A force field kept the shuttle bay pressurized while the bay doors slowly cantilevered closed. Space glittered with ten thousand points of light, while explosions bloomed like nebula roses and pieces of alien ships spun into nothing. Violent confetti. The human world beneath it all shown sapphire bright. A chain of evacuating spaceships tried to get even a handful of survivors out of danger. For the moment it was alien-on-alien, the Overseer Cold Faction battling the Eldking. They hadn’t started shooting the human ships yet. Overseers regarded humans as an indispensable resource; they wouldn’t want to destroy too many of them by accident. It had to have been a lucky shot on their part. Nobody should be targeting the lone human ship this far from the actual battle.They can’t know we intend to mop up once one or the other gets defeated. But we’re not letting them take another human world. Not again.
He stood, his knees bowing under the weight in his arms. Adrienne Parker hung limp, as if she were dead already. She still breathed, and her eyes raced back and forth beneath closed eyelids. Patty Gaing, Adry’s second in command, took over. She was a slender woman; five years of ship work had bleached her skin from ripe gold to an unpleasant green-brown. Humans are not made for space, and never will be. White lab coat fluttered over standard shipsuit; leads, and connectors glistened against Holton Fleet’s uniform brown. A small flexible LED screen pinned to her upper breast held name and rank; the medic’s armband bunched as she took Adrienne’s pulse. Patty took the other woman’s heavy body and laid her on the gurney.She needs to book more time in the UV machines. Bob thought. Her vitamin D count’s probably lower than hell.Focusing on trivialities when a friend is dying and your own spaceship is being shot out from under you helps you maintain your sense of purpose. The alternative involved lots of screaming.Patty ripped off the shipsuit gloves and pressed bare fingers against Adry’s neck. “Pulse thready. Breathing shallow. How long has she been like this?”“Not sure. Bry?” He turned. The Hellcat’s other passenger had not left the cargo bay. “Dude, you’ve got a better idea of this shit than I do,” Bob said.For a moment nothing changed. It was dim inside the Hellcat, like day old embers after a fire. You couldn’t see much further than the door. Then Bryan Landry emerged from his ship. Light spilled over colorless hair and alien features, four eyes slitted against the harsh glare. Even shielding with one double-thumbed hand did not seem to help. It all called attention to his utter inhumanity.Patty Gaing froze, some kind of monitor lead dangling in her hands. Guns came up. Soldiers stepped between Bryan and the doctors, obscuring Adry’s dying body from the dangerous alien threat. That this threat could not see, that he had come out of safety unarmed, and had come aboard the Mare Erythraeum of his own free will did not seem to factor into anyone’s equation. Holton Fleet lived under one rule: Good aliens are dead ones. Especially if they were Overseers.But every Overseer the Fleet had encountered had once been a human being. Bryan Landry had been a friend to many of them. Traces of his human self were still there, still visible. It made him all the more terrible. Fingers that would not have hesitated before stilled on their triggers; a quickly stifled moan bounced off the quiet girders overhead. That one brief instant of recognition saved him from being riddled with lead and electro-shock rounds.“Friendly!” Bob shouted.Jean Haskell, Bob’s second, shook his head. His hands were tight and shaking on his gun. “Yeah, screw that. Jessup, Nevari, flank it. Bermudez—”“Stand down, stand down, stand the fuck down,” Bob barked.Bryan held his hands up in universal surrender. This would have been more reassuring if the motion didn’t expose the alien feeding organs gaping like red wounds on both palms. Teeth gleamed in the overheads, and several of the soldiers flanked him for what would probably be the most one-sided dog pile in history.Bry will either let them do whatever and hope that won’t involve trying to kill him…or he’ll fight back. Which would go hard in the other direction. He’d go down eventually, but a lot of us would die trying to put him there. Bob needed to step between his men and his…friend. But that would expose himself to those awful hands. He knew Bryan would never hurt him. He couldn’t bring himself to get any closer.Adry went into convulsions. Pale hands slammed into the gurney, back arched, eyes rolled back and a terrible, tongue-less cry shattered even the hardened soldier’s nerves.Patty cursed and grabbed a bag. “I need a history, damn it. What does she have?”“The information is on a datapad within this ship. I will—” Bryan began. Jean Haskell silenced him with a sharp laugh.“Yeah, I don’t think so, buddy. You’re not doing shit. Get on your hands and knees.”