No Way Back – Chapter 22 – Only a week behind…

I have to admit, this chapter was roughly finished as of last week.  The problem was that I wasn’t sure if I was happy with it.  I’ll be honest, I’m still not 100% sure of it.  It feels rather unneeded.  At least a part of it anyways.  After re-reading it, I felt it was decent enough to post, but it might not be there in the finished work.  If it is, it’ll probably be heavily modified.  

In any case, here’s the chapter.  Hopefully the next one will be up soon.  I’ve already got it figured, it’s just a matter of writing it.

Chapter 22

 Sleep gets easier when you start learning how time has changed. It’s been seven ship-days since my little mishap in the mess hall and I can finally sleep through a night. Granted, that’s with a midnight wake-up call so I can stretch my legs and keep myself from waking far too early or sleeping too late, but I can finally do the overnight thing without feeling too awkward about it. It’s different than at home, and not just for the obvious reasons. The ship, as long as we’re moving, is always vibrating. When you stand, you typically don’t feel it unless you focus on it. When you’re laying in bed, though, there isn’t much more to think about. The bed padding itself took the longest time to get used to. Or, more appropriately, adjust to me. When I first got my room, it was too soft. Then, the night of the incident, it was too hard. Now it’s about right so sleep is much easier. The lighting never feels quite right, but I’ve given up trying to fix it for now. The hardest thing to adjust to, though, is the thin and not-quite-soundproof walls. It was a shock when I had someone at my door because I was speaking too loudly. Or the complaints about when I fell out of the bed the first night. That took some getting used to.

Today, though, will be different. I’m not longer in Commander Grai’gahrd’s “crash-course” in the UFO officer’s school of conduct. He said it was for me to learn the proper way to behave, but I think he was just trying to keep me from wandering again. Eventually, though, I understood enough to not need his heavy indoctrination and, as of yesterday, he said I was now free to go as was needed but would need to pick up a classification for myself. And soon. As I pull on another clean uniform and fresh underthings, the conversation we had before I returned to my quarters the night before begins to run through my head.

“If you’re going to be on this ship, it isn’t going to be a pleasure cruise. Every officer has their task here and they all see to it. I’ll let you learn the ways of the ship and then you can get back to me with what you want to do.”

Standing at attention, I listen to his words and accept the fact that I’ve got to do something. “Sir, request permission to speak freely.”

Mergrayne gave one of his rare smiles. “Of course, Ensign.”

“Sir, I have no idea what I should consider. I don’t know much, if really anything, about your ship, but I know that I don’t want to be a custodian or something like that. I want to do something that proves that I… I mean, humans, really can do this. Uh, Sir.” I didn’t break my stance once during that little bit, and that fact made me secretly proud.

The lupine officer nods with a grunt, then turns and walks towards the computer screen with his hand-paws clasped behind his back and his tail wagging just enough to be noticed. It was one of his few tells about his mood, which seemed to be improving daily around me. After punching in a few commands, he turns to face me again. His voice is deep and rough yet strangely calm as he starts. “Robert, I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t like you. I don’t like your race. Your kind is far too aggressive internally to survive in the UFO. There is… Evidence of a lost transport on Earth that was destroyed by your kind, and even worse, the loss of several of our top negotiators.” He takes the time to step closer to me and continues. “You, however, have the privilege of knowing that we exist.” He finally stops, his extra few inches of height showing up as he looks impassively down his snout at my unwavering stance. “And you seem to have enough drive and quick-wit about you to learn whatever it is you choose and in a short period. I’m supposed to grant you full access to the ship.” He turns away and walks back to his desk, sitting at his chair and offering me a seat. Once I’ve accepted it, he continues. “However, I don’t trust you enough for that. You will be granted entry to all the major hangers, engineering spaces, and anywhere else you want, with the exception of our munitions holds, ship defensive shields, and anything used specifically to protect the ship. I will also require you to have an escort anywhere that is deemed ‘sensitive’ to ship operation. Once you’ve learned more about the ship, then we’ll get you trained on what you want to do. Any questions?”

