90. Strange Reflections
~The wash and sigh of surf on shore.
The high, keening cry of something that is not quite a seagull.
Drapery flutters and snaps in a steady breeze.
The soothing sound of blues sung to guitar and piano.
Ice settles in a glass.~
... the brochures were right. This place really is a bloody paradise. Durin' the day the ocean is this color that... hell, it's not really just one color. It's like somebody took every shade of blue and green that ever was and let 'em all go to a social mixer together. It looks like nothin' I've ever seen before. Hayla keeps tellin' me it's called 'turquoise' but I've seen turquoise and this ain't that. The water is so bleedin' clean and clear that it looks like the entire ocean, from horizon to horizon, is just this giant, glitterin' jewel that keeps changin'... not its shape but, I guess, it's texture; rollin' and ripplin' and shinin' under the cleanest, bluest sky you've ever seen... or, at least, that I've
It's a little weird, though. I don't know if it's just that this planet is a little bigger'n Argon Prime or a consequence of how much time I've spent on a starship recently but I keep gettin' dizzy whenever I look at the horizon. It's not bad, just a little vertigo every time I look out at that spot where the water meets the sky. Like I said, it's not bad. Hell, I've spent most of the past week lyin' down anyway.
I've found myself just sittin' here and starin' up into this sky until somebody comes by and demands my attention for somethin' or other. It's quiet here. I mean it's frakkin' loud. I never realized how loud the ocean could be. But it's kind of this soft
loud. You know? Hell, everythin' is soft. The sand is soft. The air is soft. The grass is soft. The furniture is soft. The clothes are soft. And even though it's so loud you can't hear yourself think the sound of the surf is soft... and so damn soothin' that I just keep fallin' asleep with that azure-blue sky in my eyes. It's a peaceful, dreamy sleep too. It's like I'm travellin' to the sound of the waves. Of course the sun
isn't soft. The sun is bleedin' nasty, in fact. I mean it feels good; warm and pleasant and makes me wanna just fall asleep. But with my complexion it's really goddamn easy to get burned. So I've had to make a point of usin' the sunscreen and stayin' in the shade. But yeah, this really is a place where you can forget all your troubles... you know, if they'd frakkin' let you, anyway.
~A dog barks in the distance. Even at range the monster sounds like a cannon being fired. Immediately afterward a pair of human voices, one male the other female, begin shouting in alarm and indignation.~
Yeah. Heh heh heh. Right. I brought Max with me and he's been findin' all sorts of ways to entertain himself. Apparently kickin' sand on people is just great fun. He comes barrelin' down the beach at full throttle and then skids to halt, sprayin' sand all over anybody he thinks is an easy target. Then, while they're all sputterin' and spittin', still tryin' ta figure out what the hell just happened, he'll bark at 'em like he's askin', "are we havin' fun yet?" before pullin' a one-eighty and tearin' back off the way he came... usually while kickin' even more sand on his victims. Son of a bitch has even taken to waitin' for just the right moment. I've seen him crouched down in the weeds watchin' a pair of sunbathers, waitin' for 'em to finish latherin' on the suntan oil and lay down to close their eyes. Yeah. It apparently makes us two legged critters do all sorts of entertainin' things. You know, like chase him around screamin' death threats.
Yeah. Seldon has already promised to shoot him the next time he does it. If I'm not mistaken she's made that threat at least five times now. Dal, on the other hand, just laughs. In fact I'm pretty sure he's decided not to hate me based solely on the fact that he likes my dog. Hayla, meanwhile, has promised to make a rug out of the mutt the next time he messes with her and I'm pretty sure she
wasn't kiddin'. Apparently the dog thought so too cos he hasn't messed with her since and, whenever she's around, he goes out of his way to play nice; ears down and lickin' her fingers, that kind of thing.
Hayla. She keeps lookin' at me. You know? When she thinks I won't notice? And the look in her eyes keeps remindin' me of just how sad and empty I feel not knowin' where Gin is.
It was not the smartest way to land on a planet. A sane pilot in sane circumstances would minimize the stress on both plane and passengers by adopting a shallow entry angle, allowing the atmosphere to gradually slow the craft via a long, slow conversion of velocity to heat as the ship glided toward the planet's horizon. Montalaar, however, was an occupied world belonging to the Argon Federation and, considering both her intentions and the fact that Montalaar possessed both stationary and mobile planetary defenses AND the fact that she and Legion were flying a Terran-made scout ship, they'd decided that it would not be prudent to attract any attention. So, in the interest of appearing to any watchful sensor or technician as just another piece of random space debris, they'd approached the planet from behind one of her moons. They cut nearly all power while still well over three hundred thousand kilometers from the upper surface of the planet's atmosphere. Then they let the ship simply fall
, albeit on a carefully chosen path that would put them directly over an uninhabited mountain range less than an hour's travel from their destination, namely a satellite installation of the Dragonsfyre Institute. After roughly thirty hours of gravity assisted acceleration, including a slingshot around the planet's larger moon, they hit Montalaar's upper atmosphere at roughly eleven thousand meters per second on a very
steep trajectory. She suspected that sprinting face first into a concrete wall would have actually been a gentler experience.
The sudden change in vector and velocity subjected the tiny ship and her occupants to such extreme G-forces that both she and Captain Adam Davidson had to be strapped in and seated facing the rear of the ship so that the restraints didn't harm them despite the ship's inertial dampeners being powered up as much as possible. As they hit the burn Anderson began screaming almost immediately only to stop several seconds later. A glance to the side informed Gin that at the very least he'd lost consciousness.
