A few days into the return journey, Ellipse figured she ought to take on real captain duties instead of just lazing around and answering Mouthbot’s questions and pushing slabs of fish at Focci’s face to remind him to eat. So while Tejal tried giving the translator demonstrations of a few endemic American accents, Ellipse headed back up to the pilot’s cabin to ask Focci about flying the ship. Of course, she also brought him fish.
“Focci,” she sang, “I brought food.”
He grunted at her, though frankly even siren grunts sounded melodic, and held out one hand. Ellipse floated towards him and flipped the plate onto his snout instead, leaving morsels of fish to float about the cabin.
“Why do you keep doing that?” Focci asked. He snarfed down a chunk that drifted past his nose and sent Ellipse an unimpressed glare.
“Because you put up with it,” Ellipse answered. She balanced the plate on top of Focci’s head and then turned to the windows. “What do you and Tejal do in here during the flight? I thought most of the path was computerized.”
“We adjust for debris in case the detection systems fail.”
Wrinkling her nose, Ellipse searched for the joystick hidden among all the flickery lights on the dashboard. “I could do that too,” she said. “I know how a joystick works. And I have a full license, unlike you two.”
All she got in response was a disinterested hum as Focci swallowed more fish. Then, like the master of conversation he was, he changed subjects without any kind of lead-in. “I have a question about earthling biology.”
“You should let me fly the ship,” Ellipse said. She had more than enough fluency in Siren to wrestle back control of this conversation. Hopefully.
“Is it normal for earthlings to have drastic differences in height and breadth?” Focci asked anyways. “You and Tejal act similar in age, and so I thought it odd that you are so much more muscular. Mass-wise, we sirens are always very similar to others within our age groups.”
Siren weight was at the mercy of water temperature and space availability, so of course Focci was the same size as other space-faring adolescent sirens. Ellipse took a breath to explain the array of factors involved with earthling growth, and then remembered that she had other goals. Frowning, she leveled Focci with a hard stare and nudged a piece of fish towards him. “You should let me fly the ship,” she said.
“You should answer my questions. At least I am not interrogating you.”
Ellipse huffed and rolled her eyes. “I can explain the biology for you, of course. But is Tejal really much smaller than I am? Aside from the lack of leg mass, obviously.” For the past year, Ellipse had spent hours each day cleaning mirrors, and she was familiar with the biceps and triceps she had earned in the process. Tejal could not be that much skinnier, not if he could roll his wheelchair around as quickly as he had at the earthling fold terminal.
“He is scales and bones, Ellipse. Are we feeding him enough?”
Maybe the years before her janitor stint had blinded Ellipse to how thin people could be. Pursing her lips, she tried to remember when Tejal had last eaten, and what and how much. She had shared some seaweed with him before napping and then forced him to gnaw on frozen fruit when she woke up, but that had been hours ago.
“He complains about the taste of earthling food,” she said, brows furrowing. “Unless it is sweet, he will not eat much.”
“Picky,” Focci snorted. He reached for the joystick, but the ship angled downwards before his arm even fully extended. “We need to fix that in case his parents get stuck in legal whirlpools.”
Watching as a piece of icy, blue-black rock floated over the view, Ellipse found herself making excuses. “It makes sense for him to be picky. You are wired to enjoy savory foods because you get more energy from breaking proteins. Tejal and I get more out of sugars.”
“You enjoy fish as much as I do,” Focci pointed out. “If we are blaming Tejal’s bony-ness on his eating habits, then he is being a guppy and you know it.”
Ellipse would forget how to speak Global Gliss before she ate sashimi again, but she had to admit to pan frying more than her fair share of the fish stores. Even now the taste of oil permeated the ship’s air supply. “He has been eating gato food for years,” Ellipse argued. “That stuff is easy on earthling tastebuds, even if it has… no nutritional value.”
Ah. That explained a lot. She and Focci exchanged a knowing glance and then turned back to the stars outside the cockpit window, faces tight with disappointment. They should have figured that out sooner.
“So,” Ellipse tried, “why are we worrying about Tejal’s lack of muscle? It is considered rude in earthling society to talk about someone’s weight behind their back.”
“I am worried he may have a hard time moving when we land at the serpent planet station. They set their gravity almost twice as high as earthling and Triune stations.”
A metal clang rang out from somewhere downstairs, followed by Tejal shouting ‘what in tarnation’ in a Texan accent. At least he was not eavesdropping through Mouthbot. When Focci sent her a questioning look, Ellipse giggled.
“That was just an outdated curse,” she explained. “It is like asking if something came from the fire trench.”
Focci tittered, canines showing, and then snapped a piece of fish out of the air. “But if the increased gravity and friction and whatnot become a problem,” he said through his chewing, “you can probably push him. I suppose in the short term we can just ignore it.”
“Hmm, but think of all the fun we could have forcing him to try new things.”
Another loud noise echoed through the ship, this time from the hall. It sounded like a hand slapping on plastic, which was probably the actual cause as well. The sound was either that or Tejal’s grappling line magnet hitting something, and both meant Tejal was free from Mouthbot’s question-prison.
“We should probably stop talking about Tejal,” Focci said, turning to the door. He snarfed down another bite of fish and groped about for his Mouthbot refocus button.
Before he found it, Tejal burst in, eyes wide, and pointed at Ellipse. “I can’t do Chicago!” he shouted.
Ellipse blinked. “What?”
“Chicago. You know, the accent? I can’t do it.”
“It is not hard,” Ellipse said, placing her hands on either side of Focci’s head. She angled him back to the windows and pushed herself towards the door. “I can do all forms of English, and it is not even my first language.”
Tejal combed his hands through his hair, fingers clawed like he might start pulling the strands out. “Then why did you abandon me with the computer? I could have been perfecting the fold generator, but no, you had to just run off and leave me with the crazy translator.”
“I will ask Focci to press the reset button for you,” Ellipse replied, bowing for drama’s sake. She switched into her singing voice and called for Focci again. “Tejal wants to be done with the translating work, and I am going to go practice poetry on the metal tube. Any requests?”
As Tejal pulled the miniature fold generator and a set of tiny screwdrivers from his pockets, Focci looked over at the earthling boy and shrugged. “The Andra poem about boiling fish is good for working. And I like the one about death. Try not to spend too long practicing the alphabet this time.”
Ellipse could make no promises on her scale work, but she smiled like she might try and switched back to English. “Tejal, what are your favorite songs?”
He glanced up, still turning a screw. “You’re playing trumpet again? Uh, I guess the “Onyx Eyes” variation is cool, and I liked it when you played “Gravitation” really fast.” He frowned and squinted at the screw he had pulled out. “Sorry if those aren’t good for practicing. I don’t know any classical stuff.”
“No, it is all fine,” Ellipse said, beaming. She floated out of the cockpit, shut the door behind her, and sighed in defeated amusement, glad that her crew at least had decent taste in music. Andra’s music was the best. She had composed it that way.