Once inside, I direct my puppet soldier over to a nearby console, recognizing the control pad from my 'instructions'.
Like every engine room ever devised, it was designed for ease of access and functionality rather than comfort; sweat beads on my brow almost immediately, and I list dangerously to one side as my ride steps awkwardly over some unidentifiable protrusion in the floor.
Sighing, I tap my ride on the shoulder. He stops and I let myself slide downward until my feet are on the floor. I'm still a little weak, but I can feel my strength coming back and the habit is too deeply ingrained to ignore: when you get the opportunity, stop the transport and take a walk. Keep in shape.
Despite myself, I feel my spirits lighten at the thought. It's so mundane. Ordinary. Like it's assumed that I'll live to see tomorrow, that there's something to keep in shape for.
I haven't gotten a flash in some minutes now, and if I can do this - if I can stand on my own two feet after everything I've been through - then I think I really have a chance of getting out of here.
Live to fight another day, and all that.
Suddenly there's a noise to our right and a shape rushes out of the shadows. I raise my weapon automatically, but before I can fire I hear my name called out in an eerily familiar voice.
"Ah Drav," I hazard, figuring I have a fifty-fifty chance of being right. How many Antarians could there be on the Station? And his voice doesn't sound like the one that was in my head before.
His eyes light up. I guessed right.
I've also gone insane. Because there was another name on the tip of my tongue a minute ago, and it wasn't Drav and it wasn't Olan.
It was Alex.
But Alex isn't here. Alex died a long, long time ago, in another lifetime. Why would I think he was here, on an alien space station, now?
God, I really am losing it.
"You know me?" Drav asks, grinning delightedly. "Olan said you might not."
"My head got a little, uh, scrambled, in the last couple sessions," I explain, not really wanting to go into much detail.
He looks concerned. "What do you mean?"
I shrug. "Headaches, memories that aren't memories, sudden affinity for mind control. Listen, we'll catch up later, okay? From what I can figure out, I've done what I came here to do. Somewhere in here," I say, pointing to my temple, "I have as many of Khivar's memories that can fit in my poor Human brain."
He looks impressed but doesn't say anything, so I continue.
"The problem is that someone" - I don't say who - "was supposed to contact me, connect with me, and take them. I wasn't supposed to be carrying this much for this long, which is probably why I'm feeling rather schizophrenic at the moment."
Now he's puzzled. Probably doesn't recognize the term, but I don't bother explaining.
"So now it's not just enough that I've got them, now I need you guys to help me get them back to Antarian territory so they can do some good."
He nods like it's a given. In his eyes, maybe it was. Sometimes I forget how much Antarians invest emotionally in their monarchy, and that I hold the distinct honor of being the first non-Antarian to be invited into the royal line with popular consent.
My life. One of these days I'm going to have to write my memoirs. I'll call the book "Beyond 42: A Soldier's Guide to the Galaxy," and dedicate it to Douglas Adams.
Hey - I made a joke. Okay, it's hardly stand-up. And it's not even funny. But if I can make jokes, even stupid ones, there's still hope for me, right?
Besides, Drav doesn't know this was something of a suicide mission. If I have my way, he'll never know. Because as soon as the name Alex even floated through my head, I made another promise to myself.
I'm not leaving any more friends behind.
"Contact Olan," I instruct Drav. "Ask him to get some kind of transport ready, if he can, and we'll get to work on crashing the system down here. That should distract the Trejies long enough so we can make our getaway."
Drav nods, his expression an ecstasy of pure relief.
Drav has a great smile. No, really, it's kind of boyish and endearing, almost goofy, except that Antarians really don't "do" goofy, so I think that's an interpretative thing.
I'd forgotten how much a smile can change things. Alex knew, though. He could be serious when the occasion called for it, but he always knew when a smile could make all the difference why am I thinking about Alex again?
Because I miss him. And something about Drav, I see now, reminds me of him. Some indefinable quality.
Hell, I miss everyone.