Of course the blood spilling from his nose tickled the darker side of her humour. 'We're gathered here today,
she thought as she turned back to the rear of the ship, to celebrate the passing of a murderer, rapist, and hypocrite...'
The thought was bitter, cold and acid within her mind; a stark contrast to the blazing heat on the other side of the tiny vessel's hull. She closed her eyes and clenched her teeth as the Rapier shook and rattled and heated up around her. The ship was just then bucking so hard that, if not for her mouthguard she'd likely be chattering her own teeth to splinters. She didn't really expect him to die. Anderson was an officer in the USC, an astronaut in excellent health who had been trained and conditioned for years to endure all manner of situations. But as the ship bucked and rattled around her she was distinctly aware that a single mechanical failure or miscalculation could make these her last moments. Which, oddly enough, made thinking of Anderson's death amusing. Which, in turn, made her hate herself.
She thought of Drake then. It came out of nowhere. It was the thought of his smile and the look in his eyes when he'd just woken up. It was the way his arms felt around her and the pure male insistence of his affection; that yearning, driving push
to get ever closer, ever deeper, ever hotter until he finally exploded and all that power was released...
...into a synthetic body; a machine completely incapable of returning the simple, primal lust of human coupling.
A sudden terrible ache ripped through her. She'd never told him. It would wound him terribly if he ever found out. But she always had to fake it. It wasn't his fault. She simply couldn't feel the heat and drive that other women did. Which meant there was a distance between them that could never be crossed, a coolness that never warmed, an ache that could never be soothed, an emptiness that could never be filled. In her private thoughts she thought of it as 'making love by remote'
, as if her body was a puppet connected to her mind by strings. And yet, with the prospect of fiery annihilation roaring just several meters away, she thought she'd give just about anything to feel his arms around her again.
Rafi looked up just in time to miss the ball. Ali was a good throw too so the hard little ball smacked him in the eye hard enough to knock him down. A moment later he was lying in the dust staring up into the blue sky. It was spring in the Gaeda pass. The air was crisp. The sun was warm. And the air smelled of new life. The high peaks on either side of the valley were slabs of reaching stone, still draped in snow and ice. The winds from the north blew clouds of that snow from the ridges, creating clouds of snow. And far beyond them was the strange sight that had distracted Rafi from his friend just as Ali threw the knakka ball.
"Rafi!" Ali skidded up beside him and Rafi felt the other boys hands on his chest. "Rafi! Are you okay?! I'm sorry! I didn't mean..!"
Rafi pointed. "Ali! Look!"
Ali looked. A ball of fire was streaking down from the heavens, growing larger and larger in the sky. Both boys stared in silence. Rafi grabbed his friend's shoulder and used it to pull himself up. Then they simply stared, side by side in gaping silence, as the fireball grew larger and larger until it punched through the swirling clouds above them. Rafi thought it was a meteorite and that it was going to crash down into the lake at the bottom of the hill.
Then there was a really loud BANG!
It was so loud that it felt as if the world had just punched him. It seemed to echo off the very sky. The mirror-smooth surface of the water erupted in a tremendous splash. It wasn't the roughly ring-shaped eruption of something hitting the water and sinking, however. Instead it tore across the entire length of the three kilometer mountain lake like a wound. To Rafi it sounded as if the sky itself was screaming. Then, an instant later, the fireball vanished beyond the trees at the far end of the lake. It all happened so fast that the twin walls of rushing water were still crashing back to the water's surface as silence descended upon the valley again. On the far side of the lake there was a hole in the tree line. Around that hole a number of trees were on fire. That strange roar lingered in the air, sounding as if it were echoing off both the mountains and the sky.
Rafi turned to look at Ali. Ali looked at Rafi. For a moment the two boys stared at each other with identical expressions. Their eyes were wide. Their mouths were gaping. An instant later they leapt to their feet and took off sprinting back toward town, leaving the knakka ball forgotten in the weeds as they screamed for their parents with all the strength in their lungs.
Gin grimaced as she looked up from the shield indicator. It was an angry, blinking red as it informed her that, just then, their shield capacitors had barely 8% charge. The rapier had literally skimmed the surface of the lake, riding the shield across the water like a surfer on a board, before climbing just high enough to smash through the tops of the tall pines at the lake's edge.
"Okay, Legion!" she shouted, feeling oddly breathless. "That was a little too
The landscape was screaming by at over fifteen hundred kilometers per hour as the plane skimmed the treetops. Legion was flying, of course. Even with her synthetic reflexes Gin would have been incapable of navigating the turns and elevation changes that Legion was making. In less time than it would have taken her to blink a small hunting cabin appeared on a distant ridge and then vanished behind her right shoulder leaving Gin to pick the old man gaping at them out of her memory. An instant later they were flying through a rocky canyon, then over a jagged ridge, then surfing over an ocean of trees as they descended into a fertile green valley. All the while Legion kept them just meters above the trees as hills and ridges and mountains hurtled by on either side of the tiny ship.
Gin blinked and shook her head. She wouldn't have believed it possible but the relative speed was actually making her just a little bit dizzy. When she opened her eyes she turned to look at the man still seated in the copilot's chair. Anderson was very pale with bright red streaks of blood flowing toward his hairline from his eyes, nose, and mouth. He wasn't breathing and a quick adjustment of her optic receptors let her know that his heart had stopped beating. She sighed and looked back out at the landscape speeding by. She hadn't liked him. He was a scumbag who'd tried to not only murder her but also the only friends she had in the entire Universe. When she'd looked into his past she'd found an abusive, dominating asshole who took what he wanted regardless of who it hurt. Yet being responsible for his death left the same old emptiness in her heart.
