Disclaimer: Andromeda and characters are not mine (bet that comes as a shock to you!). Infringement of Tribune's copyright is not intended. I write because I enjoy it and hopefully because people enjoy reading.
Rating: PG – 13 for violence and sexual content. Nothing graphic.
Notes: I've only seen 4 episodes at the time of writing so go easy on the characterisation. This is my idea of what Harper's life was like on Earth and will probably be contradicted pretty quickly on screen. At least I hope it will. I'm looking forward to that episode already.
Cold And Bitter Slumbers
"…and of those born on Earth, they are the vermin of our New Order, they will live as vermin…"Garra Tell, Nietzschean High Commander.
Seamus Harper winced as he tried to swallow away the discomfort. His throat was sore; it felt like he had a wad of sandpaper stuffed down there.
Great, just great. He was going to get sick again.
Not that he wasn't used to illnesses. Coughs, colds, flus, measles, mumps…if it was out there to catch, Harper had had it at some point or other. Barely a month passed without him contracting something.
It was an annoyance, but one he'd learned to live with.
The rest of the Maru crew were as resigned to it as he. Beka would limit his duties without a second thought and Trance would appear sometime later with a bowl of hot soup and a hypo of antibiotics. Neither of them would actually mention he was ill, or ask how he was feeling. They knew better, He'd chewed them out over that too many times.
He hated being reminded he was sick.
Hated the peculiar sense of shame and guilt it brought on. Embarrassment at being weak and sickly.
Harper closed his eyes. God, he was starting to feel like shit. Was it hot in here? He felt hot inside and he was sweating.
But no, it was cold. Had to be cold. He was shivering, so it had to be cold, right?
"Oh crap," he muttered to himself.
Beka glanced across from her station. She'd been watching Harper since he'd come in. Knew that Rev was too. They recognised the signs.
Harper was sick again.
She walked up to him and touched his shoulder, surprised at the heat coming from his body. The kid was burning up.
"Take a break," she said casually. "You look like you could do with a coffee."
Dylan Hunt turned around in the Helm.
"Sorry, Harper, but I need those sensors back up first."
Beka straightened up. "Didn't your mother ever tell you it was rude to listen in to other peoples conversations?"
"We need those sensors." He repeated, "the next batch of asteroids we come across might knock out something more serious, especially if we can't see them coming."
"Well, Harper is a member of my crew, and I-"
Harper leaned against the engineering panel and his mind drowned out the argument in front of him. Then he found he was sitting on the floor, his legs having decided without his permission he wanted to sit down. Both Beka and Dylan were immediately there kneeling at his side.
He attempted a smile. "Wipe-out."
"He's sick." Announced Dylan and Beka opened her mouth to retort that all those years of High Guard training hadn't gone to waste when it came to stating the obvious, but Hunt was already half way across the room to fetch a med.-pack.
Beka turned her attention to the young man beside her struggling to hide the tremors in his body. It looked really bad this time. His body had barely had time to recover from the radiation they'd been exposed to a couple of weeks ago. It had left him even more vulnerable to infections.
She brushed his blonde hair from his eyes. "I knew this would happen if you went on that station."
She'd argued that to Dylan, but the captain hadn't seen Harper ill enough times to really worry about him.
"We needed those supplies, Beka." Harper pointed out.
"He should've sent someone else."
"There was no one else." Hunt said as he knelt back at Harper's side. "Harper was the only one who knew what we needed." He took out a hypo and quickly injected the young man with a mix of painkillers and antibiotics. Harper flinched at the discomfort.
"C'mon," Dylan said helping him to his feet, "let's get you to the medical deck."
Trance ran the scanner over Harper with the ease of long practice. She'd told him the names of almost all the nasty bugs he caught since joining the Maru.
It was a hellva long list.
Beka stood over him, glaring occasionally at Hunt who stood on the other side of the diagnostic bed, watching Harper with a kind of quiet shock. The kind he'd seen on all his friends' faces at one time or another. The sudden realisation of what being an Earth Res. had done to him.
Harper hated that look.
It was worse for Dylan. He was seeing with his own eyes for the first time the devastation the fall of the Commonwealth had had on his people.
And realising growing up on Earth in a filthy refugee camp with little food and no clean water was nothing to be proud of.
"You've got Ynah Fever." Trance said, "it's not that serious. I'll give you something to ease the symptoms and put you on a course of Immno-boosts."
Harper groaned, "IB's always make me wanna hurl."
The purple skinned alien gave him one of her smiles as she injected him with the IB. "You should get some sleep."
"Yeah, gotta finish the sensors first."
"The nano-bots can handle that. You get some rest." Hunt ordered.
"I'm not tired." He objected, "c'mon, Boss, the nano-bots are fast, but I'm faster."
"Rest. That's an order."
Beka caught up with Hunt in the corridor, her arms rigid at her sides. "I warned you this could happen."
"I'm sorry about Harper but we needed those supplies." Hunt replied. "Besides, Ynah Fever isn't serious. He'll be fine."
"Isn't serious for most people. Harper doesn't have the immune system of most people."
"He made the choice, Beka. He understood the risks and volunteered for the assignment."
"Because you asked him!" She argued, "he's barely recovered from the radiation poisoning. He wasn't ready to be exposed to the kind of atmosphere aboard a station. You shouldn't have allowed him to put himself at risk."
"He's a member of this crew. And that means you are occasionally put at risk."
"From Nietzschean ships. From the Magog. Not germs he shouldn't have been exposed to in the first place."
"Beka," Dylan sighed, "I know you're worried about Harper-"
"Don't patronise me!" She snapped, "I know my crew. I know their strengths and their weaknesses. And until you know them as well as I do, you should trust my judgement."
"I do trust your judgement." Hunt relaxed the tense stance his body always adopted when he argued. "And…maybe you're right, maybe I shouldn't have sent Harper in there so soon after the radiation poisoning. But he is going to be fine."
Beka wasn't ready to let her anger drop. "He'd better be!" She snapped.
His body ached. Harper lay curled on his side; the thick quilt pulled up to his jaw to keep out the cold only he could feel. At least the beds on the Andromeda were comfortable, it was small things like that that made being ill so much easier to bear.
A faint spicy aroma rose from the bowl of broth Trance had quietly placed at his bedside. A smell he usually found enticing was having little affect on his appetite. He just didn't want to eat.
Sleep beckoned and mussed his thinking. Trance had told him his temperature was rising; her words came as a jumble as his consciousness drifted like an unanchored boat on the tide.
Was he still on the medical deck? Or was this his quarters?
His quarters…his quarter's where?
On the Andromeda? The Maru?
Funny how he still thought of the Refugee camp as home. Funny? Oh yeah, a laugh a minute that place…
"Shay, c'mon, we were gonna go ragging, remember?"
Harper opened his eyes and sat up. An elfin-like girl was standing over his bed, more a pile of rags really. Her hair was matted into rat's tails, hanging limply around a thin sallow face.
Trance looked up when Beka entered the room, heading towards Harper's bed. She smiled slightly, wringing out a cloth before laying it on Harper's forehead. The young man reacted to the touch with a mumble. His lips moving soundlessly.
"He's delirious." Trance said, her voice tight with worry.
Beka frowned, "he's not usually this bad."
The alien nodded, wiping the beats of sweat from Harper's brow. "I know."
Six-year-old Seamus Harper followed his cousin out of the small shanty hut his family called home. It had been built from scavenged wood and metal. The cracks were filled with mud to keep out the cold and rain and thick weave cloths hung from the roof to serve as doors and partitions. It wasn't much to look at but it was warm and dry.
And more than that, it was home.