I really do. I'd never felt so alone as I did when I realized that Max hadn't contacted me in I don't know how long. But now I'm starting to feel like I'm not alone here, and it helps. For some reason I can't quite put my finger on, it helps.
Maybe it's not so mysterious. Alex always made me feel better too.
"Hey, give me a hand over this thing?" I gesture to a pipe that wouldn't seem that high to an Antarian or Trejantisian, but to a Human (and a short one, at that), it's a bit of an obstacle. And I'm in no condition to run hurdles.
Drav turns back to grab my hand, and as he pulls me over it, toward him, he gets a good look at my face. He blanches, which is not an attractive look for an Antarian, and I know he's seen some of the damage done to it.
He holds out his hand to take mine anyway, waiting until I'm over the pipe to open his mouth. "What happened?"
I shake my head. A little gingerly, but with all the authority I can muster. I like Drav, but we do have business to take care of. And I don't feel like talking about it.
"How well do you know these generators?"
He considers my question. "Fairly well. Kyle's been showing me around."
"Kyle?" That diverts my attention for a moment.
Drav turns and gestures to a seemingly empty shadow. I can't help but smile as Kyle emerges silently. The Kyle I knew sucked at surveillance. This one this one's had a lot of reason and opportunity to learn stealth. But he still doesn't look at me like he knows me, and despite the intense heat, I feel a cold chill crawl up my spine.
My smile disappears. I turn to Drav. "Can you connect with me? It'd be easier to show you what we need to do."
He nods and after a moment, I feel him trying to get inside my mind. I relax, trying to remain as open as possible, but he just shakes his head. "You're blocking me."
Confused, I look at him, and then I reach out - so naturally - and touch one hand to his, and in something less than a second I'm in his mind and -
//he'd never felt the isolation so keenly as he did here, never felt so lonely, even after leaving the girl he almost married before he realized that the military would always come first, that his brother would always come first. It wasn't fair to her, and he loved her enough to let her go. Of course, he'd always felt she was above him anyway, and could never understand how such a beauty could fall for such a loser anyway. But sometimes it got so lonely//
- with a gasp he pulls away, breaking the connection.
"Drav! Oh no, I'm so sorry, I just thought - I thought I could make a connection, and - oh, god, I'm sorry," I whisper in a rush, pained by the knowledge that I had just violated someone again. Worse, someone who was willing to sacrifice so much to help me.
He's shaking like a leaf but he shrugs it off anyway. "It's okay," he says, although we both know it's not. God, he really is like Alex. Please, let him be as forgiving. "It's not like I wasn't willing to myself," he reminds me, referring to the tacit understanding he'd reached with Olan to try and read my mind when we first arrived.
But he didn't actually go through with it. I did. I feel so dirty.
"Besides, you were right. I do know what I need to do now," he says, and we both nod.
Then suddenly he's lunging at me and throwing me to the ground, and I'm too weak, my reflexes are taking too damn long to kick in, and I fall hard.
It's all I can do to force out one word.
It's the Trejie I'd forgotten as soon as he'd stopped being useful.
My control over him must have faded, because he's coming toward us, knife in hand. Thank god I still have his other weapon. No, thank god for Drav and alien powers. In no time the Trejie's eyes roll back in his head as he slumps to the ground and I guess he's just been knocked out.
When it's over, Drav comes back and helps me to my feet.
We make our way over to Kyle in shaky silence. I take a seat at the main console and turn my attention to the controls in front of me while Drav heads to a nearby wall-mounted access panel to divert safety protocols. Kyle just looks on, curious but detached.
Oh god, I nearly just died. Again. Why does this never get easier?
Biting my lip, I force my mind back to the task at hand.
As our fingers tap pressure-sensitive buttons here and flip toggles there, I have an epiphany sort of.
It's the flashes. I have a theory about them.
