Thursday, April 28, 2011

Semantics

It was late afternoon by the time Alex settled into a stiff chair in the Rear Admiral’s office. Dae had escorted them down to the Kshlavo and allowed them to remove their personal effects. It was hard to see the ship sitting in drydock, probably never to fly again. Maybe it would be a museum piece, if anything ever came of the alien artifact.

Alex shifted uncomfortably and took a moment to really look around the office. The room was too warm and weirdly anachronistic. Dark wood panels covered the walls and floor, the Admiral’s wide desk matching in color. Were it not for the modern terminal, he couldn’t be sure what era he was sitting inside of.

“I trust you have reviewed the changes to your contract?” Rear Admiral Argueta sat across from him, her back straight and eyes scrutinizing. She was older than the Captain, silver hair streaked with black. Hard to tell how old, though. Navy personnel were more likely to spend significant time in low or zero gravity, that threw off estimations.

He reclined as far as he could, tried to feel comfortable and nodded slowly. The new contract just effected his transfer, providing almost no information on what he would be doing in Section 7. He had to look them up to find that they dealt specifically with alien concerns, from ship movements to artifacts. “Oh yes. I admit, I’m not exactly sure what an Intelligence Analysis Specialist does. But it sounds very desky.”

The Admiral blanched, if you could call the minuscule movement of her face anything. “The title is somewhat inaccurate. We do not have a job function that properly reflects what we need you to do and this provides an adequate level of coverage for our purposes.”

Captain Gladwell had laid out what they wanted him to do clearly enough, even if the contract didn’t. “Spying on the Tslao?”

She didn’t like that at all. “How did you come to that conclusion?”

“The Captain told me when he delivered the papers.”

Her eyebrows raised, just enough to make Alex think that Gladwell wasn’t supposed to have told him that. “Very well. Spying is an inappropriate term for our purposes. We have a significant intelligence disparity with the Tslao. Namely, we lack a solid understanding of their society, their mores and way of life.”

“Uh huh. The primer is kind of garbage.”

Alex wasn’t sure what the Admiral was thinking, deep brown eyes boring into his. Probably hadn’t appreciated that, though. “We have been made aware of your... dalliances with the Shipmaster Tshalan during your mission. We would like you to continue your relationship with her, ingratiate yourself into her favor and learn as much as you can about them. Considering your interest in anthropology, you seem to be particularly well equipped for this task. You will not be doing any sort of spying, just observing.”

He smiled and laughed. His background in anthropology had been what made Carbon pick him to be her Pilot in the first place. “Just observing... secretly, to collect information?”

“Yes. There is significant difference between observation and spying, Alex. You will not use any sort of tradecraft, just pay attention. We would not turn down access to any books or data stores, but by no means should you attempt to acquire them surreptitiously. Is that clear?”

“Yeah, I’m not really the thieving type anyway. But alright, I’m in.”

A single eyebrow went up, altering the network of thin wrinkles around her eye. She didn’t say anything for a moment, seemingly surprised at his response. “Very well. You will be issued an immersion translator when your Amp is replaced.”

He let out a low whistle. Immersion translators would, depending on the model, translate four to sixty-four conversations at once. For human languages they were expensive, getting one for Tsla would probably be outrageous. “Nice. I suppose I’m not to advertise I’ve got one of those, right?”

She nodded in agreement. “Precisely. While we are discussing hardware, there is another item we would like you to test.”

“Test?”

“Yes. It is an experimental device based on the Whisper that may prove advantageous for trade with the Tslao.”

Whisper was the brand name for a less invasive version of the Amp, a sub-dermal circumcranial implant. They provided a less immersive experience, but it was an outpatient surgery and didn’t require opening up the skull at all. “I’m sorry, experimental?”

“Yes. You are familiar with the Tslao mind linking ability. The Marines field tested the modified Whisper for enhanced unit cohesion via a similar mind link several years ago. They passed on the concept, but now it appears that the Tslao may present an opportunity to not let this research go to waste.”

Alex was surprised at how tantalizing the idea of having the same ability as Carbon was, but he managed to keep any indication of that out of his reaction. “You want me to field test an experimental commercial product?”

