The Darkest of Winters
Dandelions: Chapter 10
It was dark inside and bitterly cold, though not as much as it was outside in the piercing wind. A hand was silhouetted against the wan glow of a heater, then it grasped the teapot and poured the contents into a mug. It then handed the mug to a man barely visible against the heater glow, his dark eyes so sunken in from exhaustion and stress they seemed blackened.
"Tell me what happened, Dennis," Miranda Altman said softly.
The man leaned against the cramped wall of the old steam tunnel, his mouse-brown hair lank, face battered, before looking over at her. Miranda was wrapping her own hands around her mug for warmth, her dark face above it no more rested than his, but firm.
"Summary: We were fucking idiots, Altman. All of us."
"Dennis, hon, that tells me no more than it did before."
Second Lieutenant Dennis Zinnert sighed, rubbing his eyes. "It started with Pierson's capture. You know that. And how I reacted to that got.....O'Shea infuriated at me. I've never seen him that angry before. He never liked me, but...." He looked off in the distance. "Apparently he had a different idea of acceptable losses than I did." He uttered a soft, slightly hysterical chuckle. "In retrospect, it makes sense... Um...." Dennis looked actually mortified, one of the rare times the woman had seen him so. "It....shamed me into doing a really fucking stupid thing."
Miranda's voice was faintly dry. "You ripped off the Alpha and got it ripped to shreds." She sipped her drink.
"That was later. Apparently the sneaky bastard knew me better than I did, and joined me for the ride." Despite herself, Miranda smiled. It was, she thought, so like Kevin.
"And then Matt said he and Gwen followed right after your tail as soon as he realized you two were gone."
"Oh, of course." Dennis had enough energy to roll his eyes. " It's not enough that we have one person left to certain death, Miranda. We had to have a bunch of the rest of us jump in after into the river. Matthew said he was trying to keep us alive. I think he just wanted to make sure we all went together when we went. Damn, he won't admit or deny, though."
"Wonder why Gwen."
"Damned if I know."
"So you high-tailed it off to the most likely Invid hive to be holding Mandy."
"I told you it was stupid."
"And you managed to get within range."
There was a long, uncomfortable pause.
"And you against all odds managed to ram your way in past God knows how many Attack Scouts, Enforcers, and worse."
"Have I mentioned the Assault Battloid?"
Miranda's voice was deadpan. "I think I heard something like that, yeah." She sipped again, her face clouded by the steam. "The Assault Battloid that nearly ripped out the left arm of the Alpha, beat the shit out of you generally, and made a nuisance of itself the entire way in until you managed to knock the pilot out."
"That's her name."
"O'Shea was....creative in helping. Let's just put it that way, Altman."
"So myself and lovesick First Scout of the Elms managed to work our way in and get Rapunzel from the tower, along with her block buddy, the female Stage Five who was going to be devolved for working against the occupation." Zinnert blew on the tea, then paused to drink it. "And then....we found it was all a trap."
The woman nodded.
Zinnert's voice was a whisper. "Amanda was bait, and the Stage Five was a unknowing remote to trigger it. They wanted us, and they ended up getting us." There was a long pause. "Most of all, they wanted Kevin. Or....he wanted Kevin."
"He?" Miranda asked. The second commanding officer of Ulm's Elms looked at her with an expression that clearly said he'd seen far more in the past thirty-six hours than he'd ever wanted to see, even counting his worlds-hopping during the Sentinels Campaign.
"He. A.....I have no idea what... Amanda said he was a 'Kulagi,' whatever that is. He was some class of Invid I've never seen before in my life, Miranda. Looked human, like the Stage Fives, except for...those eyes." Zinnert shivered. "All iris, slit pupils like a cat or snake. Moved like...greased lightning." He was silent for a minute. "And he made the Invid Regent's troops look like rank amateurs when it came to sadism."
Miranda gaped. "...another stage of Invid?"
"A goddamned powerful one. He cut a fully operational and armed Cyclone battlesuit to pieces, with Matt still inside, without touching Matt. Using some....kind of energy blade. He..." nausea shivered his voice. "He....also.... Miranda, he tortured Kevin. Horribly. And made us watch. I mean..." He tried to gain control of himself. "I mean....Miranda....I've got no illusions about our race. We'll kill, steal, backstab, rape, and torture each other for five credits when you get the real sickos. But.....whatever else they did....the Regis' Invid never relished torturing their own or got off on it. To see what I saw him do to Kevin...." He very quietly put his face in his hands.
Miranda whispered. "So it's true. It's really true. I wasn't hallucinating in the hangar. Kevin, all this time, was...."
"He was Invid, Altman. Stage Five." Dennis whispered through his hands. "And grandfathered by chartering the Elms with Matt, myself, and the rest. His and Matt's being lovers was all a ruse to cover it up. I know. It seems impossible to me too."
Miranda contemplated this wordlessly, as Dennis continued, barely audible.
"If Matt hadn't found us, and interrupted the bastard's 'interrogation' of O'Shea..." He trailed off. "He managed to kill enough of the Invid Sentinels holding us that the Invid prisoner was able to kill the two holding Pierson and I...though she was mortally wounded by Oryo'i in the process. I knocked Oryo'i out...and the monster Invid was so busy drawing out finishing off Matt that Pierson was able to kill the son of a bitch."
Miranda's mouth was hanging open again. "Mandy managed to off him, Dennis?"
He nodded. "Blew his side right open. I hope the fucker burns in Hell if they got one for them."
Miranda just stared at that information.
Dennis's voice was nearly inaudible. "I...think he was the one responsible for the enslavement and destruction of her town."
