am now two years older than my brother Rod was when he saved the universe," she informed the captain gravely, "and in addition to our bloodlines, I share many of the qualities that allowed him to do so. Namely..."
Eric smiled weakly, and wondered what module Grakker was wearing. Clearly he was chafing under it, since he seemed unable to interrupt. Jean picked up Edgar, who was in serious danger of getting underfoot. Edgar eeped cheerfully at her.
"Rod!" Madame Pong cried, finally detaching herself from a pulled-together Elspeth to put her arms around him. "Look at you. You're a fully mature being!"
He smiled down into her kind yellow face, heart full. "I know. And to think of all the responsibilities you put on me when I was just a punk kid."
"It doesn't seem to have done you any harm." She smiled at him, and he felt suddenly shy of her. Ten years was a long time, and he tried to ask her how the crew had spent them.
"Oh dear," she said. "Where to begin? A year of desk service, as a rather token punishment for our rebellion, especially since we were all highly decorated -- and BKR's trial took up quite some time -- he's in Sus-An for life. After that, various long-term missions, tracking various high-level lawbreakers. If we have nothing else to be grateful for from the BKR case, it certainly afforded us more interesting assignments than we might have expected otherwise."
"Oh, Rod," she said, smiling affectionately at him, "it doesn't do to mythologize criminals, make them larger than life. I'm still watching Earth television when I get a chance, and you're far too prone to that sort of thing."
"I think saying 'millions have wept' all the time might have mythologized BKR a little bit," Rod said.
"Well, BKR was..."
"If you insist, Rod." Madame Pong beamed.
Don't want to interrupt, Uncle R., said Seymour directly into Rod's mind, but where's Snout? I was hoping there'd be one person at this shindig I could talk to.
Rod spoke Seymour's thought aloud, and Grakker turned away from Linda at last in the middle of her oral resume ("...two years' experience as manager of the girls' basketball team, which entailed...") to answer. "He's coming," Grakker rumbled. "He had to -- "
Grakker was interrupted by the appearance of a long-nosed, purple-skinned being in a flowing blue cape in the doorway to the Ferkel. Rod's heart, already light, rose another few inches at the sight. He loved Snout, who had been his teacher just as the Tar had been, and he was anxious to --
Rod's thoughts were broken off as he craned his neck to see better. Something -- someone -- was following Snout off the ship.
The humans fell silent, as Snout led from the Ferkel a small being. She was clearly new to walking, and found the experience awkward. Her face was long and lizard-like, her skin purple. But while Snout's brow was smooth and serene, the child's was deeply furrowed. And sported two tiny, stubby antennae.
She approached the gangway with obvious trepidation, and Snout laughed and swept her into his arms. Rod felt Elspeth's hand on his arm, nails digging in. "Rod," she breathed. "Oh my God." But Rod didn't get it. Not until Snout brought her down the gangway and straight to him.
"Rod, it's good to see you," Snout said simply. "This is Susan."
Grakker's voice came from behind him. "Our daughter."
Rod looked around his room. It did feel like his room, even if he'd only lived in it a short while ten years ago, and despite the fact that it contained not a single hint that he was its owner. He knew why, too: because for a decade he had been worrying, imagining it occupied by someone else, a new crewmember who could do far more for the Ferkel than Rod and who belonged to a far more advanced species and who probably had, you know, tenacles coming out of its forehead, for crying out loud.
Finding it empty, and still referred to by the crew as "Rod's room," had been gratifying.
He switched on the antigravity bed and sat on it. Edgar leapt up beside him. (Seymour was re-exploring the ship; he was less in love with Rod's physical presence than Edgar, since Rod and Seymour both perpetually created background noise in the other's brain even when apart.) He had already arranged his possessions on the desk: Snout's book, closed as always, and his mother's photo album, open to the photo of all of them before his high school graduation, Linda holding Seymour, Edgar wrapped around Rod's blue-robed leg, Art mid-laugh. Otherwise the desk was empty, except for Phil's library, which had been waiting for him; it was a much more elegant device than a Kindle, he had to admit. He hadn't actually had a desk last time; there hadn't been time to requisition one. Its far edge was rounded, matching the curvature of his room's circular walls.
There was a tap at the door. Rod called, "Come in," then remembered his room was soundproof. He pushed a button, and the door slid open to reveal Snout.
"May I?" Snout asked.
Rod nodded, and Snout walked to the desk and sat on its edge.
