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.”
My body begins to feel warm again, very suddenly. I look at my hands and they feel like my own. I shake my head, and rub my face.
“I didn’t see you do it,” I say, as if there’s a distinction to be made. He reaches the steps just below me, then reaches out a hand. I take it and he pulls me to my feet. A moment of light headedness comes over me, and I grip to his hand for a second.
“You’re pale. You should lie down.” He slips an arm around my waist gingerly and reaches past me to open the door on the landing behind us. He guides me courteously through the doorway, then swipes his free hand over a panel near the door, and the lights come on. We are in a simple apartment, it looks like. There’s a low bed, unmade, with charcoal grey sheets and a black comforter.
“I didn’t know I would have a guest,” He says, by way of apology, nodding his head towards his bed and smiling ruefully. He releases me, and I plop myself down to sit on the edge of the bed. He backs away, then sits in a chair all the way across the room, near a low black coffee table with some sort of tech equipment scattered across it, and some books.
“Is this your apartment?” I ask, perking up a bit in interest. The walls are a soft, uniform dark blue grey. Recessed lighting makes it look much more inviting than the glare of cool lights in the corridors. There’s little in the way of décor, except for a lot of books in an inset bookcase making up one wall, and a few small metal figures. The floor is a close-knit, flat black fiber carpeting, but there’s a teal rug scrunched up near a small door to the side, probably a bathroom. Otherwise the room is austere, dustless, and somewhat anonymous. Except for the rumpled bed.
He shrugs, “Yes. It’s not very interesting. This wasn’t meant to be an imperial ship but I like the jump fighters better than the other ships. I don’t mind it. I don’t spend much time in here anyway.” He stands up. “Do you want something to drink?” Realizing my mouth is like a desert, I nod. He goes to the wall perpendicular to the bookshelf, and touches a flat panel, which folds back into itself to reveal what looks like a cabinet. There are some boxes and bottles in there, and glasses, as well as what looks like a water tap.
“Water? I also have some…” He picks up one of the bottles, turns the label towards me, which I can’t read, and says, “Wine. It’s from Merr. Probably pretty good.”
I’m intrigued by the idea of trying things from Merr but I’m genuinely thirsty, so I say, “Could I have some water first? I would like to try the wine though. I’ve only had wine a few times, during ceremonies.”
He fills up a glass with water, and hands it to me. It’s clear and cold. I start to feel a little less unreal. I move my shoulders a bit, trying to loosen up the tension still lingering. As my mind clears up, I start shaking again.
“You can use my blanket if you want,” He offers, sitting down in his chair with a glass of water in his own hand, watching me warily. “I’m not cold,” I say, and suddenly the horror of this whole thing slams into me. Bryl could have easily killed me. He had a GUN to my head. My hand starts to shake to the point where I’m worried I’ll either drop the glass or splash water all over myself or Merryt’s bed if I try to drink from it. I reach out to set it down on the end table, and then I do drop it. It clunks to the ground, splashing water all over the floor, darkening even the black carpet. Merryt jumps up out of his chair.
“Damn it, I’m sorry!” I exclaim, and am horrified to realize I’m starting to cry. I stand up quickly, turning my face away from Merryt hurriedly. “Is there a towel? I’m so sorry!” I look around wildly.
“Are you crying?” He asks, moving towards me.
“No! I mean yeah, but I’m fine!” I say, embarrassed, and I scrub my upper arm across my face. “I’m just-I never saw a dead person before, and he-well, the whole thing-“ I’m losing my battle against ugly crying. What a disaster. I grab the hem of my tunic shirt and cover my face, scrunching the fabric into my eyes hard to stifle myself.
Gentle, a firm hand on my shoulder. Then his gloved fingers prying mine away from my face. He looks stricken into my face.
“Sit down.” He presses my shoulder slightly, and I sit back down on the bed, as if my knees unhinged.
“It’s just water.” He bends over me, reaching around and grabbing the comforter and awkwardly settling it around my shoulders. He attempts a smile.
He then strides into the small side room, then comes back with a hand towel. He hands it to me, and I move to wipe up the water. He puts his arm out to block me and says, “That was for your face. You’re a mess.” That’s real nice. I feel my eyebrows raise, and he says, “What?”
“That’s not very gentlemanly,” I say, unsure if I should laugh or be offended.
“I’m not a gentleman. That’s an Earth thing.” he says, offhandedly, and picks up the glass and sets it on the bedside table.