"Payback's a bitch, isn't it." She still seemed stunned.
Dennis nodded, sipping tea. There was nothing but frigid silence for a couple of minutes.
"How did you get out?" Miranda continued.
Dennis leaned back, looking at her with bistered eyes. "We...managed to cut down and get O'Shea to the VAF and get the hell out. The rest of the hive was thrown into disarray by Pierson's killing their leader. Matt had planted a bomb at the hive core, and we barely got out with enough time to spare before it went off and destroyed the hive. Oryo'i got out too, however. I'd managed to do a number on her Battloid, but she was following us right up to the moment the hive went up and she got caught in the shockwave." He sipped his drink. "If she wasn't on the other side I'd admire her persistence."
Miranda just shook her head, mutely. "And Gwen?"
"We don't know about what happened to her. Matt seemed confident that she got out though. Their objective was to send the place up at the least." Dennis's voice broke a bit. He whispered, "The hive's destruction was the last straw for O'Shea. He spasmed, sat up, and then completely switched off into catatonia. Why after all that he wasn't dead yet...."
Miranda's voice was toneless, after an extended chug of her tea. "I've heard enough from Matt, Dennis. He's got broken ribs, internal bleeding, massive blood loss from numerous deep cuts on his body....and yes. He's completely switched off. The lights are on, but there ain't anyone home. Mandy got badly bruised and you and Matt aren't so great either, but Kevin..."
"Miranda....he was drawing the thing's attention. Deliberately. He was trying to get himself killed before it...I'm not going to call it a 'he'...managed to get any more from his mind about us than possible. I thought I'd seen bravery before, but..." He trailed off. "Fantoma...."
Miranda closed her eyes. "I would have never suspected. Not once. That the cute, silver-tongued guy that kept stealing my food and eating it, charming the pants off me and working his way into my heart as a dear friend..."
"...Was an alien? Invid, at that?"
"Mmm." She nodded, eyes still closed. Moisture was beading her lashes, silently.
"I never would have thought that either, Altman. He....he fooled a lot of us."
"Does....it make a difference to you, Dennis?"
Dennis was silent a long moment. "Once upon, it would have. The Regent and his Invid were the bad guys, we were the white hats, and that was never going to change. If I'd known before this what Kevin was....it would have affected things. I won't lie, Miranda."
Miranda looked down at her tea. "And now?"
"I don't know. I honestly don't know, Miranda." He added, "You?"
Miranda's hands tightened on her cup. "No." Her voice was desperately convinced.
"I....worry about the rest. The news is going to leak out to the rest before long. And I'm afraid of what some of them might do if they knew. Including Bohms. Especially Bohms."
"I think it's going to be a moot point before long, Lieutenant."
He looked a wordless question at her.
"I think he's dying," Miranda whispered hopelessly.
There was dead silence and near-darkness in a tiny room off of the old underground library that composed part of Base Two of Ulm's Elms. The entire group had done a mass evacuation of Base One upon Amanda Pierson's capture by the Invid and were currently in a wait and see mode before deliberating moving further away from the area to protect themselves. The hive's destruction and the death of a presumed major leader of the occupation had bought time, but not much. It was feared that retaliation, when it happened, would be all the worse as a result.
Inside that room, sat a figure by a bed, watching the languid pulse of lights and beeps of the life support monitoring the bed's occupant.
I wonder when they'll stop completely, she thought numbly.
She rubbed bruised-looking eyes, wincing as fingers strayed onto an enormous, blackening bruise on one cheek. It hurt to swallow too; the ring of evil-looking purple blotches around her neck bore testament to more bruising. The rest of her body ached too as if she had been pummeled, from sheer fatigue and the ordeals of the past three days.
But it was nothing compared to the injuries the motionless body on the bed had taken.
She'd remorselessly killed the source of both of their pain, and it was a hollow, bitter victory to taste. It wouldn't bring her sister back. It wouldn't bring her father back, or her elementary school history teacher. It wouldn't bring any of the hundreds of other people of her town the Invid had taken back.
And it wouldn't do a single thing to pull the figure on the bed back from the division between life and death it was slowly but inevitably creeping towards.
The dying visage of the Invid woman, whispering, Amanda--save my brother...
"I'm sorry, Siaga," she whispered to the dead. "I tried. It's not going to be enough."
Amanda tried to find tears, but there weren't any--only a hopeless, black dull numbness, the burnt-out hollow left after the horrors of the past few days. She hadn't anything left to feel with. She wondered if she'd ever feel again. She wondered if there'd be any point after those lights went dark for good.
As of their own will, fingers reached out and brushed the cheek of the sunken, waxen-looking visage before her. It was still warm, still breathing on its own. But there was no response, hadn't been since that hideous moment the hive had died. The rest of the body was worse; heavy bandaging and braced ribs hiding the stitched, vicious slashes the Kulagi Invid Shkud had methodically etched onto it, for no other real reason than sheer sadism. The formerly shoulder-length, glossy black hair had been crudely chopped short, having been so clotted with blood there was no point in trying to clean it.
It was almost worse that the face under it was almost untouched despite everything, except for the ugly bruise on one cheek. It was the same straight, elegant nose, high cheekbones, and somewhat narrow face she'd always known, but with none of the driving personality behind it that had made it so attractive. The only difference now between the face and a death mask was that one--for now--still breathed.
Recognizable, she thought. The son of a bitch wanted him recognizable. An example.
Amanda bent her head over her hands, wondering absently where the wet warmth plopping onto them was coming from.
