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Life Lessons 5
By, Nicole Silverwolf

Kerry squinted out the window again and ran down a mental checklist of the colonies in the L3 area. She was sure that she had missed something. This colony had not been here before.

Snagging her hand out blindly she was surprised to find Marlon on the other end. He usually didn't frequent the bridge for some odd reason. But her luck was still good; he would probably have the answer she was looking for.

"Marlon." She smiled gently in greeting. He nodded in return.

"Kerry. How goes it?"

"Not bad. Can you tell me what colony that is? I know we've never seen it before. You and Eduardo spent a lot of time here at one point right? Know anything about it?"

She pointed to the one still viewable outside the port window. They were in a low wake style zone where their speed was monitored by the colonies carefully. To avoid accidental collisions, speeds were regulated. Consequently they were moving very slowly past this last cluster of colony before reaching open space where they could push the ship to its limits.

"I'm pretty sure it's one of the new ones. LX18999 I think. They just finished it a little over four months ago. They're just now starting to get settlers."

"Who runs it?"

"Not sure. Although rumor has it that it's the Barton Foundation." There was something unpleasant in his voice like he had just tasted something rancid when he mentioned that.

Darkness clouded her eyes and her response. "Really." She stared critically at it until they had passed fully. Marlon also fixed his eyes on the small floating mass of metal and air.

"Kerry. If you don't mind much I would like my arm back please. Or we won't be eating dinner tonight."

Sheepishly she dropped Marlon's arm, which he had been too polite to tug out of her lax grasp.

"Sorry man. Lost in my own thoughts. You could have pulled away--you know that. What's to eat?" Turning from the window port the two strolled off deck.

"You'll find out when we eat, like everyone else on the crew. However I believe the bananas will have to be in the forecast before they go bad and are completely useless."

"Oh yeah? Great!"

"I would appreciate it if that was kept to a minimum on the crew gossip though."

"Of course Marlon. My lips are sealed till dinner."

"Good."


When Duo Maxwell decided to accept Howard's plan for at least the time being, he hadn't expected it to be implemented that very evening. He was barely willing to acknowledge that eating with a team of Sweepers, where he was decidedly the youngest member, was a little nerve wracking. Kerry had mentioned that establishing a bit of a routine would help him to get better. So that was a plus...especially if it meant that he would recover faster. That was definitely a good sign in his opinion.

None the less Duo wasn't exactly looking forward to being cornered and questioned by that many people. Howard hadn't noticed his fidgety behavior--or if he did--chose to ignore it. He hadn't looked up from a schematic and notepad for a good twenty minutes now. Duo figured he probably had noticed and couldn't decide whether that ignorance was calming or not.

It didn't really matter he decided as his deft fingers rebraided his hair. Taking only a moment to wonder where the new piece of string had come from he tied the end off swiftly.

He had changed into new clothes but had opted for his old and worn slip on shoes that left barely a centimeter of material between his feet and the cold metal deck. The shoes the guys had procured for him were two sizes too big for his feet. Hidden beneath the clothes and at the base of his neck under his braid were the rest of his worldly possessions.

"Ready to go?"

He hadn't even heard the dull ringing that signaled a meal was about to be served.

Without responding he rolled unsteadily out of bed and followed Howard slowly.


It was just a gray, featureless door. There weren't any real distinct markings on it; in fact there hadn't been any distinguishing landmarks anywhere on the journey here. Duo wondered how anyone managed to find their way around without getting lost every third turn.

Howard was far from unobservant and far from oblivious. But it paid to be a bit more laid back than most people. Overly laid back if he asked any of his colleagues but that was their opinion. Personally he had spent too much of his life pushing to the future. Now he realized the value of taking it easy often.

So he waited patiently at the door until Duo looked up at him with faintly disguised interest and a bit of wary fear.

"Don't worry. They don't bite I swear. They're a little weird and a little crude but most families usually are when they get together. And though we're a little eclectic...we are one."

