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A Haunted Forest

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2018 hours, July 1, 2514

“Keen!” said a familiar voice, somewhere in the distance. Cianán moaned something and dragged a pillow protectively over his head, enjoying his clean bunk and his post-lunch nap far too much to rouse at the summons. The life of a runaway-teenager on the mean streets of Beylix’s capital city had not prepared the youth for the regular -- and ample -- meals regularly served up aboard the Jin Dui, and his habit of eating everything and anything in reach whenever the opportunity presented itself was proving problematic. What had been a survival skill a week ago meant he today (and for the last few days in a row) Cianán felt like he was drifting along in a steady state of food coma, from which he roused from just in time for the next summons to the galley table.

“Keen!” the voice was back, and closer now. The awareness of that had just begun to settle when a hand grabbed the youth’s shoulder and gave him a shake. “Wake it up, xiǎo gōngzhǔ! C’mon, there’s work to be done!”

Cianán let Sully drag him up into a sitting position. He yawned hugely and swung his legs over the side of his bunk, scrubbing an arm across his gritty eyes. “I’m up, I’m up,” he groaned.

“Hoss said you were a big help in getting that wiring done this morning,” Sully said, all conversation now that the crime of waking Keen from his food coma had been committed. “He says you climbed up to the cargo bay overheads like monkey.” Cianán heard the “but” coming and forced himself to open his eyes wider, struggling to focus on the ship’s first mate in anticipation. Sully never failed to disappoint. “But Hoss also said you also refused the safety harness he told you to put on. That’s a black mark, buddy. You get told to do something by the senior crew, you do it. And no more climbing without the safety gear -- dong ma?”

“Yeah,” Cianán said, trying to restrain another jaw-splitting yawn. “I hear you.”

“Uh huh.” Sully was grinning, not fooled for a moment. “That’s a ‘yes, sir, Sullivan-sir, I heard the syllables and consonants that just issued forth from your mouth, sir,’ isn’t it? Not a ‘yes, sir, next time Hoss tells me to strap on the safety gear I will do as the good Hoss-meister tells me.’”

Cianán grinned back and shoved himself to his feet, finger-combing his tousled dyed hair with both hands. “Yes, sir!” he agreed unhelpfully, earning a roll of Sully’s dark eyes. “You got more scut work for me?”

“That I do, me boyo,” Sully said. “Captain said to hand this off to you in the morning, but she doesn’t know you like I do to understand yet that you’re a nocturnal species of space monkey. So I’ll pass it off to you now, and let you complete it as you see fit.” Sully gestured behind himself, and for the first time, Cianán noticed the collection of paint cans stacked next to the cabin door.

“Paint?” the youth said eagerly. “I get to paint something?”

Sully grinned again, pleased by Cianán’s obvious delight. “The crew of the Lucky Day left us those. High-quality UV fluorescent industrial safety paint. Captain wants you to paint the steps on all of the stairs ship-wide. Slap a stripe across the top of each step, so they’ll glow in hazard lights. You’re to do hatch frames and touch up all emergency panels as well. Think you can manage that?”

The practicality of the task was an immediate buzz-kill. “I can,” Cianán replied mournfully, his previous enthusiasm having vanished like a popped soap bubble.

“Good. Since you’ve caught up on your beauty sleep, then, get started on it tonight. Get the high-traffic zones while everyone else is in their bunks.” Sully clapped Cianán on the shoulder. “Have fun,” the first mate said cheerfully, before turning on his heel and striding out of the cabin.

Cianán yawned a last yawn, stretched experimentally, then squatted down to inspect the paint cans and bucket of supplies Sully had left behind. The brushes were stiff and dry, having been used before and given a layman’s cleaning. Cianán collected them and stood, having a strong suspicion that if he couldn’t find some vinegar up in the ship’s galley, it would be easy enough to find someone else who’d know where it was.