The scuffle from the doorway made her jerk up suddenly, eyes wide, the light from the monitors dancing off a wet face. "Who's there?" she barked, green eyes narrowing. Unconsciously, her weight shifted from sitting to a combat ready crouch.
The shadow in the doorway timidly stepped forward, causing her to suddenly relax in consternation. The intruder had turned out to be a small, dark-haired girl with wide, frightened blue eyes and a mop of ringlets.
Amanda Pierson stared, lost in confusion for a second.
"Florrie," she asked hoarsely, "Aren't you supposed to be in bed?"
The little girl looked embarassed but simultaneously unapologetic, as she shuffled further in. Her small feet, clad in old 'footie' pajamas, padded in further, towards the tense figure by the bed and its unresponsive occupant.
"Couln't sleep," she mumbled.
She was by far the youngest member of the resistance group of Ulm's Elms at age seven, more ward than anything. They'd found her in an Invid slave camp, near comatose from prolonged exposure to the spores of Invid Flower of Life. She'd made to all obvious signs a complete recovery, but there were still the spells of staring off into space, seeing things that weren't there, and frightening fits that coincided unnervingly with Invid activity....
Of their entire town, Amanda Pierson and Florence Henderson were the only two known survivors.
Amanda couldn't help but try to put herself between the child and the bed, out of sheer reflex. Who knows what those spores had done to her, and what she might see as a result. Florence seemed undismayed, padding closer, big blue eyes unfrightened by either Amanda's attitude or the wreckage on the bed.
"Florrie..." Amanda said quietly, "you should go back and try to sleep. It's gonna be a busy day tomorrow."
"You're not sleeping," Florence pointed out with a child's bluntness.
Amanda's hackles rose, along with the now familiar tight-chestedness of grief. Because if I do I'll wake up to find Kevin dead. I just know it. "That's because I'm grown up."
Florence didn't seem to buy this, just stared at her unblinkingly in a manner that would have been creepy if one hadn't remembered that in her seven years she had gone through more hell than many three times her age had even in this brutal day and age.
The little girl then abruptly ducked around Amanda, and, before the older girl could react, was staring wide-eyed at the bruised, near-dead visage of the man on the bed. She stood like that for a long moment, while Amanda debated whether to push her away or not. But Florence didn't scream or run; just stood there, biting her lip.
"He's got pretty colors," she said at last, apropos of nothing. "But they're awfully dark."
Amanda bit her lip. "That's because he's dying, damn it, Florence--" She bit the rest off before she could say anything worse, giving out a soft whimper of a sob. Florence just looked up at her with wide, sad eyes.
There was a long moment, and then Florence said, with a maturity far greater than expected for seven: "He doesn't have to, 'Manda. S'what she says."
"She?!" Amanda burst out, now positive that those spores had in fact put Florrie as much over the deep end as her dead mother.
Florence nodded vigorously, once again a little girl. "My angel. She's got really long pretty silver hair and she talks to me when I'm asleep, 'Manda. She told me t' wake up and tell you or somebody, 'cos she can help him."
"You're crazy, Florrie--"
Florence stared for a second at Amanda. There was an almost audible camel's back snapping in her expression..
"I am not crazy!" Florence shouted, stamping her foot. "She's real and I'm not crazy and she's on her way to help us and all and she's afraid he's gonna die before she gets here because she's gotta walk! You gotta 'Clone and you can get her an' I'm....not....crazy!" This last was said on the virtual edge of tears as she balled her tiny fists and started to ineffectually drum them on Amanda, who grabbed them tightly, wincing. Given the abuse her body had taken in the past few days, even Florence's weak punches hurt.
Amanda just had to stare at the crying girl, trying not to cry herself with a monumental effort. "Florrie, stop it--"
"I am NOT!" the child yelled. "I'm not crazy! If you don't help her, he's gonna die! I know where she is an' everything! I can show you!"
Amanda kept holding onto the child's fists, not wanting to be pummeled again, the entire scene played out with nobody to witness it except themselves and the unconscious, dying Invid on the bed.
This is a freaking fool's errand she wants me to go out on. High alert, Invid probably out in force, it's dark, freezing and I'm going on the ramblings of a little girl who wants me to meet her imaginary friend. Matt will kill me.
At the same time, with cold, clear clarity she knew that if she didn't and it was true, then Kevin would in a matter of a couple days at most so be entombed in the icy Illinois ground--and she would be the one directly responsible for it, even more than for his and Dennis's suicide run on the hive. And the thought made her sick.
The battle raged in her mind, while Florence snuffled convulsively.
Amanda let out a long, shuddering sigh.
"Okay. Get your stuff together."
She paced restlessly in an anteroom of the Orbital Hive, attempting to formulate the best way to go about this. She was still reeling from the shift to her state of being, and it was difficult at best to think coherently. Not as epochal a shift as the last time, but it still caused a great deal of problems keeping focused. And given those she was going to confront shortly, she needed to find a good way to present things. She could feel with a brush of mind the fact most of them were already there, so she couldn't stall much longer.
Her brethren under her dead lord's rule had been gathered together. They had been equals, and as she'd suspected, many of them had been co-sufferers under Shkud's growing dementia.
And now she was no longer one of them, but something else, and no longer a colleague, but a ruler. She remembered what Shkud had been like, and had a suspicion that many of them had the same flinch reactions to him...and those like him.
This was going to be tricky.
Oryo'i closed her eyes and rubbed her temples with fingers in an unconsciously human gesture, grimacing. And damn your dead soul, Shkud, for what you've left me. The initial euphoria of her transmutation had dissolved and had left her with a unsettling feeling of just how far over her head she felt. And--she damned her humanoid form for the feelings--trepidation about what they were going to see when she entered the audience chamber. She was having problems with it herself.
