Note: Still in the process of editing this, but I wanted to get off my sorry duff and give ya'll something so you know I am working. ETA is mid april or early may, depending on when I get my computer up and running again.
Enjoy, my dears.
Bryan closed his eyes when the lights came on.
They had given him control of the room's lighting system. Just another disturbing kindness humans seemed capable of. Wasn’t it in their best interest to keep something as dangerous as himself disabled? And Human lights were so blinding. Not nearly as bad as starlight, but a burn by a wild fire is just as painful as lava. Past a certain point, one lost one's tolerance for pain. A human room at full brightness was like being trapped in a room full of Brightminds, or worse, being made to kneel at the feet of the Eldking himself.
Overseers would have done so. He would have done so.
But humans weren’t like that. When they had decided to keep him, they gave him his own room with the environmental controls where he could reach them. They could override those controls if they wanted to, and frequently did, but he could make the room dim as a proper compartment. This room was cool and humid as it ought to be. He was even able to set the bed controls to fit his rather generous frame. What right did they have to be so kind?
But humans needed light to ensure he had not made any surprises for them—he would not, but he knew most Overseers would have and he certainly would have worried every time that door opened—and so when the minds beyond the bulkhead stopped, he knew to close his eyes.
Without that sensory input, he was abandoned to the demon within.
Hunger. Such a simple word. It implied a placid void needing to be filled. A dull ache. A simple need. But for him, it was demanding, rampaging, whirling. Every cell in his body burned.
Not even like the pain of dying. You die, you go out like a candle. This is withering. I am drying out on the surface of the universe and there will be no recourse. There can be no salve for this. No recourse. I will not allow it.
He knew how to feed shallow, taking only as much as a soul could survive. He also knew that Holton Fleet had developed a drug that could permit him to feed in full without killing his victim. He even knew, in an academic way, that he had helped develop it during his human life. That he had provided for his own destruction in a way that would allow him to remain…useful…to those he once loved. He knew this, but it all paled compared to one simple truth: He could only survive by taking from a sentient life, and he did not wish to.
Millions of Overseers have done this. Millions. They have no problem taking lives. Even you did not hesitate at first, when you were young to this life and the fires burned so hot within.
And while we are at it, how is it that you can feel this loyalty so well you would let it destroy you, and you cannot truly remember your own name?
His human memories came and went like embers off a fire. Here, flaring, dancing, flashing…and then gone. Yesterday, or perhaps the day before, he had remembered his own name, and a significant portion of his human life. Today that was gone, and he was left with a handful of notes, jotted down in a language that an hour ago, he could barely read. Even now, he could not have formed those letters on his own. It was as if his human memory were some elusive animal to be studied and notarized while its presence was still recordable. This is the elusive boyhood memory, gliding through the wilds of the cerebellum without fear. He was fairly sure that, when his memory was nearer to human, he would find that reference funny.
The hunger pulsed again, pulling his attention back to the four minds beyond the door. Human minds, not capable of proper speech. They had to verbalize everything, and that made the sense of them more indistinct. More appetizing. Personalities had aroma, color, like the bouquet of fine wine. And he couldn’t help but to inhale.
Beyond the door: One mind of green on warm brown, moss on sunwarmed stone. Welcoming velvet on top, unyielding hardness below. One with a similar granite feel, but colored by red and liquid energy; the stone slab splattered with blood. Glittering incandescent gold, champagne, gleaming jewels, beauty—especially tempting. He’d never sensed anything so…happy before. Bryan felt confident how the life-energy of the other two would taste, but he had a perverse desire to experience the glitter of that burbling mind. Letting something so pure sate the hunger…conscience caught up with the impulse, and he felt an utterly useless urge to vomit.
He touched the fourth mind. Strangely unappealing, and even more strangely compelling. Gray. Endless skies without rain above the pale lunar surface. A perfect neutral.
The door opened. Closed. Boots echoed through his small room. The scents of human skin and human hygiene—deodorant, soaps, an artificial floral scent. He opened his eyes.
Bob. Jean Haskill. And two others whose names, he realized with a sinking feeling, he really ought to have known. He closed his eyes once more, then risked the onslaught of the lighting to check their nametags.
CDR. J. Henstridge. Gen S. Miller.
Yes, Bryan most definitely should have known who they were.