I take a shuddering breath and find myself starting to quiet. He looks infinitely relieved, and sits back down in his chair across the room. His knee jiggles nervously. I watch it and he notices and stops moving his leg.
Feeling fractionally calmer, though still shaken, I say, “Thank you,”
“It’s just a towel,” he responds.
He’s remarkably literal.
“I don’t mean the towel, although yeah, I guess thank you for that too? I mean thank you for…helping me, for your kindness,”
“Kindness.” He repeats this word, as if turning it over to himself.
“I don’t really know what to say about Bryl,” I say, feeling like my throat is constricted in some way.
His brow furrows and he crosses his arms, leaning back into his seat.
I continue, “What was he saying? Why did he-do what he did?”
Merryt blows out a long breath, gazing upward for a moment.
“He was doing what he thought I should have done. It is what I should be doing, according to Merr law.” Seeing my questioning look, he continues, reciting, “’All females of Merr Vogwen descent are property of the Imperial lineage unless otherwise proven by authorized Certification of Ownership or presence of Surname band. Any un-claimed or out of bounds females shall be seized and apprehended by a Merr officer or a citizen’s arrest may occur in the absence of an officer.’”
“Ah.” I manage, incredulous. What is this shit? Feeling surreal again, I say, “So he was trying to, what? 'Seize and apprehend' me?” I try to laugh, like it’s a joke, but my face feels stiff.
His face is utterly expressionless. “When we first met you and your friend-“
“CiCi, yes. When we first met you two, he didn’t like that I let you leave our presence. He wanted to go after you. I stopped him. I told him that as citizens of an uncontacted planet, we didn’t have authority to apprehend you without proof of birth.”
“I would think not!” I exclaim, and as I go to kick my shoes off to draw my feet up crossed beneath me, I realize I’m still missing a sandal from earlier.
He rolls his eyes, “That’s not actually a law. Any female Merr Vogwen is considered property of Merr and is out of bounds if not in the possession of a man. And your friend proved herself to be Merr by her understanding of the language. She really is out of bounds, if she speaks the language.”
I bristle at this, “She is not. She LIVES here and has for years!”
He waves this away without comment and continues, “I blocked him from going after you, but he resented it. I told you he’s been a thorn in my side since joining my crew. He’s always been just under the edge of insubordinate, and I’ve had to watch him carefully. I had planned to have him demoted when we got home, to get rid of him. I’m just starting to really build my own crew. Rejir is a good one. But Bryl…he’s-he was, I mean, a problem. The thing with you and CiCi seemed to be the bed’s leg for him though.”
“The bed’s leg. Letting you walk away without taking you prisoner was the bed’s leg. I don’t know how to translate it.” He looks mildly baffled.
“Like the last straw?”
I shake my head, “Never mind.”
He looks at me for a long moment, trying to see if I’m making a joke towards him, I think. I guess he decides I wasn’t because he shakes his head minutely and doesn’t pursue it.
“Anyway, he’s been more and more agitated as the week has gone on. I thought he might calm down eventually, especially when you didn’t come to tour the ship right away.” He shrugs, “I figured I wouldn’t see you again,” He smirks, then his expression fades into looking uneasy, “But I guess when you showed up today, that pretty much sent him over the edge, and he decided he was going to take matters into his own hands. Especially when Rejir didn’t back him up.”
“Oh, when I first got here?”
“Yes. Bryl thought we were both mutinous cowards. He said as much in the cantina. He’s lucky he wasn’t killed on the spot for that.” A pause, a dark look at his hands. “In the past, that’s all it would take. Maybe it would have been better that way,” I shudder. “He came in saying he’d had enough, and that if Rejir and I were going to defy Imperial law, then he at least would do the right thing. That’s when he grabbed you.” I squeeze the blanket in my fists where I am holding it closed around my shoulders, remembering him shouting and yanking me up.
“I should have shot him right there. Another mistake.” He looks angrily at a spot somewhere to my left.
Not sure if I should ask, but unable to stop myself, I say, “So, what would have happened if Rejir hadn’t gone into the kitchen?”
Merryt looks me dead in the eyes and says, “I would have had to try to kill him before he could kill you, or let him take you captive. I really didn’t want to let him out of my sight with you.”
All this talk about killing…well, a man is dead, so why do I keep being surprised by the frankness of the conversation? His implications about Bryl’s possible intentions weigh heavily on the room. Merryt stands up suddenly, and says, “Did you want wine? Or more water?”