Duo's eyes narrowed but he didn't respond immediately. "If you say so," he replied skeptically. Placing a tiny hand up against a panel he instinctively knew would open the door he pushed gently, letting the pressure do its work.

Said gray door opened with a hiss. It seemed rather anti-climatic when no deathly pregnant silence greeted their entrance. And though Duo didn't expect a rousing welcome, he hadn't quite expected this.

The room was big but not huge. One large table lined the center of the sector, and mismatched chairs surrounded it. Lining one wall was a wide-open window that opened in on a kitchen gleaming in varying shades of silver and black. The other wall was covered in windows that looked out over the stars. The clattering of pots and pans, sizzling of something that smelled pretty good and the sounds of someone male and from somewhere not usual emanated from inside.

Setting the table with forks, knives and the like were a few younger looking Sweepers he had never seen before. One of them was currently whacking another upside the head with a napkin and gesturing to the table in argument.

The varied people didn't seem to notice Duo decided as he instantly absorbed the caconophy of movement, noise and actions. It had been necessary to do so on the streets. Instantly assessing a situation made pick pocketing so much easier. And even after he had swept his eyes over the room twice they still hadn't made him yet. It would have been amazingly easy to canvas and jack the entire room in minutes.

He spotted Ray in a seat off to the left and caught sight of the ratty jeans that were torn at the bottom- not in some retro fashion type thing worn from age and not repaired. Amending the haul estimate he dropped his gaze a little in a bit of guilty shame. Old habits died hard. Especially the survival ones.

He was too absorbed by his own thoughts to notice the woman at first.

She wasn't exactly large, but she wasn't thin outright. Her eyes were warm but held a sort of no-nonsense-ness in them. She wasn't that much taller than him, but had much darker skin and spoke with a definite American accent.

"You're Duo right? If you're eating with us tonight you gotta help out a little okay?" The woman didn't wait for an answer as she pressed a pile of slightly crumpled cloth napkins into almost outstretched hands.

"I'm sure you can fold napkins?"

There was a dazed sort of nod of assent from the boy. He was pretending to be overwhelmed that was all, he kept telling himself.

"Good. One under every fork. You can do that and you're done for the evening. I'm Candi by the way. KANG! I know you're not trying to sneak out of plate detail again! Get your ass back here!" She launched herself after a taller but thinner Korean man who had been trying to sneak out the door. Two toned black and blonde hair--styled to reflect the modern cutting edge--was far too noticeable to pass off as 'who me?' syndrome.

There was a muffled curse from the retreating form as it tried to slip past the still "stunned" Duo.

Violet eyes quirked with a knowing smile that he couldn't quite catch in time. He hadn't meant to let it slip that he understood the feeling. The glances of the long-suffering chore-doers met each other. Duo was surprised when Kang--he wasn't sure that was his first name or not--grinned at him like Solo used to before turning around and trudging dramatically back into the room. The two started arguing as he picked up a stack of plates and began to set them out.

Maybe this wasn't going to be that bad.

At least for a week his mind amended hastily.

Howard waited calmly at his side until Duo moved forward and away from his side to the table. No one would have guessed the relief in seeing the boy blend with the crew so effortlessly. He figured it had something to do with living your life and trying not to be noticed...but it seemed like it was a little more than that. Like a missing puzzle piece or that flash of insight into a problem. Duo just fit in.

Watching the child interact awkwardly with Bryan Kang was a warming sign. He was smiling a tiny bit--a prelude to a great grin--which could have made everything right. Was firm in the handshake, although it was a little ridiculous considering how small Duo's hand was compared to Bryan's. They were hitting it off fine as they both set about the task of finishing setting the table.

Satisfied Howard turned his attention to his older members and good friends alike. Steve, the oldest continuing member of his Sweepers was lounging against a bulkhead wall and the window, holding a conversation with Eduardo and Aditi. Though Eduardo and Steve saw differently on almost anything they choose to discuss they both enjoyed good conversation and were both avid sports fans outside of their own work. They could argue about referee calls for hours on end. It made them good friends.