I think they're all memories. I don't know how or why, but I think I'm having honest-to-god memories of another life. I keep thinking about when Max came back from the future, and he had all these memories, and then in Vegas my Max had that flash of a wedding day that never happened. Well, it happened, but in another timeline. So maybe I'm seeing flashes of a life I could've had. Maybe I'm seeing what kind of child Max and I would or could create.
And the thing is, now that I've had it, I want that memory for my own. Not the part about Max telling me to go to Michael for - for whatever. That's irrelevant. I mean the promise that he and our child would be waiting for me to come home to; I want that.
I never thought we'd have children. Not seriously. Not since I found out that I'd fallen for an alien king. Even when doctors told us that Hybrids were biologically compatible with both Antarians and Humans, it was still an abstract. A potential but vague possibility, because life was always too dangerous, too uncertain. There was always something else that needed to be done and then another, and another. It's one of the reasons I joined the Forces, because I liked the feeling of belonging to something bigger than myself, of making my mark on the future.
Well, that and the strong sense of self-preservation, of course. Human motivations are rarely that simple.
But now I'm standing in front of a piece of alien machinery, pushing controls like I know what I'm doing and nowhere near escaping yet, and I'm having visions of becoming a mother. After years of putting Max off for one reason or another. And let's not forget the thousands and thousands of Trejies standing between me and Antarian space.
Still, I think I can make it happen. How insane am I?
It's all I can do not to laugh out loud at the idiocy of it all. It's downright amazing what a day free from torture can do for your state of mind.
I'm a little stronger now, and I can walk at a decent pace if Drav and Kyle each keep a hand under one of my arms.
It's subtle, but I think I can already feel the difference in the way the walls around us vibrate. We didn't do anything too drastic, nothing out of an old Bruce Willis movie. All we did was turn off sensors, then set the hydraulics to drain.
Completely. Without shutting down any engines. Without refilling the reservoirs. Without bothering with waste disposal procedures.
Three things should happen in the next forty minutes. First, the engine rooms, the core of the station, will flood with highly toxic, extremely flammable fluid. Then the generators will begin to seize, because no matter how sophisticated the engine, there are too many parts that depend on hydraulic protection to survive running dry at regular speeds. Third, the sparks from the ionic combustion favored by Trejie engineers will increase in frequency and concentration because certain safety monitors have been forever disabled.
By then, we should be on a shuttle, on our way out of here and hopefully far enough ahead of pursuit to escape towards a nearby unstable star that's emitting a lot of radiation. Drav had been the one to find it earlier, back before my capture, and now he assures me that a small ship can get lost in no time at all in that kind of highly charged atmosphere.
An hour from now, explosions will rip through the core and then spread, attacking the superstructure (so easily defended from external threats) from the inside out. There will be time for some to escape, but most will not. Thousands and thousands of people will die and I don't know how that makes me feel.
Right now, I'm just concentrating on getting us out of here in one piece.
And with any luck, in my right mind. I can hope, can't I?
I really need that hope.
The flashes have a different quality to them now.
Maybe it's because I've stopped fighting them, or maybe it's just because my mind is adapting, but now they seem to overlap reality instead of replacing it.
Now, when I relive Grandma Claudia's death, it's as though I can see it, see what happened, superimposed on the sight of Kyle's troubled face as we make our way along a small service shaft.
It's pretty disturbing, actually, to see her telling me to follow my heart, and then shifting, seeing Kyle's face when I break up with him, all over the impassive face of a Kyle who looks at me blankly, without recognition.
But he doesn't resist when I take his hand, either.
And it makes me feel better.
"I talked to Olan," Drav tells me. "The shuttle's almost ready. Apparently it was easier than he thought, because everyone seems to be somewhere else today. He managed to get back into our old transport with no trouble at all."
It's supposed to be good news, but I catch the look of doubt on his face, and I have to agree.
Something's wrong. It's too easy.
And these corridors seem too deserted.
Where is everyone?