Cianán waited until after the friendly board game in the gallery’s observation lounge broke up, a little after 2200 hours. The late night piloting shift was Fatima’s; the sound the bhangra tunes she was listening to followed Cianán as he worked his way from the bride gangway and access stairs and down the forward corridor, panting the hatchways and steps with the UV paint as ordered. The paint was good quality stuff -- it applied easily and in one coat; seen in normal lighting it looked like a mild pastel -- there was a can of pink, a can of yellow, a can of crimson red and one of robin-egg blue. But when triggered by the UV of the emergency lights, those mild colors would wake up in a flare of fluorescent color. At first, Cianán amused himself by imagining the results of his labors, glowing like beacons of safety within the smoke and chaos of some dire emergency. But that got him to thinking about how far out into the black the Jin Dui was traveling, and how fragile her life support systems truly were… Cianán’s imagination was far too keen under the circumstances, and by the time he was applying his brush to the galley hatchways, Cianán was desperately trying to distract himself from the reality that he was aboard a tiny tin can surrounded by the big, bad nothingness of space, with only the laws of probability and gods of luck keeping the ship’s hull from being punctured by some bit of space debris, or millennia-old bit of rock or piece of ice, whatever-it-all-moving at some terminal G to rip through them like a Reaver’s jagged blade --

Happy thoughts, happy thoughts, Cianán chanted to himself in the lonely deep of the night, as he finished painting the aft hallway hatchways and began to work his way down the mid-deck stairs. Happy thoughts. He didn’t want to think about the black nothingness just beyond the hull, and he most certainly didn’t want to think about Reavers. The Jin Dui could get to feeling like a dark and empty and lonely place, with the lights all dimmed for the alter-day shift and everyone asleep in their cabins but for the pilot up in the nose of the ship. Cianán tried to distract himself with memories of the last anime he’d seen. The flick had featured an old Earth forest full of wood spirits and friendly wildlife, so it hadn’t seemed as eerie a place to be as its shadowy palette of colors could have made it. God, he’d loved that vid. Cianán wished he had the stick-to-it-ness necessary to be an animator, but knew from experience that long jobs were next to impossible for him to complete. Keeping his attention focused for something more than a mural was wrenchingly difficult…

And talking attention and focus, it was proving a hellishly awful lot of steps all the way down the first set of cargo stairs, then from the shuttle airlock (was it starboard or port? He was still proudly a left/right boi and still wasn’t confident which was which) on down to the middle cargo bay catwalk. He finished the right side of those stairs, all the way down to the cargo bay deck, then eyed the opposite set of stairs and decided he’d just paint the steps up to the crew lounge hatch first and then take himself a long, well-earned break. He’d painted maybe half of the ship already, hadn’t he? Surely even a muledriver like Captain Cooper couldn’t begrudge Cianán a wee bit of a breather, seeing how much of the job he’d powered through already…

Cianán made it into the crew lounge on the last of his fumes, put down his gear, and threw himself down on the couch gratefully. It was long past midnight, and the ship was quiet around him except for the subterranean sounds of business -- the thrum of the engine, and the steady whisper of fans moving air through the ventilation systems. Cianán rested his head on the cushioned couch arm, and closed his eyes, daydreaming of his anime haunted forest, and of the fey-bathed wood spirits who populated it. Kodama. Wasn’t that what the old Earthers had called their forest spirits? It occurred to Cianán suddenly that while he had been ordered to paint ship hatches, no one had expressly ordered HOW to paint them. Wouldn’t it be worth a laugh to visit the most remote and mysterious access hatches throughout the ship, and paint friendly kodamas on them? The thought put a smile on the youth’s lips and made his fingers twitch with anticipation.

Then an even better thought occurred to him. Cianán sat up abruptly, eyes opening wide to see the quiet, dark crew lounge around him, analyzing the surfaces of the room, and the long, flat wall beside him that was unmarred by hatchways.

He scrambled off of the couch and strained to shove it into the middle of the lounge. Then he puzzled over the com panel for a few minutes and found himself unable to figure out how to make it do what he wanted. “Fatima?” he asked instead, bypassing the controls for the human pilot upabove. “Darling, can you do a favor for me?”

“What do you need?” came the woman’s dulcet voice in reply; he fancied she sounded surprised to have a fellow waking traveler.

“Captain has me painting hazard markings,” he said, using the truth as cover. “Can you somehow turn on the emergency lights down here for me in the lounge, so I can admire my hard work for a little while?”

