"All set, soldier?"
"All set, sir." I nod distractedly but I don't look up, trying to remember if everything's in place. It's hard when the troop resources are stretched so thin, but then again, defense is a prospect best kept simple.
"Liz? Are you home?"
My head snaps up and I see the target.
"Why is the room so dark? The lights aren't working."
"Target acquired, sir."
"Good job, soldier. Proceed."
"Liz? Who are you talking to?"
I step out of the shadows, holding my assault weapon at optimum height and angle for terminal application. But as I fire the target looks directly at me and staggers backward to fall on his ass. My shot goes over his head.
Pure luck. But he has good reflexes; even as I re-aim and fire, a shimmering green shield raises between us, deflecting the shot effortlessly.
No one answers, but I won't abandon the objective just because the officer in charge seems to have abandoned me. I have a mission, damn it. I melt back into the shadows to reconsider attack.
"Liz? What's going on? Why are you doing this?"
I close my eyes and gather my energy. I have so much, I'd never dreamed I could channel so much. Opening my eyes I step forward, and this time I'm not alone.
The target looks about, stunned by the sudden appearance of several other soldiers, and I can tell it hasn't occurred to him yet that they might not actually be real.
His shield has grown, surrounding him, and he's looking a little desperate. Of course, from his perspective he's surrounded, and by several well-armed hostiles.
I take my place directly in front of him, weapon pointed down but at the ready. A siege it is. I wonder which can last longer, my projections or his will.
I don't hear him. There are other words that echo louder in my mind.
War is death. I am at war. Therefore, I am death.
I sense more than see him emerge from the shadows next to me.
"I forgive you, you know."
Why? "For what? I didn't kill you."
"Liz! How did he get here? Why isn't he dead? Liz! Liz, talk to me, please!"
I ignore him. I want to hear this.
"Sure you did. You came on my station, declared war on my people. If you weren't there, I wouldn't have been distracted. She would've never gotten close enough to kill me. Ergo, you killed me. But it's okay. I forgive you."
I turn to look at him directly. "I didn't ask for your forgiveness."
He laughs. "But you want to be forgiven. I can feel the guilt you feel. I'm amazed they can't. You practically reek of it."
I open my mouth, but I can't deny it. How could I? It's true. "I have a lot of blood on my hands," I admit, sounding and feeling hollow. "People have died because of me. Countless people."
"Countless? Don't be so melodramatic. I'm sure we can put a body count together. Take my station. How many people do you think it took to run a station like that? Oh, not just the military personnel - they were parasites. No, my station was run by civilians. At a guess, twenty thousand or so ordinary men and women, some with children and all with dreams of peaceful lives. Didn't you know that?"
"Children?" The word sticks in my mind. I can almost see it, a bright flashing neon sigh of accusation.
He nods helpfully. "I don't have the exact number, but think about it. You saw the station. It was a long-term habitat co-opted for military purposes. Entire generations of families called that station home. You think they were all podded into adulthood or something?"
"No." It's a protest, not agreement, but there's no escaping his twinkling alien eyes.
"But of course! And you killed them. But you know whose fault it really is? Who you kill for? The one whose love comes at such a high price?"
It's hard to understand him. My head hurts so much now, like it might shatter under all these words. I feel like I should know the answer to this question, this all-important question, but I just can't form the word in my mind.
"It's him, Liz. You have to kill him so that you can stop killing, so the children stop dying. He's your enemy, not me. Do you think he'll forgive you for killing like I do?"
I stare at him in horror. Not he's not talking about I I can't I could never
He's nodding now. "Yes! Yes, you can. And then you'll finally know peace, I swear it."
Somehow I tear my eyes away from him, and towards him. My target.
My target? I feel a moment's doubt as I watch him struggling. I can see by the way his shield is fading, by the way he's sweating, that he's almost completely drained. He's stopped trying to talk to me but his eyes - they're looking right at me, into me, like they know me, I could drown in those eyes
"Exactly," the voice whispers in my ear. "You're drowning. He's smothering you, trying to make you into something you're not, something you were never meant to be. You, Liz Parker, an alien queen? A mother? A killer? Is this you? Is it? Is it you?"
"Stop it. You're confusing me. Stop confusing me."
"I'm not confusing you. I'm giving you a gift. A gift of truth, of clarity."