"ETA five mizura," Legion informed her.
she thought and looked back to the landscape screaming by around them. 'No rest for the wicked.'
So... yeah. We're on vacation. And by 'we' I mean, well, everybody except me and Ea't. Riiight. So I've actually decided to purchase property here. It looks like it's gonna cost roughly a hundred million credits and that's without the cost of all the legal bull-shit that I have to contend with. Fortunately I have a very good and at least reasonably
corrupt lawyer. That fellow Seldon found back on Argon Prime is chargin' me a small fortune but he does seem to be both good at his job and understand that I bloody well expect to get what I pay for. He's on top of that clusterfrak back on Argon Prime from when Ricky and Sal escaped and it looks like he'll be able to keep my cost under fifty million credits which, all said and done, really is a pittance considerin' the possible ramifications of an armed deployment on Argon Prime. Now he's dealin' with all the madness that was and apparently is
involved in, well, yours truly, a man unfairly
accused of piracy and a known associate of a certain Split that the Boron consider a war criminal, purchasin' property on a planet in the Boron Queendom.
Heh heh heh.
But yeah, we should soon have a permanent vacation home on a world called Paradise... and it is gorgeous. In addition to the resort buildings... yeah, this place used to be a resort. But, in addition to the main compound I'm also purchasin' the island it's on and the two islands nearby, nearly a hundred thousand square kilometers of 'Paradise'... although I don't get the rights to any of the ocean and the Boron government will be pretty much up my ass involvin' anythin' that could affect the water. But either way I'll have beaches, jungle, lagoons... hell I'll even have my own volcano. Which means we'll soon have a company owned resort that will be made available to any of my people who want to take advantage of it when they're on leave. It'll include seriously discounted food, accomodations, etc. They won't even pay wholesale. It'll just be a part of the company wide 'benefits package' that every one of my employees gets. That way all my people will have a place to come and relax without needin' to worry about travel costs and the like... or terran assholes tryin' to kill 'em.
Ugh. Yeah. I've had Legion workin' with my marines lookin' at the security situation on Nova Somnia. We've had to fire a lot of people and imprison or execute a few more. The entire station had been thoroughly infiltrated by both the Wakiya and Huritas. I mean they also turned up dozens of other racketeerin' rings, smugglin' operations, thefts and a couple cases of extortion. I'd pretend to be indignant and upset but that'd be a bit hypocritical, wouldn't it? Not to mention we are
in Yaki space. But, yeah, it's bein' handled. Both security and surveillance is bein' increased on all'a my stations and the no-fly zone around the Alpha Complex is bein' enforced with-ah, what do they call it? Extreme
prejudice? Which basically means that you better have a damn good reason for flyin' near that complex, and be willin' to cough it up real fast, or my pilots will slag your ass. It's caused a couple hiccups in my ongoin' peace efforts with the other clans but frak 'em. They want to send their pilots to recon my complex and then get indignant when I defend my interests?
Oh, that reminds me. Both Tasha and Kao t'Kt want to set up a planetside camp for trainin' marines. Not sure how well that'd go over with the Boron so I'm prolly gonna have to look into findin' property on a planet somewhere for 'em to set up shop but it's a good idea. So over the next few months I should be able to start puttin' together... hell, I guess you'd call it an army. Well not in front of the marines. They seem to take that shit personally.
But yeah. On the whole the people in my life seem to be... err... well, less stressed anyway. Seldon has stopped scarin' the shit out of me every time she looks my way. I swear she's been remindin' me more n' more of Rana. It's that dead level stare that looks right through you, ya'know? Hell, now that I think about it, it's even more
scary when Seldon does it. Rana just looked blank
, you know? I mean you got the impression that she was thinkin' about skinnin' you alive but... well, it seemed like a distant
threat, you know? But Seldon? Seldon grins
and, I dunno why but, seein' that auger-like glare combined with that mile wide grin of hers is just... well it's frakkin' scary.
Right. Well over the last few days I've heard her laughin' and seen her holdin' hands with my grizzled old crew chief. Yeah. Beats me. I mean Seldon is... well, callin' her a looker
wouldn't exactly be... err... inaccurate? Cornell, on the other hand, is-uhm. Not. I mean I'm not exactly the best judge of male... err... beauty? Aesthetics? Frak if I know. But he looks a bit like somebody smacked him in the face with a fryin' pan. I mean he's got this big, flat, square face with a jaw like a steam shovel and these wild, thick eyebrows over a pair a black eyes that look like... well, lookin' him in the eye I always feel a bit like he's starin' at my death. On the upside he's been relaxed these last few days too. Yesterday he even smiled at me. Or maybe he was just smilin' when his eyes happened to fall on me. But he didn't stop
smilin' when he saw me and, well, I'm gonna mark that down as progress and choose to feel good about it.
Small arms fire ripped through the bulkhead a hand's breadth above her head. Shrapnel peppered the top and side of her helmet. She ducked and lunged behind cover. Shoulder to bulkhead, panting inside her helmet; the stock of her rifle hit her shoulder. Staying low she leaned around cover to mark the shadows in the fog. The scope found her eye. The red dot found the silhouette of the closest shadow. Her right index finger squeezed the trigger.
Muzzle flashes lit up the dark. The silhouette fell and its mates froze. More muzzle flashes lit up the fog as they reacted. The rifle trembled in her hands. The bulkhead was torn to shreds around her. The second silhouette staggered and fell into the fog. The third lunged for cover. Her crosshair found and tracked him. More flashes lit up the dark and twenty meters away the silhouette staggered, spun and disappeared in the fog.
