Character Short: Xander


How do you ask a NUSovian what’s for lunch? I don’t know. But the answer would probably be, “The same thing we’re having for dinner.” Because in my very limited experience, NUSovians only eat one thing.

Rehydrated borscht.

Yup. It tastes about as good as it sounds.

My plastic bowl steams on the steel table top, flavorless in spite of its overpowering aroma of resurrected beets and bad onions. Purplish-red and chunky, it’s something out of a nightmare, but I’m starving—just like everyone else on the crew of the Anastasia. So I’ll eat it now. And I’ll eat it again tonight because there’s nothing else.

The crewmen whisper at the tables across from me, behind me, beside me, but none of them sit with me. They’ve learned that lesson finally. At least during the day it’s only their eyes. I can deal with them staring and gawking. I can handle the whispered comments. I can even handle the catcalls. I don’t speak NUSovianese, so I just pretend they’re telling me to have a good day.

It’s the others that scare me.

I woke up with two of them in my bed last night. Again. My screams woke Dr. Zahn across the hall, and she chased them out with a laser scalpel from the medical bay. But if this keeps happening, I’m going to have to start sleeping with her.

Dr. Zahn crosses the lunch room, her heavy boots stomping out a consistent, efficient rhythm, as cold and unrelenting as her own pulse. She takes her normal seat beside me, setting her tray down with a decisive thwack.

The men around us who had been whispering jump in their seats and hunch over their bowls of borscht, pretending like we didn’t exist. Dr. Zahn had that effect on people.

Fierce and cold, Dr. Zahn could suck all the air out of a room with a single icy glare, the angles of her face sharp and her pale eyes bitter blue like a winter sky. I can only imagine how thrilled the all-male crew of the Anastasia was when the beautiful NUGerman physician transferred on board. But Dr. Zahn had never been a pushover, and I’m sure it didn’t take long before the rest of the crew knew not to mess with her.

Primly, Dr. Zahn lifts a spoonful of borscht to her lips to blow on it.

I’d really prefer that we find another solution to me sleeping in her room. It’s not that I don’t trust her. Actually, sleeping in her room might be the best protection I could get, since all the men are afraid of her. And they all know her—preferences.

But that’s the problem. I know her preferences too.

“Your borscht is getting cold, Xander.” She doesn’t look at me when she speaks.

I nudge a few of the bigger lumps around in the purple broth. “I think I remembered something.”

Dr. Zahn turns to me, white-blond eyebrows arched into her hairline. Her cold blue eyes widen with interest.

I can’t stop a smile. “I remembered I don’t like borscht.”

Dr. Zahn shakes her head, muttering something in NUGerman that I don’t understand. It’s probably better that way.

It’s only a partial untruth. I don’t like borscht. And I’m almost positive I didn’t like it before either.

“Have you remembered anything then?” Dr. Zahn’s voice is soft.

I wish I could tell her I had. “No.”

She nods and eats another spoonful of soup.

Xander isn’t my name. I don’t know my name. Dr. Zahn started calling me Xander because it was embroidered on the jacket I was found wearing, but I don’t know where I got the jacket. Just like I don’t know where I came from. Or what I was doing with seven dead bodies in a derelict ship floating deep in space.

I don’t belong here. Not just on the Anastasia. Just here in general. Dr. Zahn has to teach me something new every day, things I should know but don’t.

Like there are no toothbrushes. Just translucent strips like wax that melt on your tongue and scrub your teeth clean. There are no microwaves. Only rehydrators. No tea kettles. Only flash-heated water spigots. And the moment I ask for a toothbrush or a microwave or a tea kettle, Dr. Zahn looks at me like I’m from another world.

For all I know, I might be.

Dr. Zahn picks up her stale piece of hard bread and hands it to me. As an officer, she gets a bread ration, unlike the rest of the crew. Me? I’m lucky to get my twice-daily bowl of reconstituted beet chunks.

“That’s yours,” I say.

“And I give it to you.” She shoves it at me. “Eat the bread. You are too skinny.”

I nod and take it from her. “Thanks.”

As I gnaw on the stale slice of bread, Dr. Zahn draws her long, slender fingers through my frizzy red mass of hair. I let her because it’s good for the men to see us being romantic, and this is as romantic as I’ll allow her to get.

She knows my preferences too, which is ironic, since I don’t remember anything else.

“I will talk to captain again,” she murmurs. “If we can find a job for you here, you can stay longer.”

I try to swallow the bread, but it’s stuck. Dr. Zahn and I have been trying to think of anything I can do onboard the Anastasia that will be of use. Otherwise, who knows what the captain will do with me?

Not that I blame him. He hadn’t expected another passenger, and NUSovian ships have limited resources to begin with. There’s only so much Dr. Zahn can do if the captain decides to abandon me somewhere.

“Whatever happens,” Dr. Zahn turns back to her borscht, “you should go to NUSaxony.”

“Where your friend is?” I set my spoon down. “Dr. Berkley?”

“Evylin Berkley,” Dr. Zahn whispers, her harsh expression softening. “Yes. A neuro-therapist. She can help you, I am sure.” She pats my knee under the table. “Your memories are still in your mind, Xander. You just have to learn how to reach them again.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Dr. Zahn nods fiercely. “I am right. Eat your borscht.”

I pick up my spoon again to finish off the last of my lukewarm soup. No matter what happens, no matter where I end up, Dr. Zahn is right. I have to find Dr. Berkley. She’s the only one with the knowledge and the expertise to help me navigate my fractured memories and regain what I’ve lost.

The bone-jarring chimes that signal the end of the lunch shift rattle the bulkheads on the walls, vibrations turning the steel tables into tuning forks. I slurp the last of my soup, and Dr. Zahn and I rush out of the lunch room toward the medical bay, making room for the next shift of workers behind us.

I have to take two steps to keep up with each one of Dr. Zahn’s longer-legged strides as we march down the rusted corridor. As we walk, Dr. Zahn keeps her hand on my shoulder, holding me close to her side.

Someday I want to be able to repay her for looking out for me like this.

As we reach the medical bay and fall into our normal routine of filing papers and treating scrapes and bruises, and we don’t speak anymore.

Once I remember who I am, I’ll be able to find my home. I’ll be able to find my family. I’ll know the face I see in the mirror. The jumbled, nonsensical memories in my mind will fall into place, and life will make sense again.

That’s what I keep telling myself. That’s what I’m holding on to. That’s what I want more than anything else. But something in the darkest corner of my heart keeps whispering that I might not like what I remember.

But that’s just fear talking. If there’s anything to be afraid of, it’s not what I’ll remember. It’s what my memories will cost me.