Ray, Mike and Jason were flopped on chairs nearby, talking about something or other that seemed to hold their deep attention. A few other members trickled in as the moments went by. Kerry here, Sarah there.

Trusting that everyone was at least on their way, he headed to the door, which connected to the kitchen.

"Marlon? You almost done? Need help?"

"No Capn'! Just about finished in here. Make sure the serving kids get their butts in here now so we can get this out and can eat on time tonight."

"Mike! Randall! Hayao! Get in there...we're eating. Ring the final bell."

Someone slammed their hand onto a comm panel near the wall and another sharp ring shot out to announce last call for dinner.

Moments later, several others strolled in--some holding beers and looking wholly nonchalant--and settled down at the table for dinner. As was usual with large meals it was a flurry of activity that preceded the actual meal, and people were running back and forth from the window and carrying steaming trays and several of the kitchen pots out to the table. Weaving in and out of each other's paths expertly.

"We're out of bowls apparently..." Mike trailed off as he caught Howard's raised eyebrow. He hefted a steaming frying pan onto a pad to keep it from burning the table before wheeling around and trudging back to the window. He narrowly avoided Randall's pot that found it's way next to the frying pan.

Bryan steered Duo towards Ray, who was holding a seat between where he and Bryan sat.

"Sup Duo? Hungry yet?"

Duo, considerably more alert looking and taking in everything he possibly could swiveled his head and nodded a brief, earnest approval.

"Good because Marlon is one of the best cooks we've got here. I hear we're even having brown sugar fried banana's tonight which is his specialty."

The boy shrugged philosophically and looked with almost rapt amazement at the sheer amount of food now littering the table. He hadn't seen this much food in...he couldn't remember when. From his seat he could make out at least five separate bowls and at least three pots and frying pans all of which were steaming and smelled good.

But then again he wasn't really that picky about what he ate. Anything would be good so long as it was food. There was one more booming from the room and Duo watched as the largest man he had probably ever seen in his entire life strode out into the room and took the only vacant seat left, on Howard's left.

Having noted that he picked out a few more familiar faces from the mainly nameless rest of the crew. Steve was seated on Howard's right, and two seats down was Ray. Across from him and a seat further down the table was Kerry--the doctor--easy to pick out with her red hair. Candi was sitting next to her and they both smiled gamely at him when they noticed the almost stare.

"Evening everybody. Like to welcome a temporary new member to the crew. Everyone meet Duo Maxwell. Duo, meet the Sweepers."

A sociable nature was hard to suppress at any age and even more so while a child. Combined with the warm, sheepish smile and a face that could charm just about anyone who was alive made Duo instantly popular among the crew. They smiled and waved--varying layers of friendly overture apparent--that felt awkwardly welcoming and nice Duo decided.

"You'll need to know who everyone is in case you get lost; this ship's a little like a maze. You already know Steve..."

"We're starving man! Can't we do introductions afterwards?"

Brown eyes glanced down over glasses at the table of people with degrees of hunger ranging from parched to starving. Mike was practically drooling.

"Okay, I don't see why not. No one's leaving till after that though."

"Thanks Howie!" Kang cheered from his seat and pointedly ignored the glare being directed at him and the balled up napkin, which bounced harmlessly off his head.

Duo bit his lip to keep from giggling. 'Howie huh?'

The humor of the situation and the name was soon lost as every plate was heaped with foods from far and wide. Pots were being handed over heads and every voice seemed to have a comment on what was being passed about.

Duo took a little of everything, scooping off of plates held out to him and holding a few for Ray to grab some of his own. The dishes weren't fancy persay but they were definitely more exotic than most of the things he had had in his lifetime. Turkey and chicken were passed around the table, one smothered in a brown sauce--Duo couldn't describe it as more than that--one plain. There was rice pilaf, and plain rice with black beans, broccoli, stuffed eggplants, and other plates prepared in ways that smelled good even if he couldn't tell how they were made or even what they were.