While staying low she emerged from cover and advanced on the enemy. One eye stayed behind the scope. The other was open and alert for movement in the fog. Her aim was level, steady, and true. Her armor traced a pair of silhouettes before they emerged from the fog. Muzzle flashes erupted at both end of the corridor. One of the silhouettes fell. Then the other. Her feet moved beneath her and she glided forward.
Then she reached the first of her downed enemies. An icy bolt of shock tore through her even before her mind accepted what her eyes were saying. She shuddered as she stared down at the man at her feet. It was Eddie Rodriguez. His eyes were open. Blood was pooling on his faceplate below his mouth. He was staring at her boots.
"Nuh!" she gasped.
Her eyes found the man behind him. It was Jim Everan. She could barely see his face through the blood on his face shield.
"No!" she gasped. "No-no-no!"
Another muzzle flash in the dark. More shadows in the fog. She dropped into a crouch as the rifle stock found her shoulder.
"No-no! Please no!"
The scope found her eye. The red dot found her targets. Muzzle flashes in the dark. They were just silhouettes but she knew who they were. She saw their faces in light of the muzzle flashes. Avin Pierce collapsed as her rifle cut him down.
A degree to the right and Jak Randall fell behind Pierce.
Her feet were moving forward. Her aim was steady and true. The corridor glided past her as she advanced. Another shadow. She took aim and fired, dropping Dav Gilharno. Another moving shadow. Another burst of rifle fire and Rik Salek dropped to the deck.
She was screaming as her feet carried her forward. More and more of her people appeared in the fog and she watched, a passenger in her own mind, as her own rifle cut them down one by one until she turned the last corner. The computer core was just ahead, with only one more shadow between her and it. She took aim and squeezed the trigger. In the muzzle flash she saw Aaron Slamer staring back at her. His normally affable face was white with shock and pain. Inside her own mind she wailed with grief.
"Hey, bitch!" The voice came from behind her.
She turned and saw the muzzle flash.
She felt a series of taps as if someone were jabbing her breastbone with a strong, hard finger. The world tumbled away as she fell backwards. The deck plates punched in her in the back.
She couldn't move.
She couldn't breathe.
A shadow appeared above her.
The woman staring down at her wore the same face she saw in the mirror every day. "Frackin' A, bitch," the woman curled a contemptuous lip at her. "Just die already." The rifle in the woman's hands was pointed at her face. There was another muzzle flash.
"Nuh-hah!" She gasped. It was a weak and pitiful denial.
Her breath was ragged and harsh in her throat. She was trembling. Her eyes were open but nothing she saw made any sense. Her heart felt like it was trying to escape from her chest. Her left hand reached for the wound between her breasts while her right touched her face. Both came away dry. There was no blood.
Then she heard a strange sound. It was a deep, mournful keening that she immediately associated with whales. She blinked and lifted her eyes but couldn't understand what they were telling her. Stars glittered in an indigo field above and a vast blue plane stretched out beneath it. It rippled with silvery, cyan-blue undulations. She heard that keening again and blinked. A soft breeze caressed the side of her face. It felt like cool velvet.
Her breath was still sandpaper in her throat and she realized that she was not quite cold. Her skin felt gritty, sticky, and cool. She blinked and tried to digest her surroundings. There was a collection of strange but pleasant smells. Fresh green vegetation mixed with salt air and just the hint of a fishy scent. Then she realized that she was listening to a huge, booming wash that sighed from all the way left of her to all the way right. She gasped deeply and sighed.
It was the surf.
She was on a beach.
The stars were above her because she was planetside. The blue planes were the deep indigo sky and shining ocean. She was on a Boron world with a name that meant Paradise.
She was on vacation.
Which meant that she was safe.
Her people were safe.
No one was trying to kill her or anyone she cared about.
With that understanding something ripped through her. It was as deep and violent as heartbreak. A wracking sob shook her so violently that she could have been having a seizure. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders and rocked with the latest in a series of recent emotional storms.
"Oh frak me!" she cursed and sniffed.
She knew what it was. She'd read the psychological pamphlets the corpsmen had passed out back in the Argon navy. Her mind was processing trauma. The dreams were her subconscious sorting out the things her waking mind could not. She understood it. She understood that she needed to just ride it out and not fight or resist it.
"Right," she sniffed and spat into the sand. "Cos gettin' shot at in real life isn't bad enough." Now I've just got to let it happen while I'm dreamin' too.
Another wave of grief and anger ripped through the middle of her. It burned in her eyes and spilled out onto her cheeks.
"Uugh!" she groaned and flopped back onto the towel beneath her. She wiped her eyes with the heels of her palms. "Oh frak me," she said again.
Then a quick series of soft footsteps padded up beside her. She opened her eyes and saw a large shaggy shadow block the silver glow of one of the planet's three moons. There was a brief, instinctual burst of fear. Then the monster dipped its head and sniffed her.
"Oh!" she sighed, recoiling from the thing's wet nose as the monster's scent triggered recognition. "Hey Max," she said and cupped the big dog's chops.
Max answered her with a soft, nasal whine and began to lick the tears from her cheeks. For some reason this caused her entire body to go rigid. An instant later she felt another wave of emotion rip through her. More tears spilled onto her cheeks.
"Oh frak me," she whispered. "Yeah," she said and patted the dog's shoulder. "Yeah, I love you too, buddy."