“I want you to ingratiate yourself to Shipmaster Tshalan and be allowed to experience their culture as fully as possible. This is not without benefit to them, either. Coming away from the disaster, one of the most common injuries noted by S&R crews was damage to the antennae. It seems to comprise an important part of their day-to-day life and we estimate at least 135 million of them have partially or fully destroyed antennae. Anecdotal evidence indicates the loss of these can cause deep psychological trauma.”

“It would.”

“For unknown reasons, they do not regrow them using mediboards and they do not seem to have any sort of technological replacement. If it works as intended, the Whisper would allow them to have the lost abilities back and generate goodwill towards us.”

His face twisted with disdain, words sarcastic. “And we could sell a fundamentally crippled people millions of units in the process. Stupendous.” He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t think they’ll go for it, but I’ll give it a try.”

Her head tilted, almost imperceptible as she ignored his tone. “Why would they turn an opportunity like that down?”

“They don’t like invasive procedures or machines being ‘in’ their minds.”

The Admiral’s head leveled out and she looked like she was making a mental note. “Interesting. I would still prefer you try it, see if it is viable for them. The Shipmaster is likely well connected, a few good words here or there may change minds.”

“She’s well connected. I suppose it is a time of change for them in general, maybe something will come of it.”

“All we ask is that you try. Do you have any further questions?”

“No. I think I’m good.” Alex pushed the chair back as he stood, one of the feet squeaking across the floor. He reached down into his cargo pocket and retrieved a small data crystal and set it on the desk. “Oh, one thing. The Shipmaster sends her regards and a gift. Just some old books, but it should help us along.”

That, Rear Admiral Argueta definitely did not like. She started to stand, dark eyes burning. “You told her?”

“No. Your man Gladwell showed up and started flapping his jaws just after she got out of the shower. Speaking generally, she agrees that they have been too secretive for too long.” No sense in pretending the Admiral didn’t know something was going on between them.

Her jaw worked as she sat back down, finally settling into a faint smirk. “Good. I’m glad she’s on board with this.”

Alex shook his head. “She’s not on board. Finds the idea that you would attempt to coerce me with what she perceived as a threat, even a minor threat, to be reprehensible. It offended her on a personal level.”

A tiny bit of confusion. “I had nothing to do with what Gladwell said.”

“She sees things differently, Admiral. She is an alien. Her expectations for accountability in the chain of command are much more rigid. I did convince her that hearing you out may clear things up and I feel it has, I would not give you the data otherwise.”

She considered that for a moment. “She will not work against our goals?”

“No. She does not believe that I will be accepted widely by her people, but she is willing to show me around, attempt to facilitate a better understanding of their ways.”

Argueta picked the crystal up and rolled it between her fingers. “Will she help us more, directly?”

“Nope. She might have if someone had come to her directly and asked for help. Galdwell pretty much blew any chance of that. As I said, she was quite offended by that exchange.”

She grimaced, the first full expression Alex had seen on her so far. “Very well. When you see her next, give her my thanks. See if she will stop by so I can apologize for Gladwell’s behavior in person.”

Thursday, April 21, 2011

New Job

Alex woke up to several changes. Carbon was missing, the covers tossed back from where she had been. The shower was on, the rest of the suite partially lit by the bathroom light through the open door. Lastly, there was a chime going off, quiet and pleasant.

The first two fit together neatly. Alex had no idea what the chime was. He looked at the clock, just after six station time, but it wasn’t coming from there. He sat up and scanned the room. The door controls were pulsing slowly. Someone was waiting outside.

A little panic shot through him as he jumped out of bed. He retrieved his clothes from the floor and hastily dressed himself as he stumbled over to close the bathroom before turning to the front door. They had decided to keep things under wraps and he would be damned if they would blow it on the first morning. Having Dae show up at his quarters while she was taking a shower there was not his idea of feeling people out. He prepped a hasty and unconvincing lie - her shower was not functioning properly so she had to use his just this one time - as he toggled the viewer.

It was a younger guy, maybe twenty and wearing a shirt with the hotel logo on it standing next to a room service cart. Alex toggled the lock, stepping aside as he rolled the cart in and caught a glimpse of his name tag. Charles had a friendly sort of look about him, though he would disappear into a crowd with ease. He scanned the room and got a sly sort of a grin as he handed Alex a tablet with the bill. “Continental breakfast... for two. The extra towels you requested are on the lower shelf.”

“Ah, yeah. Thank you.” It was just breakfast for one, with a fruit bowl on the side. Alex scribbled his name across the line and tapped a few extra dC onto the bill for a tip, handing it back just as the shower shut off.