With another grimace, she forced eyes open and made herself stare at the reflection in the dark, vitreous material of a currently unused screen.
The hair was still long and storm-white, the face more or less the same shape and recognizable if a bit more angular. She was noticeably taller, slenderer in proportion.
It was the eyes that shook her the most. They were no longer the rounded iris, pupil and sclera of a human's. Instead, the amber color of iris swallowed the visible eye, leaving nothing except for a vertically-slitted pupil, currently wide in the room's dimness. They were the eyes of something that she'd come to dread seeing over the past six years, reflexively tensed up at the mere sight of. They were the eyes of a Kulagi Invid.
And now, they were in her head.
Oryo'i murmured to herself, unconcerned about any overhearing, "One wonders what Asaav wants with me."
A quick mental check told her that they were starting to get apprehensive; there was no more point to stalling. She sighed.
Squaring her shoulders in the new armor reflecting her changed station, she turned for the door to the audience chamber and headed on through.
Mandy gritted her teeth against the bitter wind, trying to go as quickly as she could without dislodging Florence's arms around her waist. It was pitch black outside and threatening to snow. Between that and the rough terrain outside, Mandy had finally risked it and turned on the Cyclone's headlight, poor illumination though it was against the darkness.
Matt is so going to kill me.
She shouted over the rumble of the engine, "You sure it's ahead?"
Florence, who was so bundled up it was a miracle she could move let alone hang onto Amanda, shouted "Yeah!"
"Hope you're right."
"I am," Florence responded petulantly.
"How much further?"
"Not real far!"
It'd been more than an hour. Amanda's fear for Kevin aside, she was also worried about other things. Hardly the least them included taking a minor out in the wilderness, in the freezing cold of December, with no plan, no clue, and any number of hostiles out here. It was the most sickeningly long hour of her recent life, and given recent events this said a lot. Granted, some of those other recent events were close seconds and thirds on the list.
And hell, how were they supposed to get Florence's Imaginary Friend back to base, anyway? Provided, of course, there was one. It'd be a tight fit on the Cyclone.
She was just doing this to appease the kid, anyway. Probably trying to get her own mind off the fact right now, Kevin was probably finishing dying back there. There wasn't anybody out here except bandits and a bunch of angry Invid. There certainly weren't any mysterious women sitting on rocks right....
Amanda slowed up and stopped, eyes bugging as Florence squealed, in unalloyed delight.
Florence was off the bike and running--well, waddling, toward the silhouetted figure that was rising off the boulder it was sitting on before Amanda had even thought to swing her leg over the Cyclone. The two impacted with a muffled thud of bodies and about eighteen layers of clothes between them, hugging as if they'd known each other all their lives. Meanwhile, Amanda continued gaping, sort of half leaning, half holding up the Cyclone and giving a rough impression of an A-frame house.
Florence was finally revealed from behind a curtain of improbably long silver hair as she was set down by the strange woman, who shook the mass back into place behind shoulders and around narrow, vaguely elfin features. Elfin in the J. R. R. Tolkien sense of the word, that was, not the cute perkiness the word 'elfin' usually conveyed. This face was much too high-boned for that, with exotically oblique eyes that were dark in the chancy light. It would be almost off-putting in its beauty, if it hadn't been warmed up by a smile of what seemed real joy and lined with equally real tension and weariness. Those marked it, made it seem more human. Plus, there was only so far 'etherial' could be carried when in a heavy parka, boots, and leggings, all of which had seen better days.
She turned to see Amanda and moved forward towards the thunderstruck girl, then 'acked' as Florence all but dragged her over by the hand she was still holding onto with a lamprey grip. Never mind she topped the young girl by a foot and nearly two and was taller than Amanda herself, she was dragged. Florence was meanwhile an interesting mix of overjoyed, defiant, and smug, and just about stomped over to Amanda, her 'prisoner' in tow.
"I told you she was real, 'Manda." The stranger blinked, flummoxed, then flicked eyes towards the heavens in a sacrificial move that would have had Amanda laughing if the situation had been any less grave.
"Right, right. Right, kiddo, I'm real. Maybe the rest of the world is an illusion, too. Never mind anybody who'd be a solipsist and make up this world would have serious mental problems." The voice matched the face and slender body, sweet wooden flute mezzo-soprano husked by fatigue. She extended a gloved hand. "I wish the circumstances were better. You're Amanda? I'm--"
"Gina," Florence interrupted with great definitiveness.
"I can introduce myself. Brat." Florence giggled.
Amanda took the hand, trying not to shake too limply. Even if her own hand was limp, the strange woman's grip was firm. In the stronger light from the Cyclone's headlamp, the eyes gained color, becoming a dark pine-needle shade of green. And the hair glittered. It wasn't the apathetic grey or white that was typically called silver, but seemed almost made out of the actual metal. It reminded Amanda of fine Christmas tinsel strands.
"I'm Amanda Pierson, yes," she said distantly. Gina nodded. "You're... Gina. Or are..."
"Gina will do for now," the other added firmly. She visibly shook herself, breath puffing out in a fog. Her voice sharpened. "And it better, because with what time we have to work with I don't want to have to explain later during a funeral. Let's go."
"What? How the hell are we going to ride--"
"Florence gets to be the filling in a people sandwich. Got a monomolecular knife?"
"Yes. What--?" The knife was snatched out of her hand, there was a swish, and the former mane of tinsel hair became much shorter, with the rest shoved into one of a collection of pouches dangling around her waist.