The moment they stepped outside the smell of the camps hit them. The stench came from the lack of sanitation, the pools of stagnant water and mud all around and the filth that floated in the river.
Declan was waiting for them at the riverbank, skimming stones across the stinking water. Something he could do and Seamus couldn't, no matter how hard he tried. Declan was half a head taller than him, with dark curly hair. His dirty rags hung on his skinny frame. He was little more than a walking skeleton, they all were. So malnourished it was amazing they grew at all. The twins were nearly five months older than Harper and Siobhan was a full 30 minutes older than her brother. A fact she often reminded Declan of because she knew it annoyed him.
"Didya see that?" Dec asked, "five skips that time!"
"That's nothing," snorted Siobhan, "Podraig can do 6 almost every time!"
Mention of the twin's uncle annoyed Declan. "It's still better than you!"
"I don't care. Who wants to skip stones anyway? It's silly."
Harper sighed. They always argued like this. "Are we gonna go ragging or not?"
Harper hated the flies even more than the putrid smell. He'd gotten used to the stench of death, growing up in the camps, but he would never get used to the flies…
They swarmed around the morgue, crawled over his flesh. He could feel their little feet trickle across his skin. Feet that moments ago walked over the flesh of the corpses, laying their eggs in the dead. Eggs that would hatch into maggots and feed off the rotting meat.
God, it was too much the Magog's…
Harper swallowed back the wave of nausea that rose in his stomach at the thought. He hated this. Hated himself almost as much for not being able to stand up to Declan and say he wasn't going to do it. Hated the need for food that drove them all to doing such acts.
Robbing the dead.
Harper jumped at the hissed words and glanced back to see Dec waving frantically to speed his cousin up. He ignored him. The orderlies had caught Harper on several occasions and the whipping he'd received had been painful. He wasn't about to be rushed into making too much noise and be caught again.
There were six corpses on the tables, laid out for burial. One was a child no older than he was. None of them were very old. People didn't live long in the camps.
I'm going to get out of here one day.He thought for the millionth time. Not gonna die here.
At the feet of each body was a pile of clothing. The clothing they'd been wearing when they…
Don't think about that.Harper shuddered and scooped up the piles. Then he hurried as quietly as he could back to the gap in the wall that he and Declan had made to get into the morgue. Dec's body was poking halfway into the room to watch his cousin's back. He grabbed the clothes from Harper before disappearing back through the hole. Seamus followed him and as soon as he was out the pair began running like the devil himself was after them.
Siobhan was waiting for them at the riverbank. She took the clothes from her brother and the two boys flopped down in the mud, lungs heaving for breath.
"There's some OK stuff here." She said, holding the clothes out to look at them, "should sell easily. You and Shay better stay here, though, someone might've seen you."
It was dusk when the girl returned. She walked quickly, clutching a bag to her chest, constantly looking over her shoulder to see if she was being followed.
Declan saw her first, a small figure in the distance. "That-that….chitter!" He swore, "I've told her not to look like she's scared. Anyone can see she's hiding something walking like that."
Harper didn't like hearing Dec call his sister that, but he was right. Seamus watched the girl coming closer, his mouth aching at the thought of the food she carried. His stomach had been so empty, for so long…
And the food was getting closer, closer…
He heard Dec's gasp a second before he saw them himself. The gang of youths, the Blades by their bandannas, seemed to appear from nowhere, surrounding Siobhan, whopping and catcalling. He and Dec broke into a run, covering the distance between them, spurred on by Siobhan's frightened screams.
Dec reached them first. He grabbed one of the youths, pulling him off his sister. The youth shook him off with ease, sending the boy sprawling in the mud. Harper watched in horror as his cousin disappeared from sight and he forced his legs to go faster. He reached the knot of youths and forced his way in, his small fists hurting with the force of the blows he threw. He caught sight of Siobhan, her face covered in her own blood, being punched and slapped in an effort to get her to surrender the food. Harper managed to get hold of Siobhan arm and yank her out of the grip of the youth hitting her. Siobhan fell back against him and the pair tumbled down. The youth immediately took advantage of the situation and began kicking them. Harper twisted to avoid the kicks and tried his best to cover Siobhan's body with his own. Another youth bent over them and grabbed the food bag from Siobhan. The girl clung desperately to it but a firm kick to her ribs made her lose her grip. The youth howled in triumph as he held up the bag.
The other youths cheered and ran off, laughing and joking.
"Dec!"Screamed Siobhan, "where's Dec?"
Harper scanned the darkness and saw his cousin sit up in the mud. "Here." Dec said bitterly, "I'm OK, you alright?"
"Yeah," Harper replied.
Siobhan began to sob. "I'm sorry. I lost our food."
Harper put his arms around her. "It doesn't matter." He told her, trying to ignore the hunger gnawing at his insides.
"It does!" Snapped Declan, "I told you to be cool carrying the stuff. If you'd've listened to me…"
The girl buried her face in Harper's shoulder. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry…"
Beka watched the young man tossing his head back and forth, muttering quietly to himself. His fever was raging. She had offered to stay with him while Trance rested, taking over the duties of nurse. Wiping Harper's brow with a cool cloth and trying to soothe his nightmares with words. Rev was to relieve her when his shift on the bridge had ended.
Hunt had been by once to see if the young man was improving. Their captain had just touched Harper's shoulder sadly, regret etched on his face.
She'd been too tired to voice her anger, and settled for glaring at him silently.
Dylan's eyes had met hers. "I'm sorry, Beka."
His first officer nodded towards Harper. "He's the one you should be apologising to," she'd said, "you'd better hope you get the chance."
Harper stared up at the stars, bright in the clear night sky. The air was crisp and biting and his much-mended rags offered no protection from the bitter winds that swept over the scarred and damaged planet.
He was eleven. He didn't remember when he'd begun this nightly ritual, coming to the top of the hill, the highest point in the camp, to gaze up at the stars but it was one of the few things he found comfort in.
The stars were up there waiting for him. He was going to live among them one day. Of that he was absolutely certain.
The others laughed at him over that belief. Born here, die here. They said.
But not him. Not Seamus Harper. He was gonna get out.
Harper yawned. It was getting late. His mother had warned him not to stay too long; the 'streets' of the refugee camp were not safe to walk after dark. Harper got up and began the trek back along the filthy river. He scanned the ground for stones as he walked, finally finding one that was flat and smooth, just right for skimming. He picked it up and curled his fingers around it the way Declan had shown him many times then pulled his arm back. He threw the stone with a fluid motion and watched it sail towards the water.
The stone hit the water and sank.
Harper swore. How hard could it be? Siobhan could do it; the snotty nosed kid in the hut across from his families could do it. Hell, the twin's newborn baby sister Jessica would be skimming stones before him
Why couldn't he?
He'd given up trying when Dec and the other kids were around, knowing they would tease him over his constant failure. Dec would never know how much his jokes hurt Harper.
He didn't want to be the only one who couldn't skim. Why did he have to be different?
But he was, and the older he got the more he knew it was true. It was one of the reasons why he was so convinced he wasn't going to die here.
There was a shuffling behind him. Harper turned in alarm, scanning the darkness for movement. He'd already stayed out long after curfew. His father would be furious.
He turned to go, walking quickly along the riverbank. Thick yellowy scum coated the banks, smelling foul. He'd heard stories of lakes on other worlds so clear you could see the bottom. He'd decided he'd believe that when he saw it.
It didn't sound right. Water was a see-through brown, everyone knew that. It was only clear when it fell from the sky, and then only when there hadn't been any duststorms.
Another noise behind him. Harper's heart began to pound and he quickened his pace. Someone grabbed his arm and a hand closed on his mouth.