I bite my lip for a second, more out of concern of misunderstanding than fear. “Yes, sir. One. How long do I have?”

His eyes narrow as he smiles darkly in my direction. “Just don’t take too long. Dismissed.”

The memory comes to an end and snaps me to the present. Having dressed myself during my thought-filled moments, I look in the mirror and straighten the collar to the uniform, then run my fingers through my longer than usual hair. “Time to get a haircut. I hope they have barber shops on-board.” Satisfied that the uniform is on correctly and all my additions are intact, I tap the comms device embedded into my collar. “Dharcia, please.” I’d become accustomed to asking the computer politely since the voice that returned, “Request accepted, contacting,” was rather pleasant, almost like a close friend who always was willing to help out.

A few moments pass before I get the response. “What took you so long? We have plans, you know!” The sound of her voice was coming from the communicator, and was amazingly clear for its size and design.

“I’m sorry, I just had to take care of something,” I lied. I didn’t want her to know that I was lost in thought as I dressed and it held me up a bit. “Where should I meet you?”

Her voice comes through again, light and playful. “What else do you have to do today?”

I laugh as I respond. “Eat and get a haircut. Know where I can get that?”

“You need to be groomed?”

“Uh…” I try to think about what exactly she meant. I don’t have fur to be brushed or anything like that, I just need a trim. “Well, basically, I guess.”

“Alright, then. Meet me in the Commons and I’ll take you to the best groomer on the ship. Out.” The device went silent.

I turn towards the door and start to head out. It opens with a whoosh and I step out to the walkway. Instead of turning, though, I walk to the railing and look down. The drop of four stories to the main entryway seems so far for a moment and I think of my college dorm’s landing. The grass at the bottom, the paved walkways, the chirping birds. It wasn’t there. Nothing was the same anymore. Instead, it was a constant, low roar of the engines that just sounded like blowing wind. It was the tapping of hooves and claws on the thinly-padded floor. It was the sound of alien voices with their animal undertones. It made me wonder if I would ever truly adjust to this life, and, for a moment, I felt alone again.

“I didn’t know you were on the fourth level!”

I snap my head towards the familiar voice. It was one in the few who weren’t still whispering around the “alien,” but his voice I knew very well. I smile at the pink Eil’phae, Ter’link, in his dark blue, grease-stained overalls and… Not much else as witnessed by the bright pink fur that was plainly visible from beyond the very short sleeves. “Hey! Yes, this is my home-floor. I guess I haven’t looked to see how many names I knew.”

“You look sad, little man.” It was his chosen nickname for me, one that I wasn’t about to try to argue with him about at the time being. “Something on your mind?”

I hunch back down along the railing, my gaze drifting down into the open space beneath me. “Home…”

A hand-paw drops down on my left shoulder, a little more rough than I would have liked. I could tell it was meant to be friendly from him. When I look over, I see his deep brown eyes wide behind a teasing smile. “Look, everyone gets homesick on their first cruise. Some of us get homesick every cruise. But you’ll get over it.” When I don’t respond, he sighs and pulls me away from the protective barrier. “How about this? I’ll get you through your engine and hanger tours for the day, and then I’ll introduce you to some extra-friendly shipmates of the female persuasion. How’s that sound?”

I laugh as I feel his arm on my shoulders tugging me towards the lifts. I choose not to resist the pull and, instead, walk with him. “Is that all you think about?”

He chuckles and I feel his arm bounce slightly on my body. “Don’t you?”

I shake my head and sigh before I laugh some more. I guess men are generally the same in that regard, no matter what species you are.