"Damn stuff never cuts properly," Gina said absently. She headed over to the Cyclone, Florence in tow. "I get shotgun."
Amanda paused a second, absolutely out of her depth and feeling her control of the situation hijacked, then shook her head. Later. If it saved Kevin, much later.
"Where the fuck were you?"
Amanda panted through the steam tunnels with her companions in tow a little over an hour later. She also tried to ignore the angry--and yes, frightened male voice that was coming after them. She'd been right about Matt's going ballistic. It was the first time she'd ever heard him swear like that.
"Sorry Lieutenant not now later I'm sorry will explain" she managed in a run-on. The Elms leader clunked angrily after them in full CVR, likely ready to throttle if there wasn't a child standing between himself and Amanda.
They'd been lucky that it hadn't been someone else who'd been on the outer perimeter waiting for them, though. Explaining things, especially with a stranger accompanying them, would have taken away critical time. Ulm might be pissed off at them, but at least he wasn't actively stopping them. Yet. He could kill her later, but as long as they were able to reach their destination now...
"Why the hell did you bring Florence along?!" he demanded. They broke out of the tunnel into the library proper, Amanda exhaustedly trying to lurch ahead enough of Matthew to not be dragged back by him. After all, she had to show them the way. She didn't notice the interference both Florence and 'Gina' were covertly trying to run in between herself and the furious lieutenant.
"She made me, God damn it!" Amanda's voice broke. "She said she knew of a way and I had to try, because I didn't want to have to watch Kevin die because of my stupid--"
"Gwen's stupid whatever," Ulm snapped, as the group tore across the floor.
"s'my fault," Florence said meekly, jogging--waddling--with and somehow keeping up with Gina's long strides through sheer application of the physical law that the shorter the child is, the more energy they will have.
"I'll pass the beatings around to me later," Gina muttered to herself. "Just so we all feel punished. Where is he...right, there." She sucked in a breath through teeth. "Damn, and he's...well."
Amanda's blood froze. "What?"
"Not dead yet, but give him another few hours and he will be. I'm not going to give 'em if I have any say."
"And what the hell are you?" Matthew demanded.
"What, you want the full story before I help your guy? I hope you got his casket ready," she snapped back. "Let's just say for now I don't want him to die, I don't want Florence hurt, and I'm not too set on seeing any of you hurt either. Fine? Fine. Interrogate me later, but let me save his life now."
There was a pause as they finally reached Kevin's room. The vital statistics that Amanda could translate were slower and weaker. Time was running out.
Matthew Ulm let out a long breath, following the triad in. Underneath the scraggy beard his face was aged more than even usual, eyes hollowed out by exhaustion and grief. With a pang of comprehension, Amanda realized just how badly Ulm himself was suffering, and just how much of it he was expressing it as anger.
"...Fine," he said quietly at last. "Do what you can. Whoever you are."
Gina was already at the bedside table, having tossed down her multitude of pouches. Her hacked hair shimmered in the monitor lights as she dug through them, getting out in turn a mortar, a pestle, and a large pile of leaves and petals.
Both Matthew and Amanda knew from long experience just what kind of foliage that was. From slavery, Florence likely did as well.
Gina started crushing and mixing, pouring in something liquid. "I know, I know. You know how much of a pain it is to sneak onto a farm and rip them off? It's not a fun time. But I needed them before I even got here." She was rapidly reducing the Flower of Life parts to a thick green fibrous paste as she continued working them over with the pestle.
Ulm wet his lips.
"Will that...." he paused, "save him?"
Gina paused, even as her hands continued working. "In itself? No. But if I get him to swallow this, it's going to give his body a foundation to work with. It's still Invid enough for that. As for the healing itself? Well." She continued to crush, almost savagely. "That bit's going to have to be up to what I do."
Ignorance surrounding me
I've never been so filled with fear
All my life's been drained from me
The end is drawing near...
--Dream Theater, "A Change of Seasons II: Innocence"
Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me
Is there anyone at home?
--Pink Floyd, "Comfortably Numb"
It was dark. It was warm. It was so much better than what was waiting for him outside.
He didn't float, because that would imply something for him to float in. There wasn't. But he existed, anyway. Sometimes he felt like he was in ceramic armor. Except what was 'ceramic' and what was 'armor'? He couldn't quite tell. He couldn't quite remember why he called what he was in the other times 'green' and 'canvas' or 'green' and 'CVR'. Especially the CVR. The notions popped in every so often, but they tended to wander around with nothing to connect to. He preferred it that way, because he had a vague notion that the other way meant remembering horrible, horrible things. He'd had too many of them. No more. It was nice here, and safe. And as things went on, he remembered less and less. He liked that too. Soon there wouldn't be enough of him to remember him what 'liked' meant. It was probably just as well.
So when the hand (hand? what was that?) reached out and tapped him on what he suddenly remembered was a shoulder, he didn't take this too well.
He ignored it and curled in tighter. Maybe it would go away.
It tapped him again, this time harder.
Go away, he said, and then realized that he was using a 'mouth' and 'tongue' and 'lips' to utter it. Or at least the notion of them. Somehow, he also knew they weren't the real things, just his memory of them. Memories were bad. If only this annoyance would go away, he could--
"Like hell, bucko. I've come too far now, and so have your friends. You do have them, you know."
"Get out of my head," he snarled. "Leave me alone." He turned his head, or well, the notion of it, dammit, there he went again, and glared at the intruder through a curtain of black bangs. Never mind there wasn't any light in here, that didn't seem important.
She stood, or hovered before him, a human figure, indistinct features, hoarfrost hair, and looked peevish. She was also completely upside down. This didn't seem to bother her any more than it did him.
