On the Merr ship...
Merryt shows me the various mechanical rooms where the inner workings of the ship are found throughout the vessel, and takes me down to the battle stations, which are right in the front and center belly of the ship, shielded on either side by fins on the exterior of the bottom of the ship. We go to the upper deck of the ship, traveling in a pretty standard elevator, and when we step out, he says, “This is the residential level. Down this corridor on either side are twelve suites for crew. At the end and up on more floor is my apartment. And down this way-” he leads me to the right, “is the cantina.” We enter through doors that slide apart to either side, and there’s a large room that incongruously has stone floors and smooth walls that appear to be made of something like paper, almost like a Japanese house.
The light is a little more diffuse in here, and the ceiling is high and crossed with thin beams of wood.
“Wow, this is like a completely different place,” I say, walking in, looking around. I reach out and touch one of the walls. There’s light coming from behind the walls, and I sense that the room is even bigger than it looks, as if there are smaller rooms behind the paper walls on all sides. The visible space in the room is maybe 75 feet long and probably 30 or so feet wide, like a broad corridor. There are low, simple wooden tables scattered around, with benches to sit on. At the back of the room, there’s an opening to what I assume is a kitchen.
“So who cooks? I’m guessing not you?” I say jokingly, smiling at the idea of this strangely formal but informal prince preparing his own meals.
He seems to pick up on my joke, and returns my smile dryly. “Actually, I’ve learned to prepare some meals, because Rejir is useless at cooking and Bryl…well, you’ve met him. And the ship provides some things. Like coffee. Want some?”
Intrigued by alien coffee, I nod, and continue looking around. Merryt walks into the back room area and I walk over to the wall to the right, and notice that it looks like a panel can be slid to the side. I push it slightly, just out of curiosity, and it indeed slides easily, opening upon a small chamber with a flat low wooden structure, like a platform bed without a mattress. There is also a small wooden table in here. It almost looks like a bedroom. I hear Merryt coming back out of the kitchen and semi-guiltily turn back toward him, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be nosy. I noticed that it looked like there was something beyond the walls, so I slid the panel-“
He’s looking past me, into the room, and looks uncomfortable. I glance back into the room, and say, “What's this room?”
“Take this and sit down,” He says, sounding resigned. I take the black, handle-less cup from him. It feels cool to the touch but the dark liquid inside is steaming and on first sniff, does indeed smell like coffee. I sit down at a nearby table, and he sits on the opposite side, immediately setting his cup down.
There’s a definite air of tension around him, and his mouth is a tight line, as he looks at the palms of his hands for a second. Then he looks up at me and looks me right in the eye.
“Those are bed chambers. For women kept onboard.. in the event that they’re wanted.”
Remembering that he said females are property to the Merr, I try to make sense of what he actually means.
He sighs. “I realize that none of this makes sense to you, and probably sounds like the worst-“
“Honestly, I’m still trying to understand what you even meant about women being property.”
“I meant just what I said. On Merr, females are kept as property. There are basically two positions they can hold in life: wife or consort. A Merr man purchases-“
“Purchases!?” I burst out, even surprising myself. He looks strained, irritated, then continues, “A Merr man purchases a wife, and can have as many as he is able to financially sustain. They have their own section of the home, so he needs to be able to provide that.”
“So they’re slaves.” My voice is flat, the height of a single atom.
“Slaves? No. Vogwen are not slaves, even if they are women,” His tone cuts the air.
My eyebrows shoot up at that. What have I gotten myself into? It occurs to me that he might have brought me here to reclaim me or something, as a Vogwen woman. I push back in my seat, distancing myself from the table and from him.
Seeing my movement, he leans forward, reaching across for my hand or something. I withdraw further, bringing my closed fists to my chest, feeling my eyes wide and nervously staring.
He sits up straight, pulling his hand back across the table.
“I knew this would happen. I don’t know what to say.”