– –

Ter’link and I push our way through the bustling crowd towards the central fountain. I call it a fountain, but it’s more like an artificial waterfall on-board the ship. The two-and-a-half story tall artificially assembled rock face allows a torrent of water to stream down into a pool of crystal-clear water that is surrounded by growing plants of all shapes, sizes, and colors. It was where we’d find a sizable number of crew and their on-board families swimming, usually naked, or enjoying the naturally sweet air that filled this place. It was also Dharcia’s favorite place on-board. While some of the crew preferred to stay rather solitary, and others enjoyed the wild nightlife that took over after-hours, she wanted the quiet, simple beauty that she never had in her home, the capital city of the planet Daran’nassi. She rarely spoke of it, and I never felt the need to pry.

True to her nature, we find her topless and laying along the stones that surround the pool, a datapad in her hand as she studied whatever was loaded on it and her thick tail wrapped around her hip and resting in her lap. Her free left hand-paw had pulled back her short hair as she absentmindedly twirled her claws through it and let it fall away from the water. While the uniforms she wore were properly fitted, and the regular nature of the crew was to be unashamed of their unclothed bodies, I find myself turning away as I find considerably more purple fur than I was ready for. Ter’link laughs too-loudly at my sudden awkwardness and calls out to Dharcia.

“Oh! I was waiting for you two!” If she stood up, got dressed, or anything else, I wouldn’t have known. I was simply trying to not think about her topless. Again. “Robert, are you… Wait…” I hear the rustling of the fabric as she pulls her uniform top back on, then a sigh as she continues. “You’re going to have to get used to it, Robert. The majority of the crew prefers less clothing to more. You can turn around now, by the way…”

I do to see her back in full uniform. I also scan the area to find her correct about the crew, as usual. “Thanks. I know, Dharcia, it’s something I’m just not used to. Humans usually don’t walk around naked.”

Ter’link snorts his laugh. “Sounds boring to me. Come on, let’s get food so we can move on to the tours.”

“Robert said he needed to be groomed, or something like that. We should take him to see Klef.”

As Ter’link smiles with his non-response, I look between both of them. “Cleft? What’s a Cleft?”

Ter’link lets out a roar of laughter and looks as if he’s going to fall to the grassy floor, with Dharcia fighting to hold in her amusement.

“What?!”

The Eil’ph finally regains his composure. “Not Cleft. Klef! Klefatina. She’s the best groomer on-board. She might be a little confused with you, though, without a lot of fur.”

“Ha, ha. I just need a trim.”

Dharcia takes my left arm with her right and begins to walk me away from the pool of water. “Just remember, don’t freak out. She’s a little… Intense to take in for the first time.”

Ter’link takes up position to my right as we walked, still chuckling. “Oh, Dharcia, if there was a way to be more understated, you’d find it.”

– –

It was somewhat of a short walk to where this Klefatina worked. We walked down the large corridor that leads towards the mess hall, but when we come to the same hallway where I’d come across Nishka, we hang a left and head towards the back of the Commons. The hallway narrows some as it nears its end, but my escorts keep moving me until we come across a room that looks entirely covered in what looks like clods of dirt. Ushered in by my companions, I look around while my eyes adjust to the low light that seems to glow from certain areas of the room.

Ter’link is the first to say something. “Hey, Klef! We brought you a new person! He needs a grooming. Stop hiding and come on out.”

“Yes, Klef, “Dharcia adds. “I thought we told you that this was a bit much for most of your new clients!”

A strange huffing sounds comes from above me, then a quiet skitter that seems to wrap around the room. Then a voice sounds from almost directly in front of me, almost as if three different throats spoke together to make the sound. “Ah, yes. You did. Very well. Lights, on.”

The glowing spots suddenly intensify and the room fills with light, albeit dulled because of the dirt clods that do, in fact, line the entirety of the walls. And the ceiling. Standing in front of me is something that I could not have imagined. A large, brown creature stands just slightly shorter than myself. Her four thin arms ended in what looked like hooked claws that are pulled up against what would be her chest. She stood on two legs very similar to her arms, but longer and more geared to hold her segmented ant-like abdomen from the floor. Her head was large and triangular, with two large, complex eyes that stood roundly on the upper corners of her head, while the tip sported a par of four inch long mandibles. She cocked her head, then spoke again.

