Ferry Number Four
Ant stared out the window of his hospital room, hoping to see one of the ferries come in. That was pretty much all the entertainment he had left, now that the nurses had stopped giving him new datapads. The small transport vehicles weren't easy to spot at a distance, which made it at least mildly exciting. The sport was to find one as early as possible, before it came close enough that he could see its steel-grey cube form. Movement was the key. As soon as he saw a pinprick of light move against the steady background of space and stars, he knew it could be a ferry. Unless it just passed by, in case it was... well, some other ship, going someplace else. Which did not count as a win.
Why there was a hospital station out here, so far from anywhere that even the nearest stars were part of the backdrop, he had no idea. The door was of no help; when it came to conversations, it was pretty useless. The most it ever said to him was that it would remain locked until opened from the outside, and that he was not allowed to roam. Useless. It didn't respond to jokes, threats, insults, kicks or rude words. He had even yanked out a long strand of his tail fur, and tried to find an opening in the mechanism in order to maybe short-circuit it. To no avail. It was not fair! He had done fine on his own for almost a year when the crew of the Morning Calm picked him up and brought him with them. And now he was suddenly considered an age minor? Not fair...
Ten minutes passed while Ant pondered his recent past and his present situation. There were no kinds of ships out there, neither coming nor going. No movement whatsoever. Bored, he returned to his bed, the only piece of furniture in the room, and sat down. There had been a few interesting-looking machines for a while, monitoring him back when his laser wound had been deemed critical. However, he hadn't been allowed to play with them, and they had been removed a week ago. Which, he thought, should tell anyone that he was well now, and that he ought to be let out.
Sighing, he returned to his fallback when nothing outside interested him. Picking up the brush Raeder had reluctantly bought for him on Nama, Ant began to groom his light-brown fur. Or at least, as much of it as he could groom. He was still under strict orders to wear his green-and-white radiation suit at all times except for when he was allowed a quick shower, and for bathroom visits. It covered everything but his feet, hands, tail and head. As a compromise to make him cooperate at all with the doctors, he had been allowed to occasionally roll up its sleeves and its legs, one at a time, for grooming. At least I can easily do this, he thought as he drew long brush strokes down the length of his tail. All the way to the tip, which either hung down past his knees or perked up two-thirds of his back, depending on his mood. Ever since that Steelwood pirate had shot him in the chest, he hadn't felt very perky. It had been much tail-down the last couple of weeks.
Grooming always led him to his happy place of mind. By the time Ant had done his long, slightly darker brown head fur, his fuzzy ears and his muzzle, he felt much better. He cleaned the brush of fur strands, which he dropped on the floor just to annoy the sanitation droids. Without getting up this time, he looked out the window again. Still nothing moving among the stars, but with the ceiling lights focused on the bed, he could now see his own reflection in the glass. Knife had once called his face 'canine', and he had almost blown his top before Raeder and Tow managed to convince him that it wasn't an insult, but a reference to a type of animal. Once he had seen pictures, he calmed down.
It was true. He really did look canine, he thought now, as he ran a hand down his freshly groomed muzzle, returning the strands to the ruffled look he preferred. The he in the window did the same, but with the other hand. Most of all, it turned out, his facial features resembled a canine species called wolf. Even his tail looked wolfish. There were differences, of course, mainly that his kind walked on two legs, and had hands with flexible fingers and opposable thumbs. Also, apart from the tail, his fur was shorter and neater and less rugged-looking than that of wild wolfs. He had been happy with this discovery, and he felt a kind of connection to these animals. But then Knife had brought up a complete anatomy study of a wolf, and had shown him pictures that made him cringe and blush and try to break her datapad. When she asked to see if he looked the same, he had stormed out of the Morning Calm's common room in a huff. For the rest of that day he had refusd to talk to her, or even acknowledge her existence.