“If you knew this would happen, why did you bring me here? Why are you telling me this? On Earth we don’t keep slaves. That was abolished almost a century ago everywhere on the planet. Brazil was one of the first countries to do it. So you’re not likely to find a sympathetic ear here.”
“I told you, Vogwen-“
“Aren’t slaves, yeah. Explain to me how this is any different. You purchase female Vogwen beings and own them as property. That’s a pretty basic definition of slavery on Earth.”
He says nothing, just looks over at the still-open room to the side.
“Why did you bring me here?” I ask again, working hard to keep my tone even, calm, unaccusing.
He looks back at me, and his face is bleak.
“I don’t know. I really don’t fucking know now.” I blink at the rough language. He seems to stare through me.
“Maybe I should go. I don’t know what to say about this, and-“ Throwing caution to the wind, “I don’t want to stay and get captured and shipped off for sale on Merr.”
He looks as if I’ve slapped him, then laughs mirthlessly.
“What?” It wasn’t a jab or attack. I feel myself getting defensive.
“Have I done anything to make you think I’m trying to…capture you?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t really know you. You’re very charismatic, and I want to like you, but you also think that enslaving women is completely fine.”
“I never said that.” He says, his voice taking on an edge. His cheeks are coloring slightly.
Matching my tone to his, “You didn’t say it’s not fine.”
Suddenly, he stands up. The bench falls over behind him. He throws his arm out, indicating the open room, then sweeping it from side to side. His voice seems to reverberate, though he isn’t yelling.
“Do you see any women here? Does it look like I’m keeping slaves? I’m 19, and since you don’t know-I’ve been expected to pick out a wife for four years and haven’t.”
Startled, unnerved, but sticking to my guns, I shoot back, “That doesn’t mean anything. For all I know, there are women in the other rooms,” I know this isn’t true though. My mind is racing. How can he so nonchalantly tell me about the Merr culture, the Merr culture of which he is a prince, and expect me to believe that he’s any different. And, “Why would you be any different?” I ask, also standing. It occurs to me that this is the crux of the matter. What would make him any different?
He drops his arm to his side, and just looks at me.
“I didn’t think I cared until this past week. When people asked me why I haven’t gotten a wife yet, I told them I didn’t want to waste the money, or drag a harem around the galaxy with me.”
“And I’m supposed to think that that’s not actually the truth? For all I know you’re just really frugal!” I laugh, because it is kind of funny.
“Well, I am,” He admits, also laughing a little bit, though his eyes are still searching my face. “But I don’t want to own a wife. My father has six. And he takes quite good care of them!” He adds defensively.
“Well good for him,” I say, a little snidely.
“Look, if you knew how most women are treated-less than animals-you would realize that the way my father keeps his wives is-“
“Your father is the emperor.”
“Yes…” He squints at my apparent swerve.
“If he thinks women should be treated better, why hasn’t he changed the law? Freed-“
Merryt scoffs loudly, “Oh yeah, because THAT wouldn’t result in crashing the economy and probably with his head on a platter, as well as mine, and our entire lineage.”
That seems hyperbolic, and my skepticism must show on my face, because Merryt says, “There are 25.9 billion Merr Vogwen. 15 billion of those are men, and most of them of age are part of the military in some capacity. And all boys are trained in combat, even if they go into a lesser trade.”
“Anything that isn’t the Merr militia is considered a lesser trade,” Merryt shrugs.
I start to see wherein lies the problem.
My dawning comprehension must again show on my face.
Merryt rights the askew bench, then gestures for me to sit back down on mine. I do, stiffly, and he follows suit on his side.
“So how did your dad end up with this liberal attitude?” I ask, vaguely sarcastic.
“My father isn’t liberal.”
I don’t respond, just wait.
He continues, “He values Merr Vogwen tradition and honor. And he sees no honor in beating and abusing Merr girls. None of his wives have been under 14 when he married them.”
I recoil visibly. What the hell? Disgust in my voice, I say, “Merr Vogwen marry CHILDREN?”
“Not my father or any of his men. That is actually something he is working to change.” His face lights up at the chance to redeem his father in my eyes.