The dog huffed and then flopped down on the towel beside her. He was wet from swimming in the ocean and stank the way only a wet dog can. Sand stuck to his fur and scratched her bare skin. He was panting a hot humid stench onto her face. It was obvious from the smell of his breath that he'd recently killed and eaten something.
"Shit, boy," she scoffed and sat up. "Drake just lets you wander?"
The dog leaned against her. He was looking at her face with a happy expression that made her feel like smiling. And despite his smell and the sand in his fur the heavy, meaty warmth of him felt good as he leaned against her. With that realization she felt another wave of stupid tears. For a moment she just let them rip through her. Grief and pain and helplessness tumbled over each other inside her until she heard a keening growl tear through her throat. She heard Max whine at her and turned to put her arms around him. The dog immediately licked her face again.
For a time she just sat there with her arms around the dog. She listened to the boom and wash of the surf and savored the gentle caress of the breeze. Max's steady panting was almost impossibly reassuring and, after a time, she found herself appreciating the beauty around her. The moonlight painted the world silver. It caressed the ridges and peaks of the islands pressing up out of the ocean. It picked out the rolling peaks of the waves that were literally aglow with luminescent algae. Nightbirds sang in the jungle behind her and she saw something huge leap up and out of the water before slowly falling to send silver spray into the night nearly a kilometer out to sea. She couldn't see much more than a length of shining meat in the dark but even so she got the sense of something innocent and fearless at play.
After a while the reality of her own safety began to dispel the terror of her latest nightmare. As her mind touched the memory of it she shuddered and Max immediately turned and licked her lips. She recoiled but quickly pat the dog. She'd never really been around dogs before. She thought it strange that she could be both comforted and disgusted by the same behavior. Max glanced at her, panting happily. Then his ears twitched and he looked out into the jungle. She thumped his chest and pet the side of his neck.
"Yeah," she told him. "I'm glad you found us, bud." She trembled again. Then she frowned. 'Us,'
she'd said. "Frak me," she scoffed and shook her head. Max looked at her curiously. "That little shit really is my frakking family now, isn't he?'[/i]
Max tilted his head in an attempt to make sense of the absurd woman beside him. She grunted and pet his head. The thing out in the water flopped in the waves. She turned to watch it and sighed.
"Frak me," she said again. "What the hell am I gonna do?"
It was obvious that something had to give. Including the Brimstone she'd been on one hundred and thirteen boarding ops for Drake. She'd killed heaven only knew how many people for him. Originally she'd claimed to be doing it for the money but that no longer held any water. Between her salary and the bounties Drake used to pay back when she was boarding ships and the money Slamer left her she was now what they called 'independently wealthy' even by outer-space standards. She had enough money to do just about anything she wanted. If so inclined she could retire right now and never need to work another day in her life.
"Cos that just sounds sooo
exciting," she grumped.
Max licked her cheek again and she pet him absently. Above her the stars were shining beyond streaks of cloud gilded with brilliant silver in the moonlight. She took a breath and sighed. She thought of Chinomu and the image that sprung to mind was of the woman lying in the spreading ruby-black pool of her own blood, her dismembered arm laying on the deck a few meters away; dying and fighting with every breath to save her little sister from Drake's wrath.
Tasha took a breath and sighed with a shake of her head. Out at sea the giant whale-thing splashed and sprayed water into the moonlight. It was slowly moving away from her.
"What a frakking mess," she said.
Yellow. Not sunshine and daisy yellow. More an ocher tinted by a hazy reddish-brown. Like bad urine stained by blood. That was the color Ericka Chinomu thought of whenever she contemplated her experience. Yellow. Like bad pee.
The painkillers were clouding her mind the same way they dulled her senses. It was hard to think, hard to see through the haze, hard to know what to do. Little sister was in one of Drakhar's brigs somewhere, assuming the little shit had kept his word and not executed her already. Eri hadn't been told either way and couldn't think through the details without getting lost in the fog. Her concentration was so diffused that she kept finding herself staring out into space, as if awaking from a dream, or gazing mindlessly at the video feed the nurses kept turning on "for her". She found it all infuriating... when she wasn't staring out into space.
Yesterday she'd decided to face the pain, considering it a small price to pay for mental clarity. She would endure her body's rebellion in order to think, to see, to find a way forward. It took less than one hour after the morphine was cut off for her to regret the decision. The pain was like nothing she could have imagined. It was a hellscape. It was horizons of fire, shattered landscapes and sundered earth. It was a roiling sky torn by endless lightning roaring thunder at the world in the voices of all the gods that ever were. There was no thinking through it. There was no working around it. There was no ignoring it to put her mind to task. Her body was broken. Her torso hideously deformed by the loss of her smart hand and the arm and shoulder that once led to it. In place of that hand were now scorched nerves screaming as if she really was, right that moment, on fire.
Yet even so it took one nurse to finally get through to her and usher Eri out of her own way. It was the sound of the woman's voice. When she spoke to Eri the woman used a certain tone. It was tired and put-upon, weary and straining under the need for patience and compassion that was never reciprocated. It was a tone Eri recognized. It was the exact same tone of voice that Eri had heard out of her own mouth time and time again growing up. It was the way she herself had sounded whenever she'd had to explain to her mother that "no" the woman couldn't have another drink, that she just needed to just lie the frak down until the room stopped spinning and her stomach settled, that "no" Eri wouldn't go to the store and fetch another bottle for her, and "no" she couldn't have the keys to the car because... she'd get herself killed. Hearing that particular tone from a stranger's mouth was, impossibly, even more offensive than the severed nerve endings screaming that her arm and shoulder were not only still attached to her body but were also right that moment covered in napalm and searing her flesh to the bone.