"Shay?" The voice echoed through the camp, getting closer with each shout. "Seamus?"
It was Podraig. Harper sniffed back tears. He was sitting in the scummy shallows of the river, soaked to the skin. He'd been tossed there like a piece of worthless rubbish by that…
A shudder convulsed his thin body. He was numb, in shock.
Podraig was still calling his name. He had to get up, get out of the muck and the filth. That's where you vermin belong! The Nietzschean had spat as he threw Harper into the water.
"Seamus Harper, your Da told you to be back hours ago!"
Harper began shaking as Podraig came nearer. He could see the distant silhouette of the twin's uncle and he desperately wanted to run away, but his limbs were too stiff. Aching from the bruises and from sitting in the cold water for…how long? How long had he sat there, his mind panicking, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible?
"If your mother finds out you were playing by the…" Podraig trailed off as he came close enough to see the blood oozing from the cuts on Harper's face and the rips in his clothes. "God!" He immediately broke into a run and scooped the boy into his arms, "shh, it's OK now."
The eleven-year-old curled into a ball in Podraig's embrace and began to sob.
"Hush, Shay, I'm here." Podraig rubbed the boy's back comfortingly; "it is over."
"I know," Podraig closed his eyes, "believe me, I know. No one will hurt you again, I promise." He found Harper's face and laid a hand against his cheek. "We will never speak of this, Seamus, do you understand?"
Beka was dozing, her head resting on her arms. The chair next to Harper's bed wasn't ideal for sleeping in, but she wasn't about to leave the young man alone.
A noise roused her. She looked up, stretching the kinks out of her limbs.
Harper had curled into a ball, clutching at the quilt. His delirious mumbles became sobs. Beka was at his side in a moment, stroking his brow.
He twisted weakly from her touch, his breath hitching in his chest.
"It's OK, you've just got a fever. You'll be fine."
He was whispering something, his words so quiet she had to lean right over to hear them.
"Not my fault." He wept, "not my fault…"
Beka smoothed Harper's brow as the young man's delirious tears died away. Whatever his fevered mind had shown him it had scared him. And her. She had never seen him so frightened and so…child-like. He had huddled himself in her arms, seeking comfort in her presence and yet somehow disturbed by it.
"Harper?" She whispered, "what wasn't your fault?"
His eyelids flickered at the sound of her voice.
Her heart leapt. He'd heard her! "Fight it, Harper." She told him, "c'mon. Don't let this beat you."
He lifted his head just a little, "B-Bek…?" He murmured, "not…"
She frowned in confusion, not understanding him. Did he think she was blaming him for getting ill? "It's Dylan's; he should have listened to me. I should have made him listen."
His head flopped back and sleep overwhelmed him.
"Seamus? Can you hear me?"
His mother died the winter before the Magog's came. It was the one small comfort he felt in the years that followed. His mother had been spared that pain, the pain he and the rest of his family would always carry. She'd been weakened by pneumonia the year before and when the rations had been cut that winter and the river had flooded the land; she hadn't been strong enough to survive the cold and hunger. They buried her in the midst of a rainstorm, the heavy downpour soaking the mourners to the skin. The hole they'd dug had half filled with water and it had made him sick to see her simple coffin sink into the filthy water. She would be so cold in there.
And despite the indescribable sorrow he felt, he couldn't cry. The tears just would not come.
They never had.
Months passed and his father became distant and cold, the grief eating away at his heart. He barely spoke to anyone, not even Seamus. When he did speak to his son, it was in anger.
He'd lost that fire; the will to survive here that Seamus had always admired in his father. Now he was helpless, shutting himself away in the hut, sometimes for days on end, never eating or bathing. Flying into rages at the slightest things.
Harper began spending more of his time with his cousins and their parents, Jennifer and Liam. Jennifer was his mother's sister and she reminded Seamus so much of her, both in her looks and in her kindness. She had promised her sister she would take care of him and she had.
Harper looked up from the pile of junk he'd traded his food for. He immediately felt the heat that always burned in his cheeks when he saw the girl who was with his cousin. Ashling Morgan was Siobhan's best friend and quite possibly the prettiest girl in the camps. She was 14, the same age as Harper and very sweet. He wished he had the courage to say something to her other than an embarrassed 'hi'.
"Dec said you traded!" Siobhan complained. "And for that…that whatever it is!"
"It's a portable 'pute interface. I got a good deal!" He knew he'd be in trouble with Siobhan for the trade. She had worked hard to convince the guard to give them extra food in exchange for running errands.
"Good deal! Shay, it's virtually an antique!" She tapped behind her ear; "it's all up here now. Didn't you see that one on the Stationer?"
He had seen it and since then he'd thought of little else. "Yes. And I'm going to have one of those one day."
Siobhan burst into laughter. The derisive kind that only teenaged girls seemed to be capable of. He noticed that Ashling didn't join her.
"I am." He said, "but I need to know how they work first and this is more basic. It should be easy to figure out."
She knew that was the truth. He had a gift for technology, seeming to know how to do things without ever being taught.
Whatever Siobhan might have said was lost in the sudden screams that filled the camps. They all turned to look in the direction of the voices. People were running towards them, headed in no particular direction, just running in a blind panic.
Harper spotted Dec in the mass, his eyes wide with terror.
"MAGOGS!" He screamed. "We gotta get out of here!"
As he reached them the sounds of laser fire filled the air, mixing with the panicked screams.
"Kids?"Podraig shouted as he pushed his way through the people to them.
The twins father, who was also fighting his way to them, waved to his brother. "Go," he yelled, "take the children. Don't wait for us!"
Podraig wavered, indecision on his face, but only a moment. He hurried the twins away, Ashling following, but he noticed that Seamus wasn't with them.
"Shay!" He called back, "we've got to stay together!"
Harper ignored him and stayed where he was; he could see his aunt and uncle a little way behind clutching their little daughter Jessica, their eyes filled with terror. But no matter how hard he looked he couldn't see his father. He scanned the crowds frantically for the pallid, unkempt face of his father.
Then he saw them in the distance.
Stocky creatures with brown matted hair. Their ugly mouths spewing acid venom into the faces of their victims. People he knew, his neighbours, his friends. Their screams of absolute agony as their skin blistered and burned echoing in Harper's ears. There were hoards of them, swarming through the huts. Coming towards them, mindlessly killing the people in their way.
Oh God, were they…?
Harper wanted to vomit at the sight. The Magog's were eating the dead and the mortally wounded who wished they were. Death could not come to soon to take them away from the pain.
He found he couldn't look away, couldn't move, couldn't run. He had to watch.
Watch transfixed as the people he'd known since the day he was born being massacred around him.
Flesh was torn from bone.
The mud was turning scarlet with blood.
And then the tide of Magog engulfed him…
Someone was yelling at him to move, hands grabbing at him to force him into a run. He was dimly aware that it was his uncle, half dragging him to catch up to Podraig and the twins. But the images he'd seen kept replaying themselves in his head and he couldn't make them stop.
Good people, people he counted as friends had been eaten alive in front of him.
He knew Liam thrust him into Podraig's grip, knew Podraig was screaming his name at him in an effort to snap the boy out of his trance. The sound echoing, coming as something not connected to reality. Harper was drowning in the sounds of the terror and the killing around him.
Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop…
He didn't know whether his hysterical cries were aloud or just in his mind but the panic into which he descended sent him crashing to the ground. He landed heavily. His uncle grabbed at his wrist to pull him to his feet. Harper gasped when he saw two Magog coming after them. Liam saw the horror on his nephew's face and glanced back to see what had caused it. He swore when he saw the Magog's. He knew they couldn't out run them.