The soup definitely looked weird though. There were big wedges of something that might have resembled potatoes floating in a broth with big dark green leaves mixed in. He wasn't sure but it might have been sausage that was peeking out from under a leaf.

Ray smiled at the almost poisonous glare the boy was directing at the soup.

"Don't knock it before you try it Duo. It's Portuguese Kale soup. Trust me, I haven't met a single person who didn't like it."

Dutifully picking up a spoon and brandishing it in a very determined manner, Duo took a spoonful of the concoction. Doubtful that it really was edible he quickly stuffed it in his mouth. Maybe it would be like medicine...if he hated it he would be finished with it soon enough. At first it barely registered as a taste. It wasn't spicy or sweet but was good none the less. It tasted more like the meals he had been accustomed to in the orphanage and in the shelters on L2.

It tasted like memories and felt warm but from something more than the vaporization and fast moving molecules. The soup seemed to disappear from the bowl after that, melting away steadily but never seeming to. Other things were being added along the way and the plate was clean soon enough.

Conversations swirled around them and Duo listened to everything from recognizable shoptalk, to a joke that probably had a very funny punch line if he had been there for its entirety. Kerry was discussing something and laughing often with the girls of the crew. The hum of conversation and the clinking of silverware and plates was comforting and would have ordinarily been lulling. But there was so much to try and map, orient, assess that he couldn't doze off just yet.

Dessert was as Ray had predicted. Banana's sliced and fried with brown sugar and butter. They were gone almost instantly.

It was almost an hour before the meal wound down.

"Great meal again Marlon!"

A chorus of agreement rose from the table as a whole.

"Man can't we make him the permanent cook on ship! You wouldn't mind would you Marlon?"

"If it got me out of your peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches Randall, hell's yes I'd take your shift!"

"Eduardo likes them!" came the protest.

"That's right!" said person enthused from further down the table.

"They are possibly the most repulsive things we serve on this ship!" Mandy pointed out and got a round of nods from a large portion of the crew as well.

"Hey, I'm not a cook. Sue me. Or better yet how bout coming up with a better meal that takes the same skill and prep time."

"Ever heard of jelly Randall? It is the prop for peanut butter." Kerry intoned with over dramatic hand gestures.

"Ah but that is simple sandwich preparation, this is culinary art...genius in fact!"

Laughter erupted from the table and even Randall joined in after a few serious looking artistic gestures of his own.

Holding hands against his side to push back the pain of lack of oxygen, Howard raised a hand and waved for attention. After a few moments the room quieted down enough to be heard.

"Okay okay guys! Before you all head off to various things for the evening we really should do some intros for the poor kid. At least so he knows what to call us when we're insulting cooking styles for the next week."

Duo scowled slightly at the use of the word 'poor kid' but it went largely unnoticed by the table. He would hazard that no one had noticed actually.

"Ok well I'm Howard, chief engineer and captain of this little hunk of junk."

"Steve, our head of mechanics and the only other guy who can keep any of these hoodlums in line. He's the second oldest Sweeper here next to me."

"Marlon is another of our top engineers and he knows more about suit production and design than even I do. And as you can attest Duo, he's a great cook."

The large man tipped his head in greeting and smiled widely at the warm indigo eyes.

"Ray is our youngest member at twenty four but has proven himself as an excellent engineer and mechanic. Bryan Kang--Kang--to everyone on this ship acts like he's twelve at times but is also one of our first rate engineer slash mechanics."

"Kerry O'Neil MD is our ship doc. She's also a chemical engineer and in charge of keeping things from blowing up around here. Done a pretty good job so far!"

Baleful blue eyes rolled at Howard over that statement.

Ignoring the comment after that Kerry picked up the introductions flawlessly.

"On my left here is Candi Williams. She's a mechanical engineer from Earth originally." They gripped hands with each other before the red head continued.

"The big ponytail and the thick bangs down there belong to Mandy. She's a kickin' mechanic." A girl wearing a tight white shirt with a black leather jacket over it smiled brightly and waved from the far end of the table.