In front of me the prisoner has weakened. His hand is still up but the green is fading.
"He is weak. And while he lives, so are you."
He's on his knees now, drained and silent, his arms crossed protectively in front of him.
I let the projections fall. His eyes never waver from mine. Slowly I lift my weapon and aim.
"Do it. Do it now. Then you can be free. No more hurting, no more guilt, it'll all be over."
I hear it as my finger tightens on the trigger: a cry. A baby's cry.
For the first time the target's eyes leave mine and they look down. Mine follow, and suddenly I see what he's protecting, what he's holding against his chest, and the voices are gone. They're all gone and I know who I am and what I'm doing and I pull up but it's too late, it's firing, and I close my eyes because I can't look, I can't see this, I can't, I -
I'm screaming, I think. But it's no good. Screaming won't fix what I've done, won't save the universe from the monster I've become.
Only one thing can. I don't even need to open my eyes to do it. And it only takes a second to pull it from its holster and point it at my own head as I fall to my knees.
And pull the trigger.
Death is white.
It's beautifully numb, though. I can't feel a blessed thing. I wasn't raised Catholic, precisely, but I guess I've always wondered about Hell. I never really bought the fire and brimstone thing, I guess, or Dante-esque interpretations, although those were interesting to think about. It was the idea of punishment vs. redemption, and whether you can gain one through the other, that intrigued me but none of that is important here.
Nothing is important here. I'm not important here, and it's a relief.
I wonder if I'll get to see Alex and my parents. I don't think they'll let me see Max and Kyla; if this is Hell, they won't be here, and if this is Heaven, they probably won't make them face their murderer. It'd be too cruel.
It's funny, though. As soon as I thought about Max, it was like I could hear him. I couldn't answer, though. Maybe that's my punishment.
If it is, I'm not sure what the point is, because he's not the only one I hear. In fact, as far as I know the other people I hear are still alive. So why can I hear them? Why can I hear Olan but not Drav? Ander but not Alex?
Maybe they're praying or something, which is odd because I don't remember any of the others being particularly observant of any daily religious rituals either. But they're speaking to me, so this must mean something.
It's funny, though, because underlying it all, I sense something. And not like before; before, I heard voices, voices telling me to do things, to be things. Those are gone. This isn't a voice so much as a presence, and its warmth is both familiar and soothing.
I like white. I know Max had a bad experience in a white room and to this day, he hates white walls. But this white is soft and warm and safe, and I could stay here forever. Maybe I will stay here forever.
It wouldn't be so bad.
What the hell - oh. Hell. I must have ended up in a Hell after all, because now I can feel something. I can feel a lot, actually, and it hurts. A lot.
Death is no longer white. Death is a fuzzy gray, like television static, where you get the feeling that there's something in the fuzz, only you can't see it straight on. You can only see it out of the corner of your eye.
The voices are louder, too. Clearer. Sometimes they sound sad, other times urgent. They aren't always talking to me, either. Sometimes, they're talking to each other. It's not so much the words as the tones that tell me this.
They don't make any sense to me, though. They have no meaning for me. The only thing here I yearn for is that comforting presence. I don't know if it's a god or any such mythical construct - I don't think so, but it's definitely something or someone who is linked to me on such a fundamental level that I can't separate myself from it, and I wouldn't want to if I could.
"Liz, please please talk to me."
I freeze. It was so automatic; I heard his voice, and I answered. But I don't understand, I don't understand anything. What horrific manifestation is this?
I fight to open my eyes, because here, I realize, I have a body. One that feels heavy, so heavy I can't move it, I can't even open the eyelids, but it can feel. Right now it hurts from head to toe. I don't think there's one place on it that doesn't.
And it hears pretty well, too. I can hear the person next to me gasp, his - his? Definitely his - chair scrape the floor, and I can hear his clothes whisper as he moves.
"Liz?" His voice is hoarse, disbelieving. I feel so horrible for him; is this his personal Hell? Maybe he's been alone in here no, not alone, because I can feel another presence with him. Something - someone - familiar.
"Muh -" I try again, but it comes out as a croak. I run a dry tongue along my lips, but it doesn't help.
A moment later something cool and wet touches my lips, and it trickles into and moistens my mouth.