As Charles double checked the bill, the shower door opened and shut. Painfully slow, he nodded to himself and clasped the tablet in his hands behind his back and smiled broadly. “Oh, no sir, thank yo-”

Alex cut him off, eyes narrowing as he leaned in towards the young man. “Leave.”

That didn’t wipe the smile off his face, but he was surprised. Charles backed up a step before he turned and walked briskly out into the hallway. Alex hadn’t intended to be a jerk, but having things get out via a bellhop seemed to be the worst option.

He toggled the lock after the door closed, turning on his heel to the bathroom. His voice was sharper than he had intended, incredulous as he opened the bathroom. “You ordered breakfast?”

Carbon was already swathed in his robe, towel draped over her head as she patted her antennae dry. “Yes, there is an automated system. I also requested extra towels, to be delivered at 6:30.”

His eyes darted to the clock embedded in the bathroom mirror, only 6:11. “Huh. Well, they delivered early.”

Her head snapped up, eyes glinting under the edge of the towel. “Did they suspect anything?”

“I kicked him out when I heard the shower turn off. I’m sure he suspects something that I’d like to keep private is going on, but that could be any number of things...”

“Good. That is good.” She relaxed and went back to patting herself dry. “I had expected to be done well before it arrived, or I would have woken you up.”

“Just do that next time.”

Carbon pressed the towel into her face and worked her hands backwards, coming away much dryer. She smiled warmly at him, “I will.”

Alex smiled back and stepped out of the bathroom, leaving her to finish her grooming. There was food and it had been a day since he’d eaten. He poured himself a cup of coffee and perused the cart, pleased to see things he recognized. A croissant and fruit spread, boiled egg and... He picked up a slice of salami and smelled it. Floral and musky. People on Ki didn’t know anything about curing meat.

He ate it anyway, washing it down with a long drink of coffee when the door started to chime again. He grimaced, more from the coffee being instant than another visitor so soon. A few moments worth of work erased Carbon’s presence from the room and she gave him a dry smile as she closed the bathroom door.

Alex had expected Dae or the guy who delivered the room service again. What he got was someone he didn’t recognize, but definitely a Navy officer going by the service khakis. He couldn’t make out the rank insignia on the little viewer screen, but he was older, greying around the temples. Probably something higher up. This was a surprise.
He straightened up and hit the controls. “Hello.”

“Mr. Sorenson. Captain Gladwell.” The Captain stuck his hand out and flashed a smile that came off as amicable though very well practiced. “Good to see I didn’t miss you this morning.”

Alex had trouble believing someone from the military would have trouble finding his whereabouts while on station, but he didn’t mention that as he shook Gladwell’s hand. “No, you didn’t... Come on in.”

He stepped inside and waited for the door to close before continuing. “Thank you. I won’t trouble you for long, son, seeing as you’re in the middle of breakfast. Just need to drop your transfer papers off and say that I am very impressed with the artifact.”

“Transfer papers?” He bypassed the compliment entirely, taking the packet of documents that Gladwell offered him.

“You’re being transferred from the CPP to the Office of Naval Intelligence, Section 7.”

“But... I don’t want to be transferred. I like being a pilot.” Alex stared at the paperwork, which seemed to validate what the Captain had just said.

“I understand that, son. But as you are aware, the Navy operates the CPP and your civilian consultant contract allows us to change your assignment. Right now, everything being as it is, we need you in Section 7.”

“Don’t call me son. Why are you doing this?”

Captain Gladwell smiled again, much less amicable this time. “As you wish, Mr. Sorenson. To be frank, we need intel on the Tslao. You may have noticed the primer is threadbare and sometimes inaccurate.”

Alex did not like where this was going. “I had.”

“That is despite our best attempts at acquiring more information about them. Evidence suggests they have intentionally hidden their social structures from us in the past and the level of security awareness they posses at a civilian level is just short of remarkable. This all in addition to their distinct lack of trust in outsiders. This puts us a disadvantage.”

“And?”

“According to the Kshlavo’s internal sensor logs, we believe you are the first human to be wholly accepted by any Tslao.” He paused and sized Alex up before continuing. “Any information you could acquire would be of immense help, not only to the Navy but the entire Confederation.”

Alex spoke very slowly. “I don’t think I want to be involved with this... I just want to be a pilot.”