"Nuh-uh." she said. "I can't do it."
"Leave me alone. I was fine. I was going to--"
"Die. You were going to die. I just kind of interrupted your groove."
He turned on her. "Maybe it'd have been for the best. I was..." He didn't want to remember. It was almost there and he didn't want to.
Her features softened. "I know. I wouldn't have wanted what happened to you on anybody. And you got it just for trying to do what was right. It's a bitch, taking Antigone's choice. I can't say I made the right one myself, in the past. I only wish I had your strength to be able to have done it.
"And taking the way out? Well." She paused a moment, or whatever passed for it in this realm. "I just know that if you do, you're going to hurt a lot of people important to you."
"They'll want me dead. If they know I'm--" Don't say anything. It'll help deny. You don't want to think that last bit, or it'll all come rushing in...
"You know something? I don't think a few of them give a damn. But they will if you go and leave. They'd rather have you as you are than as a memory of what they thought you were. If that makes sense. You want to do that to them?"
"It'd be better."
He was starting to get irritated. She was good at it; he only seldom got irritated, except by (blank) when he got pendantic, and then (blank) when he made snide comments about his relationship with (blank). Some part of him was waving frantically at the rest of him on this front. Unfortunately or fortunately for the rest of him, it was being pretty quiet as yet, so he continued getting irritated. But being irritated meant he kept remembering again.
He folded arms around himself--they were currently in that ceramic black and red and grey armor again, which annoyed him for even remembering the facts--and made an elaborate show of ignoring her. Maybe if he did, then he'd be able to go back to his prior state.
She reached out and yanked on his nose. He snarled at her again.
"Let me put it this way, I know what you are and I get a pretty good idea of who, too. Do you? Do you even know just why you're here anymore?"
"I'm--" screamspainrazorslaughinglaughingPAINcrieswailsoblivionsilence "GAHHHH! No, damn you, let me go!" Fingers clawed on green metal as he tried to go fetal. "It was better that way! I don't want to remember!"
She pulled at his arms, pulled him out of his curl with implacable force that wasn't physical, snarling in his face. "No it's not, you idiot. I know it's not good, hell, I know it's not good, but it's a fucking sight better than this! Are you going to back out and leave Amanda and Matthew now?
"And I'm damned if I'm going to let that impact on Florence any more because of what you'll do to Amanda if you kick off. Do you want to talk about Hell? Really? Florence is my main girl. The kid has kept me sane here. And she's been through more hell than you can dream of being through, even now. We're all in it together, buddy boy. So either you remember and you come back and live of your own free will, or I drag your scrawny ass out of here by force. I'm just trying to be nice, right now, but desperation makes us do funny things, doesn't it? You know. I know, too. You're not a goddamn cell in the Invid overmind anymore. You matter. Six degrees of seperation and all that, so no, dying is not going to make it better!"
Deep green, slanted eyes boring into his mind, his soul, asking him a question he knew the answer to. Several questions, and several answers, all in one.
Names. Matthew. Amanda. Florence. Invid. Amanda again.
Something blazed through him. He answered.
His eyelids shot straight open, and then wished they hadn't, as the pain and exhaustion came in. And so did the light, lancing through needlelike to his retinas. He shut them again, fast. It wasn't that bright, on recollection; it just felt like it.
His body pounded, as if a thunderstorm supercell had been channeled through it, but he no longer hurt like...before.
I am Kayagh, Solugi prince of the Invid and traitor.
I'm Kevin O'Shea, First Scout of Ulm's Elms, resistance fighter.
I'm Matthew Ulm's friend. Miranda Altman's friend. Amanda Pierson's friend. And there's others. Even Gerald. Or is it Gur'uld? Not sure. Not a friend, but closer than in some ways. History, and all...
I don't know if I'm happy or sad about that yet.
She stared at nothing for quite a long while afterward, after the last of them had left. The audience chamber of the Orbital Hive was now empty except for her, and silent except for air circulators. It seemed emptier, somehow.
They'd been quite attentive, yes, eyes wide on her every move, gesture, and word. They'd nodded agreeably when she stated what had happened, what led her and them to this pass, what their new objectives were, their changed duties now that she was in charge. All very proper and reverent, never mind that a matter of days ago she'd been a persecuted member of their number, outcast because none of them wanted their lord's ill will communicated to them through association with her.
She knew just why they were so respectful.
She hated every second of it.
Oryo'i seated herself on the edge of the dais and rested her face in her hands, letting out a very, very long breath.
They weren't doing it out of respect. They were doing it out of fear.
She knew it. If she had been in their place, she would have done precisely the same thing. It was absolutely compulsory when having to deal with Shkud; staying on the good side of his temper had been like trying to sneak through a Human town laden with resistance snipers. And when one got on the bad side of it... She knew what that was like, too.
She would have preferred honest respect so much more. And she'd never felt more alone.
Even now, Shkud's touch reached beyond death, Mother of the Hive blast him.
"I hope you're happy, you trahl," she muttered to his ghost.
She looked up sharply, when her amplified senses picked up movement from the chamber's entranceway. "Who's there?"
There was definite movement. In a moment its source pulled itself into better view, some slight apprehension radiating.
She made it out, her feline eyes widening.
The male Solugi nodded a bit. "Am I interrupting anything?" He paused. "My Lady."
Oryo'i must have visibly winced at the title; he shut his mouth and said nothing more, but at least...at least... he didn't do the abused flinch she recognized so well, knew why, and hated. She probably could not have endured that; Iagur had been one of the colleagues she had worked with while she was still in Shkud's good graces, and he had still taken the pains to relate to her in recent times regardless of the possible impact on him. He had been, as close as the Invid had any understanding of the term, a friend.