“Pulse is too fucking high, I need a sedative, I need—” Patty barked orders that were meaningless to Bob. Latin prefixes and polished brand names dominated. The assisting nurses turned various shades of pale. One of them rushed to the wall dispenser, dialing for chemicals. The other two struggled to tie Adry’s wrists and ankles to the gurney’s sidebars. “I think she’s broken three fingers, ma’am,” one kid said.“It is a viral vector, it—” Bryan said, around Jean.“Shut the fuck up.” Jean shouted.“She’s fucking dying, Haskell, I don’t care if the information comes from you or a purple people eater, I need—” Patty shouted. The cacophony of words grew louder.“There’s no—” one of the interns began.“Get on your goddamned—” Jean said.“SHUT UP.”The voice of God echoed like a gunshot. Instantly, ever soldier froze. The intern running between the first aid dispenser and the gurney stopped in mid walk, as if he were posing for an ancient frieze. Rifles clattered as safeties were quickly shoved back on, and heels clicked as the less confident among this crowd slammed to attention. The rear ranks of soldiers parted, and General Shawn Miller walked into the center of the chaos.Which, Bob thought, was where you usually found him.Traces of blond hair glowed at his temples. The rest of his hair was stark white. Bleached like skintone, or colors in starlight. Ice blue eyes studied the room, and he bared teeth in something that could, on another face and under different circumstances, have been a smile. The snarl of a pleasant wolf. Unlike the rest of Holton Fleet, his ship-suit was in Marine Reg Beige, and the LED chest patch lay resplendent on his left breast with name and rank and a rainbow of ribbon facsimiles shrunk to fit into the regulation five-by-seven inch screen. He walked up the Hellcat’s ramp and stopped in front of Bryan. He had to look up, as Overseers started at seven feet and Shawn topped out at five-eleven. The effect was a guard dog challenging a mountain.Bryan dropped his eyes first. The pleasant wolf expression widened. Shawn pointed at the alien. “You gonna cause trouble on my boat?” He asked.Bryan tilted his head in a strange way, as if he were baring his throat for a kill…which was what that motion meant. “No, sir,” he whispered in that strange, whispery voice.“And you got a data pad in there that can help us keep her alive?”“It is research she did on herself before she collapsed. Using human equipment. Saved onto human--”“Get it.” Miller said, and the alien retreated into the Hellcat, quickly. “Haskell, that the same one from Golden Dragon?”“Yes, sir. But—”“And he didn’t attack or eat anybody as far as you know, right?”“Yes, sir. But—”“You but me one more time, kid, and I’ll bump you back down into flier repair. We just lost the forward genny, bucko. I’m less comfortable with that than I am having one of our priority targets back under our guns.” Heavy footsteps heralded Bryan’s return. “That the pad?” Shawn gestured at the pedestrian plas square in the alien white hand.Bryan nodded, then handed the data pad to Bob. Touching it was almost painfully electric. He’d seen it ten thousand times before, in Bryan Landry’s hands back when Bryan Landry was human. Holton Station’s insignia sat just above the power button. This should have been lost with the rest of outer space’s flotsam. “How the hell did you get this?” he asked.“The Overseer Homeship is Holton Station.” Bryan said, quietly. “They have altered it.”He could have said “I’m hungry,” and it wouldn’t have shocked this lot more. Bob himself felt his internal organs spin out of control. Several of the other Fostonians in the crowd turned pale.It had been bad enough losing their entire planet to the aliens. After Foster fell, Holton Station had become their home again. And then that was gone. For eight months everyone had imagined it lost in explosive decompression, pieces falling through open space, unowned and buried in its own way. To know that the aliens were using it, that they had remade it, that home was once more in alien hands...“Bob, the girl’s dying.” Shawn said, not ungently. Bob nodded and tossed the pad to Patty. She worked the screen with expert fingers. Everyone knew these pads; most of them still had theirs. Heath readings and Adry’s medical notes soon glowed red and green across Patty’s glasses.“Shit,” she said. “I need a sixty cc dose of Herolzal. Now.”“That’s an immunosuppressant. If it’s a viral vector—” one of the assisting doctors said.The look he got could have lased him to the deck. “Sixty ccs of Herozal. Sixty ccs Amenoperitol. Sixty ccs of Thyrol to knock her out and keep her that way. Her body is treating her internal organs like they’re foreign bodies and if we don’t shut that down right now, we’ll lose her. So stop standing there and move your sorry white ass to the dispenser, you—” they rolled Adry and Adry’s gurney out of the Hanger. Patty’s voice echoed long after the blast doors closed.