Gladwell looked less than impressed with that, all the geniality gone now. “I’m sure you don’t. You may terminate your contract at any time, Mr. Sorenson, and you will be transferred back to Earth immediately. I would strongly recommend coming down to our office and speaking with Rear Admiral Argueta before making a decision like that. She can lay the situation out much clearer than I can. Good day, sir.”

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Decisions

In the darkness the room still felt enormous, but Alex found it much more tolerable with Carbon there. She rolled over and nestled her back against him, situated his arm over her waist and shifted her head around on the pillow. Her antenna landed on top of his head with a muted thump and they shifted down into the shared existence.

This is nice, Alex. Carbon’s mind felt smooth and hard, still prepared to deal with stresses beyond her control. There were little chips and cracks, though they seemed to be dissipating.

It is. We should do this more often. The Alex part warmed with mirth and cozied up to her.

Carbon began to shift, still smooth but less rigid as she relaxed. I would find that desirable. I have been thinking about our relationship, Alex.

He wasn’t sure what to make of that. He assumed it wasn’t bad, but he lacked the skill to successfully hide the burst of anxiety that it caused. Go on.

I wish to continue with this, but I fear you will be ostracised by your race if anyone finds out. Carbon tried to ease his fears and radiated a calm presence.

It actually worked very well, settling Alex down as he thought about his reply. I don’t know if ostracised is the right word. It’s new territory, I’ve never heard of anyone else having a relationship like ours. There have been a few instances in human history where parallels could be drawn.

Curiosity. How did those turn out?

In the long run or short term?

Followed immediately by disappointment. Oh. I had hoped that your race would be more accepting, you seem to deal with change well.

Really? Us? It takes decades before you see any social norms change... Two generations, minimum.

Carbon was quiet, ruminating and growing discouraged. I had hoped that there might be some refuge for us with one of our races.

The Tslao will not be accepting of this either, I take?

She gave a sort of short, sharp laugh, sarcastic and pained. No. We are very insular, Alex. We do not like change, I fear the reaction would likely be worse from my people.

You don’t seem to mind change.

Carbon shifted, softer but still pessimistic. I am an individual with an unusual upbringing. When I was a child, we were taught that humans were dangerous and unpredictable, like wild animals among the stars. Had I not seen them, interacted with them myself... I would have believed it.

No wonder we’ve always had cool political relations.

A pulse of agreement. Before the disaster, the number of my people who have met humans did not even number into the hundreds. Many were terrified at how quickly you expanded your borders.

Wow. Okay... Alex sat, silent and contemplative. I don’t think we will be entirely alone here. My mother already likes you quite a bit.

Carbon was very surprised at that. She does? I thought I had been rude the first time you passed a message from her to me?

Yeah, you snapped at me good for that and I, uh... I just started making up replies for you. Nothing crazy, I just didn’t want her to think you were mean.

Embarrassment and a curious type of admiration marbled her presence. Thank you for protecting my honor when I had done nothing to deserve it.

I figured you were having a hard time, just wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. Alex warmed, unaware that he had been doing her a favor at the time. What about your father? Would he accept us?

Her answer came so quickly, Alex was sure she must have already been thinking about it. I do not think he would react well.

Oh. Your aunt?

Fear spiked in her, cold and crisp. No! No. She would never.

That was surprising. Okay. Well... At least we have my family.

Is that enough?

It’s a start.

Carbon thought on that awhile, bemused. It will have to do. I still think we should do our best to keep our relationship hidden, until we have better gauged reactions to it.

I agree. Are you going to keep coming over?

The answer was coy and practically laden with anticipation. No.

Liar.

You are not the only one with a room, Alex.

He gave her that. I don’t know where yours is.

It is the next one down the hall.

So should we trade off nightly?

We will decide what to do when the time comes.

Alex did the closest thing he could do to grinning. So every other night?

That sounds fine. The Carbon part was amused by that, but quieted and became serious a moment later. Will you do something for me, Alex?

Sure, name it.

It has been a long week, will you show me a memory? An exciting one?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Keeping Secrets

“This may seem complex, but it is very simple.” Dae Yeong sat on the other side of a conference room table from Alex and Carbon, leaning over it as he slid them each two stacks of paperwork. Archaic, certainly, but still the most official. “Do not speak to anyone about anything you experienced in any fashion for the duration of your mission, without a signed order.”

