I plunked my stuff down in the end of the hallway and was about to go back to the common room, when the bunk door marked 'Marek' slid open. A man with skin the color of pure coffee shimmied out, moving to a tinny tune emanating from the headphones plugged into his ears. He sidestepped and spun to the rhythm, his body in constant fluid yet exquisitely controlled motion. I stared, utterly fascinated, until he laid eyes on me in one of his spins. He stopped short and his stance changed from loose-limbed relaxation to tense readiness in a heartbeat.
"Who the frak are you?" he asked, ripping the headphones out of his ears. His voice was a deep, resonating bass that fitted well to his powerful form. Although hardly taller than five-nine, he seemed to fill out the entire hallway with menace. A gun appeared in his hand as if conjured from thin air, pointing at my chest.
In my mind, Fang's ears pricked with interest. Watch him, she warned, he's fast.
I held up my hands appeasingly. "Whoa there," I said, as if talking to a spooked horse. "I'm Sam. Captain Grey hired me as your new backer."
He narrowed coal-black eyes and prominent full lips at me. "So where is he?" he asked. "He wouldn't let you run around all alone when you'd just arrived."
"He went to sort something out with Ted. Would you mind lowering your gun now, please?" His close scrutiny and unyielding stance made me nervous. With most people I was confident enough in this sort of situation that I could read their intention of pulling the trigger in time enough for me to dive out of the way; body language is hard to hide from a wolf. But this man had just moved at the speed of light. I got the distinct feeling that not a fibre of his body would indicate that he was pulling the trigger before it was done. Even Fang was tense and at the ready, unsure we'd be able to dodge this man's bullet.
He watched me for a few moments but didn't lower the gun. "Yes," he said. "I would mind." He palmed a com from the belt of his cargo pants and clicked it on. "Cap'n, you copy?"
"Loud and clear," came the buzzing answer. "What's up?"
"You hire a new backer already?" the black man asked.
"Yes." The response was terse, a little defensive. "Leave her be, Marek. I got the impression earlier that you don't want to get on her bad side."
Our new captain is a great study of character, Fang said, pleased that he saw us as tough and capable.
Marek was still skeptical, though he lowered the gun. "Does Ted know?" he asked into the com.
"Oh, for the love of atmosphere," Grey growled, "she's a new backer, not a new Josh. Get over it." The com went silent with a ringing finality. Marek stared at it, eyebrows raised in perplexed surprise. Finally he lowered the com and tucked the gun into the back of his pants.
"Fine," he said. "I'm Marek, your backer-colleague. Welcome to the crew, I guess."
Oh, the enthusiasm. Any moment now, he would try to hug me - to death.
He moved to brush past me, but I stepped in his way and held out my hand defiantly. "I'm Sam," I repeated, because I was sure he hadn't registered my name earlier. "Nice to meet you."
He looked down at my hand with distaste, as if it were covered in contagious hives.
"It's not my fault he's dead, you know," I said in a low voice, trying to convey that I understood his hesitation. Marek's eyes snapped up to mine, and for the first time he not only looked at me but saw me.
His lips compressed again, this time into a sad half-smile. "Touché." He reached for my hand.
As soon as skin met skin, he gasped. A shudder ran through him. His thick fingers seized my hand in a vise-like grip, crushing my hand from wrist to fingertips. I thought he was playing with me and was ready to punch him in the face to free myself, but Fang stopped me.
Wait! It's not an attack, she said.
His face boiled and narrowed. Coffee skin turned to cream. Smooth green-gold flashed over his black pupils. For a fleeting moment, I stared at my own face and into a beast's eyes. Then the ebony Hulk was back, and with him his gun, its business-end pressed into my gut. I had hardly seen him move. He was incredibly fast. Inhumanly fast.
"Werewolf," he whispered, dark eyes wide with surprise and a hint of fear. The scent of shock and sweat rolled off his skin in waves, though it wasn't the salty tang of human perspiration. This was sweeter, a tickle in my nose rather than a bite, almost making me sneeze.
