Chapter 2: The Map says 'Go Here'
Timeline: After the Zepper
Mid-afternoon came and went and the sun fell below the ship, the clouds looking more and more gray and then dark blue as stars filled the sky. Supper had been set and eaten quickly; luckily the stores were looking well-kept and free of decay or rotten food. It was only a few days into the journey but he had seen food spoil that quickly out to sky or sea. Eating musty rotted bread or meat was something he did not want to do again soon or at all.
Nicholai breathed the salty air on the main deck, leaning against the polished railing. He had half a mind to go finding the passenger, the alchemist. He hadn't spoken to the man but he had heard the crew speak of him at meals while Nicholai kept to himself. An alchemist... and apparently just as unsociable and booksmart. Nick had never thought to speak to a scientist or a doctor about his condition. As he understood it, there were few who treated the Tainted like true human beings. Then again most Tainted were wildly unstable and violent.
He pulled away from the railing and crossed the deck with his eyes down from any wayward glances. That man, Julian, might have let slip their unsavory encounter in the galley the other night. The passenger's cabin came up before him and Nicholai hesitated before knocking on the rough wood. He pressed his knuckles to the door a few times in quick succession and stepped back a touch. There was light inside the cabin, he could see through a small frosted window.
Theory, buried deep in his book, almost didn't hear the knock at first. He was trying to find that formula for the smoke bombs. He was sure it was in one or the other of the books he'd brought, but it was difficult to tell which one. And he was a bit spoiled for choice: books composed the bulk of his luggage, and he had several that could have been likely places for such a formula. Trouble was, when trying to skim, he kept getting caught up and slowed down to read whatever passage his attention had been captured by.
The knock finally filtered through the academic haze from his ears to his brain. Probably the captain come to check on his progress. He stood up, glancing guiltily at his book, and opened the door. "I haven't quite found the right - " he began, and blinked. It was a very thin young man with dark hair and beard. The cook, he remembered, and a skilled one he was too. That curry from the other day had been a work of art.
"Ah, sorry, hello," said Theory, somewhat confused. "I fear I let my mouth get ahead of my eyes. Sorry about that. It's Mr. Doran, yes?"
Nicholai hadn't been called Mr. Doran in a long time. Usually it was 'hey you' or, more recently, 'Cook'.
"Yes, sir," he said in a mumble. He scratched his hair awkwardly and asked, "Can I speak with you... privately?"
"Oh, naturally," said Theory, waving Nicolai inside and smiling brightly. "Do come in, won't you?"
It was as though he had been living there for a year at the least. Books were everywhere, papers littered the floors and a desk. An enthusiastic reader, Nick was guessing. It was like a small library, 'cept for there was a bed at one side and a wardrobe. Nick quite liked the lived-in quality. Cozy, and better than the smelly scratchy bunk he was forced to sleep in every night. If he did sleep, of course; lately he'd been awake at night with the shivers and in the morning he had to shake it off, disregard his aching head.
Theory stepped around Nicholai and fumbled with some of the mess, laughing to himself jovially, "I didn't think I'd have company. Pardon the mess."
Nicholai shrugged and shook his head, "I don't mind, really."
"Thank goodness." Theory swept some books off of a small chair, stacked them on the already-crowded desk, and gestured at the chair. "Feel free to sit down, by the way." He plucked a book off the bed where he was about to sit, and squinted briefly at it. Not one he'd been through yet. He was pretty sure that this was the one with the formula he needed in it. Refraining with difficulty from opening it right then and there, he set it on his pillow, and said, "What may I help you with?"
Nicholai didn't sit down immediately. He wasn't quite sure why.
He cleared his throat, "I'd heard that you were doin' research about dextrocite. I was just curious..."
He stopped and shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable with his decision to come talk to this stranger.
"Ah, yes." Theory nodded. "My life's work, in fact. I've been hoping to come up with a cure for...er..."
He stopped, aware that this stranger had the look of someone affected by dextrocite in some way. In his research Theory had encountered plenty similar people. Whether they or their loved ones were Tainted, the reaction to that name tended to be unpredictable. He supposed it could be quite insulting. This detail hadn't been picked up until he'd been punched in the nose for saying brightly to a young woman, "So, you're Tainted, then?"
"For, uh, dextrocite poisoning, I mean," he finished lamely. "If we could only fix it! What wonders we could do with the substance if the side effects were eliminated."
Nicholai sat. "Can you fix it?" He asked. "Or... is there a way to reverse it? Is there..." he groped for a word, looking at the floor, "is there evidence that it can be fixed?"
He'd never asked anyone before. Nick had only ever sulked in the condition, expecting to be stuck with it forever, until the day he died.
Theory bit his lip, a little sorry he'd acted so optimistic. "There's nothing solid," he said. "That's to say, there's no cure yet. But I firmly believe it's possible. Alchemically speaking, everything has its opposite. I think there must be a substance which counteracts dextrocite, or perhaps a reaction that reverses the, uh, corrosion. I've had some good results with removing corrosion on nonliving substances, metal and so forth, but the trouble is that it's much more complicated with humans." He waved his hands enthusiastically, prepared to begin another long rant on the subject. "But yes, I believe we will cure it within my lifetime, and probably yours, too," said Theory, nodding. "It's getting the academic support, that's the trouble. Most people think it's a futile hope because they think the corrosion seeps into the soul and-" Theory stopped, suddenly aware of what he'd just heard himself say. "Oh, dear. I'm terribly sorry. I don't support such conjectures! It's merely superstition. There's no scientific evidence...." He trailed off, aware of having put his foot in his mouth again.
Nicholai shrugged, and he even smiled a little, "I don't blame 'em for it. My asking is purely selfish."
He smiled again, bitterly, and leaned back in the chair. "Have you experimented on people before?" Tainted were hard to get a hold of, especially those who were most affected. As far as he knew, they stayed to themselves and could be very violent when exposed to 'normal people'.
"No, I'm not sure it would be safe at this stage. And I haven't had the opportunity." Theory shook his head. "I'm sorry there's nothing concrete to give you. I fear I haven't been very helpful." He stared briefly at the ceiling. "Would you like a drink? I'm sure I could make up tea, chocolate, or cocoa in here. I have a small heating unit, you see, for experiments."
Nicholai shook his head and stood, "No, thank you, I've already taken up too much'a your time."
He went towards the door and then turned and asked, "D'you think I could borrow a book?" There were books everywhere and of all shapes and sizes. It was rather ridiculous, in fact. "Gets idle 'twix meals and sleep."
"Oh, absolutely," said Theory, waving a hand. "Take anything, except possibly that book on the pillow. It's got a some information I need. But any of the others, feel free. The little bookshelf in the corner has the fiction on it, everything else is nonfiction."
Nick chose a thin fraying book from the shelf, hardly flipping through it. Better than nothing, even if it was full of science. Like he said, Nicholai had too much idle time on his hands. He thanked the passenger and took his leave.