Bob was a Hispanic man, above human average but with a build that made him appear stubby, like some squashed shielding emitter. That sense of moss-covered stone fit him well. Haskill was a tall black man, slender build, face implacable and mind broiling with that dark, red rage. Bryan might not understand the green softness over Bob’s steel, or the soft pity in the gray man’s eyes, but he understood Jean quite well. His mind was nearest to an Overseer’s. You did not allow a threat to live. Even without mind-speech, here was something Bryan could finally rely on. He favored his left side, still. Broken ribs from the Mare’s last battle. Easy prey.
No. Bryan tightened his hands on his knees, feeling those inner teeth dig into the fabric. Better than feeling them taste flesh. Oh, how he longed to—NO.
Henstridge was the glittering mind. A pretty black woman, hazel eyes, strong facial features, a dusting of makeup—not unusual for humans to wear, but most Holton personnel went without—and nails that flashed with a dusting of glitter. It’s breaking uniform, but she doesn’t care. She keeps a bottle of acetone under her station, another in her pocket. She can take glitter polish off in thirty seconds if she has to.
I've seen her do it many times. But even that little flash would be gone in a handful of seconds.
Miller looked down at him, smiling. Tall white man, mostly unremarkable. Human average features, human average build. He was nearly Bryan’s height, on the high side of six feet. Blue eyes gave every expression a piercing quality, as if he were a hawk watching prey. And that gray neutrality. Patient. Waiting. Planning.
Shawn hooked the too small chair from the too small desk and sat on it. Comfy and casual. Maybe a human would be fooled, if they couldn’t taste that cool assessment going on beneath the skin. Bryan wondered what would happen when that calm ended.
After a long silence, Shawn said, “Must be like meeting a buffet you can’t eat.”
Bryan didn’t answer for a moment. If it was anyone else, that would be teasing, an insult. Something that he could answer with all the coiled energy demanding release. Even verbal sparring would be something he could hold onto. But Miller—Shawn, that was what the S stood for—genuinely wanted to know.
“People are not food,” Bryan said.
“But that’s not true for you, now, is it?”
Silence. It seemed the safest option.
“I don’t leave my people behind, Landry. Not even when they’re stuck in your situation. Nobody deserves this, and nobody deserves to starve to death.”
“At the moment I am fine.”
Shawn smirked, then leaned forward with a conspiratorial air. “Tell you what. You shake my hand without digging in, and I’ll give you a pass.”
Bryan closed his eyes, blocking out the light and Shawn’s outstretched hand. Bryan could mostly control his bite—the injection of the nematocyst teeth—but not that first reaction. The tightening of muscle, the faint prickling across the skin, that first involuntary taste. Not even a sip, just a wetting of lips and tongue. It only happened when he was particularly hungry, and it sharpened the sense of human mind.
He wasn’t sure he could resist that taste, should it come to skin-on-skin.
“I pose no danger to the crew.” Not in here, he wanted to add.
Shawn gave him a long, hard look. A human would have to be blind to read him as a harmless old man, he thought. He was also fairly confident that many humans had. It was something that had amused the crew back when Holton Fleet was—the memory was already gone. Goddamn it. Then the general brought out one of their datapads, tapped a few squares, and offered it to him. “We’ve got a meeting at oh-nine-thirty. All non-essential crew members are to attend. This includes you. You are,” he said, over Bryan’s protest, “still a part of my crew. And you’re going to attend this meeting. And then you are going to engineering to try to keep this hulk of bolts floating. We got a problem with the battery sub-banks feeding the drives. You’ll get into it with Engineering a bit later. We need you, Landry.”
“You would put your crew in that much risk to have them work with me.” Bryan said.
“We all have to compromise, eventually. Unless a better solution comes up.” He stood, and Bryan felt the old urge to scrap. To exert his dominance. To feed. Instead, he tipped his throat slightly back. If Shawn wanted his life, it was his. Miller was strong, and a good leader, and Bryan did not want his job. Surrendering dominance to something he could so easily kill was unnatural, but it was the right decision to make. And it felt like washing the body or turning a key. Something he’d done a thousand times before. Shawn smiled, slightly, but did nothing else to acknowledge the gesture. It was not, after all, something that humans did. Instead, the general nodded to Bob and Jean, then left the room.
Oh-nine-thirty was in an hour and a half. Bryan would have just enough time to attempt to use the humans cleansing facility and redress. His guardians—captors, if one wanted to be dead honest—stepped out of the room. Bryan stood and removed his overcoat.
He had misjudged the door's closing speed. He met Bob Harris's eyes. Shock lay there, and pity. His own shame rose to meet it, and fear. You did not allow threats to live...and you did not expose a weakness.
Door closed. Humans gone. He closed his eyes and leaned against the cool metal of the bulkhead.
Hunger burned down to the bone.