I didn’t realise that I’d drifted off to sleep until I woke from that sticky dryness I’d come to remember as thirst. I tried to exercise some discipline by checking the time before sating myself, but the bulb was still empty before I knew it, with the unpleasant sensation in my mouth barely receding for all my rush. I must have been quite noisy, as Ellin turned from her seat and shook her head at me.
“Keep on swigging like that and you’ll need to purge a lot sooner.”
Her bluntness had me scowling before I realised it. I bit my lip and chose not to pick a third fight for the day.
“Honestly, I’m just happy that I don’t have to eat.”
She shrugged. “Fair enough. It’s never done much for me, either.”
As far as I could tell, Ellin was much like Peri – short, lean, and pale. Her face was at least distinct enough for me to parse, with a broad, blunt nose and hair kept short even by ship standards, a dense stubble that almost showed the skin beneath. She’d barely spoken to me while we were on our way down in the lander, but her reticence didn’t seem to be masking the sort of nervous tension I’d seen in Asteyan and Hu. I took a chance and beckoned her over.
“Ellin, did you know that Asteyan had been falsifying reports?”
“No, I didn’t. What was it, private collections?”
I shook my head. “No, he’s been covering up lapses in discipline and morale.”
“Oh, that’s all.” Ellin’s face pulled itself down while her shoulders bobbed. “Sooner than I expected. Being all the way out here, it’s not something they’re used to.”
She nodded. “And Asteyan. All they know is being crowded in with each other. Hab-folk, planet dwellers, whichever – either way you take having people around for granted. Most people need that, even if it’s just so there’s someone for them to bicker with. Take that away and most people end up fraying at the edges. The red outside doesn’t make things any nicer, either.”
“You seem to be managing all right.“
She squinted at me and made a face I couldn’t decipher. “We’re not most people, we’re crew. They take pains to make sure we’re not like that. Some of us are tough enough to handle it. Some of us just prefer being alone. I don’t think the managers care which it is as long as we’re reliable.”
I did my best to set my face into something formal, or at least neutral. “Thank you for your candour, Ellin. I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting you to be so familiar.”
Her face broke out into a wide grin at that. “Hah, well. I know this is a bad situation, I know you’re an Arbiter, but It’s hard to be scared when you’re riding around in old Gus here.” She reached out and patted me on the cheek. “I promise you, Trinn, there’s nothing I haven’t already seen or heard from this shell. Carping from passengers, Peri bossing me around, ship-auto moving him like a puppet… all sorts of things. He’s like an old friend!”
I had no answer to that, and found myself giving in to the rising urge to turn from her touch, from her gaze, blank out the air pushing through my throat, the water settling too heavy inside me. Some time passed there before I felt Ellin’s hand again, on my shoulder this time.
“I’m sorry, Trinn. Peri did say you had a rough start, I didn’t realise it was still an issue. I should have known better.“
I shook my head. “No, it’s fine, Ellin. I can handle it.” I still didn’t look at her.