"I owe you an explanation, and I think even some apologies," Snout said.
"Not really," Rod said. "I mean, yes to explanations. Not apologies. I'm glad the world isn't about to end, actually."
The corners of Snout's smile emerged from the shadow of his long nose. "If you would like to complain of my vague obtuseness to someone, Captain Grakker has very nearly finished writing the book on the subject." Rod grinned. "And of course I should have foreseen that some of my -- my somewhat needless anxiety might have come across through our mental link. Perhaps infectiously."
"If you're worried, you should tell me about it."
Snout stretched slightly, then said, "I want to."
The situation was this:
Snout and Grakker had become parents about two years ago. Rod had several questions about the biology this entailed, which Snout patiently answered, insofar as he was able. "Phil actually knows more, if you're genuinely curious, Rod," he said, finally. "Though he will enjoy feigning disgust, to begin with, discussing our 'meaty' ways, I warn you. In short, our genetic technology is good; very good. We were aided in the actual hatching by my former -- by Selima Khan, who I am sure you remember."
Rod didn't ask.
He did ask about the GP's stance on the children of its operatives. Snout said, "Grakker and I have actually been on leave planetside, up until very recently. I'm sure it will shock you to learn that Grakker doesn't like to take many vacations. We'd accrued about a year and a half. Madame Pong will, no doubt, regale you with tales of our replacements soon, I take it their competence did not overwhelm her --"
"None of that really answers my question," Rod said.
Snout looked surprised for a moment, then resigned.
"Susan will shortly be celebrating her second birthday, which is a significant event for two reasons," Snout said. "It is the official deadline for registering our changed circumstances with the Galactic Patrol without penalty. We may well be taken out of the field -- or perhaps only one of us -- but that is no real option, we will stay together regardless. In any case, the precedents are not well-established. It's rare, if not unheard-of, for two parents to both be GP members, but Grakker and I may be the first to work on the same ship."
"You mean Grakker may have to work a desk job?" Rod said, incredulous.
Snout nodded. "It is a concern. One that may come to nothing. Children have been raised onboard before now. The Ferkel is an odd case, of course, since our assignments are typically more consistently dangerous than that of most ships."
"You don't seem too worried about this, Snout."
"I'm not. Work is work. Grakker and I are both extremely fond of this life, but we have other options." Snout paused. "Oh, I see. What am I worried about, then, that is what you want to ask. Very perceptive, Rod."
Rod waited, vaguely aware of Seymour's renewed interest in the conversation, though he was heroically keeping quiet. Snout sighed.
"Susan's second birthday also means that -- well, there is a ceremony, a naming ceremony, that she must experience." Snout looked uncomfortable.
"She has a name already, doesn't she? Susan?"
"In a sense. Susan is an everyday name, a use-name," Snout replied. "We asked Madame Pong what to call the child and it was her idea to give her an Earth name. Madame Pong loves Earth, as you know, but -- well, of course, mainly we wanted to honor you, Rod. We missed our absent shipmate."
Snout was getting more awkward by the moment, but Rod didn't much notice, as he was preoccupied with making sure he didn't start crying, or something. Rod was silently grateful for his mental training, and also for Seymour, who, by chantingSissy! in his brain, made it easier to transition from moved to annoyed.
"Grakker thought Susan would be a good pun on Sus-An. Suspended animation," Snout continued. "I'm afraid the successful capture of BKR may well have gone to his head." The affection in Snout's voice was palpable.
"And the naming ceremony?"
Snout's smile disappeared. "It is on Friskalama, Grakker's home planet. Her initiation to Friskan culture. He is very enthusiastic about it."
Snout paused thoughtfully. "I have never met Grakker's family."
"Really?" Rod asked. He was, in truth, surprised. "Aren't you guys -- um."
Snout smiled. "Bonded is the term. In every meaningful way, yes. But I have never thought it necessary to interfere with Grakker's rare trips home, if only for one simple reason: they aren't about me."
God, these Mental Masters are smug, aren't they? Seymour suddenly piped up. Rod laughed.
"What?" Snout looked quizzical. Then his face cleared. "Seymour's listening? I'm sure he had nothing but kind words for my attitude. All right: I'll admit it makes me nervous. You probably gathered that Grakker's mother was never enthusiastic about him leaving home, and he could have easily returned to the worm farm after we were expelled from GP training all those years ago, if it hadn't been for me. I suppose I could bear their dislike, but there's Susan, you saw that she resembles me more than Grakker -- not that he minds, and he assumes they won't, but he doesn't know. What if they aren't ready to accept Susan? I can't bear the thought of how that might affect him."