“There are days I’m glad I’m not in medical,” Miller shook his head and turned to Bryan, who stood in one place, very, very still. “So. Welcome back to Holton Fleet, Dr. Landry. Now we just have to figure out what we’re going to do with you.”It was obvious to Bob, nobody here had an answer.*****Broken glass on linoleum tile. Dim blue lights flared off the edges as if they were diamonds. Racing pulse. Adrienne Parker knew these things. They’d been driven into her memory like nails into bones.No, she thought. I’m on the Eldking’s Homeship with Bryan. We’re trying to get out. We’re trying to keep me alive. I’m not here. This is not happening again.A beam of light swept over her body. The air glittered with dust motes. Almost pretty. They were bits of plasticrete and plas-glass fragments, and the argon mist from ten thousand broken neon signs, and in six months there would be a report on what inhaling all those things were doing to her lungs. She inhaled collapsed building. Burning fires. The charred remains of people. Ashes settled deep into her lungs.But we already did this. It was over. It was done. We got out.As if these things weren’t a total lie.As if survivors could ever leave the worst day of their lives.She sat up.The walls are too close, she thought, distractedly. For one moment, one soul-restoring second, Overseer technology grew over the medbay display tables, the twisted ergonomical chairs that had been the fad in hospital seating fifteen years ago. Then it resolved into gray and brown chunks of ceiling, spilling through the endless dark void that had once been the New York Needle’s primary ventilation shaft. Reinforcing titanium rebar poked out like rib bones. A piece of neon signage clung to this brick with the determination of a limpet. It was part of a kanji. Directions to board, or a sign from a restaurant, or simply a sign paid for by the Asian Alliance advertising peace, or a colonization program, or a tourist destination or—--she spun around and vomited into a corner. Even being beneath Bryan’s hand on Dorofey, her life spilling into him like blood, even that had not been half as terrifying as sitting here in this terrible place. Liquid dripped from some broken pipe or canister, and fell onto a piece of metal with a high, monotonous ping.“Dr. Parker?” a voice called. She turned hastily and her gut plummeted another ten stories down.Elanie Durnham stood in front of her.Elanie Durnham should not be anywhere near Bryan Landry or the nightmare the Overseers had made of Holton Station. That’s where Adry had been, damn it. Lying on her side in her old medlab, while Bryan tried to find help and an escape route. Then there had been the Hellcat, and then—gray fuzz like the snow on a bad vid-screen.“Are you alright?” Elanie took her arm.“How’d I get here?” Adry asked.Elanie shrugged. “You tell me.” They had to brace themselves against the fallen piece of building. Adry’s hand came away wet and red. It wasn’t the red that bothered her. It was the single globule of pinkish matter, like gelatin crossed with cauliflower. I never found out whose blood this was.This isn’t happening, Adry thought, and inhaled.That smell had haunted her through her dreams. Crumpled plasticrete, burning insulation. The faint hamburger stench of raw meat.The sign beside the door flickered. For one second the date was clear. March 27th. Then the sign fell to the ground.March 27th . For most people it was a day of fire, of traumatic imagery on the holo-vid. For Adry it was a low rumble that began at the base of the spine and rose until it filled the whole world. It was air poisoned by broken glass. It was a thousand mangled bodies lying at her feet. The cool glass of a needle-doser in her hand.It was the day the New York Needle collapsed. Directly on top of New York General Hospital’s primary hub.Somehow she was back there.This cannot be real. She thought.The walls were cracked, blackness running through the once antiseptic perfection like veins in a lump of meat. No. It wasn’t going to collapse. Nothing was going to fall in. No God would be that merciful, would kill them all with one sigh of destroyed building. There would be bodies. Screaming. An endless line of mangled people and--“No,” she said out loud. “None of this is real. It can’t be real. That was over a year ago.”She waited. Expectant silence followed. She turned and looked back at Elanie, who was smiling.“What is it?” She asked.“I expected to waste a lot of time convincing you it wasn’t. Most people don’t like accepting reality.”“I’ve got no trouble rejecting this one.” Adry said. Dust filtered down through a hole in the ceiling.