So she'd relented. She accepted the morphine drip and the noise and visual distraction of the idiot box on the wall. She stared out into space while the part of her psyche that had always stepped forth to drive her to take the next step, achieve the next goal, overcome the next challenge wailed and wept in the back of her mind, claiming that if she didn't get the frack up, didn't climb out of this goddamn bed right bloody well now
then the universe itself was going to unravel. Her sister would be executed. She would be executed. Drakhar would amass enough power to move against the Sol system his nukes and his starships and all the savagery and stupidity required to use them... while she sat stupefied, staring at a children's show about colored bears with rainbow powers.
But at least the pain was distant.
She scoffed in disgust. Then rolled her eyes at the pitiful gratitude that surfaced in spite of her disgust. The pain was a throbbing, itching ache. It was awful and insistent and nearly impossible to ignore but it was not
hellfire screaming across the sky. It wasn't the end of the world in her flesh, wracking her torn muscles with spasms until her spine and ribs felt as if they would shatter while the fire and pressure climbed into her head so that it felt like her eyes were about to explode with the volcanic pressure of her next heartbeat. Even so she found herself constantly writhing to find a position, any position, that would offer some sort of relief from the constantly throbbing and endlessly itching ache
There wasn't one.
And it was exhausting. Hour after hour after hour of the relentless, throbbing drum where her arm and shoulder used to be and the screaming, shooting pains that insisted her left arm was in agony despite the fact that it had likely been incinerated days ago. Logically she knew the arm wasn't there any longer. Logically she knew that what she was experiencing was called 'phantom pain' and that it was the result of her brain and nervous system trying to send signals to and receive signals from an arm that was no longer there, a hand that was no longer there, fingers and a thumb that no longer there, a palm that were no longer there. A massive part of herself was simply gone and it's ghosts refused to accept it.
From a purely objective standpoint it was an amazing experience. This injury had already revealed so much about herself that she'd never been aware of before. She'd never realized, for instance, how vain she was. It wasn't until she was standing in front of the mirror, gazing upon her newly shattered body, that that particular aspect of her psyche was revealed in tragic fashion. Staring at her reflection she'd felt as if she was falling. She simply ended
shortly above her left breast. Her left clavicle and scapula had been surgically removed to prevent further damage by spasming muscles. So on her left side her body had only her ribs to give it shape. Instead of the curving mountain and graceful column of her left arm the line of her bandaged torso moved directly to her neck. The very sight of her offended some deep, instinctual sensibility. In other words she was revolting. After the shock the injury to her newly revealed vanity left her weeping for nearly an hour.
It seemed she was constantly being reminded of how much she'd been lessened by the loss of her arm. Everything she did reminded her of it. Everything from breathing to expressing annoyance caused pain. She couldn't even shrug any longer, not really. Her right shoulder moved but there was nothing on the left side to do it with... and it hurt. Her brain didn't know those muscles were gone and it tried to recruit them. She couldn't roll the kinks out of her neck or flex the muscles in her back to crack her spine and trying caused horrific pain. She couldn't even crack the fingers in her left hand to dispel tension. Yet her brain kept trying to send signals to that hand to try… and it hurt.
Everything she tried to do, from picking up a glass of water to scratching her nose to wiping her ass, all tried to recruit nerves and muscles and skeletal components that just weren't there any longer... and it caused some kind of confusion in her brain and body that ached and itched and trembled until she was ready to scream with pain and frustration. It was wearing her down like nothing she'd ever experienced before. She'd begun hearing this pathetic whimper escape her throat when her willpower wore thin. It was a weak, mewling sound accompanied by burning tears that made the skin around her eyes sticky. It was the sound of powerlessness and despair and it horrified her. The idea of any one she knew hearing that particular sound escape her was all it took for her to refuse any visitors.
Then it was explained to her that, because of the nature of her injury, it was not possible to graft a cloned arm back to her nervous system. At least not immediately. There were many evasions after that. She'd ask questions expecting definitive answers and got possibles and maybes and bull-shit in return. "In time, perhaps." "You never know." "Who can say?" Especially when she'd asked about flying again. She was given a load of sugary, encouraging advice that all seemed to boil down to 'stay positive and focus on what's right in front of you'. She'd been watching her doctor's eyes, however. It was a woman, middle aged, confident, with dark skin and eyes. She'd been looking Eri right in the face and Eri admired her for that at least. She'd been speaking and the words that came out of her mouth were all about how it was impossible to say for certain and how the human will was capable of overcoming even the most impossible of odds. She'd even pointed out Eri's legendary confrontation with a Shrike not so long ago. Yet Eri'd seen
the apology in the woman's eyes.
It wasn't long after that that she'd started screaming at people for practically no reason.
Thing is, even with me bein' on vacation and watchin' my people relax... Hayla is in heaven, for instance. Yesterday I saw her at the center of... I don't even know what to call it. There must have been twenty people at work keepin' her happy. She was gettin' a massage, havin' her nails done, sunbathin' with some young musclehead wavin' a fan at her, sippin' from a glass with fruit and a little umbrella in it... and when she saw me she just lit up as bright as the bloody sun overhead.
I feel like a good son today and you'd be amazed at how far that goes to ease my troubled soul.
Unfortunately not everybody is that happy and even here on what will soon become my own private island on a peaceful Boron world in an ecosystem without any predators... at least until we brought Max ashore... yeah, even here I'm still workin'. Like: all the time. My comm is linked to my tenjin which is landed on just the other side of the complex. The tenjin is in constant communication with Predator which is in high orbit overhead. The Predator is, in turn, talkin' to the satellites in the sector which are in touch with the rest of my network. Which means that every time somebody needs instructions on how to wipe their own ass... I get a call.