“Water into wine,” I say, nonsensically.
He shoots me a look, and before he can ask, I say, “I’ll try the wine.” He picks up the bottle, and then digs around with his free hand in a drawer behind the bottles and boxes in the cubby. He proceeds to remove the cork, looking at it and then tossing it aside along with the bottle opener. He pours a glass and hands it to me, saying wryly, “Please don’t spill that everywhere. I don’t want to deal with wine stains. Some of us have to live here.”
“Ha ha,” I say, wrinkling my nose. He pours himself a glass, eyes it, and says, “I guess I should try this. I never like wine, but I keep thinking eventually…” He sniffs it, grimaces, and looks at me. I sniff mine, and it smells nice to me. Like I told him, I haven’t had wine often, but I do like it. I look at the dark liquid, more purple than red, and take a sip. It’s strange! On the surface, it tastes pretty much like any cabernet that I’ve ever tried, but there’s an aftertaste, something like...cloves? Or something spicier and more earthy than I’m used to. It makes my mouth tingle slightly, also. I look up at him and he shrugs and takes a drink of his, more than a sip and immediately makes a face of disgust. I burst out laughing. I can’t help it.
“I guess you still don’t like it?” I ask, taking another sip of mine.
He looks at it in disgust and puts it down on the table in front of him, and pours himself a glass of water and drinks it quickly.
After a minute or two, he sits back down, and seems to search for the thread of the conversation. Apparently finding it, he says, “Thankfully Rejir was in the kitchen. He had a shock pistol, but I didn’t want him to hit you instead.”
“How was I not shocked too?” I ask, imagining something like a taser.
“The current is very localized, and designed to lock onto the electric impulses specific to the first person the electricity contacts. Usually it paralyzes the person temporarily until they can be subdued.”
“It didn’t work though- they were fighting-“
Merryt looks chagrined, “Merr fighters are trained to overcome things like that.”
“How?!” I ask, enthralled. I can’t imagine that being a mind over matter thing.
“Repeated exposure,” Merryt says blithely.
“You get shocked over and over?” I gasp. It sounds terrible.
Merryt shrugs, “You get used to it. Merr fighters are known for their fierce endurance. We don’t fall to torture.” There’s a definite note of pride in his voice, though not of boasting.
“But there wasn’t much choice, and I think Rejir and I both hoped the element of surprise might be on our side. And it worked, at least enough to get him to release you.”
I nod. I remember how his grip seemed to jump away from me. I rub my knees, which feel bruised from hitting the floor so hard when I went to dead weight.
My wine is almost gone already, and I feel a wave of exhaustion fall over me. I realize I’m going to have to walk back home at some point. It’s not far but the thought of even walking down the stairs to get back to the lower level seems daunting. I ask for a glass of water, hoping that will energize me.
Merryt rinses the wine glass and fills it back up with water. Handing it to me, he looks at me acutely, and I smile. “I’m ok, just feeling tired. I think with the shock wearing off, I’m sort of starting to fade a bit. I’m listening.”
“I can take you home. I’ll walk with you.”
“In a little bit. I’m ok for now,” I insist, wanting-NEEDING- to know exactly what happened, how this chain of events came to the head that it did. I know it wasn’t my fault, but I feel the burden of responsibility to hear the thing out, so I can try to understand what exactly happened. How a man ended up dead.
Merryt looks skeptical, and says, “You can lie down if you feel tired.”
I feel a little weird about laying in a strange guy’s bed, honestly, and I say, “That would be a little weird, me just lying in your bed while you talk…I’ll lean on the wall though.” The bed doesn’t have a headboard, it just butts right up against the wall, and I scoot to the top, pushing a strangely flat pillow aside, and cocooning myself in the comforter, drawing my knees up underneath the blanket, wrapping my arms around them. Feeling cozy, I look at him and wait for him to start talking again.
“There’s not really a lot left to say. The shock only affected him for a few seconds, but it was long enough for Rejir to grab him from behind, and they fought for the gun. I got you out of the room, and when I got back in, Bryl was overpowering Rejir and was turning his gun on him. I got to mine-it was still where I dropped it-just in time, and shot him through the heart.
And that’s that. He died instantly.”
My stomach feels cold and heavy. Am I a monster because I don’t feel anything but relief? The image of him spitting at CiCi and me rears up in my mind, and his lip curling in a sneer as he pointed at us. Does that mean he deserved to die? I shiver, feeling chilled at my ambivalence. I don’t know how to feel, honestly.