“Sure thing!” a few seconds later, the overhead lighting shifted and darkened, and the fine hairs on Cianán’s arms began to glow faintly as the UVs toggled on.

“Thank you!” Cianán said before cutting the connection. He turned and scrambled for the paints and his palette, already seeing in his mind's’ eye just how he could transform this space from industrial tin can to kodama-haunted beauty…

One of the real pleasures of his talent were those times when Cianán became so enraptured in his work that he lost all sense of time. It was as though space-time-continuity ceased to affect him, and the images he could see inside his head just translated themselves fluidly into the real world.

He started by raising the ghosts of the forest trees with grease pencils, layering them in stark black against the industrial grey of the lounge wall. Then came a layer of black foliage. Only once the bones of his forest were in place did Cianán begin to paint with the UV. Under normal flight conditions, the mural on the crew lounge wall would look like a silent black forest against a pale, wintery light. But under the emergency lights, Cianán’s komada forest breathed with life underneath shimmering moonlight, with wisps of fog rising from the foliage and among the bare trunks like fluorescent smoke and fey-light mist. He flicked fireflies into that fog, and was beginning to hide the first of his komada spirits among the brush when he was startled out of his creative focus by a voice behind him.

“Gǎo shénme guǐ?”

Cianán spun around on his seat on the couch back so quickly he almost fell off, and dripped paint down the inseam of his leg. “Captain!” he said, the word escaping almost as a squeak.

Captain Cooper stood in the far crew lounge hatchway, her violin case in one hand and the other holding her cane. She was staring at Cianán and his work with a look of shock. “What the hell?” she repeated.

“Um…” Back on Beylix, Cianán had a rap sheet with the Capital City lawkeepers for graffiti -- in his experience, property owners never appreciated a work of art unless they’d paid for it in advance (and often times, not even then). His gut reflex was to grab his tools and bolt for safety. But there was nowhere to run to on the ship. Instead, he got to his feet and tried to look innocent. “Sully gave me the paints and told me to do the stair steps and hatchways…” he began sheepishly.

“Which this is NOT,” Cooper said, scowling at him. She had lovely dark eyes, he thought. Like obsidian, and just as sharp.

“I got a lot done,” Cianán said in his own defense, wincing out how flimsy it sounded even in his own ears. “At least, I got all of topside, and the starboard side of cargo stairs. Then I took a break.”

Cooper’s merciless gaze had traveled away from him face and back to his fairy-shrouded mural. “A break, huh?” she said with a snort -- he couldn’t tell if it was amusement or disgust, or a mixture of both. She limped forward a step and reached for the comm panel, where she typed in a quick code one-handed. The emergency lighting went off, replaced by normal day-shift lighting. Cooper stared at his mural, her eyebrows raised. “Huh,” she said, again indecipherable to Cianán. “You ask anyone else about doing this?” she asked.

Cianán winced again, bracing himself for punishment. “No. I just saw how it could be and got started.”

“You got enough paint left to finish the rest of the stairs and hatchways?” Cooper asked next, typing in another code. The emergency lights kicked back in, bringing back the ghostly colors among the dark trees.

“Yes ma’am,” Cianán answered quickly. Too quickly, maybe. “If they don’t have to match, that is.”

That got another snort out of the Captain. “Hǎo de. You run out of paint altogether, then you’re buying whatever replacement is needed to finish those stairs and hatchway, she said, then began to limp across the room, heading for the cargo bay beyond.

Cianán blinked, startled and relieved at the captain’s mild reaction to what might have been perceived as property destruction. “That’s all?” he said, unable to restrain himself.

Captain Cooper came up short and looked at him. He realized she thought he was fishing for compliments when she said “I like it.”

“You don’t mind my painting up the walls of the ship?” Cianán said.

“I didn’t say that,” Cooper said, with a hint of a wry smile. “It’s my ship, you paint up anything else outside your cabin, you ask me first. But this room? This is the crew’s lounge. You’re crew. You do anything like this again in crew quarters, you make sure the rest of the crew don’t mind. So if anyone else complains about this, you are painting it over. But,” she added, as she turned to limp out of the lounge, “I hope no one complains. Hǎo chāo kù ō .”

Cianán grinned at the praise, and turned back to try and finish his mural before anyone else was awake.