When we reached Mer, the cloaked aliens halted and, once we had moved past them, they sorted themselves into a row. Without ceremony, the little one that had sat with me last night was shoved forward, eyes wide and teeth pressed into its lower lip. Mina opened her mouth to say something, but the troupe turned their backs before she could get a sound out and dissolved back into the forest, leaving the little one behind. The poor thing stood there, trembling and obviously terrified. Nonplussed, we stood there, staring at it. The little one lifted its chin, pointed to itself, then at Mer.
“Dear Gods of Fanpara,” Tulin said, his voice catching in his throat, “they’re giving us a hostage. Is this exchange for Wis? Or reparation for Lin?” The way he said my name suggested he’d rather exchange me as reparation to the gods than accept an alien hostage.
Mina recovered and shut her jaw with a snap. “It doesn’t matter right now. Obviously, we won’t be taking it with us.” She pivoted on her heel and pointed to Mer’s open hatch. “Get him into sick bay and strapped into the bed. I want those broken bones set immediately. We are getting off this godsforsaken rock as soon as we can.”
Tulin and Brima maneuvered me between them up the ramp and into the ship’s tiny first aid station. Just as Brima let me go and punched for the bed to drop from the wall, what Tulin had said caught up with me.
“What happened to Wis?” I asked, letting Tulin help me strip my clothing and get up onto the edge of the bed. Brima got behind me and eased me down onto my back, then raised the side bar and keyed the diagnostic program into life.
“She went out looking for you just before dawn,” Tulin said over the whir of the scan arm swinging out from the bar over my head. It was sweeping me from head to foot before he went on, “She reported in that she’d found where you’d been taken and was following the trail.”
“She wouldn’t have had to do that if you’d taken your damned mobile with you,” Brima said, her voice sharp with disapproval. “That was a godsdamned rookie mistake of the worst kind.”
I had nothing to say to that. She was right. It hadn’t occurred to me to take it, nor had it occurred to me that I didn’t have it the whole time the aliens had me. Bloody stupid. How could I have done something so dumb? I’m sure my whole body flushed crimson in shame.
“Anyway,” Tulin said, breaking through the miasma of my self-castigation, “she was obviously following your tracks when animals attacked her. She only had a stun gun with her, so she wasn’t prepared for a whole pack of predators.” Tulin’s eyes got suspiciously full. “We don’t know how long it took for them to kill her, but judging by the blood spray, she was still alive when they started eating her.”
“The only good news out of all of this fiasco is that you came up as a match for Mer,” Brima said into the pause that followed. She glared at me, and my soul shriveled from her condemnation. “Normally, becoming a Companion is voluntary, but Mina says that since you cost Wis her life with your stupidity, you don’t get a choice.” Another sniff. “If it weren’t for that, my vote would’ve been to let you rot wherever you were.”
I swallowed and stared up the bulkhead, too ashamed to meet either’s eyes. A person died because I didn’t follow basic safety protocol. I lay there, wondering if the knives of guilt would ever stop carving me up, or if I would be plagued with this tearing pain for eternity. Even now, I sometimes wonder if that sin will follow me into the afterlife and haunt me in the pits of Gragesh. I hadn’t meant for Wis to die, nor had I suggested she follow me into the forest barely less naked than I am now, but that didn’t absolve me from my part in what led to her horrifying death.
The scan arm finished its sweep and clicked off. No one spoke while it retraced its path and tucked itself away. Brima and Tulin left me alone then, letting the first aid unit poke and prod me without the comfort of their company. I only screamed once, and I think I can be excused for it; my thumb was a mess of compound fractures, and the pincers pulled before the general anesthetic kicked in.
“Wake up, Lin.”
The stern voice came from far away, echoing down a long shaft.
“Ensign Lin Harmuir, it’s time to wake up.”