Merryt stands up. I notice for the first time that there’s a dark stain on the rolled cuff of his right sleeve. Blood.
I move to stand up, again overcome by how tired I am. It’s actually a little scary. It’s like a fugue has lain over me. I feel utterly drained. Maybe I need to eat. But the thought of food makes my stomach feel even heavier.
I get to my feet, gently laying the blanket back on the bed behind me.
Merryt is watching me, face a mask, appearing impassive, but eyes anything but. I sigh, and stretch.
“I guess I really should go home now. Otherwise I’ll end up falling asleep in your bed and oh, the wild speculation from CiCi!” I say this as a joke, to break the tension and to try to seem less abrupt, but am met with an embarrassing silence. I realize maybe it was awkward to imply untoward behavior, so I busy myself with putting my single slip on sandal onto my foot for much longer than necessary, I’m sure making myself look like a dunce.
I look up after exhausting the options of the single strap that goes across my toes, and say, “Oh crap. I lost my other shoe. It’s in the, um, cantina.” I close my mind to thoughts of the body, lifeless on the stone floor. Is it still there? “It’s no big deal though. Most of the time I don’t wear shoes-as you noticed,” I try to smile.
Merryt narrows his eyes for a second, looking at my feet, “Wait here. I’ll go grab it.” Before I can protest, he’s out the door and it clicks behind him. I sit back down on the bed, then lay over on my side, feet dangling towards the floor still, resting my cheek on the soft, piled up comforter. I close my eyes for a second.
I jump, and looking around wildly, realizing that it’s dark. Sitting up, I flap my hands around me, pushing a sheet off of me. Where am I? My heart is thundering in my chest. Everything is unfamiliar. I stumble to my feet, and my right ankle rolls slightly-I only have one shoe on-then I remember-Merryt went to get my other sandal from…My eyes start to adjust and I realize that it’s not totally dark. The sheet slips the rest of the way off of me, and I see that the lights have just been dimmed almost completely. What time is it? I feel completely disoriented. Did I fall asleep? I look at the bed. The blanket is still piled up where I laid my head. I look around the silent room. It’s completely empty. I walk slowly towards the door, moving carefully as my eyes continue to adjust. I reach the door, but I’m not sure how to open it. There’s no handle. Remembering how Merryt turned on lights, I swipe my hand downward near the right-hand side of the doorframe. The already dim lights go out completely. Well, that makes sense, I guess. I swipe my hand back upward, and on the second pass I guess I get it right, because the lights brighten suddenly. I blink, a bit dazzled. From the small door to what I think is a bathroom, I hear footsteps, and the door swings open. Merryt looks in. I see that it’s actually a small corridor connecting to another room.
“You’re awake. And found the light switch!”
Still squinting a bit, I rub my face blearily. “How long have I been asleep? I guess I was more tired than I thought.”
He shrugs, “An hour, maybe. I came back with your shoe-“ He points to the coffee table, where my missing sandal is sitting. “-but you had fallen asleep.”
I feel my face going red, “Well that’s embarrassing.” I walk over and pick up my shoe.
He shrugs. I put my missing shoe on, and say, “I should get home.”
He looks around. I notice he’s not wearing his coat anymore, and the cravat is gone. He just has an open throated white dress shirt on, sleeves rolled up. The blood stain has gone dark on the cuff. He notices me looking at it and says, “I’ll change and then we can leave.” He starts unbuttoning his shirt immediately. Panicking at the thought of him undressing in front of me, I turn abruptly away like a huge prude, towards the door. Crap, how do you open this thing? I wave my hand futilely in front of it for a few seconds, and hear him laughing.
“What?” I say, still resolutely studying the door.
“Nothing,” He says, still laughing. After another few seconds, he approaches, and in my peripheral vision I see he’s wearing a simple black long sleeved shirt. He touches the door where a knob should be with his fingertips and the door slides into the wall. He gestures, after you, and follows me out. We go down the steps, in comfortable silence. I’ll admit, I feel a bit better. My mind shies away from the events from earlier, and I let that fall to the back. I’ll think about it later. For now, I just want to get home and into my own bed. Merryt leads me to the elevator, and to the exit of the ship. We step out into the twilight. The fresh, warm air feels like a kiss, and the tension begins to leave my body palpably. The evening birds are singing the end of the day songs, and I can smell the greenness, which is a welcome relief after the sterile, metallic interior of the ship.
To Be Continued...