I guess this is what I get for shootin' people who make mistakes.
Right. So despite the fact that I've spent most of the past wozura in nothin' but a bathin' suit I've actually managed to get quite a bit done... although the majority of that was about as excitin' as watchin' a silent movie while wearin' a blindfold. You know I totally forgot just how annoyin' all this bloody administrative crap could be. Do you know how tedious
it is just to set up basic tender service for three bloody frigates?! I mean you'd think that a LOGISTICIAN of all people would be able to handle that kinda shit without needin' me to hold his hand, right?
I have to tell each and every goddamn one of 'em to go here, load that, go there, unload that... cos they're imbeciles! Right? I mean good bloody god! I tell yah. I can't wait
to start sortin' this crap out for my new Shuri. Bloody hell. I miss havin' a CAG. Mine is currently on the Endless feelin' sorry for herself. I mean what's the big deal anyway?! She's got another arm
! And it's not like she was flyin' a fighter anymore anyway!
I was waitin' for someone of the female persuasion to swat me. None did. Which got me thinkin' about Gin again and... yeah.
I don't really mean any of that about Chinomu. She wouldn't believe me if I said so but I actually do understand what she's goin' through. Her family is dead. She's alone except for one person that she feels responsible for. She's also lost a part of her body and, with it, a fair amount of competence. The rifle her sister used fired slugs at such high velocity that a percentage of the material was superheated into plasma. Which means Chinomu got hit by a ballistic weapon wrapped up in a superheated cloud of charged particles. And, no, I'm not really that smart. I just know this stuff cos it was explained it to me by the doc who wanted me to appreciate the gravity of her injuries and, I'm pretty sure, feel guilty for puttin' the woman in harm's way. Cos... yeah. I mean I obviously made
her do that.
I tell yah.
Anyway, the bottom line is that when that shot hit Chinomu not only did she lose the arm she lost much of the nervous tissue that would have let the doctors attach a cloned arm to her. The lightnin' from the plasma apparently fried her circuits or somethin'. So there are other options for givin' her an arm again but, well, apparently there will be quite a bit of physical therapy involved and, from what they tell me, she'll probably never be as good behind the stick as she was.
From what they tell me she's not handlin' that
bit of news very gracefully.
Luis Charles Feret, Lucifer to his enemies and Lu to his friends, was feeling better. His joints and recently broken bones still ached but the chief medical officer aboard the Necromancer, a cranky old cuss named Compton, informed him that, "that's what happens when a body is starved, dehydrated and beat to hell and back for weeks at a time." The old bastard then lit a cigarette and blew smoke in his face all while watching him with what Lu thought of as 'clinical amusement'. "Don't worry," the old guy reassured him with acid sympathy, "a few weeks of eating right and getting enough fluids in you and you'll be ready to run off and get yourself killed in any way you want."
Lu shook his head at the thought. He'd briefly wondered how long the man had worked as a military doctor. He suspected the answer would be given in decades. There was a certain grumpiness that seemed unique to military surgeons. Not all of them developed it but he'd rarely run into its like in the civilian sector. Once, but it was in a Catholic nurse working on Regulus 4, a planet famous for both its jungles and its infighting. He supposed it was just what happened to a person who made their living patching up people who would regularly end up back on their operating tables.
A moment later the lift came to a halt. The lift doors opened and he found himself staring out into a strange compartment. The first thing that struck him was the surreal contrast between the stark, ominous lines of a Split warship and the modern human medical center that had recently been built within it. For a moment the contrast was so surreal that he could only stand and stare. Then a pair of nurses stepped onto the lift and stared at him, obviously wondering if the befuddled fool intended to hold them up. Lu promptly smiled, dipped his head and got out of their way by stepping into the lobby of the ship's hospital.
He'd been here before, of course. Back then it hadn't bothered trying to accomodate the more delicate sensibilities of human beings, however. Once again Lu found himself stunned by the whirlwind that followed Drake around. On Earth the man would be barely twenty years old, not even old enough to legally buy a beer in many places. And yet, in his wake, worlds were born and destroyed. All around him Lu saw people living their lives. Nurses, doctors, and patients of all shapes, sizes, ages and genders. A crewman with a work related injury to his hand, a pair of young men laughing with the strained intensity of soldiers determined to get back to their squads, a mother herding several small children while completing her check out with the duty nurse. Once again Lu could only marvel at the reality around him. Drake was a force of nature, a singularity pulling lives into his orbit just as the several hundred million black holes gathered the galaxy around them.
He briefly wondered how many people like him had ever lived. Nathan R Gunne was surely one of them. Of course so was Adolf Hitler. Unique people who were, as a consequence of genetics, celestial alignment, magnetic forces or by some power human beings could only guess at, capable of shaping the world around them through the sheer force of their wills.
Lu sighed through his nose, shook his head and stepped toward the nurse's duty station. He was still several paces away when the nurse looked up. "Can I help you?" she asked.
Just then a hatch door opened twenty meters down the corridor to his left. Through it was in an instant, feral roar. "GET AAAOWT!"
A harried looking nurse ducked through the hatch just as what looked like a tray of hospital food crashed into the bulkhead behind her. Lu took a breath and sighed. He heard both the heartbreak and the despair in that scream. It was a tone he was unfortunately familiar with. He turned and met the eye of the nurse behind the desk. "Nevermind," he said. "I know where I'm going."