“Oh, well, that shouldn’t be too hard. ‘So how was it?’ No comment.” Alex pulled the mountain of paperwork over to himself. At least a dozen folders, many of them finger thick, were stacked on top of a pile of pale blue paper with Tsla text peeking out at him. He’d see about getting a translator when he got down to those.

“I would recommend more tact, many people will never fully understand these circumstances and answers like that may put them off. But you are essentially correct.” He leaned back in his chair and looked between them. “If either of you have any questions, I will be available to you until you are done.”

Carbon shook her head and Alex shrugged as they started in on the forms.

It was basically what Dae indicated, but full of lawyer words that Alex had a tenuous grasp of. His eyes darted over to Carbon with a touch of envy. Her stack was shorter and the CPP had a personal AI waiting for her when they arrived, giving her near-instant access to any sort of reference material she needed. He got to ask questions.

The sheer volume of the forms was unsettling, but each seemed to cover a unique aspect of the mission and the things that went wrong. There was the original mission non-disclosure agreement and the extended non-disclosure agreement. Then there was the encounter with the Ehom, which included special agreements for being in control of a government vehicle when it sustains damage, using emergency equipment and using a government vehicle outside of normal operational parameters, among other things.

That didn’t even eat up half of the pile. The rest covered seeing, touching and boarding an unknown object, using unidentified technology and having an alien foreign object implanted. It was a strange mix of documents that hadn’t been altered in decades and a few that had been finished just days ago. It was only the second time in 60 years humanity had found abandoned technology, which had only been an old tkt settlement. There wasn’t a lot of precedence.

Alex took his time reading everything that had been put before him, even if it was slow going. It at least appeared that Carbon was doing the same. They took a break after an aide had delivered lunch, several hours into the day. By the time they had pushed through to the Tslao paperwork, they had been there for just over eight hours.

Dae locked the signed forms up into two different briefcases and handed them off to another aide, securing the door as she left. “Thank you for your patience with this. Many returning crews chafe at having to go over paperwork and there is usually much less to do.”

“I kind of expected it. Had a lot going on, you know?” Alex stood, stretched and leaned back against the table.

Dae shook his head. “Officially, I do not. So that you understand, Alex, that alone is almost too much information for you to give out.”

“Oh, yeah. This is going to take some getting used to.” He rubbed his eyes, which reminded him of how much his wrist hurt from all the writing.

Carbon pushed her chair away from the table and stood apart from both of them. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Yeong. If it is not troublesome, may I be shown to my room? It has been a very long week.”

“Of course, Shipmaster. Both of you have been given diplomatic quarters for the time being. It breaks with the decompression routine, but there is enhanced security and privacy up there.”

“That will do fine, thank you.” Carbon smiled faintly and gave him a shallow bow, little more than an incline of her head, some sort of formality. She’d done the same thing to Alex when they had first met, without the smile.

“I could stand to get some rest, myself.”

Dae nodded and lead them out to the elevators, waving his badge over the call pad for an express that bypassed the rest of the hotel that occupied the upper tower in the station. It was very well appointed, with wood accents and a thick carpet and not a hint of the blue-gray paint that seemed to cover most everything else on the station.

The floor they stopped at was more of the same, Dae showed them down a side corridor and dropped Alex off at his quarters before leading Carbon further down the hall.

The room felt strange. It was nicer than anywhere Alex had stayed before, just short of being what he would consider opulent. Lots of real wood, granite counters in the bathroom and a king sized bed. At least the package of clothing they had left for him on the dresser was just standard CPP issue station gear. He picked it up and headed for the bathroom.


Quarantine had bothered him a little, but that was still a very compact area. This was just... enormous. The bathroom alone was three times bigger than his cabin on the Kshlavo. There was elbow room when he changed his clothes.

Maybe it was better in the dark. He crawled into bed and tried to get comfortable. “Lights, off.”

He waited for several minutes. It didn’t get better. The room still felt empty and now it was dark, too. Maybe he could sleep in the closet. Fold up the comforter and make a little bed...

A knock at the door interrupted his descent. Alex wasn’t sure he had heard it until it happened again. Someone was actually knocking on the door, not using the call button on the lock.

He shuffled over towards the door controls in the dark and thumbed the button to activate the viewer. Only the top half of a head was visible, but it was clearly Carbon. Probably no one else on the station had blue-black fur and antennae, anyway. He hit the panel, squinting into the light of the hallway. “Hi.”