Rod was slightly overwhelmed. He was used to Snout being the most unflappable person he knew. On the other hand, he was also well aware that the hole in Snout's inscrutable calm was entirely Grakker-shaped. He reached out and put a hand on Snout's shoulder. It felt ridged, through his cape. "Stay calm?" he offered.
Snout laughed a little. "I am sorry if I seem agitated," he said, "but I have had few opportunities to discuss this with anyone. In the civilized galaxy -- forgive me, Rod, but you know what I mean -- it is bad form to seem to expect intolerance from anyone, for any lifestyle. To discuss these concerns with Grakker might wound him, as they are less than charitable towards his family. I am practiced at hiding my feelings, expert in it, but I find it wearisome. Particularly as our mental bond is always present -- it is unlike yours and Seymour's, we do not share specific thoughts very often, but we sense each other's emotions almost constantly. The effort of hiding them..."
"I understand," Rod said, and he did; he had his own issues with deceit. "Why am I here, though?"
"Well, Grakker is going to ask you to fulfill a role in the ceremony," Snout said. "I think you would be surprised to know the full measure of his regard for you." Rod blushed. "But beyond that, Rod? I wished for your presence. Perhaps selfishly, in my case, as I felt -- do feel -- in need of extra support, but we all wanted you back. Too much time has passed, and our lives are short. The ship may be on the cusp of many changes. The tar, for example --"
Snout would have continued, but he was interrupted quite suddenly when, with a scuffle and a crash and a flailing of long pale limbs, Elspeth fell out of Rod's closet.
"Oh God," Rod groaned. "Of course. I knew it. Why not?" Elspeth had the good grace to look ashamed, at least, which was one marked change from how her younger self had behaved.
Rod had noticed she'd made herself scarce during his emotional farewells with Art and Jean and the twins and marveled, briefly, at how quick he had been to interpret her absence as delicacy. Elspeth McMasters, queen of tact. Sure.
"I couldn't help it, Roddie," she said softly, in her best cooing-pigeon voice. Rod shook his head.
Snout stood up, looking more than usually grave. "Come," he said. "This must be dealt with immediately." He typed something into some sort of portable tech as he stood. "Alerting the crew," he explained. Then he led them from the room, Elspeth looking meek.
When they arrived in the conference room, the crew had already assembled, minus Phil. Seymour's eye was wide. Madame Pong's face was deeply etched with seriousness. Tar Gibbons was looking away. Grakker stepped forward looking like a thundercloud; Elspeth visibly quailed. Rod started to make plans. If the captain decided to jettison her, he'd have to fight. Grakker wasn't wearing a ray gun. On the other hand, he was built like The freaking Rock.
You can take him, Uncle Rod! Seymour cried. Rod wondered, not for the first time, whether killing Seymour would be on par with animal abuse or actual murder.
"Elspeth McMasters," Grakker bellowed, as Rod tried to remember all he'd forgotten about Warrior Science (something about being joyful -- awesome, that was helpful), "I must know: how -- HOW --"
"Yes?" she squeaked.
"--did Deputy Allbright react?"
Elspeth grinned. "You should have seen his face!"
As if on cue, everyone -- every single person, except Rod and Seymour -- started laughing, Grakker the loudest, in short barks. Even Edgar made amused-sounding eeps. Rod looked around, confused. Snout was giggling and couldn't meet his eyes. Madame Pong put a hand on Rod's shoulder.
"Of course we invited her," Madame Pong said, chuckling, "After all, we are not on a mission."
"But why was she in my closet?" Rod asked, baffled.
"Because it was hilarious, Roddie," Elspeth said matter-of-factly. "Get with the program."
Rod wasn't sure if it was the best choice, leaping forward and giving his cousin a severe noogie during their first all-crew meeting, of sorts. It was, however, what he did. She shrieked and tried to twist away. Snout applauded.
"What module is this, captain?" Rod finally asked, collapsing into a chair. Elspeth knew exactly where he was ticklish and he didn't want to have an accident in front of everyone his first day back.