Oryo'i let out a long sigh.
"No. No, you were not. Did you need something, So..." She did a long pause, "Iagur?" She closed her lips painedly.
Iagur walked further back into the room, slowly, the dim light glinting off sleek, deep-brown hair and green and black combat armor. He said after a moment, "If you have no objection to not calling me by my caste, I don't." He paused a second. "Oryo'i. If I may still call you that?"
Oryo'i looked around, then back at him, and said quietly, "If you have no objections, I certainly don't. Save it for privacy though. I have...." her lips twisted in a bitter smile, "standards to maintain." She closed her eyes a second. "Did you need something?"
Iagur moved closer, stopping a respectful distance away, and just looking at her. While his hair color was a Humanly mundane shade, his eyes were not; they were a deep, vivid iridescent shade of green-blue that reminded Oryo'i of the plumage of some Earthen tropical birds. He visibly thought a moment, before responding.
"Not so much for myself but..." he fumbled, "as for concern for you, and how you were accepting this change to your nature and station."
"Afraid I'll turn into another Shkud, Solugi Iagur?" she said with some bitterness. She couldn't help it; the bitterness and hurt leaked across to him, and this time he did flinch, visibly. He then recovered, though, and gained the courage to move a bit closer.
"No," he responded as he leaned forward, some heat coming to his own voice. "My own welfare is not an issue. But I know what he did to you and to others of us--to me--and I know that you can't have taken this change well, given that. I'm sure the conclave just now didn't help. But I remember Solugi Oryo'i, and somehow I'm not convinced that Kulagi Oryo'i would emulate that which hurt her. I wanted..." He trailed off, searching for words.
Oryo'i blinked, and quite unconsciously sent a probe lancing into his thoughts. She didn't even need to use force behind it; his thoughts were as transparent to her as her own, as he willingly allowed her in. She was staggered a bit.
All she saw there was concern for her, need to aid her...a little fear, but that was nearly drowned out by understanding and trust. And all her physical eyes saw on his oh-so-human features was an expression that mirrored that.
"...Why?" she managed.
He fumbled. "Because. I remember who you were. And I'm sure are, still."
"I'm not so sure of that," she said feebly, looking down at her interlaced fingers. Stupid, stupid, she was supposed to be expressing her authority, not be struck into fumbling like a human child, what was wrong with her?
His baritone was firm. "Then I'll... be sure for you. If you don't mind."
"I.... " She said after a moment, "Thank you, Iagur."
Iagur nodded, his lips curving up a little. "Good, then."
Iagur thought a second. "I....do admit to some curiosity, however."
Oryo'i straightened up, curious herself. "On what?"
"Why you were the one elevated to Kulagi in Shkud's place, and not another Solugi that was more in his....good graces." Oryo'i couldn't help but smile; Iagur's tone was definitely conveying that especially in recent times there hadn't been such a thing. She then parsed his question and the smile then faded away into a tightening of her lips.
"I don't know, Iagur. I truly don't. I fully expected to be de-evolved for my role in his death, Miragai's, the hive's and letting the Humans escape in the process." And Kayagh, she said to herself. Though after what he'd endured, she couldn't believe he'd have survived all that long. She hoped, for his and her sake. "I didn't expect Lady Asaav to be instrumental in elevating me to the Twenty-Four. And why, after all that? I don't know. I just don't." The bones of her hands showed clearly through the skin as she clenched them together. "She...was making overtures to me before this all happened. You know...to transfer me to her service. But Shkud refused. Again why? I...don't know."
"What do you want me and the other Solugi to do if in fact you do....end up going Shkud's way? Not that I expect you to, mind." He said this with absolute sincerity, no sense of self-preservation or covering up a faux pas to his voice.
Oryo'i looked down at her hands again. She'd clenched them together so tightly that the nails had broken through the skin, leaving dark-green fluid leaking a bit through smarting cuts. She winced and with a moment's concentration healed the wounds. She was going to have to learn to control her own strength, she thought glumly. Something to take in account, now, along with everything else.
What if she became the same raving psychotic he'd turned into, so bloated on power she had no sense of reality or connection to the Hivesong anymore, so drunken with herself she'd happily torture one of her own kind, no matter how traitorous? What if she forgot her entire purpose for being here, eschewing Regis for her own goals?
As for Asaav, she owed her her status and station. But there was that small, Shkud-trained voice that told her to watch, be careful....
She sighed again and looked up at the Solugi, patiently waiting for her answer.
"Iagur?" she said. "Run."
Dennis Zinnert rubbed at his eyes. It didn't help the feeling of grit that now seemed to be a permanent feature in them. When was the last time he had slept, really slept? Before he took on the hive? Maybe a few stolen moments in the tunnels? He could no longer remember. "Burst transmissions completed?"
The tech nodded. An ashen-faced Shiroikiku Doi nodded, seconding. "As much as we could get out, given we're in deep shit, Lieutenant. I know it was confirmed by at least Rantoul, so the Riders at least have the information. They'll pass it along."
"Good," Dennis said firmly, then an involuntary stretch and yawn hit him. He checked the time. By now insipid winter dawn light would be starting to leak through the windows of the sunken library courtyard. Never mind technically it wasn't the Terran northern winter solstice yet; cold meant winter. It was one of the little things he'd come to learn during his years groundside.
"So, Dennis," Sherry said conversationally. "When the fuck are you going to get some rest?"