“Well that’s something, I guess.” I say, arms crossed over my chest protectively. I rub my upper arms a little bit, and he says, “Are you cold?”
“No, I’m freaked out,” I say, not intending to be so persistent, but it just pops out.
“By me?” He looks genuinely concerned for a split second behind the mask of defiance on his face.
I sigh. “No, I guess not. Just the whole thing. Look. On earth, everyone is free. People aren’t kept as property. Animals aren’t even thought of in terms of property. It’s hard for me to understand how you can defend-“
His tone is sharp, “I’m not defending it.”
Something occurs to me, “What about your companions? Especially Bryl. They didn’t seem as open minded as you,”
“Well Rejir isn’t so bad. He has adjusted to my standards. He comes from a good family that has always been loyal to the Merryt line. Bryl is a problem though. He was sent with me to complete a first space mission, and has been a thorn in my side from day one.”
Almost as if on cue, the door of the cantina slides open and Rejir and Bryl come in. They’re talking rapidly in Merr and stop when they enter and see us sitting. Rejir attempts a smile, and bows quickly toward Merryt. Merryt speaks to him for a moment, and the Bryl says something. He looks right at me, and sneers. Rejir glances at him and visibly moves away from him, as if not wanting to be associated with whatever he said, and then quickly goes into the kitchen area. The next thing I realize, Merryt is on his feet and striding calmly but quickly toward Bryl. He barks something, and Bryl stands defiantly for a moment, then when Merryt gets near, he shirks back a bit, like a skittish dog. He points at me, eyes rolling a bit in his head. Then he darts around Merryt, greasy and quick, and then he’s at my side, and pulling me to my feet, and gives me a shake before I can even gather my wits.
“Let go of me!” I shout, trying to pull away. He smells like madness. I feel it baking off of him. His grip on my upper arms is vice-like. I raise my foot and donkey kick backwards as hard as I can, feeling my heel connect with his shin. He woofs out a breath of air in pain or surprise, but doesn’t loosen his hold. I raise my foot again and he kicks my other foot out from under me. Everything is shouting chaos, none in any language I can understand. My shoulder sockets scream as me weight drops from under me. Merryt is drawing something from behind his back. My arms are yanked behind me, hard, and I feel myself dragged back, calves hitting the bench, toppling it over. I scramble my feet on the floor, and one of my sandals falls off. The floor is utterly smooth, and Bryl is taller and stronger than me by a long shot. His grip on my arm loosens, and for a split second I think I’ve been released, until something cold is shoved painfully under my ear and jaw, and I’m hoisted up by one arm. Everything goes completely still. Merryt is frozen, hand still behind his back, at the edge of the table I was drug away from. Bryl continues to back up, toward the wall, pulling me with him, and talking flatly as he does so. Merryt is responding, and his voice is very, very still, and soothing. Then he says in Portuguese, “Listen to what I say, Tmonk-Tmonk. Do not move. He has a gun. He thinks I’m telling you something about how you’re going to be a prisoner so I can’t say much else. Rejir is behind him and is going to try something, I think. When I drop my gun, go limp and duck your head.”