Grakker looked at him, and Rod noticed for the first time how his captain's posture was slightly relaxed, how he leaned back in his chair, how his mouth formed less of a grim line. In a flash, he realized he'd known Grakker before only during the most stressful of circumstances, and knew little about his behavior in times of peace. Not to mention -- Christ -- as a father.
"Recreational, Deputy Allbright," the captain said. "It's one you ought to try."
Tar Gibbons led Elspeth down the corridor, while she tried to think of things she could say to it without sounding like an idiot. She had already rejected a joke about how the Ferkel was bigger on the inside, because the odds of the tar having seen Doctor Who were pretty miniscule, really, though maybe Madame Pong had? She was mostly disparaging on the subject of Earth television but claimed she was fond of Golden Girls. But who wasn't?
Elspeth thanked her lucky stars, not for the first time, that she didn't have her own personal Seymour in her head listening to her internal monologue, which was less of a monologue and more like a vicious babbling cycle.
Tar Gibbons said, "Warrior Science teaches us that when thoughts cannot be kept within, they should be shared."
Elspeth said, brilliantly: "What?"
"You want to say something. It is abundantly obvious." Pivoting its head on its long neck, the tar peered at her with round eyes.
"I've never been very good with silence," Elspeth said.
"That explains a lot," replied the tar. "It's not much further."
Elspeth, for god's sake stop worrying about making a good impression like a 1950s schoolgirl at a tea party, she instructed herself.
"It's just, I want to make a good impression," she blurted out. Great. Awesome.
Tar Gibbons stopped to stare at her, again. "What do you mean?"
Its eyes were like spotlights. "Well, I know I wasn't exactly -- uh -- the most lovable child ten years ago, but I think I've gone through a lot of changes -- did therapy, even, not that people like it when you talk about that, usually, and anyway you grow out of a lot --"
Tar Gibbons blinked at her. "Is this in reference to the crew's widespread opinion that you were unmanageable and unpleasant?"
Well, how do you respond to that?
The tar continued, "I never quite understood that. In fact, you always reminded me -- strongly -- of my sibling Lakwan." It started walking again.
"Like, in a good way?"
"Oh yes. Lakwan was independent-minded and determined. I hope you haven't changed those qualities. Warrior Science -- ah, but here we are." Tar Gibbons pressed a button, and a door slid open to allow them entrance.
Inside a small enclosed bed, not unlike a crib, Susan was stirring, sleepy but not asleep. She smiled a bit when she saw Tar Gibbons. Elspeth imagined seeing its head pushing forward at her immediately after she woke up and suppressed a shudder, but the toddler and the tar were evidently used to each other.
She put out her small, thin arms, and it lifted her up. "Between missions, I am afraid there is little use for a Master of the Martial Arts on board, so I try to be useful to the captain and Snout in other ways," the tar said, in explanation.
"You like kids?" Elspeth said, a note of disbelief in her voice.
"Don't you?" Tar Gibbons asked. She wasn't sure. She was an only child and babies made her nervous, yappy toddlers annoyed, elementary-age kids infuriated -- but Susan looked calm, and she didn't like to act prejudiced.
"Oh... yeah," she said, lamely.
The tar smiled into Susan's face, and her hand lazily found its cheek. "Hello, Susan," it said. "We are sorry to disturb your afternoon rest period, but it is important for you to wake up now, or your nighttime sleep period will be less fulfilling."
Susan nodded. Elspeth asked, "Does she talk yet?"
"Not yet. It is difficult to know how much she understands. Snout says she likely doesn't see the need to worry about language yet, since she appears to sense our emotions and intentions well enough mentally." Susan's fingers drifted towards its eye, as if about to poke it, and the tar laughed. "She doesn't like being talked about like she's not present. Do you, my fribbick?"
Elspeth -- oh, dammit -- was charmed. Tar Gibbons had an honorific that basically promised it was going to bring the pain to some poor sonofabitch, and here it was, an unofficial nanny.
Susan gave a sudden twist of her body, as if trying to escape its grasp. For a moment, she seemed to fall. Elspeth's arms shot out and caught her. "Oh my God," Elspeth whisper-shrieked. Susan laughed at her.
"She does that," the tar said calmly. "She likes variety. I admire your reflexes, Elspeth."
"What? Oh. Thank you." She stared at the child she held, and wondered if Susan could sense her trepidation. Elspeth could easily drop her for real. Susan wrinkled her nose at her, and Elspeth smiled back, despite herself.