* * * * * *
A beep from the door brought him out of his thoughts. It opened, and one of the doctors entered. Ant pulled his knees up to his chest, then hugged them with his arms. He was very much not in the mood for needles, and he decided that they would not take his blood today without a fight. The doctor's needle arm was not out, though, just its scan-thing and that light they always shone in your eyes. Ant relaxed a bit.
"How are we today?"
The voice of the station's doctors sounded almost perfectly human. Mild and friendly and cheerful, and with no discernable dialect that Ant could detect. There was a kind of metallic undertone to it, though. Just on the edge of his hearing. At first he had found it unnerving, but he was starting to get used to it.
Aside from sounding alike, every doctor was also built exactly the same; a one metre tall and half a metre wide off-white cylinder, sitting atop an electric motor with caterpillar treads. From it, various arms would extend whenever needed to poke and prod and push and stab at him.
"We're fine, every one of me." It was a childish joke, Ant knew, but he couldn't help himself. The chirpy voice irked him today, for some reason, and he couldn't really muster polite. "Will you let me out today? I'm going stir crazy."
"Very soon, I hope." Was there a slight tinge of annoyance there? Ant hoped so, but he couldn't be sure. "We need to see if we can get your radiation levels down a bit more. It won't do if we contaminate the entire wing."
"I can't help it. I told you I was born in a mining colony. The whole Belt's pretty much radioactive."
"Yes, I know that." The doctor's scanner arm waved in front of him, and gave an angry squeak. "Hmm, still quite high. Did we take our pills?"
"Yes." Ant decided to rein in his snarkiness. He really wanted to be out and about, and arguing would just delay everything. "Are they doing anything, though? I been taking them for over a week now."
"Mr Ant, your radiation levels were extremely high when you were admitted. Frankly, I'm quite astonished that your crewmates escaped with only mild rad-burns."
"They're not my mates!"
As soon as he had said it, Ant regretted snapping. True, he hadn't asked to go with the Calm, but it hadn't really been that bad. Tow had been nothing but cordial to him, treating him like a friend he'd known forever. And Raeder... well, the self-styled captain had mostly tried, at least. In some ways, he and Ant had similar personalities. Obstinate, quick to mouth off and slow to back down. They'd had some fantastic clashes at first, until Ant's initial resentment had begun to die down. He could see them before his mind's eye now. Tow, tall, wide and muscular. Tousled grey hair, dark weather-worn skin. Rough features, but often with a warm smile on his lips. Raeder, much younger, not even thirty standard years. Short blonde hair, a handsome face and a smile that he rarely showed, but which Ant kind of liked when he saw it. And always wearing the same flight crew jacket, filled with pockets with all kinds of stuff in them.
And then there was Knife. Who, Ant thought, was just scary.
He shook himself out of his reminiscing. What was he trying to do, paint a picture? The doctor must have said something and was waiting for an answer, while he was going around in circles inside his own head.
"I said, your friends did seem quite concerned when they brought you in. Maybe you shouldn't dismiss their feelings so brusquely."
"Yeah, maybe." Ant sighed. "So, not getting out today, neither?"
"Well, the levels have decreased more rapidly over the last twelve hours. Maybe tomorrow..."
"I can leave?"
"Maybe for short periods. There's still your wound to take into consideration."
"That's not a problem. Look!" Ant bent down and touched his toes with straight legs, then jumped up and slapped the ceiling. Then he did it again, just for show. But when he swung his arms out and back, his chest gave a sudden twinge, so he only did that once. "Good as new. Bet you can't even see the scar now."
"Not through your rad suit and chest fur, certainly." Another arm shot up from the cylinder, making Ant jump slightly. The doctor ran it across his chest, and it beeped happily. "The tissue is healing at remarkable pace. I wish you would reconsider remaining as our guest for a little while, after we dismiss you. I have never met a person of your species, and I would really like to study you further."
"Would there be needles?"
"Well, yes, we would need to study your..."
"Then I beg to decline. Politely, of course."