"Max, I can't open my eyes." I want to. I want to look at him as I tell him how sorry I am. If I have a body here, I might as well use it.
I feel a cool breeze as his hand passes over my face, and then I open my eyes.
I close them immediately. "Bright," I manage to say, beyond the painful sparks in my head.
There are sounds of movement, and then he's beside me again. "Is that better?"
I open them again, cautiously, and I'm rewarded with the most amazing sight in a now dimmed room. It's Max, my Max, and he looks absolutely dreadful but I still feel the old skip in my pulse when I see him.
"I'll call the doctor -" he starts.
Doctors? "No, please, I just want to talk with you. Please?"
It doesn't take him long to decide. When he comes back to my side, he takes my hand and smiles down at me.
I feel him do it, but I can't squeeze his back, I can only curl my fingers a little.
"I knew you were still in there somewhere," he says, and he's smiling and crying at the same time. "I just knew it."
"Max, what happened?" I need to know what role I play in whatever this is for him. If I can, maybe I can make his Hell a little easier.
He hesitates, trying to cover his nervousness by tucking my hair back with his free hand, but finally he answers. "You've been in a coma."
"Coma? How long?"
I think about that. Cautiously. I weigh the possibility that I'm not dead, that I haven't been dead, and curiously enough, I'm not sure which I'm hoping for. Then again, there's a certain insidious logic to it. What hell could be worse punishment than having to live with the kind of monster I am, without escape from the torment of my victims?
Regardless, I have an opportunity here, and I'm going to take it. "I'm sorry, Max. I didn't want to kill you, you or our baby." I wait, then, for the punishment to begin. If this is a hell of mine, he'll laugh in my face and I'll know that he can never forgive me, just like Khivar said.
"I know that, Liz. I know. It was Khivar, he had the same idea we did, only his plan was to 'let' you escape and come back and kill me. But you didn't do it. You saved us."
I try to follow what he's saying, but it just confuses me more. "I don't understand."
He speaks earnestly. "Liz, you wouldn't let him kill us. Something deflected that last shot. You did."
"No, I couldn't keep it up. I saw the shot come right at us, and then suddenly it was just gone. It had to have been you. Then you were screaming and I couldn't get to you before - before -"
He just crumples then, burying his head in my shoulder as he cries.
I think about what he's telling me. So I did shoot myself, at least. "Am I dead, Max?"
His head shoots up and he shakes it vehemently. "No, you're not. And you're not going to die, so you can just get that through your head right now."
"Why aren't I dead?"
He obviously decides to take that at face value, and not as a declaration that I deserve it, although it's both. "The doctors aren't sure. But they think that it's because of the type of weapon you had, one that channeled energy. They think you had so much electrical activity going on in your brain that the energy practically bounced off. All you got," he says, speaking lightly but not smiling at all, "is some physical damage to your scalp and skull, but that's been fixed. You lucked out, babe."
I try not to smile. "Don't call me babe - honey," I retort, and he laughs. It's one of our old jokes. We'd decided a long time ago that we weren't the kind of people who used endearments like "sweetie" and "muffin" and, yes, "babe," so it became a 'thing' for us.
"What caused the coma then?"
His smile fades. "No one knows for sure. They think they think that maybe it was you."
"Me?" In a flash, I understand. This, this is something I know about. "I was trying to die, you mean."
He nods, slowly.
"Oh." Neither of us speaks for a moment. I can't decide how to feel about that. "I'm sorry, Max."
He gets angry when I say it. "Don't be sorry. Just don't - don't ever do that to me again. Ever. Do you understand me?"
I nod, too choked up to say anything.
Suddenly his anger is gone and he looks horribly guilty. "I'm sorry."
I manage to shake my head a little. "Don't apologize to me. You should be angry."
"No, this isn't the time or the place. And I'm not angry, really, I'm just " He looks away from me, breathing hard, but then looks back.
"Why do you keep leaving me?"
Oh, god. He sounds so - so nakedly plaintive. It's painful to hear. For a second, it hurts just to breathe.
"I'm sorry," he whispers, and I know he wishes he hadn't said it.
"So am I." And I am. I'm so sorry, I'm sorrier than he could ever know. But right now I'm tired, so I just lay back and concentrate on not saying anything else to hurt him.
