Today's Reading

CHAPTER 2

Rosalyn peeled herself out of the environmental work suit, exhaling as she did, as if she could breathe out the last twisted eight hours of toil. A harsh, lemony vodka scent wafted out with that breath. It was a short ride back but it had felt like years and years, and she had indulged a little on the way. There were flasks that fit 'perfectly' into an under suit. She half wondered if they had been invented by someone in the salvaging field.

The spare three-person crew of the 'Salvager 5' had spent the ride back to HQ in almost perfect silence. Owen tried to start up with his theory of the crime a few more times, but he sputtered out fast when nobody joined in. She craved a hot shower and a drink (another one), and the cool, comforting darkness of her cramped room. It was only a hop back to the campus, a few hours after their initial light-speed jump, and climbing out of the suit felt like being born back into the world. The antiseptic white tunnels of the Merchantia headquarters weren't filled with fresh air per se, but it was a welcome relief after the musty, recycled air in her suit.

She, Owen and their pilot, Griz, were met at the air lock by an older man in a crisply pressed gray suit and narrow silver tie. Everything from his shellacked helmet of hair to his twinkling cuff links said HR. Owen bumped into her after a tech helped him out of his suit, and he swore softly against her shoulder. Her hackles were up and the others immediately paused.

"Suits don't come to the air lock," Owen muttered.

"Guess we're just lucky," she replied. "Maybe they'll throw a parade."

Griz, who rarely spoke but communicated plenty with his big, twitchy mustache, stepped up next to Rosalyn and grunted. She found a kind of comfort in their presence, though they didn't make much of a phalanx. In Rosalyn's experience, nothing good came of surprises like this. Why would someone this clean and presentable detach from their desk to mingle with the mere body janitors? They could've just sent a message if something needed doing. But then she considered where they had just been, and all of Owen's conspiratorial mutterings filled her head with noise. A rogue captain, crew reduced to mush, the boxes stacked against the doors, and that little floating tube hiding among it all...

"The crew of the 'Salvager 5'," the man in gray said, opening his hands. "Welcome home."

'Home?' Rosalyn's eye twitched. The hall blinked with soft blue and green lights, a voice chiming over the intercom that they had successfully docked and disembarked. Those corridors and the surrounding launch bays always smelled like fresh bandages to Rosalyn, but now there was a new smell, a too-strong cologne that made her eyes water.

The man in gray closed the distance between them, casting a glance at the far-more-colorful suits the tech had collected. They had been rinsed off before ever being back on the salvaging vessel, but Mr. HR wrinkled his nose anyway. The smell of death was damned hard to get out, and hard to forget, even if Rosalyn was used to it now.

"I thought we might have a chat," he said. His head swiveled immediately to Rosalyn, inspecting her closely. She swallowed hard, keeping her lips sealed. Griz and Owen were good guys. They wouldn't tell on her; they wouldn't rat her out for having a quick drink on the ride back to headquarters. Hell, Owen had asked for a swig, too. Not that any amount of liquor existed that could flush out the memory of what they had seen in that cargo hold.

Rosalyn, admittedly, had taken more than a sip. She didn't like how close the suit was standing, but she kept eye contact, willing herself to breathe in short bursts through her nose, never letting the man get a whiff of her incriminating breath.

'This is it', she thought with another twitch. 'I'm canned.'

"A chat," Rosalyn repeated, monotone.

"A discussion. What you witnessed on this assignment...Well, we know it can't be easy. It's best we just touch base, make sure you receive the proper debrief. The proper counseling."

"Counseling?" Owen chuckled, walking past Rosalyn and down the freezing cold, tubelike tunnel of the air lock toward the outer launch bay. "Sure, mate. Sure. Let's get this over with, yeah? It's not something I'd like to dwell on."

"I'm good." Griz popped a breath mint in and went the same way, hands in his flight suit pockets, a whistled tune fluttering his mustache.

"It's mandatory, I'm afraid, for all of you," the suit said softly.

Sternly. People listened to him, Rosalyn thought, and they did what he asked, even if he never raised his voice. But Griz wasn't people. Griz was Griz. She heard him snort before he turned and leaned against the circular portal that led to the bay.

"Mandatory," the suit said again, never bothering to turn and look at Griz. Then he stuck out his hand toward Rosalyn, his gaze fixed on her mouth. Rosalyn held back a shiver. She didn't like the way his face could remain so impassive, or his oozy corporate voice, or his overgroomed eyebrows.

"Josh Girdy," he told her, waiting until Rosalyn shook his hand. "I'll be with you in a moment, Ms. Devar. I'd very much like to know what you saw on that ship."

...

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