"So you'll sign me out tomorrow?"
"If the Morning Calm has returned by then. But physically..."
"Wait, what? Returned from where?"
"Captain Raeder did not specify. Only that it would most likely be a short trip."
"He didn't even tell me? He could at least have used the com-thing!"
"You did request no further communications, in quite a loud voice."
"That's 'cause they were teasing me about the age thing again."
"I told you about that, didn't I? Or was that another doctor? You all look the same."
"We certainly do not." This time there was clear and present annoyance, and Ant felt a bit proud. The doctors and nurses were said to be ever professional and never fazed, but he had been able to rile several of them. "The serial numbers underneath the top of our cylinders vary by up to four figures."
"Fascinating. Anyway, when he asked me how old I am, I told Raeder I'm four-and-three-quarters, and they thought that was so funny. Called me a baby."
"I don't entirely understand."
"Turned out, when Tow ran the calculations, that a year in the Belt is about two point something standard years. I'm actually thirteen-and-a-half."
"Still a child."
"Not back home. We're considered adults at four. About eleven standard, I guess. That's when we'd get our tails cut off, to fit in a high-rad suit, and sent out to the mines. I ran away 'fore they could do it to me."
"That is terrible. What civilised society would allow something like that?"
"The Belt, or so we thought. Turned out we weren't a society at all, but a bunch of slaves run by a few greedy slimes." Ant fell silent. Part of him wanted to tell the doctor more about his life, about his people's life in the Mining Belt. About living on his own in the dark caves outside and underneath his home town. But he also wanted to bury it inside, and never think of it again. "Doc, please don't tell anyone I said that. I don't want them to know."
"But this should be stopped!"
"It has been. Raeder didn't mean to, but he kind of started a revolution when the Calm arrived. The slavers must be dead by now, and I hope my people run the mines better on their own."
"That is good to hear."
"If I can't go out today, can I at least have another datapad?"
"There is really no use. Your radioactivity destroys the circuits. Mr Tow was working on a modification, but I don't think it is ready yet."
"That's... that's nice of him."
"We have offered you a viewscreen, provided you don't go near it."
"I don't want to watch some boring programmes, I want to read. "Ant walked over to the window. "All this. The galaxy and all. I know almost nothing about it, outside the Belt and mining. I read all of the books that were on the Calm, but then you burned them."
"The correct term is incinerated. They had become dangerously contaminated."
"I could send in a nurse droid, who could read to you."
"Like a bedtime story? No thanks!" he scoffed. "I'd never hear the end of that."
"Well, it won't be a problem for long. Keep taking your pills and you'll soon be below the safety limit, at least."
The doctor scanned him again, then left. Alone, Ant lay down on his bed. Just one more day, and he'd get to at least see the corridors. But where had Raeder and the others gone? They must have been really mad after his latest tantrum. Justified tantrum, he added to himself. He had already had a row with one of the nurses about his restrictions, and then Raeder had really set him off by telling him to grow up. Knife joined in the teasing, making him even angrier. He wished they had stopped by, though, to let him apologise. To Tow, at least.
His mind kept running things over. The sudden burn of the laser beam going right through him. Hazy memories of being carried in Tow's strong arms, bleeding and bleeding. The early days at the hospital station, when he hadn't known where he was and why he was there. The panic. The pain in his mouth from biting a doctor for jabbing him with a needle. How no living creature had been allowed inside his room because of the radiation, just like when his mother...
After her suit had...
Not that memory.
He chose to dwell instead on the things he'd had time to read about, in Raeder's precious paper books. Books he had practically destroyed just by touching them. He had read about how humankind had spread out from Earth, its planet of origin, to all corners of the galaxy. How new societies had formed and failed, then formed and re-formed. How eventually the wars of the motherworld had followed into space, raging for centuries until at last there had been, not peace but at least truce.
Right about then, he fell asleep.