"The shuttle bay's that way," Drav points at a wall, while Kyle looks over with undisguised curiosity. Smiling, Drav walks past him to tap on a few panels, finally snapping one out of place. "Old worker tunnels," he tells me. "Small and dusty as hell, but it's easier to move around in them without being seen."
I smile in relief. After I don't know how many days in close quarters, the openness of these corridors is starting to get to me. Paradoxically, all the empty space feels like it's pushing down on me, on my head, and I have to remind myself to breathe normally, to walk upright.
Drav holds the swinging panel open for Kyle and me to climb through and then lifts one long leg to follow suit. He sees us watching him and loses his balance for a moment, laughing despite himself, despite the seriousness of the situation.
"Okay, I give up, what are you staring at?"
//"Okay, I give up. What are we staring at?"
I grin and gesture to Maria's chest in Vanna mode. "This," I tell him archly, "is an Aqua Bra. Would you like to try it on, Alex?"
The look on his face is priceless.
"Yeah," he says, probably hoping like hell we don't bring up certain infamous seventh grade girlfriend dress-up sessions where anyone could hear. "Maybe later. Here, have a flier. If I pass out enough of them then I could raise my P.E. grade from a C to a B minus."
We grin and take one.//
I giggle. I can't help it. Grown man or not, he looks so gangly, so awkward, and seeing an image of Alex superimposed over his, makes me feel like sixteen again. Just being around someone who understands me - me, Liz Parker, soldier at arms - but who also makes me laugh, is enough to rally my spirits. It's enough to make me believe that we can do this.
Almost absently, I note the contrast between the light of the corridor and the dimness of the tunnels, and how all I can see until my eyes adjust is the familiar outline of a lanky friend, arms outstretched to brace himself, other leg lifting to step all the way inside.
"Be strong, you can do it," I tease.
//"Strong, strong, strong," Maria mimics comically.
I grin. Yeah, prom sucked. It's right up there with being shot and running from the feds as a night I'd be deliriously happy never to think of again. And maybe I'm a little jealous, but more than anything I'm glad it turned out so well for Maria and Alex. It's reassuring that things do work out sometimes.
"Just be strong, okay?" I press the point, playfully but meaningfully, as we leave. Dad got it into his head that it's okay to make his own daughter work the day after prom, but I'm determined that Alex and Isabel start on the right foot this time. Princess or not, she needs to understand that Alex C. Whitman is not a guy to take lightly. "G'bye."
He's muttering as Maria and I head out. "Strong. Stro yeah."
We get to the door in time to let some kid in with a delivery bag. "Hey, is this Whitman?" he asks.
I nod. "Oh, yeah. Hey, Alex," I call back, "your food's here."
Maria tells the kid to come in. Alex comes out of his room to get it, and we wave on our way out. Outside, we walk to the Jetta in silence. On our way to the CrashDown, Maria starts to laugh.
"He's so gonna fold. He's probably on his way over there as we speak."
I laugh. That's exactly what I was thinking. "Oh yeah."//
Drav just shakes his head and adjusts his hands for better grasp.
Then, suddenly, he stops. I hear a gurgling sound, a wrong sound, and instead of pushing inside the tunnel he falls back away from the access panel and there's something unnaturally stiff about his posture -
//The sheriff held his hat in his hands as he came through the door, his body language screaming pain and grief.
"There's been an accident. Alex is dead." //
The sickly grin on my face melts, slowly, like it hasn't quite caught up to what my brain is telling it.
"No," I whisper in denial, reliving Alex's death, watching him - no, Drav - slump away from me, as another shape, a larger shape, fills the doorway.
Soldier guy. The one who's supposed to be unconscious and on the floor back outside the engine room where we left him, figuring it was kinder to leave him like that. He'd never know what hit him when the station blew, we figured.
Fucking soldier guy.
I'm so cold. So goddamned cold. I can't think. My head hurts. My feet won't move.
But my hand can. I can't feel it, but I know it's moving, because years of training haven't deserted me even if everything else has.
I kill him with his own weapon. It seems fitting.
