Chapter Two: Mariella

Mariella

“Do human men look strange to you now?”

I turned my head at the sound of Jeneva’s voice, even though the question wasn’t directed at me. She sat on top of a black storage crate, her back pressed against the wall and her head resting lazily on her shoulder to look at my sister.

Leena thought for a moment before a wicked grin spread across her face.

“Human men have always looked strange to me,” she quipped. I giggled from my spot on the floor, my back pressed against the end of the the same crate that Jeneva sat on. Jeneva threw her head back and laughed a full belly laugh, her chin length hair bouncing around her face. Leena sat at a small table we had scrounged up a few weeks back.

Looking between the two of them, I couldn’t believe how much they’d changed, Leena especially. If someone told me a year ago, hell even a month ago, that Leena would be laughing and joking with friends, I wouldn’t believe them. I would have sooner believed that an alien spaceship would fall through the sky bringing with it, species both fascinating and terrible.

As the universe would have it, both happened.

I didn’t know Jeneva very well but she was so different from the bristly, reclusive person I’d met in the forest when everything first changed. That person, though she did save my life, wanted nothing to do with anyone. Now, Jeneva sought out company whenever she could. She laughed often and loudly and never ran out of things to say.

It was her sister, Amira, who was now the bristly, reclusive one. Part of the reason why we were hanging in a spot in the refugee section of the Vengeance was so Jeneva could spend time with Amira. The ship that felt more like home every day, but Amira refused to leave the refugee wing whenever she could help it.

I didn’t know the whole story between the two of them, but now that I’d reconciled with Leena, I deeply regretted the time we spent apart, especially after we lost our mother. I would tell Amira as much, but those are the sort of realizations a person has to come to on their own.

Another woman, Vidia, occasionally joined our little group. The former mayor of a town that had been destroyed by the Xathi. she had become the de facto leader of the refugees. I had never been to the town, but I heard it had been beautiful. Vidia and roughly a hundred others were the only survivors of that bustling town.

One of those survivors was a little girl, Calixta, Leena’s little shadow now. A little bit less so now that’d she’d found a friend to play with, but we all loved having her around.

“What do you think about human men, Mariella?” Jeneva asked me, drawing me back to the here and now.

“All the boys used to love Mariella,” Leena answered for me with a knowing smile. “But my sweet sister never gave them the time of day. She was always happier in the library anyway.”

I blushed and looked at my hands. It was true, I often turned down dates growing up and in school. The truth was, I never found any of them even remotely interesting. I couldn’t be more specific if I tried. They were all just missing…something.

“Now she only has eyes for Tu’ver,” Leena teased. I could hear a note of unease in her voice, though she was making an effort to hid it.

I ignored it, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear.

“She’s not even trying to deny it,” Jeneva chimed in, her tone much warmer than my sisters.

“He’s my friend,” I said unconvincingly. It was the truth. He was a K’ver and not much of a talker, but I preferred his company to almost anyone else. Though I’d been barely conscious at the time, I still remembered how he carried me out of the dank cave deep in the forest after a spider-like aramirion nearly gutted me.

Tu’ver visited me in the med bay almost every day after that. He was the one who had fitted me with the transmitting device I still wore in my ear, though it was no longer necessary for us to understand each other.

If I was ever able to get back to my own work, the device would be invaluable. Because of it, I could now speak Tu’ver’s language, albeit clumsily. He could speak mine as well. When we spoke, we drifted between one language and the other almost without realizing.

I was comfortable with him in a way I didn’t feel with anyone else, not even Leena.

Leena scowled, then had the decency to look embarrassed. “Sorry, Mari. There’s just something about him that makes me worry about you spending too much time with him.”

“He’s not the friendliest,” Jeneva agreed.

“He saved all of our lives,” I argued.

“That’s true and we’re grateful for that,” Leena placated me. “But even Axtin knows to give Tu’ver a wide berth –  and that’s saying something.”

“I think it’s sweet that you like him,” Jeneva smiled. “He sure seems to like you. You’re the only one he tolerates for an extended period of time.”

I didn’t want to admit to either of them how much that idea appealed to me.

“Can we talk about something else?” I asked, twirling a lock of my dark waves between my fingers.  

“Leena said something about you spending time in libraries. Is that what you were before all of this happened? A librarian?” Jeneva asked, looking around the refugee bay.

“An archivist,” I corrected with a smile. It was a common mistake many made. I never took it personally. Jeneva’s brow furrowed in confusion, another common reaction.

I launched into my well-rehearsed explanation. “Most of my work is translating. There were many languages on old Earth. Some of our most important works are in another language entirely. I also track down original paper documents that have yet to be converted to digital.”

“I can’t remember the last time I saw something written on paper,” Jeneva mused.

“Many of the original field surveys from the time of settlement were completed during a period when the electronic systems were still unstable,” I answered. “Not all of the details were transcribed into digital later.”

There were a few museums in the larger cities. They were the only places members of the public could view relics like paper documents. I had access to most of the private collections on this world. My favorite was an old library containing nearly a hundred full paper books. I’d been working on transcribing one of them to digital form when my sister showed up at my door.

If she hadn’t dragged me into the middle of the jungle that day, we would have never met Jeneva. We probably would have died that day.

“How did you fall into that?” Jeneva asked, tilting her head. I admired her natural curiosity, especially after she spent so long repressing it.