Carbon pushed him back into the room and closed the door behind her, resting her head against his chest and slipping her arms around his waist. “I have missed you, Alex.”

“I missed you too.”

Friday, April 1, 2011

Poorly Hidden

There were very few things to do in quarantine.

Alex had spent his last two days sleeping as much as he could. There were six movies available to watch and nothing else. His techs steadfastly refused to tell him anything about the outside world, which was standard procedure. Nothing that would get him riled up, as Shawn put it. That sort of riled him up.

Aside from sleeping, the only thing that broke the monotony was meal time. First he would get scanned and then of the nurses would drop off a steaming hot bowl of nutragel in the small airlock. In the morning it tasted sort of like a cinnamon roll. The lunch nutragel bore some resemblance to chicken soup and the dinner nutragel was similar to beef stew.

Nutragel was easily more dissatisfying to eat than anything else a dispenser produced. It provided everything he needed to live and made things easier on the scanner, but lacked any other redeemable features. Freedom could not come soon enough.

So he thought.

They were released, reissued the jumpsuits they arrived in and sent on their way. Alex took his cues from Carbon when they were reunited. She looked excited for a moment but then tamped it down with a sidelong glance at the orderly. Just friendly, until they could discuss things further in private. A brief look of longing may have also been exchanged in the elevator to the promenade, when they were alone save for a doctor with his nose buried in a tablet.

They had arrived just in time for breakfast. He could smell real, cooked food in the processed air. Or, according to the Civilian Pilot Program liaison who intercepted them in the elevator lobby, they had arrived just in time to be escorted to their mission debriefing.

Alex and Carbon found themselves wedged into the back of a four seat transport not five minutes later. It was an inexpensive but serviceable civilian model with CPP branding all over the outside. They were being transferred to McFadden station, where the majority of CPP operations occurred.

“I still cannot believe it is so large.” Carbon leaned over as far as her seat’s safety harness would allow, whispering to him as the station grew on the main screen, already lined up with one of the bays on the docking arc. Parking lot speeds were strictly enforced this close to a structure, they were still 30 minutes from actually coming aboard.

“Third largest in system, twelfth in all of human space.” Alex kept his voice down too. It was probably pointless, Mr. Yeong was less than an arms length away in the pilot’s seat and could easily hear them. It felt sort of conspiratorial, almost fun.

“I am aware of that, but I do not know why.”

He shrugged. “They had to make room for all the old spacecraft in the Exploration museum.”

Carbon straightened up and looked at him, perplexed. “A museum?”

“Uh huh.”

“You put a museum in space? In a station that some of your most advanced spacecraft are based from?” Carbon was starting to get that tone that said she may be offended by the very idea being discussed.

“Not me personally, no. But it does seem like a reasonable place for it.”

“I did not mean you specifically, Alex. I meant as a species. Space is not a reasonable place for a museum, no matter the subject.”

“Space is the perfect place for a museum about space. That was the jingle they used during construction.” He cleared his throat and sang, off key. “Space... is the per-fect place.”

Mr. Yeong chuckled quietly.

Carbon’s jaw set and she huffed with frustration. “Your species is so cavalier about so many things. Space is dangerous, it is no place to leave a collection of historical knowledge.”

Alex looked out the side window with a snort, dismissing her argument with a wave of his hand. “Oh yeah, nothing of value has ever been destroyed on a planet before, right?”

The back seat got very quiet.

When he looked back, Carbon was staring down at balled fists with deadly intensity, lips pressed so tight they were pale.

“I didn’t mean- Not like, I... Hell.”

Her words came slowly, precise. “I know you did not mean it that way.”

“I’m sorry.”

She closed her eyes and exhaled, her body relaxing. “You have nothing to apologize for, it has been a difficult week for me.”

He had forgotten that isolation is hard on the Tslao. It had been annoying for him, but being completely cut off from interaction in what was ultimately an alien prison cell must have weighed heavily on her. “Is it alright if I feel bad?”

Carbon glanced at him and nodded, a smile slowly working across her lips. “That is acceptable as long as you are done by the time we arrive.”

Alex laughed just as Mr. Yeong turned to look at them. The older man gave them a bemused look. “Has anyone told you two that you sound like a married couple?”

That shut both of them up for the rest of the trip.