"Mimik," I mock-breathed back at him dramatically, trying to hide my own surprise and act as if I'd known from the beginning that he wasn't human.
I did, Fang supplied helpfully.
Well, thanks for the heads-up, I huffed. A whole lot of help you are.
Yell at me later, she said, right now we've got a more immediate problem to deal with. He won't like us knowing what he is.
How do you figure?
Because if he wanted people to know, his skin would have the violet hue every Mimik off-homeworld is supposed to show.
In all the excitement, that thought hadn't even occurred to me.
He must not have the chip inserted in his skull, I mused. Every Mimik cruising the galaxy was obligated to display his or her alien-status with a violet hue to their skin. Being a species of hunters that could shift into any shape or form, this was an easy feat for a Mimik. To ensure they could never pose as humans, they had a chip inserted before leaving Allura, their home planet. The chip insured their skin stayed violet. Either Marek had found a way around that, or he'd removed the chip somehow. Either way, Fang was right. He wouldn't want people to know that he was a Mimik.
Maybe the crew knows, I thought. It would be difficult to hide his inhumanness from a crew in such close-quarters. I of all people know how hard that was.
I doubt it, Fang said. He's too tense for that.
She was right. I could feel it in his hand still squeezing mine, in the barrel of the gun pressing into my vulnerable belly. Doubt and worry blazed in his eyes as he tried to come to a decision about how to react. In the end, it was the same decision I had to make. I couldn't afford to leave him alive if he was going to tell people what I was. They would kick me out into deep space faster than I could say 'woof'. But if I killed Marek now to ensure my secret was kept, they would do the same. Couldn't have the new crew member murdering their own.
"Tell you what," I said to Marek in a low, hopefully soothing voice. Werewolves were tough, but a close shot to the stomach would kill even me. I didn't want him spooked, not with his inhuman speed. Even Fang understood that aggression would only get us killed in this case. "I swear to keep your secret if you swear to keep mine."
A stereo-speaker rigged into a top corner of the hallway thrummed to life. "Dinner's ready, boys," Lily's voice flowed over us in a crystal clarity no com could achieve. "Oh, and girl. Sorry, Sam, will have to get used to that."
Her voice was replaced by the sound of a tinkling dinner bell, followed by music. I'd never heard the song, but Marek rolled his eyes after the first few upbeat chords. "Not Oliver again, Raj," he muttered. But the tension was slowly leaching out of his body, as if Lily's acknowledgement of me had decided him.
Literally saved by the bell, I mused.
Or the belle, Fang quipped.
Marek lowered the gun, though he was still frowning. "Nobody can ever know," he implored.
We stared at each other in the dim, steel hallway while the music washed over us.
"Food, glorious food..."
The high-pitched chorus broke our ongoing stand-off. It made me smile and had Marek raising his eyes to the ceiling in mock agony. But he refocused on my quickly.
"Are you a danger to us?" he wanted to know.
"You'd better not threaten my life or make me really mad," I said truthfully. "But to make up for that, my crew is my pack, and wolves are completely loyal to pack. Plus, I'm good in a fight. Real good."
Sudden humor sparked in his eyes. "Hardly better than me."
He might be right. He was as fast as a striking cobra. "It will be interesting to find out," I said, half-challenging. That actually made him smile. In a dangerous sort of way.
"Food, glorious food."
The smile disappeared, replaced by a fake look of longtime suffering. "Okay, time to eat, or Raj won't ever turn off that caterwaul."
"So do we have a deal?" I asked as he led the way to the common room. "Our lips are zipped about each other?"
He looked over his shoulder at me. "We have a deal," he agreed, "so long as you don't wolf out and tear one of the crew apart. Then I will kill you."
“You can try,” I said.
Marek grinned, unperturbed. “This is going to be interesting.”
Read on at Chapter 6.
Read on at Chapter 6.