"Jennifer!" Liam yelled at his wife, "get the children as far away as you can. Podraig and I will slow them down."
"No, they can-"
The anger in his voice made Jennifer flinch and roused Harper out of his shock. There was no time for arguments. She met her husband's eyes and Harper saw the unspoken words that passed between them in a blink of an eye.
They were saying goodbye.
It scared him more than the Magog. More than the death surrounding them.
Suddenly it was real. They knew they were going to die.
Podraig nodded once to his brother and Liam took one last look at his family.
Then the brothers charged the Magog…
"How is he?"
Beka gasped, shocked at the sudden voice. For a split-second she'd thought Harper had spoken. But in the next moment she recognised the tone as Rev Bem's.
The Magog always moved silently, like the rest of his race. But unlike them, he never used his natural stealth to threaten.
It still didn't stop her heart from jumping at his sudden appearance.
"Not good." She sighed. Beka rarely felt as helpless as she did right now. "I don't know what's going on in that head of his but whatever it is, it's not helping."
Rev looked down at the young man. Harper's face was pale and coated in sweat, his eyes sunken into their sockets. "The Divine has a plan for all of us. We must pray Harper's part in all things is not completed just yet."
Beka yawned, "yeah." She took one last look at Harper; "he's all yours."
Rev watched her leave then began to pray.
His chest hurt. The cold air burnt his lungs as he gulped down breaths but it wasn't enough to satisfy the exhaustion in his muscles.
"Keep going," his aunt wept. "Don't look back."
Harper didn't want to look back, didn't want to see Liam and Podraig's flesh devoured, but the urge to do so was almost overwhelming. He needed to see if they were still alive. He heard a howl in pain. Knew it was his uncle. Jennifer heard it too and choked back a sob, tightening her grip on the little girl in her arms.
"Daddy!" Siobhan stopped and turned back. "DADDY!"
Dec broke into a run, following his sister.
"NO!" Their mother cried, "Siobhan! Declan!"
Jennifer grabbed Harper to stop him from going too. "Take her." His aunt said, thrusting little Jessie into his arms. She struggled to return to her mother. "Get her away from here!" Jennifer began running after her children.
"Mummy!" Jessie screamed, "don't go, mummy."
"Please Seamus!" Jennifer called back.
Harper felt tears on his cheeks. He looked around at the crowds of people, some heading as fast as they could away from the camps in an effort to escape, some like him, standing there, not knowing what to do and further back, those who had chosen to stand their ground and fight.
And beyond them, those who had been….
Don't think of that!
The Magog were winning. He could just see their masses, coming ever closer as they killed and eat those who stood in their way, laying their eggs in others. He knew he shouldn't head towards them, knew he ought to get Jessie to safety, but he couldn't just abandon his family.
Harper gripped Jessie tightly and began running after Jennifer. He heard a few of the people he knew call to him not to go. In some distant part of his mind, he realised one of them was Ashling. And knew that was probably the last time he'd ever see her.
And as the thought that he should have given Jessie to her occurred to him, he stopped in horror.
Dec was on the ground, his body unnaturally stiff and rigid. He watched as Siobhan was thrown next to him. He cried out as he saw four Magog fall on top of the twins, smothering them.
Their mother screamed. She threw herself at the horde of Magog, hitting their backs, kicking. Her instinct to save her children giving her strength.
One Magog stood up and turned to her. Acid spewed from the Magog's mouth hitting Jennifer in the face. A scream of utter anguish filled the air as her skin bubbled and peeled. She fell back onto the blood soaked mud her fingers clawing at her face to get the acid off. Her nails drew blood, which flowed down her neck and oozed over her hands.
And yet in her agony she managed to open her eyes and see Harper.
"Run, Seamus, save my baby!"
The Magog turned to Seamus and started towards the boy.
Harper took one last look at his aunt and ran.
Rev stood by Harper's bedside, head bowed, listening to his quiet moans and mumbled words as he tossed and turned. Rev Bem's lips moved slightly as he murmured a prey to the Divine.
Beads of sweat trickled down Harper's brow and Rev watched as he twisted in the throws of some nightmare. His dreams gave him no rest.
Rev closed his eyes and lay his hand above Harper's heart. His touch meant to offer comfort. To let the young man know he wasn't alone.
Harper's eyes snapped open at the feel of the clawed Magog hand on him, bright and vivid with fever.
He stared up at Rev, his face full of fear.
And then hate…
Harper struggled from his bed; his limbs weak but he managed to get to his feet. He lunged forward, his hands slipping around Rev's throat and squeezing with surprising strength. The Magog gasped in surprise. He took Harper's wrists and tried to pull him off without hurting the young man.
At that moment Dylan walked into the room to check on Harper's condition.
"Rev!" Dylan's voice rang out, "Harper!"
Hunt rushed forward and grabbed Harper, pulling him off Rev with ease.
Rev stumbled backwards, gasping for breath and rubbing his neck. "It's the fever," he managed to say, "he doesn't know what he's doing."
Harper sank into Dylan's arms and the captain lifted him and returned him to his bed. He pulled the quilt over him and watched as Harper slipped back into his fevered dreams.
"What made him attack you?"
"I do not know."
It was dark when the Magog pulled back, disappearing almost as fast as they came. They set fire to the huts in celebration. It spread rapidly destroying the crops as it engulfed everything in sight. The animals burned too. There would be hardly any food, certainly not enough to last the winter. The survivors who were able formed human chains to the river and passed buckets of water in a desperate effort to save what was left of their community. Harper had helped where he could, becoming covered in soot and soaked to the skin.
When he could do no more, he found a sheltered spot and huddled with his little cousin to keep her warm.
What had happened to her parents? To the twin's?
Where was his Da?
Jessie was whimpering in his arms. The child's tiny body felt limp, her blue eyes disinterested in the world. He clutched at her like a drowning man clutches at a life preserver; his entire world had narrowed until nothing else existed but her. She was his reason for being.
Shocked and injured people wandered around the camps. Some were searching for their loved ones; others had found them, what was left of them.
They all wore the same expression.
They all knew they stood in Hell.
He looked up with red-rimmed eyes, his cheeks streaked with tears. The man who stood over him wept with relief at finding him alive.
"Daddy?" Whispered Harper.
His father pulled him into his arms, his grip so tight it felt like he would never let him go.
His father carried Jessie as he led Harper through the camps and the dazed and injured people. All around them were the dead and the dying, Magog as well as human. Some of the Magog bodies had been set alight filling the air with the acrid scent of burning flesh and fur. A small act of vengeance by the torn and ravaged souls left behind.
Almost all of the huts that had survived the blaze had been looted, the structures weakened near to collapse. But most of the homesteads were just ashes now, smouldering in the darkness.
His father kept asking him what had happened to Liam and Jennifer and the twins. He couldn't answer, couldn't even think of it. He didn't want to be made to remember what he'd seen. The sight of the half-eaten corpses they picked their way through was reminder enough. He was glad that Jessie had fallen into an exhausted sleep. No one should have to see this, but definitely not a 3-year-old child.
Harper tried his best to ignore the dead, not look at them. The darkness masked most of the grizzly remains from him but not all.
He knew where they going. His father was taking him home. He could see smoke rising from the place where their hut was and realised there was probably very little left.
Harper felt his heart leap at the sound of that voice. Podraig dodged his way around the people, hurrying towards them. His face was scarred with Magog venom and his clothes damp with blood, both his own and other people's. Harper's stomach lurched when he realised Podraig's arm was badly mauled. Someone had cauterised the vicious tears to stop the bleeding. He wondered how the man was managing to stay upright.