“You’d be surprised. Terror is the only emotion that can overpower death. We’d rather be afraid than feel ourselves die. So we build a mental construct out of the only things that can distract us: A truth less bearable than reality. What do you see?”Adry ignored her. She walked towards the wide double doors. They had been blocked. She had thrown herself against them for hours, until her upper shoulder and arms were bruised, had clawed at the crack until her fingers were bleeding. There’d been a pillar from some promenade hundreds of floors up, plasticrete encased in marble sheeting. She’d stared at a seam in this for what felt like an eternity before someone came to help move the stone away. If this is in my head, then there will be no pillar. She looked out and it was there, pockmarked with the trauma of falling one hundred plus stories down. She shoved against the door, hard, knowing it would thump hard against the stone beyond. The memory was so sharp, so clear. Impact up the shoulder, impact until your teeth rattle. Impact, and your body is bruised and you’re still trapped in this room, you’ll always be trapped in this room--The smell of burning meat started to get to her. She threw her panic and her shoulder into it.The marble pillar crumbled like dust, fine silica gliding down and melting into the floor. The door swung open, dropping Adry into this pile. She watched as even the dust faded.“I don’t get it,” Adry said, staring at the door.“Our minds are smarter than we are.” Elanie said. “And this landscape is something your mind is building.”“Is it like, something that I need to face? Set fire to my fears and I get to wake up happy and healthy in my own bed?”Elanie shook her head. “Wouldn’t that be nice? Nope. Your body is in a state most simply described as ‘fucked up beyond belief’ and your mind is choosing things that most strongly fit what it is going through. It’s trying to convince you that it’s just not worth living through this.”“Collapse.” Adry muttered. “Mass murder.” She looked down the hallways. The dim, still functional lights had an awful green cast. Emergency lights were yellowish. Most would have to be activated manually. “It wasn’t worth living through the first time. But it took me hours to get out of here the first time.”“Maybe you’ve reached the point where your fear cannot confine you?”Adry considered this, then stood. “Or maybe I’ve just stopped giving a shit.”“That too.” Elanie followed.There was a body halfway down the hall. There had been a body there the first time, too, someone who had not survived long. Adry cringed. He had been the first. Male. Indian Ethnicity, but not from Earth, which meant Corsica or Inari or one of the Rim Worlds. She made a mental note of probable allergens and health complications, and the handful of drugs that worked better on Corsicans than on Earthlings. But it was all in her head, and none of it would matter. She stooped to wipe the blood from his eyes.“I don’t need to waste time saving them, do I?” She asked, jerking her head at the man.“Actually you do.” Elanie dropped beside the body. “Biofeedback. Your brain is fighting to save the rest of you, and this man is your idea of an interface. He’s an organ, maybe. Or a functioning process. Or maybe he’s your toes. This is something you don’t want to lose, that you might if we don’t hurry.”A pause while they checked for a pulse, and made a catalogue of injuries. Elanie pulled several pieces of stone out of his chest cavity. “Who was he?” she asked, at last.“Ayush Dutta,” Adry whispered. “Family of four. Came here from Naya Chennai on Corsica to collect genealogical information. He was on his way home, and he took a later flight because he didn’t want to put his family’s historical documents through inboard Digital Matter Storage. Third degree burns on sixty percent of his body. Internal injuries, wound to the head, broken left femur, tibia, fibula, first through fifth ribs, punctured lung—” her throat was now so tight she couldn’t finish.“Basically, ‘the building fell on him.’” Elanie said, softly.“He was the first person I…we gave morphine to. His wife, son, and daughter were in the operating rooms. It would have taken four hours to save his life, and even that was doubtful.” She wiped at her eyes. Imaginary tears. “That’s how we justified what we did.” Another long pause. “He was conscious. He asked for the morphine. He told me he knew he would die.” She brushed blood-matted hair off his forehead. “Why is he here?”“You’re dying, Adry. Your organs are failing. And I think you know that you might give up on yourself, but you’ll fight for these people. You owe them your life.”Adry shook her head. “I need to pay with my life.”Silence.“I’m sure they wouldn’t want you to die like this. It’s more than a little undignified.”“Maybe it is. Defeat. Pain. In the hands of an enemy…that’s how I’d want my murderer to die.”Elanie looked at her for a long moment. Weighing. Measuring. And finally she said, “So you’ll kill them all a second time.” The fluorescent lights overhead flickered crazily as the power waxed and waned. It was a testimony to human survival instinct; they’d built generators that could survive when everything else was gone.Adry closed her eyes, tightened her grip on the imaginary dying man’s hand. “I can’t do that.”“Help me carry him into triage.” Elanie said, and shaking, Adry did as she was told.