The atmosphere, not great to begin with, sinks even further. We all spend far too long arranging our cards. Travis turns over the top of the remaining cards in the center of the table between us as I think a command to my APA: "Ada, show me the rules of beggar-my-neighbor."
A few lines of text appear overlaid across my vision. Travis was right, thankfully—the game is really simple. "Oh, wait a minute. We're not supposed to look at our hands," I say, and the other two groan.
One read-through and I blink the rules away. My APA interprets the movement and the words zip up into the top right, forming an icon I can select if I want to refresh my memory during the game.
"Well, this can be a practice round," Travis says, back to using that disarming smile. It doesn't work on me though.
"And the first card turned over and put in the middle is from your own hand," I add. "We're just supposed to have our cards facedown in a pile in front of us."
Carl collapses his fan of cards and dumps the pile down in front of him. "This game had better be worth it."
"You're just hangry," Travis says. "Why don't you eat something and then you'll enjoy it far more."
I sink a little in my seat, waiting for Carl to blow up at him, but the poor bastard hasn't got the energy for that. "No, it's fine."
Travis puts his cards down too, looking at him. "It really isn't, Carl.
Look at you. You're wasting away." He looks to me for support, but I keep my eyes on the cards.
"All right," Carl snaps, holding his hands up. "What do you want me to do? Admit that I've been struggling to adjust to life on board? I can't be the only one!"
"Why don't you talk to us about it? We want to help. Right, Dee?"
I want to punch Travis so hard right now. This is not my style, nor is it Carl's. This is the sort of "friendship gets us through everything" bullshit sold by twats marketing nostalgic mersives that hark back to a time when people socialized outside of work. But if I say nothing, I'll look like a bloody drone. I look at Carl, meeting his eyes, hoping I am conveying a silent apology well enough.
"We won't judge you," Travis carries on. "Why don't you tell us about what you're struggling to adjust to?"
Is he fucking joking? Does he want Carl to mention the thing we haven't talked about for months but have thought about constantly?
Carl slides down in his chair. "Just...I mean, c'mon, living in a giant...metal...skyscraper ship thing flying through space...It's...unnatural." So he still can't talk about it either.
It's getting harder for Travis to hide his frustration. "But what about the food thing, Carl?"
There's the twitch, the one by Carl's left eye, right on cue. "I...I don't like printed food."
"You don't like the taste?"
He presses his lips together and shakes his head. "It isn't that," he finally says. He rests a hand on his stomach, drawing in long, slow breaths through flared nostrils.
"Give it a rest, Travis," I say sharply.
"We can't just keep ignoring this! Look at him!"
"It makes me throw up," Carl says quietly. "You know that."
"Yes, but why do you think that is? The printer that serves your row has been feeding dozens of people for the past six months and none of them have been ill."
Carl scowls at him. "Why? It's fucking obvious, isn't it? It's me!"
"Why are you angry?"
"Because you're being such a twat!" I snap at him. "He doesn't want to talk about it, Travis. That's up to him."
"If you don't want to talk to us, then talk to a counselor," Travis says, refusing to get the idea, like so many men.
Both Carl and I bark out a bitter laugh, and we both know exactly why we did. "Yeah," Carl says after glancing at me. "They make it all better."
"I mean a proper counselor. A trained professional whose job it is to make sure people on this ship don't fall apart—for their own good, not for those money-grabbing bastards who wanted to make as much money out of you as they could."