"Oh," the woman replied, "you mean her.
" The tone of that last word spoke volumes.
Lu nodded and turned away. "Aye," he said to himself, "that I do."
As he approached the hatch and harried looking nurse he saw the woman attempting to reason with her patient. Even from ten meters away he could hear the calm, patient and endlessly put-upon tones of a professional nurse.
"I said GET OUT!"
Chinomu screamed again and a moment later something else crashed against the wall beside the hatch. Lu heard lots of small things skitter and roll across the hard deck.
As he stepped up the nurse was backing away from the room with an expression of pure incredulity on her face. Her hospital whites were decorated with what looked like peas and carrots. He smoothly stepped aside as she nearly collided with him. The nurse looked up and glared at him. She was absolutely livid. Lu promptly stepped back to get out of her way. For a moment he was sure she was about to give him a dose of the frustration Chinomu had inspired. Instead she forcibly regained her composure, looked him up and down and then forced a sharp, brittle smile across her face.
"Commander Chinomu doesn't want
any visitors," the nurse informed him through that glassy smile.
Lu nodded and smiled at her. "Well," he said warmly, "she's getting one anyway."
The nurse arched an eyebrow and her look became appraising. "Your funeral," she said.
Lu smiled at her. "We'll see," he said.
The nurse sighed and shook her head. "Good luck," she said and started away.
Lu took a breath and turned toward the hatch. His smile vanished and his eyes narrowed. He palmed the door controls and the hatch opened. Before it was fully recessed into the bulkhead he heard the angry snarl from across the compartment. "I said...!"
"Oh I heard you," Lu cut her off. He didn't raise his voice but after a lifetime in the military he was quite capable of speaking so that he was heard. "I suspect they heard you on the Necromancer
Ericka Chinomu blinked and met his eyes. In that instant she looked more fragile than he'd ever seen her. Her body was hideously incomplete. She was pale, bruised and haggard. There were deep, purple bags below her eyes and her hand, held out between them as if to ward him away, was shaking. Worst of all was the look in her eyes. What he saw there could only be described as 'desolation.'
The instant she recognized him she looked away and he heard the stifled sob that escaped her.
Lu stepped into the compartment and closed the hatch behind him. Then he busied himself with inspecting her surroundings while she tried to compose herself. It was a small room made for only one bed. There was a small head directly to his left with a sink, toilet and enclosed shower with a stool and handrails for the infirm to use while bathing. Across from the head, on the bulkhead to his right, was what looked like Chinomu's lunch. The tray and utensils along with the bulk of the meal lay on the deck at his feet. He nodded to himself as she sniffed angrily at him from across the room.
"Come to see the freak?" she demanded.
Lu sighed and gave her a look that was simultaneously amused, incredulous and just a touch impatient. She didn't see any of it. She was deliberately not looking at him by staring at video monitor that was always present in human hospital rooms. "Self pity," he informed her, "is a bad look on you."
"Sorry to disappoint you," she replied acidly.
"Wow," he said while stepping over her lunch. "You're really in it, huh? Dug that hole and hopped right in."
"Go away," she hissed.
He sat down in the chair beside her bed and stared at the side of her face. "Make
me," he said, making sure she heard the mirth in his voice.
THAT got her attention. Her head came around so fast that sweaty, unwashed locks of hair whipped her cheek and neck. Her mouth was open and her eyes were full of black hate. He smiled gently and her anger shattered like glass. Tears immediately spilled from her eyes and she turned away to sob into her pillow. Lu nodded, put his feet up on the side of her bed, and waited.
After several moments she sniffed. "I hate
you," she informed him.
Lu nodded. "I know," he told her gently.
A moment later she turned and met his eye. Her mouth was open but nothing came out of it. Her cheeks were shiny with tears. He held her eye and imagined that he could hear her screaming in utter silence within her mind. He couldn't tell her but he knew exactly how that felt; to be screaming endlessly while the world carried on without hearing.
He smiled at her. He understood. Her arm was gone and with it she'd likely never again be the pilot she'd worked so hard to be. Her career in the USC was gone because some low-life in a position of political authority used her as a scapegoat to cover up some heinous act that she'd never even been privy to. Her family was dead but for her baby sister and the girl was, right then, in the brig of a man the entire Sol system thought of as one of their greatest enemies. Even worse was that the girl, who Lu had once heard Chinomu call 'little bird', was now a dead-eyed killer for the Wakiya, something he suspected Chinomu felt personally responsible for.
His own experience of her told him that she needed to act. She needed
to act, to do something to bully the universe into straightening up, flying right and toeing the goddamned line. Yet here she was lying in a hospital bed, hopped up on painkillers, forced to remain still while everyone she cared about made stupid choices, fracked up their lives and put the people around them in harm's way. It was all just too much and the woman wanted to break but couldn't. She couldn't because that's not who she was and no matter what the girl in Drake's brig now believed Ericka Chinomu really was all the girl had left and not even death would cause this woman to fail her. So Lu held her eye, pursed his lips, and nodded.
he thought, staring into her screaming eyes, 'I hear you.'
Chinomu bared her teeth and started to shake. The tears spilled over her cheeks and she looked away in a desperate, futile attempt to hide them. Lu nodded and said nothing but did not look away. He felt the shudder in the center of his own mind and briefly thought he could hear his own voice screaming from the depths of himself. He shuddered ever so slightly but kept his attention on the woman in front of him; a woman who was simultaneously one of his most gifted and most troublesome students, a woman who was, like himself, lost and so very far from the home that had condemned and cast them out. He'd be here when she was ready.
He could do that much at least.