It took me seconds more to figure out who the voice belonged to. Unfortunately, that connection was accompanied by awful memories. I wanted to stay unconscious; avoiding guilt as much easier that way. It was also the easiest way to avoid the sentence I knew Mina would be passing on me.
“Stats show you’re awake, Lin. Don’t stretch this foolishness out.” Feeling my ears pink in a flush, I opened my eyes, lifting a corner of the light blanket covering me to wipe away the grit that had gathered in my lashes. Mina sat beside me on a roller chair. The dark smudges under sapphire eyes and grooves etched by grief between her pale blue brows were heartbreaking. She and Wis had served together a long time, and I had suspected that their relationship may have strayed into less than professional areas. It looked like I had been right.
“You want me to become a Companion,” I said, loading as much sadness as I could into my voice. Oh, the melodrama of a youth with an unrequited crush.
“Want is not a factor. If we’re to get off this planet, you have to join with Mer.” While I was grateful her voice wasn’t dripping with disgust, resignation did nothing to lift my spirits. “Can you sit up?”
Wincing against the tenderness of bruising around the small punctures the machine had made to reset my rib bones and cradling my hand to my chest to hold the blanket up, I let Mina help me upright. My inner thumb was a mass of bruising and stitches, swollen to almost twice its normal size. I imagined I could feel the cold titanium pins now at its core, forever holding that single joint stiff. Not that I’d need to worry about bending digits for much longer.
With Mina’s help and only the thin first aid blanket for modesty, I slid off the bed and shuffled to the Companion’s alcove, hoping the whole way there for some kind of ceremony. Needless to say, I was sorely disappointed when Mina entered the command into the panel and watched the door hiss open without a word.
“I understand the interface process is uncomfortable,” she said, not looking me in the eye. “Once you’re in, and I’ve made the initial connection, Mer should recognize you. From then on, it will handle everything else.” I watched her, still hoping for a look, a kind word, or even a kiss as I made this remarkable sacrifice for our crewmates. Disappointment, alas. It’s not that I hadn’t ever been kissed—I had been popular both as a youth and at the academy for my looks and charm — but Mina was the first woman I’d ever truly longed for a kiss from.
I drew a breath to ask for one, the idea of never even having asked more mortifying than being refused, when she stepped away from me, pulling the blanket with her, and turned me to face her. Hope flared anew, only to be dashed even more cruelly when she pushed me back into the cradle, naked. With deft fingers, she fit the facemask over my nose and mouth, settling the strap over my ears. I should be thankful she took the time to be sure the strap wasn’t twisted before she clasped my wrists and ankles into the cradle’s brackets and buckled webbing across my hips. One last look, a nod, and she stepped away, waving her hand over the panel sensor to seal the alcove door.
Around me, warm vapor hissed, rising to obscure the window. I squinted in an effort to peer out through the caressing mist. Such things as windows lost their importance when needles pierced me from the backs of the wrist and ankle clasps. When I opened my mouth to cry out, a tube snaked down my throat, choking me. Fire crept up my veins and arteries, turning them black beneath skin changing from marble white to silvery-gray. I desperately wanted to scream, but the tube pressed tight against my vocal cords, leaving no room for vibration. With everything I had, I pushed against the restraints. Spots appeared in my vision: orange, purple, and green. They danced and spun, and the faster I panted, the faster they leapt and shook. The spots grew, the colors merging, twisting around themselves until I couldn’t see anything but streaks. With no visual frame of reference left, my belly heaved from vertigo, the tube carrying away vomit and bile alike. I spun with the colors, my body twisting and falling, the streaks flashing and pulsing sickeningly.
On and on it went. I was unable to hear my nasal whimpers over the thrumming in my ears. Just when I began to fear that I was indeed dead, that I had arrived in Gragesh, and this was to be my eternal sentence for my sins, the colors faded to a featureless soft gray. In the gray, I was neither hot nor cold, and it was in the gray I came to rest, the fall ended. Colors came alive again, but this time they were gentle, soft, reassuring, and in orderly lines.
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