She studied Susan's elegantly formed body, which tapered gently toward her legs and tiny, stubby tail. Her front was a paler shade of bluish purple than her back. Elspeth sat down in a nearby chair -- oh God, it rocked -- with Susan in her lap so she could tentatively touch with one hand Susan's long face. Her skin felt warm and dry, but somehow thick -- protective. She made an agreeable whirring noise (weird, weird), and Elspeth held her breath and scratched Susan's nose lightly. Susan laughed.
"She'll like that," Tar Gibbons said, and Elspeth jumped. She hadn't realized it was watching, not that there was much else to look at.
Susan's antennae were what Elspeth had initially noticed of Grakker's genes, but as she continued to study Susan, she found additional clues. The deep furrows in her forehead were his; they gave her a contemplative look, like a small philosopher. Her eyes were more like Grakker's than Snout's, the color of mud -- earth, she corrected herself. Those eyes looked less tired now, and a moment later, she casually pushed off from Elspeth's body with her foot. It hurt. She was Grakker's daughter, all right.
Elspeth set Susan down, and she ran off to a rather overstocked box of odd-looking toys. Definitely too many. "They'll want to be careful they don't spoil her," Elspeth said absently, remembering her own superfluity of things from her earliest memories. On the other hand, she hadn't had so many people around who liked her. Susan pulled out something that looked like a doll version of Medusa, only orange, and began to gnaw on its head.
She looked at the tar. It was smiling at her a bit. She smiled back.
That evening -- reckoned not by any planetary time but by the rhythms of the ship's day -- Grakker left the bridge, where he'd left Phil running end-of-day scans on the navigation computers in preparation for the sleep period, which the Ferkel spent on autopilot whenever possible. Before that, he'd heard Madame Pong's daily report, today a perfunctory chore soon completed. Before that, he'd read to Susan, as he did every night, until she fell asleep to the low rumble of his voice. Snout had early mornings with her, when Grakker was either debriefed or debriefing; evenings were for him.
His ship felt, as it usually felt at this time, sluggish and quiet, the whirring bits of its mechanism powering down. Without bustle, the ship seemed larger, and Grakker was aware of the sound of his feet as he thudded down the corridor to the room he shared with Snout.
Snout lay on their bed, nose pointed at the ceiling, eyes closed but not asleep, Grakker could tell. Snout preferred to rest free of anything covering his body, especially as they kept the room warm to approximate the weather on Snout's home world.
Grakker prepared for rest, enjoying the companionable silence, feeling the undemanding tug of Snout's mind through their bond -- he was waiting, neither slept well without the other, and it was agreeable to be waited for. Beyond that he had little sense of Snout's emotions; he had been curiously blank lately, except when with Susan. Grakker rarely used their bond to probe; Snout was good at that, but Grakker lacked the training and the inclination. He still preferred talking.
"What did you read Susan?" Snout asked, eyes still closed, as if in response to Grakker's thought.
"The next chapter of Farmine Glax, Intergalactic Detective," Grakker replied promptly.
Snout groaned. Grakker sank onto his side of the bed and rolled onto his side, facing Snout's profile.
"It appears," Grakker said, "that Glax does not have the right being in custody. There was another murder." He paused. "I suspected as much."
"Susan is getting too old for you to read just anything to her," Snout murmured. "You need to start worrying about subject material or she'll grow up violence obsessed."
"Nonsense. Wait until she reads the book Deputy Allbright says he's written about us."
Snout smiled. "I'm glad Rod's here."
Grakker grunted noncommittally. Then, he said: "When we're on Friskalama I'll ask Ma Grakker for my old books. The ones from when I was a larva."
Snout said nothing. Grakker wondered if he'd fallen asleep. He rolled over, double-checked the device that monitored Susan's room next door, and turned off their lights.
Snout spoke, out of the darkness. "Are they mostly about worms?"
Grakker felt an arm slide over and around his torso. "Not all?"
"Mostly." He felt the end of Snout's nose settle into its familiar place, between his neck and shoulder. "What's she doing?"
"Being hatched, I think. The song."
"Do you remember yours?"
"Yes," Snout said. Then: "You should sleep, my captain."
Grakker grunted. The warm mental current of affection hummed between them, often barely noticeable in its long-accustomed groove. Grakker often reminded himself to notice it on purpose; he did so that night. Then, as Snout had taught him, he took deep breaths until something behind his stomach unhooked and relaxed. They fell asleep.
[to be continued]