Chapter 7

Li strode along the ship’s corridors like a woman on a mission. She had a fire in her eyes and a spring in her step. She knew what she wanted and wasnt going to let anything come between her and the prize. It was going to be hers. All she needed was a qualified pilot and access to the remaining shuttle. The latter was easy, the Captain had given permission to take the shuttle, so she applied all her considerable focus on obtaining the pilot. There were two remaining on board: Eric and Shawna. Eric was combat trained and would provide a vital backup presence in the city, could fly virtually anything and (she noted almost as an afterthought) someone that she would enjoy spending the time with. Shawna’s qualifications were impressive, garnering her recognition and a commercial license to fly before she’d finished flight school. Li recalled reading an assessment in her public record that described her flying as “servicable but lacking imagination or flair.” Clearly not the candidate that would get Li to the razor and back.

She arrived at Eric’s quarters still wrapped in her thoughts. She didnt stop to be invited in, didnt buzz, she simply walked right in, “Eric I’m going to…”

Eric was standing motionless in the centre of the room. The front of his sensor net was parted as though he’d just begun to remove it. What shocked Li was that his arms were hanging limply at his sides. The edges of the net were peeling back all on their own. As she watched the net parted at his throat and peeled back from his neck. Two tendrils were slower to come away and with a thrill of horror she watched as three inches of black sensor-net tentacle slipped up and out of the carotid artery on either side. The insertion points seemed to spontaneously heal with only a minor loss of blood. Li’s hand went to her mouth to stifle a gasp as the tentacls seemed to _lick_ the wounds and consume the leaked blood. When they were finished there was no sign of their presence, no sign of a wound, everything having healed in a matter of seconds.

Her attention snapped back to the rest of his body. Two tentacles extracted themselves from artieries in this groin. The whole sensor net finished peeling itself off Eric and wriggled down onto the deck, moving over to fold itself neatly on the end of his bunk. Only when it was carefully stowed, tentacles fully drawn back into itself, did the hypnotic stillness fade and Eric notice Li standing there.

“What the hell? Havent you heard of knocking?” he demanded, spinning around to look for some pants.

Li stood there in shock. Her index fingers were making wriggling, worm-like motions and her mouth hung open. Eric turned around once his pants were on, “Well?” he asked, his tone still annoyed.

Li’s eyes moved up from groin level to roughly level with his face, fingers seeming to move of theor own accord, acting something out as her brain processed, “What was that _thing_?” she asked.

Eric stood there. His anger turned to laughter, “I know you were checking out my package … I dont need eyes for that, I hear those fingers moving … that _thing_? Since when was a man’s pride-and-joy to be called a _thing_?” he asked.

“No. Things.” She corrected.

Eric smirked and motioned, bringing hands close together miming them holding palm-sized round objects, “Things … you say?” He mimed bouncing the palm-size round objects, weighing them in his hands. His hands moved, miming tracing the contours and “seeing” these objects.

Li waved her hands to and fro, “No. Not those _things_, I mean, _tentacle things_ … alien _things_”

Eric put on a mock frown, “You’ve been watching too much of that weird Japanese anime porn again, havent you?”

Li howled in frustration, “Arrgh. Men!” then turned on her heel and left his quarters.

Eric looked for Li in the usual places, firstly her lab. It was empty and the computer was flashing a warning message, projected on the translucent window of the isolation area, Eric tried reading it but it made no sense to him. About half the words individually made sense but it was the others that really gave the message any meaning. He made a mental note to tell her about it when he found her. Next on the list of locations was the mess-hall. It was deserted. Eric moved on. Her quarters were empty too. Where could she be? While he was still trying to think he heard footsteps behind himl.

“Stay right there, dont turn around.” Li said.

There was a rustling of fabric moving against fabric, then, “OK, turn around.”

Eric dutifully turned. Li Phan stood facing him, her dark hair piled up on the back of her head held in place by a pair of metallic chopsticks, he’d heard the sound of her arranging the hair and metal sliding against metal at about head height. She was wearing a traditional Kimono, most likely silk from the sound of it. Long sleeves that fell almost to her ankles rustled against the skirts as she moved her hands, clasping them demurely together in front of her. He guessed that her fingernails were trimmed and painted a deep, rich red colour to match her lips.

Eric got over the shock and stepped close to her. In a conspiritorial whisper he said, “You really have been watching too much of that weird Japanese anime porn!”

Li threw a punch at his shoulder, laughing.

Eric stepped back from her rubbing the shoulder, “Got a good left there. Now, what’s with the get-up?”

Li walked past him and motioned for him to follow her into her quarters. When he didnt move she did a double-take and chose to speak, “come on, inside…” She shut the door after him and pressed him backward until he felt her bunk against his calves. Her pressure didnt relent so he sat down.

“Good. Now, tell me what you remember of earlier, in detail.”

Eric looked confused, “Why do you want to know? Its just boring stuff.”

Li put her hands on her hips, arranging her features into the best approximation of an annoyed frown as she could, “Dont dodge the question. Earlier.”

Eric nodded, “I left you lab and was going to check on some things in the cargo hold. Part way there I decided I was tired and wanted to take a nap. You know me … any excuse to get my sensor net off! I’d just taken it off and was folding it when I heard my door open and you barged in on me.”

Li’s frown deepend, “You took it off?”

Eric nodded, “Yes. Took it off, as in, activated the fastening and peeled it off my skin revelling in the sensation of air across bare flesh. You dont know _how_ good it is to feel an upward draft across your …”

Li interrupted, “That’s not what happened.”

“But you werent even there. I was.”

“I dont care, that’s _not_ what happened. I walked in while it was coming off. I was standing there for the entire process. You were in a daze the whole time with your hands by your sides – hypnotized – until it was over and that was when you noticed me.” She countered.

“Wha?” Eric looked surprised, “That’s not what I remember. I remember doing what I always do, unfastening …”

“… from neck to groin. Then peeling it back at the top left…” she continued

“… and leaving it hanging a moment once my torso is free before kicking it off my legs.” he finished.

Li explained, “After seeing what I did, it made me wonder. I keep a diary and have to catch myself if I lapse into repetitive behaviours. I use the diary to note things down so I can check on it later on for patterns. I saw one – I always take my sensor net off exactly the same way each time. Now, its an issue for me, but if you do it exactly the same, Im starting to wonder if I might not be crazy after all. These things pump sensory data into our brain all the time, why should this be different? It seems to be a canned presentation, repeated from a template where each of us becomes the main actor.”

Eric’s face creased in what Li had come to understand as a frown. “So tell me in detail what you saw” she did, and his face fell still further.

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