“You were pretty quiet in there.” Alex hooked his arm into Carbon’s and pulled her along down the hallway away from the labs. There had been a few tables askew and a bent stool that matched a dented locker in the main lab on the way out, but he wouldn’t mention them directly. “Sort of.”
“I was.” Carbon still simmered, even though she was doing a good job of keeping it in check.
“I’m just saying, I expected you to have some input. That’s our private life that Eleya wants to give away.”
There was the slimmest change in her demeanor, visually imperceptible, but when she spoke it sounded like someone taking the safety off a rifle. “Yes. I know."
“Dunno if you’ve noticed this about me,” Alex smiled and squeezed her hand. He wanted to get what was bothering her out, but he wouldn’t mind defusing her a little bit first. “But I’m pretty good at telling when you’re upset.”
“I expected that from her and I am willing to give up my privacy in exchange for whatever we might extract from them.” Her jaw flexed and she sucked in a breath. “What we get back for this had better be worth the price.”
“I hope it is.” He liked the idea of revenge, but the thought that the data cache would just get swallowed up into the apparatus that had set him up in the first place was upsetting. It made the need for successful retribution all the stronger.
“Our electronic warfare specialists are well trained and have been working on human systems extensively for some time now. I do not doubt our ability to pry secrets from their machines.”
There that was again. Their machines. “Has this been a problem before?”
“Spying? Nothing of this magnitude, that we have seen.”
“I mean breaking into human computer networks.” Now he was doing it. Great. “Isn’t that spying as well? Violating treaties?”
Carbon shook her head. “We have purchased sizable amounts of human communication and computer hardware from black markets in the past.”
“Enough to build a small interstellar communication network for training and evaluation.”
“Huh.” He walked in silence, mulling that over. Acquisition of competing technology - be it legitimate or unlawful means - was common in human history. Not surprising that the Tslao would do the same to keep tabs on humanity. “Find out anything interesting?”
She shrugged, indifferent to this line of conversation. "It is not something I have followed closely."
Delight surged through Alex unexpected, catching him off guard. He laughed, smiling wide at her lack of knowledge. "I'm glad you haven't."
She took it the wrong way. Her eyes narrowed, brow drawn tight above a thin frown. "What does that mean," she snapped.
"I just-" he sighed and tipped his head back, watching the structural ribs pass overhead while he organized his thoughts. "It's nice when you don't know something too. It makes me feel like we're equals again."
Carbon came to a complete stop, dumbfounded. "I do not understand. How could you not feel that we are equal?"
"I've been the third wheel in every situation since I came on board, except when we're alone... sometimes even then, too." He still wasn't sure exactly how he should feel about Neya and everything surrounding her, but he knew exactly how he felt the rest of the time. “It’s nothing you’ve done, you know, I just get pulled around in your wash because I don’t have a choice in the matter.”
“You have a-” Her mouth snapped shut with a click of her teeth and a low grumble. “I see, I believe. You are not properly prepared for your new duties and authority?”
“Yeah, that’s part of it.” Alex started walking again, turning down a passage towards the maglev station. “But it’s not all of it. There’s all of this crap I’m expected to do, this responsibility I have now, and I never asked for any of it. I don’t want any of it but it’s been made pretty clear that this is a one way trip.”
Carbon was silent, contemplative. When she did speak, she watched him carefully. “Is there a problem with our relationship?”
“Nope. You’re the only reason I’m putting up with it at all.”
She seemed to be satisfied with that, hugging his arm snug against her. “Is there anything that you think will help you?”
“Dunno. I get caught on the fantasy of just stealing away into the night with you and becoming a farmer or something. Never really gets past that.”
“And if you could be given what you need to rise to these responsibilities?”
“I assume it would help. I just want to be able to do something other than get played, even if it’s not what I’ve ever wanted to do. You know?”
That got a little laugh out of her, with a smile to match. “Yes, I am familiar with that feeling. Eleya has attached sergeant Zenshen to you, as a liaison, correct?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve been told. She was saying that she could train me on leadership stuff and military... things.”
Carbon nodded in agreement. “Kaen has said he often uses her as a personal representative. Given his standards, I should imagine she would be able to do that well.”
“That’s good, I think I already agreed to that. Haven’t made any plans or anything, though.” He shrugged as they queued up for the maglev, the station still nearly empty.
Carbon grinned, a gleam in her eye that was a little bit more than just mischievous. “I think it is time that we stop helping you so much around here. Allow you to throw yourself fully into adaptation.”
“We?” Alex arched an eyebrow.
“Neya and I. She has done quite a bit to ease your transition into your new status.”
Ease is not a word he would use to describe most of his interactions with Neya, but she did do a lot of stuff. Maybe it would help him to shed that assistance for now, get a feel for what is actually going on around him and how to operate in Tslao society. “Sure. That’s a good idea. As long as I can still get help when I ask.”
“That takes the sport out of it.” Carbon squeezed his arm again as chimes noted the impending arrival of the maglev train, the pale gray cars pulling up to the station silently.
“Please. I’m the only human on a ship full of aliens, there will be plenty of ‘fun’ even with help.” The doors opened and two dozen odd Tsalo poured out. Alex caught the smell of morning routines as they passed around him; faint soaps, strong teas and sweet pastry. “And now I’m hungry.”
“It has been some time since we have eaten a proper meal, we should get breakfast on the way home.”
Breakfast. That reminded him of his conversations with Neya the previous morning, the revelation that Carbon was a good cook and his promise about today. “I think we should just go home.”
She rolled her eyes as they boarded the train. “I thought you were hungry.”
“Oh, I am.” He returned her mischievous look as he settled into an empty seat. “Neya narced on you last night, I know you’ve been holding out on me.”
She was confused at his accusation but still scoffed as she sat next to him. “What have I not told you?”
“Neya said you’re a good cook.”
Carbon was not particularly pleased to hear that, seemingly reluctant to have it mentioned in public. “Did she?”
“Yep. So I think you should make breakfast today.”
“We both had a long night, perhaps tomorrow-”
“Uh-uh. I was lodged in experimental surgical equipment all night and I watched you nap.”
“I did no such thing.” She was quick to respond, her antennae lowered, but her ears didn’t press down any further than normal.
Alex recognized that posture, defensive but not angry. Not exactly an admission of guilt, but he did get a grin out of it. “At least an hour. I couldn’t be sure because the tablet slid out of your hands.” He turned to something a little less ornery. “Besides, you should have seen how excited Neya was at the prospect of you making breakfast when I promised her that you would.”
It took a moment for everything that he said to dawn on her, eyes narrowing. “You promised her, did you?”
His grin widened a little bit.
“Very well.” Carbon huffed and crossed her arms before leaning against him. “But you will be making dinner tonight. Do not make me regret saying that.”