* * * * * *
Ant came out of his en suite just as the door closed on a nurse, who had delivered his breakfast. The smell of toasted bread, buttered corn and his favourite salad went right to his tail, which wagged happily. One of the few really good thing about his stay at the hospital station had been the food, which was richer and tastier than anything he had ever eaten. Meals in the Belt had all been the same, regardless of the time of day. A greyish sludge, which was called porridge but didn't really taste of anything. Ant had had real porridge here, with cinnamon and honey, and the difference was like night and day. Aboard the Calm, no one had really known how to cook, and most of what they ate came from boxes or tins. Thinking about the Morning Calm and her crew made him feel a bit sad, but he didn't stop that from tucking into his food with gusto. He was just licking his spoon clean when the door beeped open, and a doctor entered. The usual scan thing was held up to him, but this time it made a happy noise, which made Ant grin.
"It would appear so. Congratulations, sir, you are no longer dangerously radioactive. And if you keep taking your pills you'll soon reach background levels."
"How do they work?"
"That is quite difficult to explain to someone without a degree in biochemical engineering. Let's just say that the compounds of the pill course through your bloodvessels, and gather up the radioactive substances that have seeped into your body. Then everything is ejected with your fluid waste."
"You mean," Ant used his thumb to point behind him, at the bathroom. "In there?"
"Wow. I'm surprised you-know-what doesn't glow in the dark..."
"That would have taken other sources of radiation, far beyond even your remarkable durability."
"So, can I go now?"
"Come on, my wound's all but healed." He rubbed his chest, pleased to find that it only stung a little. "If I'm no longer dangerous and no longer dying, you can't keep me here."
"There is the issue of the Morning Calm's departure. While you are free to move around inside the station, we cannot sign you out without your legal guardian present."
"I don't have one. Like I told you, I'm an adult. Or was that you?"
"Yes, it was me you told about the peculiarities of your upbringing in the Mining Belt. But we still..."
"Raeder isn't my guardian, neither is any of the others. Like I told you, they just took me along."
"Dunno. You have to ask them. But anyway, I can take care of myself. Just give me some clothes."
"That will be no problem. We have a program for destitute patients that will provide for you while you remain with us. But I worry about your lack of money. Outside the station..."
"Yeah, I know. And Raeder didn't leave me any, did he?"
"I believe they intended to return before your dismissal. If you'll just wait for a while."
"I don't really wanna wait." Ant sighed, and took a deep breath. When he released it, he had made up his mind. "You said you wanted to study me?"
"Would you pay me for it?"
"Yeah. You do your needle thing, and I get the money. Then I can go, no problem, right?"
"Usually, test subjects volunteer."
"Well, I don't. Take it or leave it, doc, once in a lifetime opportunity. Maybe you can write a paper on me, I read about scientific papers."
"Only human scientists may produce such papers."
"Who knows, you might be the first. You might get famous. The first doctor with a doctorate."
"Do... do you really think that is possibly?"
"I don't know," Ant answered truthfully. "But it should be. Just because you're a droid shouldn't mean you can't be recognised."
"I don't know..."
"Even if you don't write a paper, remember that my people are free now. More of us will probably start travelling soon. Radioactivity and all."
"It would be of great help to be able to prescribe the right medicine from the start."
"So, just give me a little money."
"How... how much? Droids do not have money, it would need to go through the station's finance department."
"Is it run by droids?"
"Everything here is. This is a fully automated hospital station."
"Then droid to droid, you'll fix it."
"When should we..."
"Right now, no better time. Just fix me some clothes. A few changes of clothes would be best. And something to carry them in. And a new furbrush."
"I suppose... Yes, I suppose I can do that."
