Earth Thirst (The Arcadian Conflict) - By Mark Teppo


It's her, isn't it?”

She tries very hard to look like the rest of the crew—bulky sweater, heavy pants, rubber boots, red hair pulled back into a pony tail beneath a worn Yankees baseball cap—but there is a tiny stutter in her step that gives her away. She hasn't quite figured out how to walk in sync with the motion of the boat.

Nigel leans forward, lowering his face so that he can be sure I see his expression. “Why is she here?”

I suspect I'm supposed to know the answer to his question, but I don't and so I shrug as I return my attention to my mug.

The woman has paused, blocking the people behind her. She's looking at our table. The mess on the Cetacean Liberty is already tiny, and with so many volunteers on board, the room feels even smaller. There are only four tables, and no one ever sits with us. We've done nothing to dissuade the rumor that we're here in case things go wrong, and most of them afford us the space you would any dangerous animal.

I can see the scar that wraps itself around the base of her throat. The one she got from the Chechen gangster. It's part of the reason the network never picked her up after the exposé. She hasn't let it stop her though—her reporting has only gotten better since. Probably due, in no small part, to the fact that she hasn't been trapped in the vicious cycle of appealing to a fickle television audience.

“Mind if I join you?”

Nigel stares straight at her, his gaze hard and empty of any emotion—as if she wasn't there. The woman doesn't flinch, and when the moment of silence stretches too long, Phoebe's leg bumps mine under the table.

“Sure,” I say, nodding at the empty spot across from me.

She looks at Nigel for a second, and then slaps her tray down. The gravy pooling around her mashed potatoes is more gray than brown, and the carrots are a sickly orange color. For all the lip service to ecological principles, Prime Earth doesn't feed its volunteers well. Too many things come out of cans—corporate cans. “It's pretty bad, isn't it?” she says as she sits down. “The food.” Picking up her silverware, she points at our mugs with her fork. “I should probably stick to the tea like you guys.”

“Probably,” I say. Phoebe wraps her fingers—long and delicate—around her mug. Right over left, trigger finger slightly curled and tapping against the middle knuckle of the opposite number on her left hand. It's an old tic of hers.

The woman ignores Phoebe's icy stare and digs in to her meal. We watch her eat, and she lets us watch her—this is the game we play. Patience. Indifference. Slow death by boredom. She plays the game well, but I can read a shiver of excitement in the way she eats too quickly. She gulps air between bites, as if she were drowning, and she fidgets, her right foot tapping against the deck.

“So,” she says, once the island of mashed potatoes is decimated, sunk beneath the gray-brown sea of swill. “You came aboard at Adelaide, didn't you?”

The Cetacean Liberty had left Adelaide three days ago—the last port for supplies and volunteers.

“Did we?” I volunteer.

“The captain isn't very good at keeping track of volunteers, but by my count, we're at least four over this boat's listed occupancy.”

“I'm sure the captain is keeping a close eye on the number of people onboard.”

She snorts. Nigel shifts in his chair, not finding her reaction the least bit amusing.

“You seem to be very conversant with the ship's crew roster,” I point out. “What's your role on this vessel?”

The game becomes more entertaining now, with a bit of daring mixed in. She meets my gaze and returns my smile. We both know more than we should, and the mystery of the game is how much to reveal? How much can you get the other to tell you without letting them know how little you truly know?

“Last time,” she says, toying with her fork, “someone took a shot at Captain Morse. The bullet hole is still in the railing; he likes to show it off.”

“I've seen it.”

“Is that why you're here?”

“To see the bullet hole?”

“No,” she shakes her head. “To shoot back.”

“What would we be shooting at?” I ask innocently.

She puts her fork down and leans forward. There's a gleam in her eye, and the twisted skin in the hollow of her throat flutters with her pulse. “Are you—”