"Seamus! Jessie!" The twin's uncle enveloped him in a hug, "We thought-" He stopped, unable to complete the sentence. We thought you'd been eaten.
"We?" Callum asked, "are Liam and Jen alright?"
"Liam is hurt badly. He…" Podraig looked away. "He's dying. Jen is with him…and the twins. They're…" He bowed his head, "they're alive."
Podraig took them to the main medical centre in the refugee camp. A place Harper had been to a number of times in his life. Temporary shelters had been erected around the centre. Small tents for the homeless families and the larger ones made extra 'wards' for the injured. Behind these, Harper saw a sea of dirty sheets laid out but there were so many bodies being brought there by the survivors that some of the mostly untouched corpses hadn't been covered. The sheets were being saved for those to hideously injured to be seen.
The medical staff hurried around, working as fast as possible, trying to save as many as they could. But supplies were limited; time was short.
Hard choices were being made.
A triage team had already treated Podraig. And he told them that Jennifer had received care too, but Liam and the twins had not.
Nothing could be done for them.
They were as good as dead already.
Podraig stopped at the entrance to one of the little shelters and held open the door flap. They went in.
Jennifer sat on the floor, her face, arms and hands wrapped in bandages. Her eyes stared out from the mask holding no emotion. It was almost as if she couldn't see.
Then she saw the child sleeping in Callum's arms and she cried out. She pulled herself painfully to her feet and snatched the little girl back.
Harper looked beyond his aunt to the rough rag beds where his uncle and cousin's lay. He knelt between them, afraid of what he would see. Liam was unconscious, his life slipping away moment by moment. He was so badly burned by the Magog venom Harper only recognised his uncle by the ornate Celtic cross that hung around his neck. His left shoulder was bound tightly to stem the flow of blood from the stump where his arm used to be.
Seamus looked away and his eyes fell on Siobhan's skinny frame. He gasped when he realised she was awake. Both the twins were.
"Dec! Siobhan!" He said in relief, he had thought he wouldn't see them again. "You guys are OK?" And then he noticed their eyes, wide with terror.
"They can't move, Shay," Podraig murmured, "they're paralysed."
Then he understood their terror.
Terror at not being able to move.
Terror at the feel of the Magog eggs inside them.
Terror because they knew they were going to die.
"But that means they're-"
Harper choked back a sob and fled from the shelter. He barely got outside before the little food he had inside his stomach hit the ground.
Dawn broke over the camps, bringing a light drizzle. The survivors, their faces pale and drawn, began clearing up. Taking the dead to the make shift morgue outside the medical centre and digging graves. That was the most urgent deed, re-building of their homes could wait. The rapidly decaying bodies would spread disease; they had to buried quickly. The mood sombre but they were determined. Their community had been challenged before, by floods, disease and Nietzschean raiding parties. But they had survived. They would again.
Others moved the 'infested' to a separate hut. The ones who lay paralysed on the ground, incubating little Magog eggs. Their innards being eaten but they were unable to scream.
No one touched the Magog dead; too afraid you could be infected even from a corpse. They were simply burned where they lay.
As the day wore on, the stink of the decaying bodies filled the air, forcing them all to cover their mouths and noses with rags to guard against infection and keep out the smell.
The dead piled up, too many to count, some burned beyond recognition, beyond all semblance of humanity.
Some of the bodies were claimed by relatives and given a worthy burial. Most had no family left alive to find them and offer them a dignified funeral. They would be placed into mass graves and covered.
Despite his young years, Harper went with his father and Podraig to help. He was paired with a 16-year-old lad, David, to stretcher the dead to the mass grave. At first they both tried to lay the corpses carefully and with respect but as the numbers mounted and the hole filled, it became impossible to do that. In the end it felt just like moving logs or metal casings.
When night fell, he was told to return to his family. He got back to find his aunt sobbing quietly, watching Jessica sleep. He sat beside her, "Aunt Jen?"
She turned to him and then looked behind her at the beds. Harper followed her eyes and saw Liam's face was covered.
His uncle was dead.
They buried Liam later that night and covered his grave with a cairn of stones. The next morning, a Sunday, a small group of religious leaders held prayers at the mounds of earth where so many had been laid to rest in a mass grave. Harper attended the service with Podraig and his father but the memorial's given felt like little more than a pale shadow of what they should have been. There were no words in existence to express the enormity of what had happened. Hardly any tears were shed, there wasn't any left.
Harper saw Ashling on the other side of the mass grave, standing with her older brother, the only other member of her family to survive. They had found what little was left of their mother but nothing of their father. If he hadn't been eaten, he was one of those blackened lumps Harper had laid in this grave. She smiled ever so slightly when she saw him, a small joy in a world turned mad.
He tried to smile back but found he was too tired. He hadn't slept properly since the Magog came. Every time he closed his eyes at night he saw them, killing, spitting their acid venom…devouring human flesh. And even when he did manage to fall asleep, the images came to him in dreams. Jennifer would wake him but she was too tired to offer much comfort.
His aunt spent most of her time by the twin's bedside, feeding them through straws and taking care of the most basic natural functions that they had lost control over. Harper tried not to notice when one of them wet themselves, his heart aching when he saw the shame in their eyes over their lose of control. The medical staff was due to visit them later that day. Podraig knew what the doctors would say. Knew what they had to do.
So did Harper.
But Jennifer refused to believe they were dying. Didn't want to except that nothing could be done.
And Callum…his father would snort and walk away.
When the service ended, they walked back to the temporary shelter in silence. It was their home now. They had scavenged what little was left of their home, the pots and farming tools mostly, the metal things that hadn't burned. Podraig was already talking of rebuilding their shanties when his arms were healed.
The medic came at midday, looking tired and sombre. There had been so many injured and so few medical staff. He attended to Jennifer and Podraig, changing their bandages and cleaning their wounds before checking over Harper and Jessie.
Then he turned to leave.
"Wait!" Jennifer stopped him and pointed to the twins in the beds, "my children!"
The medic looked at Podriag, "infested?"
Podraig bowed his head. "Yes."
"Then you know what you have to do." He said, "I'll send a nurse around with…." He trailed off, not wanting to say the words.
But Podraig understood. "Thank you."
"Wait!" Jennifer cried. "Aren't you even going to look at them?"
The medic laid a hand on her shoulder, "I'm sorry. There is nothing I can do."
"No…no there must be…there has to be!"
"Jennifer…" Podraig pulled her into his arms. The woman pressed her bandaged face into his shoulder and wept.
It was a few hours later before the nurse arrived. A young man with copper coloured hair not all that much older than Harper. He held a roll of fabric nervously in his hand. Jennifer spat at him to leave but Podraig took her arm.
"I won't watch them suffer any more!"
"They're not! They're getting better, I know they are." She said desperately, "I saw Declan smile at me today. His mouth moved, you saw too didn't you, Shay?"
Harper felt his mouth go dry and he licked his lips, torn between loyalty, the truth and his own selfish desires to save the twins.
"If you did, it was just a twitch." Podraig murmured.
Podraig took her shoulders in his hands and made her face him. "They're infested with Magog eggs, Jen!"
"The doctors can remove them!"
"They can't. It's not possible and even if it was… their insides…. They're being eaten. They won't survive, no matter what."
"They won't! They're paralysed. They're in pain!" He grabbed her arms; "you must see that. We can't let them suffer, I won't let them suffer,"
"I WON'T KILL MY OWN CHILDREN!" She shrugged off his hands and began pummelling him with blows. Podraig's face creased with pain as she targeted her fists on his torn arms. "I WON'T! I CAN'T!"