He's silent too, although I'm not sure why. I can see him out of the corner of my eye, though, and after a while I see his eyes drift up to the wall. I suppose there's some kind of clock hung there or something. "The others will be here soon."
He manages a crooked smile, and I know he's trying really hard to be cheerful for me. "Everyone comes to visit, you know. Ander talked to an Earth doctor and decided that we all needed to keep talking to you, because he thought that maybe you could still hear us."
I nod. "I think I could," I tell him, thoughtfully. "Tell me, was Olan here?" I figure that is the test; I mean, I could reasonably expect the others to come, but if he had, than that would prove that it wasn't all in my imagination.
Max grins suddenly. I think he knows what I'm thinking, and agrees. "Yeah, he was." His grin turns proud. "Ander is one smart kid."
"You're getting along, then?"
He nods. "He's been staying at the palace."
"Tess and Kyle?"
He shakes his head. "She's keeping a low profile these days." He pauses. "Public sympathies are not exactly with her right now," he explains neutrally.
"He's still in treatment. His doctors said he couldn't come. I'm sorry," he apologizes.
"It's okay. I understand. Listen, Max, there's a file in my office, the only blue one under 'D.' Can you get it for me? I mean, later?"
He looks a little taken aback at the apparent change of subject, but nods cautiously. "Of course. Why?"
I sighed. "It's a thought I had, about what to do about Tess. I was going to call a meeting but then then this happened and I didn't get the chance."
"What was your idea?"
I smile but shake my head. "Later?"
Reluctantly, he agrees.
I'm relieved, but I'm also distracted when he looks back up at the clock.
"Do they know?" I ask suddenly. "Does everyone know what I did?" Just the thought makes me cringe. I don't know if I'll be able to handle this.
Max makes sure he has my full attention before he answers. He speaks slowly, meaningfully. "They know the truth. That Khivar tried to use you to kill us and you saved us instead."
I couldn't say anything to that. How could I? No matter how much I deserve his hate, his fear, his disgust, I crave his warmth more. Shamefully, selfishly, I let him hold me, and I let him pretend that everything is all right.
"Can you ever forgive me, Max?"
He pulls back, just enough so he can look me in the eye. "Can you forgive me for taking over your life? For asking you to put me before your own family? For Alex? For putting you in danger over and over again?"
I look at him, stunned. "What? Max, don't apologize for being in my life. You gave me my life back. Having you in my life is what got me through the rest."
All I can do is smile. He looks so cute when he's being defiant, and I can never resist the way his ears still go red when he's emotional. Thank god he hugs me again. Sometimes words just aren't enough. We'll have to talk later, of course; this conversation isn't over. But for now, it can rest.
There was only one more thing. "Can you," I tried, but my mouth is dry again and I wait until he gave me a sip of water before continuing. "Can you bring Kyla over here?"
I love how alive his eyes get when he's excited. In a second, almost too fast for me to see, he disappears from my side and then he's back, holding her close so that I can see her a little. Max concentrates for a moment and suddenly I'm sitting up a little more and pillows are added behind me so that I can see her properly.
I smile in thanks, and then take a deep breath. "I - I want to hold her," I tell him, and he grins excitedly as he tries to hand her to me.
I shake my head. "I want to, but I can't. My arms are still too weak," I explain, trying to lift them but all I can do is move my fingers a little.
He thinks for a minute and then touches my shoulder. I feel his warmth and strength flow through me, and suddenly I don't feel so weak any more. Shaking a little, I lift them up and flex them lightly, marveling at what a wonder he really is.
And then she's in front of me, and my arms are coming around her, and it feels just fine. I smile, because I recognize her energy. I've felt this energy before; it's the warmth and the connection that I could feel when nothing else mattered. It's a funny feeling, to know you were saved not because of something someone did, but because of what they are to you, even if you didn't know it at the time.
"Hi, Kyla. It's nice to meet you."
She looks at me when I speak, but then yawns and closes her eyes, falling asleep against me.
"Yeah, I know how you feel," I whisper, and I feel the bed dip slightly as Max climbs in it with us. I don't look at him, though. I can't look away from the little miracle that's lying in my arms and not crying, not screaming, not doing anything but looking peaceful and completely at home.
"Then sleep," he says softly, his arms coming around me, around us.
So I do.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18