“Originally it was to complement Leena’s work,” I replied. In the corner of my eye, I saw Leena go a stiff in the shoulders. I was coming too close to talking about our shared secret.

The illness that killed our mother.

Personally, I didn’t mind talking about it. I didn’t go out of my way to tell people but if someone asked me a direct question I wouldn’t lie.

Leena hated the idea of anyone knowing about it. She didn’t want to be pitied. Besides me, the only person on the ship who knew about the illness was Axtin, the Valorni male that adored my sister.

“How so?” Jeneva pressed, oblivious to Leena’s growing unease.

“Leena and I share many interests, if you can believe it,” I answered, choosing my words carefully. “Our research was similar, though our fields were different. She covered the biological and chemical aspect. I searched for answers through our history. We figured we increased our chances of uncovering something remarkable if we worked together.” There was a gleam of excitement in Jeneva’s eyes.

“Were you close? What were you looking for?” She asked.

“Mariella,” Leena said through clenched teeth.

Jeneva looked to Leena, then back to me.

“Leena, I think we should just tell her,” I said with a sigh. “She’s a friend. What do you think is going to happen if she knows?” Leena chewed on her bottom lip as she thought it over. Eventually, she sighed, dropping her shoulders and giving me a nod of approval.

“Leena and I suffer from an extremely rare genetic illness,” I said, turning my attention back to Jeneva.

Her jaw dropped and her eyes filled with genuine sadness for us.  “That must be awful,” she said. “Is it…” She let her voice trail off but I knew what she meant to ask.

“Yes, it’s fatal,” I explained. “Leena and I have spent most of our adult lives trying to cure it. More so Leena, that me,” I admitted. There was a time where I wanted nothing to do with finding a cure. It was too hard to hope for something that might never happen.

“I’m so sorry,” Jeneva said, her voice barely more than a whisper. This was the pity Leena hated. She didn’t like to feel weak. I didn’t like seeing Jeneva like this because I didn’t like the idea of needlessly causing another person to worry. It wasn’t Jeneva’s fault that I had this illness and it wasn’t on her to cure it. She shouldn’t have to worry on our behalf. Leena and I worried plenty.

“But we’ve made a breakthrough recently,” Leena cut in. “There’s something on this world called N.O.X. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I accidentally found someone’s medical record who came in contact with N.O.X. They showcased many of the same symptoms as the later stages of our illness.”

“That’s amazing!” Jeneva’s face lit up. “So, you think you can cure it?”

“If the universe wants it,” I said with a smile and shrug. It was a motto, of sorts. Losing my mother and discovering the illness that lived within me made me feel scared and out of control for a long time.

I had to teach myself that the only way to move past that fear was to give up control. It was easier than I thought it would be. Once I considered how vast the universe was and how small I was in comparison, I found it easier to simply be.

When I was still in school, I came across the works of an author who lived on Earth long before my time, long before planetary colonization was even close to possible. His name was Arthur C. Clarke and, centuries ago, he spoke the words that I carry with me now, always.

Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.

I believe in that magic.

“I should go,” Leena said, bringing me out of my thoughts. “I told Axtin I would have dinner with him tonight but I have to get some work done at the lab if I’m going to make that happen.” She gave me a squeeze on the shoulder before leaving the refugee bay.

“I should get back to work as well,” Jeneva said apologetically. She’d been keeping busy recording information about useful properties of the local plants.

I felt useless. Everyone else had an important job to do on the Vengeance. I was mostly left to my own devices.  

At least all that free time enabled me to make plenty of friends. I knew most of the refugees by name. Same with the Vengeance crew.

I actually preferred talking with the various species found in the crew. Their worlds were fascinating. I could scarcely wrap my head around the fact that they came from a corner of the galaxy that we had no idea existed until the rift tore through everything that separated us.

I got to my feet as Jeneva left, planning on seeking out Tu’ver. It was late enough in the day that he’d probably be done with his shift. Hopefully, he was in the mood for some company. Though even if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t tell me.

“Wait.” A thin hand grabbed my arm as I made my way toward the exit. I stopped, though the hand that grabbed me didn’t have the force behind it to stop even a child. The woman who grabbed removed her hand, clutching it to her chest.

Her face was familiar, as all of the human faces were now, but I had never spoken to her. She was quiet and kept to herself for the most part. She was thinner than she should be. There was plenty of food to go around now that the food replicators were powered back up.

“Is everything okay?” I asked gently when she didn’t say anything more.

“You and your sister,” she said, her voice halting and stuttering. “You say you’re sick?”

“Yes,” I answered honestly. “But it’s a genetic illness. It’s not contagious,” I explained quickly. I could understand why the thought of an illness breaking out in the refugee bay would cause alarm.

“I know,” the woman said.

I blinked in surprise. “I’ve always been a good listener.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I’m old and frail,” the woman continued without shame. “Most people usually ignore me or don’t even notice. So I listen to the conversations of others to keep me company.”

I nodded. She must have overheard everything.

“I heard you two with your friend,” she said to me, confirming my own thoughts. “You’re sick and you don’t know why.”

I nodded my head slowly.

“It’s not contagious,” I repeated, trying to allay her fears.

“And no one knows anything of your illness,” she continued, ignoring me.

She was right.

After all of this time, Leena and I had never managed to find a documented case of the illness. The woman stared at me, her eyes slightly glassy. I could tell she had been through horrific things before she found her way to the Vengeance.

“But,” she continued, now looking at me intently. “I might know something about it.”

***

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