"And if we leave them?" Podraig asked, grabbing her arms and forcing them against her sides. "What then? What happens when those eggs have done feeding?"
"I'll tell you, shall I? They'll eat their way out of them-"
"…And then the little Magog's will kill us…kill Seamus, kill Jessie."
"Is that what you want?"
Harper couldn't move; he could only stare at them.
And then at the twins. Dec and Siobhan's eyes seemed to plead to him. Telling him to do what they couldn't. He felt his legs moving, leading the nurse to the twin's bedsides. The nurse knelt down and unrolled the fabric, revealing two full hypodermic syringes.
Jennifer saw what was happening and screamed incoherently for them to stop. Podraig grabbed her waist from behind before she had a chance to move towards them and held her in place. She struggled hard, kicking and twisting in his grip, but he refused to let go.
Harper watched over the nurse's shoulder as he pushed one of the needles into Siobhan's arm and then the other into Declan's. He met his cousin's eyes but neither held any anger or betrayal.
Instead there was only gratitude. Their pain and humiliation was soon to end and they welcomed it.
Podraig let go of Jennifer and she ran to her children's side, sobbing. She pulled their heads into her lap and rocked them, hushing them gently.
"You'll be alright. Mummy's here, shh…"
Death came rapidly and within a minute both twins shuddered once, gasped and died.
Jennifer screamed a howl of pain from the very depth of her soul.
Harper began crying, his sobs racking his chest. He couldn't breathe.
Jennifer slapped his across the face. "MURDERER!"
"No…" he choked, "I'm sorry."
She began raining blows down upon him. "MURDERER! MURDERER! MURDERER!" She sobbed over and over. Podraig tried to pull her off of the boy but she pushed him away. Podraig landed heavily on the ground.
"Jen, stop! You're hurting him!"
One of Jennifer's blows hit the side of his head and Harper fell. He collapsed at her feet sobbing.
She stared down at him. "Murderer." She said one last time and fled from the tent.
"Jennifer!" Podraig called, racing after her. Harper struggled to his feet and stumbled behind them, his head still muzzy from the blows.
Jennifer stopped at the mass grave, her eyes wild. Podraig slowed down and put out a hand to stop Harper from getting to close to her. They watched in horror as she picked up a farming scythe. A long razor sharp tool the gravediggers had been using to shovel the soil as quickly as possible.
She was calm as she swung the tool around, gathering its momentum. The woman stared at them almost as if she were staring right into their souls…Then she jerked the scythe upwards and it buried itself deep into her heart.
Thick red blood jetted out, a bright fountain of red.
Harper heard someone screaming hysterically.
And some time later realised it was him…
Trance gently gave Harper another dose of Immno-boasts. These were much stronger than the first doses she'd given him. Those didn't appear to be working; he needed something stronger.
As she finished, Harper's body went rigid, his arms jerking, fingers stiffened into claws.
Trance stepped back in shock. "Dylan, Beka!" She cried into the Comm, "you'd better get down here!"
She grabbed the young man and tried to hold him steady to prevent him from hurting himself. He was making a strange gagging noise and she realised he was about to swallow his own tongue. Trance forced her fingers into his mouth and pressed them down, holding his tongue in place. His teeth bit down on her fingers and she moaned in pain but didn't pull away.
Then as suddenly as it started, Harper's body went floppy and limp.
"Harper?" She said, hopefully, "Harper?"
how sweet the sound.
I once was lost
but now I'm found…."
The sound of Ashling's beautiful voice drifted through the darkness, curling around the smoke that rose from the pyre. A small group of mourners stood huddled in the darkness, listening to the song and remembering.
The fire crackled and spat.
A mother and her children united in the flames.
Harper shivered in the cold night air as he watched the bodies of his cousin's and their mother burning. There were no burials for the infested. The people were too afraid in case the hatchlings continued to live and grow even in a dead host. Cremation was the only sure way to kill them.
Podraig had quietly said Jennifer should be with them and no one had questioned that. It had just seemed right.
Jessie clutched at his hand, watching the flames with fascination. She'd become very clingy; fretting to the point of hysteria if he or Podraig wasn't in sight at all times. It was draining on them both but neither complained.
He saw his father staring him. Callum had become even more bitter these last couple of days. Harper wondered if it was because the Magog hadn't killed him too. He knew his father felt he had nothing to live for. He never seemed to find comfort in his son.
He avoided Callum's eyes and stared into the flames. The smell of burning flesh was unique, acrid and yet strangely sweet. The whole camp stunk of it; he'd got used to the smell of other people pyres. It clung to his clothes, scented his hair; he would never be rid of it.
But his own family's stuck in back of his nose and made him taste it.
Hot bitter tears ran down his cheeks. It wasn't fair. Why did the twin's have to die? Who had made the choice between him and them?
He felt the back of his father's hand across his face before he noticed Callum had come up to him.
"How can you cry for them?" He demanded.
Podraig laid an arm around Harper's shoulders. "Leave the boy be, Callum."
"Just answer the question!"
"They're my…were my cousins…my aunt…"
"What makes them better than your own mother?" Callum grabbed his shirt and forced his son to look at him. "Why didn't you cry for your mother?"
Podraig pulled Harper away from his father. "I won't let you hurt him."
"Where were your tears for her then?" He lunged at his son, the force of the blow sending Harper to the ground with a loud thump. "TELL ME!"
Harper struggled to his feet. "I couldn't," he whispered backing away from them, "I wanted too…. I just couldn't…"
Then he turned on his heals and ran.
Harper looked up at the sound of Ashling's voice. He sat at the banks of the river with a small pile of flat stones at his feet. The air was a little fresher here, but still held a faint odour of burning corpses, human and Magog.
"C'mon, Shay, I know you're here!"
The nickname grated on his nerves. Siobhan and Dec had given him that name.
"Don't call me that!"
Ashling smiled in triumph. "Guessed you'd come here." She walked in the direction of his voice and sat down beside him. There was a long silence. Ashling picked up a stone and studied it. "Still trying to skim? I'd give up if I were you."
She stood up and tossed the stone across the water. It skipped twice before splashing into the filth. Harper watched it then looked up at her. There was none of the superiority that his friends had on her face.
They were all dead. Only Ashling survived, and they weren't really friends. She was Siobhan's friend.
And at that thought he remembered that she was grieving for them too.
"I thought, um what you sung was…um," he blushed, "nice."
She sat down again. "Thank you."
Another long silence fell.
"When I was little," she said eventually, "I…I sorta wanted to be a singer."
He grinned, feeling a trickle of happiness through him.
"I know, stupid, huh?"
"No!" He said quickly, "no not at all. I think you're good."
"Yeah. You could make it on a station somewhere."
"Nobody gets out of here, Shay, I mean, Seamus."
"I am." He said with absolute certainly. "I'm getting out. Dec says-" He stopped and looked away. For a moment it had felt like the world made sense again. And at the mention of Dec it had vanished. "What are you doing here anyway?" He asked, his tone hard.
"I was worried about you. I heard what your Da said."
Harper snatched up the rest of the stones and stood. He threw them one by one at the water. "Well he's right. I didn't cry. And I'm glad I didn't. I don't wanna give him the satisfaction of seeing me do anything. I hate him. I wish he'd died instead of mum, or Uncle Liam, or the twins or just about anyone!" He sobbed.
Ashling got up and nervously put her arms around him. "Shh…" She said, "it's…it'll be OK…" Her mouth brushed his, soft and moist. Harper pulled back in surprise. Her eyes stared into his, full of the same pain and sorrow he felt inside. He laid a hand on her cheek and she tilted her head up, inviting him to kiss her. He nervously put his lips on hers. She tasted sweet.