"Randall's an engineer/repair specialist who knows how to fix all our communications equipment backwards and forwards even when it's been squished to bits."

"I used to jack up stereos as a kid," he shrugged in a self-depreciating kind of way.

Steve picked up next. "Tezuko Hayao, our electrical engineer and one of our computer specialists. Not a bad pilot either."

Duo could see Hayao nodding in obvious pride.

"Mike there," he pointed to where the man was lounging with his chair tipped back, "is one of our mechanics and pilots this hunk of metal most of the time we're out here."

"Aditi Gupta is the head of our computer engineering division." A young looking Indian woman smiled widely and waved from three seats down on his side.

"And that is Jason..."

"...she's one of our mechanics an..."

"...a medical assistant to Kerry..."

Somewhere along the line the names had started to blur. Stifling a yawn Duo lost track of who was talking and who was being pointed to. Eyes drooped of their own accord and with each passing moment they managed to stay closed just a little longer.

Who knew dinner could be such an exhausting event.

"Okay guys I think that's enough for the night. Cleanup you know what to do, and everyone else, don't forget you have work to do tomorrow and that we're having department check-ins after lunch."

Standing quietly there were a few calls for bed, although most everyone else was content to go of and watch vids, work on small projects or go and play basketball. Though it was a bit different with their gravity systems it never failed to attract someone every night. Several more unlucky souls just stared at the plates that lined the table from one end to the other. It was going to be a long night of dish scrubbing.

"Ok time for bed for you Duo." Kerry had materialized at his side as if by magic alone.

Though he would have normally protested with everything in him (bedtimes were a serious issue to him) he could tell he was losing the war against sleep. Shuffling along the table length he didn't register the gentle g'night-Duo's and "welcome to the Sweepers kid" that were beckoned to him as Kerry steered him left and right out of the door.

Steve was with her and Howard was right next to him as they made their way back to Howard's quarters. It was quiet except for the hum of generators and whirring of fans.

When Duo turned right instead of left for the third time Steve slipped forward and swept the boy effortlessly up into his arms. That lasted for all of a second before the boy started to struggle, stretching and turning his whole body to wiggle out of the grip, almost like a puppy.

"Let go of me! Put me down! You can't do this!"

"Take it easy Duo. You were heading to the bridge and you're almost falling over as it is. Just chill a little kay? It'll be faster this way."

After a few phantom struggles, Duo gave in, curling a little against Steve's shoulder and laying his small head on the one shoulder while watching everything around him. Resigned-to-his-fate Kerry decided his face spoke.

When they did get back to Howard's quarters Steve let the boy go and he leapt from the older man's grasp to the ground a few feet away, happy to be out of that rather embarrassing situation.

Changing and taking medicine didn't take long and soon it was only Howard and Duo in the small quarters. Kerry and Steve had bade goodnight to them both before heading off in separate directions.

"So what do you think of the rest of us crazy people?" Howard asked lightly as he settled into his seat by the bed and drew up the covers around Duo, who promptly pushed them back down again.

"You're crazy. But you're not bad or anything. The soup was good. Kang's funny. I guess I can live with you for a week."

"Glad you approve Duo."

The boy set out a jaw splitting yawn and turned a little to hunker down under the covers a bit more.

"G'night kid."

Howard wasn't sure but he thought that something like 'night Howie' was mumbled before the boy's eyes closed for good and he sunk into sleep.

"Kang's gonna give you bad habits Duo," he smiled with a lingering look at the child.

There was a beep on the laptop next to him and he turned to it curiously. New email. Not that that was unusual, it was the main form of communication for the entire ship's crew since they were constantly on the move and communication in outer space was rather short-range vid and phone wise. There wasn't any subject but the return address was one he recognized. A good friend of his. But why would he be sending an encrypted email to him?

Sliding fingers expertly over the keyboard he clicked it open and began to sift through the encryption layers with practical ease.

TBC

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