I can't look at him right now. He's alive. Alex isn't. Drav isn't. And it's all my fault. I broke my promise.
My fault it always is. I'm so bloody useless. The only thing I'm good at is getting the people I care about killed. What good are a bunch of stupid memories and stupid invasive mental powers when what I need are hands like Max's, hands that heal -
Wait. How do I know I don't?
Galvanized by sudden, desperate hope, I dive forward, scrambling out of the panel with little aim and less grace, dropping painfully to the ground, hands and knees skidding in something green and slippery on the floor.
Slowly I raise my hands, numbly watching Drav's blood spread wetly along the folds in my skin.
So much blood
"Drav?" I whisper, and I want to throw up. But I can't. I have to try. There's still blood oozing from the gaping wound in his stomach - that's good, isn't it? It wouldn't be doing that if he was dead, if his heart wasn't still pumping, would it?
I lay one hand over the wound, sensing a rhythm to the flow. "Drav. Drav! You have to -"
// " - look at me. You have to look at me."
Max Evan's eyes are so beautiful. Why did I never notice this before?
"You're all right now. You're all right - " //
I reach over and lay a palm on his cheek, willing him to open his eyes. "You have to look at me. You have to."
The trickle slows and then stops.
A blink of an eye later and then Kyle is tugging on my hand, pulling me to my feet, gazing mutely at me, waiting for instructions.
I study his clear blue eyes. I don't think he understands what happened here, not entirely, but he's upset and he's waiting for me to tell him what to do because Drav isn't telling him anything.
"All right," I say, and my voice sounds hoarse and far away and unfamiliar. "All right."
I have to be strong for Kyle. I haven't failed him yet.
He helps me through the panel opening and watches as I close it behind us. I lean on him as we make our way along the tunnel. It's gray and eternal and the sounds of our footsteps echo dully.
Soon it ends and we're faced with the unknown.
I open the door in the wall and look out. Another corridor. Also empty. Tomblike. But not as quiet. I hear engines nearby.
We're almost there, and I'm working out scenarios in my head because that's what good soldiers do.
Should we just walk through? Maybe we can use the element of surprise. Or maybe -
I try a quick projection. Nothing.
Kyle's getting agitated, pawing at my arm to get my attention. I try to shake him off but he's too persistent. Looking up at him, I'm amazed to see so much emotion.
Finally he lets go of me and runs back in the direction we just came from, towards the door we closed behind us. Maybe he's afraid. He's heading back towards what he's become used to. It's the only explanation I can think of. Unless - that clairvoyance thing. What did he see?
"Kyle!" I call after him, and follow as quickly as I can. It's not very fast.
Suddenly the door crashes open and I'm stunned at the sight of two distinctly humanoid figures flying through as though their lives depend on it.
I guess they do. Just as Kyle nears them, a Trejie bursts through and aims a weapon at their backs.
Automatically I pull out the weapon I stole. In a second it's primed and aimed. Another blink and I fire, and I know I'll hit my target true.
But not before he fires too.
And in something less than a second, one of the figures, the shorter one, is jerked out of the way as Kyle steps in and takes the shot instead.
At first I think it's me, but the voice sounds wrong. Too high. Strange accent.
I'm too numb to scream.
The two fugitives huddle over him where he lies on the floor, mindless of the pounding footsteps that mean a bunch of people are about to come pouring out of the tunnel too.
But I hear them. I pick them off as they come through, one by one.
And then I take a few steps forward, ignoring the taller figure to focus on the smaller one.
"Can you save him?"
I haven't put my weapon away. My finger's itching to squeeze the alien equivalent of a trigger again.
All I need is a reason
Wet blue eyes look up at me. Tess Harding nods, sniffling, her hand already on the wound. And glowing.
Then he speaks. The one I've avoided looking at. His voice is eerily familiar. And both younger and older sounding than I expected.
"You have to take us with you. She killed Khivar. They'll kill us if they catch us."
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