Their kisses deepened, full of need. The need to push the pain away, to heal the anger.
A need to feel alive amidst all this death.
Dylan, Beka and Rev stood by Harper's bedside. The young man was deathly pale and beads of sweat stood out on his brow. But for the first time, he looked peaceful. He was no longer mumbling half-formed words or tossing restlessly in the bed. He appeared to be sleeping deeply.
A good sign? Dylan wondered.
Trance finished injecting Harper and turned to them. "His temperature got so high he was convulsing."
"Convulsing? You mean he had a fit?" Asked Beka, her voice full of alarm.
Trance nodded. "I've given him some Retrovint to lower his fever. And he's stable but…"
"But?" Prompted Dylan.
"I just checked the medical database. It says in the most severe cases the patient experiences vivid delusions," Trance fidgeted nervously, "usually in the form of memories."
"I do not think that for someone like Harper that would be a particularly enjoyable experience." Rev said.
Beka looked down at Harper, remembering some of the stories he'd told her of his youth. She hoped to God some of it was exaggerated. "Is there anything we can do?"
Trance shook her head. "No, but…" She gazed down at her friend, that odd little girl tilt to her head, her eyes wide and innocent. "But he must be so lonely…just in his dreams."
"I'm sure he knows we're here, Trance." Dylan said comfortingly. Beka thought he sounded ever so slightly patronising.
The purple skinned alien frowned. "No he doesn't."
"Either way I don't think it matters if he knows we're here or not."
"I do," Trance said quietly.
"I believe I have a suggestion, Dylan." Rommie blinked into existence beside him. The others seemed a little surprised at her sudden appearance, but Dylan was used to it. In truth, Hunt preferred her in this form. Her human body was just too…. human. As she stood now, in hologramic presence, she was his last link to the past. "It is possible I could interface with him through his neck port."
"Would that break his fever?"
"Unlikely." Rommie replied.
"But he wouldn't be alone anymore, would he?" Trance cried.
"However, there is also the possibility that if Harper dies while a part of my program was uploaded into his hyperthalmus, it could be lost forever."
"In that case I have to say no."
"But he'd know Rommie was there!" Trance objected, "he wouldn't be alone in his memories!"
"I can't risk Rommie's program being lost or corrupted, especially as there's nothing she can do to help Harper."
"Trance thinks it will help him." Beka said firmly. "And I trust Trance."
"And you said you trust my judgement when it comes to m…our crew."
They stared each other down for a long moment then Hunt broke into a grin. "My last first officer used to win arguments all the time too."
Snow fell sometime after, freezing up the river and coating the many graves with a covering of white. Podraig's torn arm healed as best it could but he gradually lost the use of his hand. Despite this, he and Harper set about rebuilding their homes. Callum rarely helped them, not with labour or with food. He became a shadow, wasting away, drifting in and out of their lives without warning, going for days at a time.
Jessie found her childhood again the morning she awoke to find the deep snow all around. Jack Frost had done it, Podraig told her. Just for you…
Ashling became a regular visitor and although Harper never looked to deeply into their need-filled relationship, he knew she made him happy. Despite the terrible things that had happened in his life, he had her now and she was everything.
That winter was one of the hardest he remembered, the crops had burned in the Magog attack and Fishing became impossible with the river iced over thick enough to walk on.
And to skate on…
Beka hooked up a lead for the mainframe, hoping she wouldn't have to be the one to jack Harper into Andromeda. It always made her feel slightly ill to see the long metal connector disappearing into his skull. And she'd seen him wince enough times over the feedback to know the sensation wasn't very pleasant.
Tyr looked up from the terminal. "It's ready."
Beka picked up the jack reluctantly. The Nietzschean continued his work on the computer and Trance was still tending to Harper. And both Dylan and Rev were on the bridge.
And she couldn't ask Rommie.
It would have to be her.
Beka went to Harper's side and leant over him, glancing at Rommie's human form beside her.
"Are you sure you want to do this?"
Rommie nodded and Beka took a deep breath. Her fingers pushed Harper's head to one side so she could see the small metal port near his ear. She shuddered as she slid the jack in. "Okay, it's in."
Tyr tapped a command into the terminal. "Uploading."
Rommie closed her eyes and her body went stiff.
It was Christmas when the hut was finished. A smaller one than Harper had grown up in, but with the lack of materials and time, that was all they could do. Besides which with only him, Podraig and Jessie living there, it didn't need to be all that big. His father came and went, eating what little food they had and disappearing again.
At first Harper would wait up at night, worrying if Callum hadn't returned. Terrified of all the things that could have happened to him. But as time wore on and Callum would leave them without enough food to make sure Jessie went to bed with something in the stomach, or his father would ridicule him for his concern, he found he was passed caring anymore. Podraig was his father now.
And Podraig did his best to provide for his family, but food was so scarce that everyone in the camps looked like little more than walking skeletons.
Harper stopped in the doorway and looked back at Podraig. "Yeah?"
"Don't stay out too late." Something dark crossed his face; "it's not safe."
Harper shuddered. "OK." He turned to go.
"And don't go on the ice! The thaw's coming."
He didn't know then that those words would haunt him the rest of his days.
Rommie opened her eyes. She was standing on the bank of a filthy river, in front of a small jetty. The icy air was tainted with the smell of waste.
The sense she had existed for so long without had been one of the joys of becoming human. She had smelt the flowers in the hydroponics garden the day Harper had made her and she'd realised what she'd missed.
But standing here in the mire of Harper's memories, she was coming to the conclusion that a life without smell wasn't such a disability here.
More a blessing.
Rommie realised her feet were cold and she looked down. She was standing in a crisp white….covering.
Rommie's eyes lit up. This was snow. She was standing in snow.
Rommie looked up at the voice, recognising the name and scanned the riverbanks for the familiar face of Harper. But the only people she could see were a couple of thin, pale kids. One, a girl was sliding about on the ice while her male companion watched from the bank.
"Seamus!" The girl called again to her friend.
Rommie frowned and stared at the kid on the bank more closely. He was fairly short for a human male, with dirty blonde hair. His skin was pale and smudged with dirt and so thin. Just a skeleton.
As she walked closer, she saw in his child's face a shadow of the man she would know years from now.
From this now, anyway.
"Ash, the thaw's coming!"
"It's still thick enough for skating. C'mon!"
Rommie stopped next to Harper. The boy seemed to ignore her and she realised he couldn't see her.
He frowned as if he'd heard her, heard a something at least, and then went back to yelling at his girlfriend.
Rommie touched his shoulder and he jumped. "Who are you?" He demanded.
"I am Andromeda."
The name made him frown. It sounded as familiar to him as his own did. Then he noticed what she was wearing, a small sleeveless tunic and trousers. But she didn't look cold…
She doesn't exist here…he thought. "Who are you?" He repeated.
"It's time to go, Harper."
"Go where? There isn't anywhere to go. Not when you live here." He said, then he frowned and his voice became distant. "Not when I lived here…"
"Then you know you don't belong here?"
His face filled with confusion, knowing that for the truth. His face grew older before her eyes. "Yes but…" The world tilted.
"Then we should go, Harper. We have to return to the ship."
"No, I don't want to go. Not now." He was young again as his reality shifted back at his will. "This was the only time I was happy here, Rommie. Because of her…" he nodded towards the girl sliding around on the ice and then horror filled his face. "NO! I remember! I remember what happened this day!" He turned to run to Ashling as a loud creak surrounded them.
And then a cracking.
Ashling screamed as the ice beneath her feet split into shards and she splashed into the icy water.