* * * * * *
Four hours later, freshly groomed and dressed in a white t-shirt and blue shorts, and with a small dark blue backpack at his side, Ant sat staring out of a different window. The view was pretty much the same, but he could tell that these were different stars. Some of the ones he had come to know from his room had different colours, and he had amused himself from time to time by drawing lines between them. Here, there were different lines. In his front pocket, he could feel the little rectangle of his money card. At first he had asked for a sum that had nearly bowled the doctor over. They had settled for something far lower, but which still seemed high for the doctor. Now that Ant had used his card for the first time, to buy some food in the station cantina, he could agree. It had been a very good deal, from his side. Judging by the prices on display, he had more than he could spend in a long time. Unids, the doctor had called the money they used. Ant had no idea what the word unid meant, but he had been told that it would be accepted on most planets, moons, asteroids and space stations.
It had only taken about an hour for a team of doctors to poke him and prod him and photograph him from every angle. And draw blood. He had almost regretted the deal when the needles sank into his skin, and he'd had to fight really hard not to kick anything. He also almost regretted letting them photograph everything, though the doctor had promised him that the pictures would be adequately anonymised. Whatever that meant. Bits of him that he didn't really want displayed, would be. Oh well, it couldn't be helped now.
He had tried to contact the Morning Calm, but either they were out of range or they just weren't answering. So now here he sat, in some sort of common room, pondering his future. One of the sanitation droids had told him that the crew had gone to get the ship properly sanitised, which had made him feel bad. Sanitised from having him on board, because he had contaminated everything he touched. How much would it cost? How mad would they be at him? Across the hall from the common room, there came a ding, and a door opened. People exited and walked down away, taking to one another. Ant read the sign above the door. Personnel Transportation Vehicle Four. It was a ferry. One of the cubes he had seen from the window in his room. As a nurse had explained to him, they carried patients to and from the station, or maintenance crews and inspectors. Without really thinking, Ant grabbed his backpack, got up and sauntered over. Before the door could close, he slipped in. It was pretty much one room, larger than the one he had stayed in, with two doors on one side and a viewscreen at the far end. In the middle of the room were a table and four chairs, and by the screen was a small sofa. He was just about to walk over to it, when a voice startled him, and he jumped.
"You are not supposed to be in here." The voice had that metallic tone that all droids had, but it sounded different. Almost like a woman, but not quite. There was a raspiness to it that made Ant deduce that it was a boy's voice. A boy his own age. "Sorry for scaring you, but this PTV is not scheduled for take-off."
"The door was open, so I thought it was okay. Mind if I visit with you for a little while?"
"Visit? Why would you visit with a PTV? We are only for transportation."
"Don't you get lonely waiting for passengers? I know I would."
"You are a living creature. I don't mind waiting."
"Then you don't mind a visitor either, do you?"
"I suppose..." Already, this machine was sounding insecure. It had taken him a lot longer to get reactions from doctors and nurses. "What do you want in here?"
"Just have a look around. I've never been in a ferry before."
"Personnel Transportation Vehicle."
"It's basically the same. And ferry is easier to say. You don't mind, do you?"
"Mind?" More insecurity. "Why would anyone care if I minded? And why would you call something by an incorrect name?"
"Because that's what people do. Look at me, for instance. I'm called Ant."
"Like the insect?" Ant nodded. "But you're not an insect, you're... Pardon me for asking, but what are you? Certainly not a human."
"I'm a wolf." It was the first time he had used that word to describe himself. Truth was, he had no idea what his species was called. Right then and there, he decided to be a wolf, simple as that. "And you're a ferry."
"Okay. But why would someone name you Ant? It seems unreasonable."
"I was a runt when I was little. Smaller than all the other kids. I could get places they couldn't, just like cave ants could get into houses no matter how much you sealed them off. So everybody called me Ant, even my mother. I don't remember my birth name."
"That's kind of sad."
"Not really. I bet if I call you a ferry long enough, you'll first get used to it, then prefer it."
"Mind if I ask you a personal question?"
"There is really nothing personal about a... a ferry." Ant grinned. "But please ask anyway."
"How come you sound like a boy?"