He goes back to speaking Merr. Bryl gives me a shake. A whine of fear and pain escapes me as his fingers grind into my elbow joint. Merryt nods, now speaking casually, but still staying stock still. His eyes are steadily on Bryl, but the skin around them is bloodless, belying the calm in his voice. Then, everything happens all at once. Merryt’s eyes flick to mine for the faintest instant, then, as if in slow motion, he brings his hand to his side, and opens it, letting a black pistol fall from his grasp towards the floor. I let my legs go limp beneath me, abruptly becoming dead weight, tucking my chin to my chest. There’s a sudden metallic scream, jarring my ear drums and seeming to shake my eyes in my head. Bryl’s grip abruptly is gone from my arm, and I throw my hands out to catch myself as I pitch towards the ground, pushing instinctively away from him. Then Merryt is pulling me to my feet and against him, turning me away from Bryl, placing his body between myself and the crazed man. Unable to help it, I try to turn my head to see what’s happening and can see red splashing around, and Rejir and Bryl moving in a flurry. There’s a ragged sound of gasping, then Merryt is facing me, and moving me forcibly towards the exit of the room, then out into the hall. When we get out into the dark metal corridor, he grips me by the shoulders, which now ache. I cringe away, nerves jumping like live wires. I start to shake now, nice delayed reaction, Tmonk-Tmonk. Merryt brings a hand to my cheek and looks down into my face, eyes searching over it. With quick, efficient movements, he lifts my chin and looks where the gun was pressed to the skin, running his thumb there for a moment. He lifts his other hand to my hair, cupping the back of my head. Then he pulls my head to his chest and holds me there for a second. I can feel his heart thundering through his shirt, the fabric of the cravat soft against my face, which is hot.
Then he releases me, and steps back suddenly, and strides past me into the cantina again, where the sound of struggle is still ongoing. “Stay here,” he says brusquely, and slides the door closed behind him. My skin seems to burn, where his fingers traced under my jaw. I shake my head. What the hell just happened? There’s another report, but this time it has an odd, muffled quality, and then all is silent in the room. My heart jumps into my throat. Did Bryl shoot someone?! I approach the doors, which slide open silently before me, and I enter the room quickly. Rejir is knelt over a figure, and for a moment in my mind’s eye it’s Merryt-then my vision clears and I see that Merryt is standing to the side, with his back to me. The crumpled figure on the floor, with a dark puddle spreading around him, has blond hair-Bryl. Rejir looks up at me, grim, shaking his head. Merryt turns, and I see him re-holster his pistol. His jaw is tight and set, and I say, “You shot him? Is he-“
“Dead.” Rejir is the one who spoke. He stands up, looking down at his hands distastefully, then starts peeling off his stained gloves.
I stop moving forward, about ten feet now from the still figure on the floor. His face is turned toward the smooth stone, but I see a dark, ragged area near the left shoulder blade. I turn my eyes away quickly, feeling my breath catching in my throat. The stench of blood, and an acrid ozone scent suddenly strike me as choking and I start to back away.
Things start to seem a bit desaturated and I realize I’m greying out. I turn and quickly leave the room, and as if from a long distance I hear footsteps. My cheeks feel uncomfortably hot but the skin on my forehead and throat/collar bone area feel clammy and cold. I walk quickly, blindly, down the corridor, and finding a stairwell, I walk up the narrow passageway, feeling comforted by the small space, until I reach a landing at the top, and I sink down. My thoughts are a blur. I bow my head between my knees for a moment, drawing in long breaths. After who knows how long, I hear a door open, and someone coming up the steps. Merryt rounds the corner to the last flight of steps, and stops at the base of the flight I’m sitting at the top of. He stares up at me for long seconds before breaking the silence,
“I didn’t want to kill him. I was going to throw him into confinement until I could get him transported back to Merr…where he probably would have been sentenced to the labor class if he escaped execution..”
I don’t say anything. I feel a distant sense of surprise that he thinks I’m upset that that asshole got himself killed. Then I feel a closer moment of surprise at myself for that. Is this what happens when you have your first near death experience? I just feel tired. So tired.
“He was mad. Rabid. Does that word mean anything to Earthen?”
“Rabid? Like rabies? Yeah,” I say. Wow, my voice is so listless. I feel myself floating just slightly outside of things. I feel cold, distant. I watch myself wrap my arms around my shoulders and rub the goosebumps rising up there.
He starts up the stairs, looking at me acutely.
Did he hurt you?
“No, I’m fine. Just…I think I’m in shock.” I say aloud.
He stops short. “What?”
“You asked if he hurt me,”
He looks a little startled, and perplexed, “No, I didn’t. At least, I didn’t think I did.” He laughs mirthlessly. “Maybe I’m in shock too. I didn’t think I would have to kill a man in front of you.”
To Be Continued....