The woman did not tell Besh her name. She did find many names for him in the common Panglish tongue. She called him a bug that makes its home in excrement. She called him a larvae that spawns in rotted meat. She described his sexual preference for aliens, animals, and the pain of others.
She was angry. He understood. Her words did not hurt him. He tried not to hurt her as he held her arms pinned. Fife and Beryl said they had to get to the bridge, had to get the starship airborne.
Beryl stepped onto the gravity lift and ascended, light as a feather, up through a hole in the ceiling. Fife gestured with her good arm for him to go ahead. He held the woman’s wrists behind her back, pulled her close to him so they would both fit, and stepped with her onto the lift.
His stomach flipped. He was suddenly upside down, diving upward. Moments later force rotated around him, pitching him sideways with gentle, insistent force, then down was down again. He stepped onto the starship’s bridge. Fife sprang out of the lift behind him.
Beryl hunched over the polished chrome controls. Fife examined an overhead panel. Her arm had purpled. A bone protruded where no bone should have been.
Short red carpet covered the floor of the bridge. Egg-shaped acceleration couches arced in a semi-circle in front of the expansive forward viewing window. The window was black, the silver walls remained opaque. The power had returned, but the ship remained shut off to them.
Beryl pounded a hand in frustration against unresponsive controls. The bald woman stomped her foot and cursed.
“Stop it,” Fife ordered Beryl. “Besh, bring her over here.”
They managed to get the keeper strapped down in one of the acceleration couches. The three of them leaned over her, Beryl apoplectic, Fife trying to convince with reason, and Besh himself merely observing.
“You have to unlock the ship’s computer,” Fife said.
The woman sneered. “I’d rather die!”
“You will,” said Fife. “We all will. You’ve looked out these windows.” She swept her hand over the currently opaque walls. “Civilization has collapsed. The owner of this ship is not coming back.”
“You don’t know that.”
Fife pushed on. “You’re keeping this ship safe and sound for no one. Help us, then we will leave, and you can keep your vigil again.”
The woman leaned her head forward as far as the straps would allow. “No.” She bit off the word.
“We’re dealing with a baby,” Beryl mused, hysterical laughter bubbling in his throat. “Here’s her crib.” He grabbed the edge of the acceleration couch. “There’s the bald baby.” He pointed at her. “And here are her three parents, overwhelmed, exhausted, in over their heads.” Laughter shook him.
Besh had recognized the resemblances, but didn’t find the comparison funny. He could tell that Beryl didn’t find it amusing either. Not really.
Fife seized Beryl by the arm, dragged him aside. “Make yourself useful and find a medical bay. My arm is killing me.”
“What’s the point? We’re all going to die.”
Besh let their hissed conversation fade from his attention. He knelt in front of the acceleration couch. He looked the bald woman, the keeper of the ship, in the eyes.
“My name is Besh,” he said.
The bald woman narrowed her eyes at him, but said nothing.
“This ship is beautiful,” he went on. “My previous ship was nothing like this. It was meant for the dead, but this…” He swept his eyes over the silver surfaces and elegant couches. Even the controls had brightly colored levers with perfectly round knobs sized for human palms. “…this is for the living.”
“Not for long,” hissed the woman.
He nodded. “That’s ok with me. I’m prepared to die.”
The mask of anger on the woman’s face flickered. She seemed to hesitate.
“Water was my master, the owner of my ship. In a way I was the keeper of Water’s body. My body was its ship for occasional sails through physical experiences.” Besh’s eyes brimmed with tears. The last time this had happened, his unused tear ducts had exuded wax before the tears. But that had been mere days ago. He was ready to cry more easily this time. “But Water went away.”
Tears spilled down his face, collected and dropped from his hairless chin. Beryl and Fife argued in the background, but Besh was lost in his own thoughts. He didn’t think of the bald woman either. She swam blurrily behind the water in his eyes.
She asked, “Where did your Water go?”
“I don’t know,” he said without bothering to wipe his eyes or staunch the flow of tears. “I wish I knew. I didn’t even notice the absence of its presence.” He shuddered with emotion. “Now Helper is gone too. There is no one to answer my questions.”
“Where did everyone go?” the woman asked like a prayer.
“I don’t know,” Besh whispered in reply. “And I don’t know what you’re supposed to do when you’re the only ones left.”
The emotions trickled then came to a hollow end. Besh knelt, unable to move, listening to the sound of his own breath slowly matching the rhythm of the woman’s breath.
After a while she said, “My name is Ohnsy.” He looked up, saw fear and determination in her eyes.
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