"That is easy!" Ant thought he could sense happiness in the voice now, even pride. "Studies showed that most humans respond better to different voices for different purposes. Doctors and police droids and other machines were made to sound like adult males, to show authority. Those of us who perform menial tasks were given younger-sounding voices."
"Huh. Sounds kind of silly."
"My own configuration is called lift boy. Actually, all ferries use it."
"I kind of like it. Sounds like we could be friends."
"You know what friends are, don't you?"
"I know the what the word means, but... I have never had a friend before."
"Well, you do know." Ant sat down at the table, and patted it. "Nice to meet you, friend. You already know my name is Ant, may I call you Four?"
"As in ferry number four. Makes it easier to tell you apart from the others. Not that I'd ever want to ride in them, I prefer my friend."
"That is so kind of you. I would very much like to be called Four."
"So, can we?"
"Can we what?"
"Go for a ride?"
"I don't really know. I am supposed to wait for orders from the station mainframe."
"How about orders from a doctor?"
"That would do as well, though it's not the usual..."
"I know one of the doctors really well, I helped him do a study on my species. He could vouch for me."
"If he gave the order himself..."
"You know doctors are awfully busy, don't you? I can assure you, my word is as good as his."
"This is irregular."
"Trust a friend, then?"
"I don't know. The station is supposed to relocate any day now, and I don't want to be left behind."
"You won't be left, you'd be with me. I promise to bring you back here when they come back this way."
"But the galaxy is really big. They might never return to this exact location."
"In that case, I promise to look after you."
"The least I could do for a friend, Four."
"Well, it's not explicitly prohibited to obey a relayed order, though I assume that it should still come from someone in the chain of command."
"I don't think I'm even in the chain of command. All else aside, what do you think?"
"I would like to help a friend."
"Then let's go."
* * * * * *
It felt thrilling to be out on his own. Well, not on his own, he had Four now. His own ferry. Ant felt a bit guilty for manipulating the cheerful and friendly machine, who had really taken to having its very first friend. He didn't really intend to keep an eye out for whenever the station returned. Four was stuck with him. I'll make it up to you, he thought as he watched the datapad he had found in a drawer, and which to his delight didn't break as soon as he touched it. Four had, after some prodding, connected to a galaxy-wide data network, and Ant could now literally never run out of books to read. Right now he was studying the neighbouring star systems, looking for someplace to go. Unlike his new friend, who could simply download anything and know it instantly, he still had to read. He sipped from his straw, and licked his lips, before he returned to the book. Beside the viewscreen, he had found a refrigerator. There was some food in it, and then he found pure treasure. Juice boxes. Five of them! It had been tailwags time, for sure.
Ant wanted to see oceans. On Nama, the Morning Calm had flown over a lake, and Ant, who had up until then only known water as something that came out of a tap, had been very impressed. Knife had told him about the vast seas of her homeworld, and she had promised to show them to him some day. Then, of course, she had added that she might decide to kill him instead, and they had been unfriends for a while. Thinking about the Calm set off another twinge of guilt. He did feel bad for leaving without letting them know where, even though that was just what they had done to him. Maybe they'd meet again some day. Maybe he would even seek them out. But right now he wanted to try his own legs. Find his own way.
"How about this one," Four chirped as another planet appeared on the viewscreen. "New Mérida has plenty of water, a few small towns and a warm climate."
"Sounds good. Let's go, my friend."
"Sure thing, Ant. Friend."
The screen changed to the view ahead of them, which for the moment was just stars. Then there was a slight blurring, as the main drive kicked in and threw ferry number four ahead faster than should have been possible. Faster than light. Ant had tried to read a couple of books about this kind of travel, but had given up with a headache. It did work, and that was good enough for him.
The future seemed bright, he thought as he slumped down on the sofa and brought up a fiction book on his new datapad. Whatever happened next, he knew that he could handle it. And if he couldn't, he'd just ask Four for help. They had everywhere to go, and all the time to get there.
It was a big galaxy, and Ant wanted to see it.