Harper's yells brought some of camp racing to the riverside. He was already half way towards her, crawling on his stomach, when the first man arrived. Rommie followed his progress from the riverbank, knowing there was nothing she could do to help. This was all but a shadow of events long passed. Harper was a boy again, rail thin and dirty, lost to his memories. She doubted he knew of her presence at all.
"Ashling!" Harper called.
"I can't get out, Seamus!" She yelled back. Rommie could see the girl desperately paddling to keep her head out of the water.
Harper was almost there. The ice around him was riddled with hairline cracks. It creaked under his weight, alarmingly but he kept his eyes on her. "It's OK, I'm nearly there."
He edged as near to her as he dared on the weakened ice and reached for her. Ashling's hands flapped about, slapping the ice in an effort to pull herself towards Harper's waiting arms. But her fingers were frozen and useless, her legs going numb and heavy.
Her head disappeared under the water and Harper cried out. Without regard for his own safety he lunged forward, shoving his hands into the ice cold waters. He gasped with relief when he immediately felt, and grabbed hold of, her body beneath the surface.
The ice cracked terribly as he pulled. His body was stiff and cold from lying on the ice and she was limp, her clothes heavy with water. He called on every last once of his strength but it was so hard to drag her body out of the water.
Someone grasped his legs and he looked round to see Podraig lying prone on the ice behind him. He felt himself and Ashling being dragged back onto the more solid ice. As they reached the riverbank, the others scooped them up, wrapping Ashling in as many blankets as they could.
Harper struggled to his feet, shivering.
Rommie came up beside him, touching his shoulder. He jumped in surprise, then relaxed when he saw it was her.
Again, the image of the boy in front of her shifted, became a man. The man she knew.
"Will she be alright?" She asked.
Harper's eyes grew cold. "No," he said, "she won't."
Rommie followed Harper into the medical centre where Podraig rushed Ashling as fast as he could run. The medics took her and disappeared into the Emergency Room, spouting medical jargon at double time.
Harper heard Podraig telling one of the other men to find Peter, Ashling's older brother. He sat down in the tiny waiting area and a moment later Podraig joined him.
They sat in silence for a long time, Harper knowing what Podraig was trying to find the right words to say. How to say why didn't you listen to me about the ice.
He decided to save him the effort. "Don't say it. I'm sorry, OK? I tried to warn her but-"
Podraig sighed. "What's done is done, Seamus. Talking about it won't change anything."
"That's what you always say isn't it?" Harper cried, "don't talk about it. Well maybe I want to talk about it!"
"Now is not the time."
"Maybe I need to talk about it!" He yelled, letting out the anger he'd felt for so long. "And maybe I need to talk to you about stuff like it!"
"Mum dies, don't talk about it. The twins die, don't talk about it. My fucking Da is a complete shit to everyone, but, oh no we don't talk about it. 'Cause 'it's not gonna change it.' Is it?" He went up to Podraig and screamed in his face. "I get…" his voice hitched in his chest, "I get raped by some Nietzschean, but let's not talk about that! Sometimes I feel like I'll explode if I don't talk about it!"
"And would it have change it if we had?"
"That's not the point! I was eleven years old, don't you think I needed to talk about it?"
Podraig sat back down. "I'm sorry." He touched the boy on his shoulder. "I just didn't want to upset you by making you tell me or anyone else what happened, what you were feeling before you were ready. I know you don't believe this right now, but I was trying to protect you."
Whatever might have been said after that was lost as Ashling's brother Peter burst into the room.
"Where's Ash?" He gasped, breathless from running. Podraig was about to explain when a doctor entered and cast a glance around the faces.
"Who is her next-of-kin?" He asked.
"Me, I…I'm her brother." He said, "is she going to be alright?"
"She suffering from hypothermia, we're trying to raise her temperature at the moment but…"
"But?" Peter demanded.
"If your sister is religious, I think she should be given the last rites."
Peter sat by his sister's bed, his head bowed, preying to a God he no longer believed in for a miracle he knew would never happened. Ashling was dying, her malnourished unable to withstand the extreme cold she'd suffered. Harper sat the other side, telling her how she would get well and then they would leave this place. Travel among the stars together.
Even though he now knew it would never happen, at that moment he believed it.
Ashling was trying to hum something. The song she had sung at the twin's funeral. "Can't…can't do…" She said. "Seamus…sing…sing it for me…please…"
Harper blinked back his tears, "no. No I can't."
"Plea…It's my favourite." She smiled, "I want it to be the last thing I hear."
"No, no you're not…!"
She had no strength to fight him over it, "just…just sing…"
He took a breath. "A…Amazing Gr-Grace, how sw…"he choked on the words.
Rommie stepped out of the shadows. "Amazing Grace…" she began, her voice lilting and just a fraction off key, but it didn't matter. At that moment her voice was the most beautiful thing in the world.
Ashling smiled, her body relaxing with the music.
And somewhere in there, her soul departed.
Peter cradled his sister gently and rocked her.
Podraig took the boy into his arms and let him cry.
Rommie watched for a long while before she decided to speak.
Harper stood up. The reality of the room shifted infinitesimally. "Rommie…?" He asked, a man again, with that man's years of detachment from this memory.
"Was that you singing?"
"You appeared to be having trouble."
"Yeah…" he looked away, "thank you. I always…I always regretted not singing for her."
"I know." She said with a smile, Harper frowned and she pointed to his head by way of explanation.
"Oh yeah, your up here, right. Oughta charge you rent."
Rommie's lips curved upwards.
"Rommie? Will I remember this?"
He looked down, "everythin'? Even…even, um, that stuff I said to Podraig?"
"I can file this experience in a secure file. I would not be able to access the memory without authorisation."
Harper thought for a moment. "Yeah. Do that."
Rommie looked distant for a moment. "Filing." She said, "securing file. Authorisation Acting Chief Engineer Seamus Harper."
"Great." He grinned, "hey no offence Rommie but I wanna keep what's up here, up here, y'know?"
"Understood." She replied. "It is time to leave here."
"Yeah, just gimme a sec, OK?"
Harper bent back down to the still form of Ashling and gently kissed her forehead. "I love you." He murmured. He hadn't told her that during her life and would forever wish he had.
Then he stood. "Let's go." He said.
Rommie closed her eyes again, and her 'consciousness' withdrew.
When she opened them, the found she was looking at the others' backs. They were all gathered around Harper's bedside, leaning over him. She walked around them and stared down at the sleeping young man.
Harper's chest rose and fell peacefully and there was no beads of sweat on his brow.
Trance looked up happily, her tail curling behind her with joy. "His fever broke."
Coda: In the Cold Light of Day…
A few days later, Harper was released from the medical deck. Trance had told him to go straight to his quarters to rest but he'd been cooped up in bed for what felt like a small ice age, so he took a walk instead. He headed for the hydroponics garden and wandered through the trees and plants. It was such a beautiful place.
So calm, so peaceful.
The air around him was filled with the scent of the blossoms, honeyed and warm.
And just the kind of place he needed to sit and think. He stopped by the little pool at the back of the garden, away from the window to the Heaven where he might have been disturbed.
He really did need to think.
He rarely thought much about the past. Something he'd learned from Podraig probably.
It didn't matter how much you thought about something, or talked about it, it wasn't going to change it.
So why bother?
But he'd been forced to recall things he'd rather have stayed buried. Things that wouldn't go back to being buried…
He picked up a stone. Smooth and flat, just right for skimming.
He smiled. But not by him.
He tossed the stone in the water and it disappeared with a faint plop.
Comments welcome. Thanks for reading.
© T S "NORTHERN STAR" FENN