“Welcome to my salon.”

I tried to turn and run but both arms were held fast by my friends.

“Robert, calm down! She’s not going to hurt you! I told you she was intense. You have to remember that there are over eighty different races on this ship and some of them are going to be very different than what you know!” Dharcia smiled as she tried to hold my struggling body still.

Ter’link brought his right hand-paw to bear and picked me up off the ground. “Seriously, little man, we wouldn’t bring you here to be hurt!”

The ant-like female’s triple voice returns. “I do not eat live prey. Especially not the fleshy kind. I prefer a good fungus salad.”

“R-Really?”

“Yes.” Klefatina’s abdomen gently pulses in a rhythmic pattern as she speaks. The nanites pick up the motion and the calming pheromone she’s releasing and informs me that she is laughing and amused. She shifts her head slightly to look past me at the purple mephit who’d brought me. “Your mate, perhaps?”

Dharcia’s voice is strangely high-pitched and sharp. “NO! He’s just a guy who I have to teach!”

“Ah. A friend, then.” The insectoid turns her head again and seems to be focusing on me, her abdomen still pulsing. “Are you looking for a mate?” Her question seems to be jokingly asked, and that thought is emphasized by Ter’link’s stifled snicker.

“No?” I shift in the seat as she walks around behind me, trying to keep her in my sight.

“Ah, a shame.” Even with the tri-toned voice, she sounds as though she’s teasing through the translator. “Now, you do not have much fur. Is there something you wish done for your long-fur?”

I take the question to be about my hair. “I really just wanted to have it trimmed down some. Is that possible?”

The nanites tell me that she is still basically laughing as she speaks. “Look ahead, please.” She waits for me to comply before continuing. “Of course it is possible. What is needed is to know how far you wish it trimmed?”

“Short, I guess. I don’t know how to explain it. Basically the same length the whole way around.” I lift my hand and show a gap between my fingers. “Maybe about this long after it’s been cut?”

I feel the hook at the tip of her upper arm touch the gap. “Ah. Simple.”

The next thing I know, I feel a flurry of activity along my scalp. It feels as if my hair is being combed up and then cut almost immediately and to exactly the length I’d asked for. The strange part was that it was happening on both sides simultaneously! Her four arms made very short work of the hair I’d grown, the upper legs combing my hair straight, the middle snipping it quickly, yet I hadn’t seen a single clump of hair land on my uniform.

“You are done, Ensign.” The triple-voices inform me with a hint of satisfaction. Another moment later, a mirror is thrust into my hands to inspect the work. “I hope it is what you wished for.”

I run my hands through my hair and look at it in the reflection. Not a single hair was missed, and it was exactly the correct length on every inch of my head. My eyes must have told her this because the nanites again inform me of her amusement. “That was incredible! Amazing!” I turn around and spy her arms moving the already-collected hair into a bin. “And you do this for your pay?”

“Yes. And, the fur collected usually makes a good base for my fungus garden.”

“Wow!” I look over to my friends with a huge smile. “I can’t wait to do that again!” I look towards Klefatina once more. “How much do I owe you, anyway?”

Her large eyes shift as she cocks her head at the question. “Do you not have an identity card?” I nod and absently pull it from my uniform shirt pocket. She takes it with a controlled hook, taps it on a silver box that protrudes from the wall, then hands it back. “There. You have paid.” She laughs again, then continues. “You will learn many things, I am sure. Now, move along. I do have other clients.”

I stand and thank her for a job well done, then Dharcia, Ter’link, and myself head out towards the mess hall for breakfast. The conversation during transit consists of an explanation of how she cuts hair, joking about my reaction, and general good fun. The perfect start to an interesting day, I’m hoping.

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