"Not yet, Corporal," he answered, a sparkle of defiance reaching his eyes. "Not yet. This information is too important to not get out, and I damned well am going to get it out hell or high water."
"I ain't dragging you back to your cot if you keel over. Just to let you know." Dennis fought off an involuntary giggle of fatigue. The image of diminutive five foot nothing Sherry lugging his nearly two meter self was completely hysterical at the moment.
"I don't give a damn, Doi. Get it out in Morse Code encoded."
"Don't give me lip, Corporal."
"I can give you as much fucking lip as I want, right now." The tech in the background meanwhile rolled his eyes and started to convey the information at hand in Morse. It was now mostly the REF and related resistance these days that remembered the old Morse communications, but for safety's sake it was still conveyed in one of the several common codes used by the resistance to avoid Invid sympathizers casually tapping in. He knew them, and while the two Elms core members bickered, he did his own job. He started to tap away...
URGENT URGENT URGENT ULMS ELMS TRANSMISSION INVID HIVE NEAR OLD LAFAYETTE DESTROYED INVID LEADER KILLED NEW FORM OF INVID FOUND LEADER CASTE HOSTILE VERY POWERFUL DOCUMENTED ABILITIES AS FOLLOWS...
"It's all I can do," the woman calling herself 'Gina' said softly. She wrapped her fingers around a mug of tea, not entirely disguising the shake to her hands.
Matthew stared at her.
"Run that by me again?"
Gina looked down at her drink, exhaustion showing on the classic features. "The rest is up to him now. I can't do anything more about his injuries. There's... the psychosomatic thing going on. I don't know how well he's gonna heal. Just that.... he will. You dig?"
Matthew parsed that, then nodded, trying not to disturb Amanda, who had done a slow-motion fall over onto him as she nodded off to sleep.
"I dig enough." He paused, and looked over at the figure on the bed. "The damage was more than just to the body."
"Yeah. 'Fraid so."
Matthew pressed his lips together, hazel eyes flat and glittering. "You know? Speaking as a fairly open-minded member of my species, able to accept a lot of weird crap going on and be flexible and liberal up to and including my choice of squad members? I'm glad that that son of bitch is dead."
He did a quick paranoid glance at Florence, who had used Gina as her own pillow and was clutching her like a nearly six-foot-tall teddy bear. A teddy bear with some disturbingly feminine contours that reminded Matthew he himself despite his facade and age was a heterosexual male, but... he ended that line of thought before fatigue made off with it in directions he didn't want to think about. But Florence was asleep too, and more restfully than he'd have thought.
Gina's voice was hissing and vicious. "I'm just really glad the 'son of a bitch' got it so poetically." The pine-green eyes were slits.
Matthew looked again at the bed's sleeping occupant.
Sleeping. Not catatonic. Not comatose. Not dying. Sleeping.
Kevin had opened his eyes, after Gina had closed her eyes and sunk into some sort of trance for a few minutes, after she had all but poured that... Flower mush down his throat. His body had jolted, and the pale blue eyes had flown open all of a sudden, not quite seeing the room.
But that one look into them was all Matthew had needed to see.
Oh, they'd been open before since the hive had gone up, but they'd been unfocused and glassy, nothing more behind them than behind a doll's. But that time....
That time, Matt once again saw Kevin within them.
He saw him in there even as they slid closed again and Kevin's body relaxed, even as the winding-down vital signs all of a sudden surged again into something healthier and more stable, as the black bruising on his face faded away into slight marring and darkening under his skin... and who knew what had happened under the bandaging. Matthew hadn't checked yet. He was afraid to check. Whether it was because of what he would find or not find, he was too sleep-deprived to figure out yet.
Gina had gasped and sagged, almost falling. Amanda was right next to her, but so maniacally focused on whatever she'd herself seen happen with Kevin she'd been of no help. It was a good thing the stranger hadn't fallen, given that.
He swigged down more tea in the now, staring at her.
"Okay," he said.
"Mnh?" She rubbed hands over the scarf now covering her tinsel-colored hair, heels of her palms pressed to her temples in rhythmic circles. He watched her.
"I owe you my First Scout's life. I'll have to make sure to pay up to the best under my power. That little issue aside, as commanding officer of Ulm's Elms, let me be blunt. Who the hell are you, lady?"
Gina paused in mid-rub as she heard the question, her dark green eyes slanting up under gleaming lashes to meet an utterly exhausted, utterly drained, utterly stubborn expression under the mangy beard and the receding hairline. Matthew's eyes had taken on a flinty cast.
He kept staring at her, until she started to shift uncomfortably. Florence protested softly, and she stilled, her eyes softening as she made a show of straightening the girl's dark curls.
"I suppose that I can't beg off the question until later?"
Matthew said flatly, "Like hell. I have the entire group on high-level red alert, the Invid after us with a vendetta, an Alpha torn up, my best sharpshooter gone, two people traumatized, a third who came a hair from dying, and at least one raving Invidophobe and probably more who will be gunning for that third the second the news is widespread that he's Invid. That's the easy stuff. I don't want to even think about what knowing Kevin's race is going to do for the Elms's morale and cohesion in the face of all this, or my authority over them. If you think I'm going to let you in after all that with a hand wave not even knowing what you are, you're nuts."
She looked at him directly then. "Right. Long version, short version, or the one where I use the Powerpoint presentation with the bright shiny colors?"
"...Never mind." Gina sighed. She thought. "You know about Genesis Pits, right? And what the Invid did to prisoners?"
Ulm arched his eyebrows, nodding wordlessly.
"I'm... one of them. I'm what happens when the Invid get the bright idea of seeing what you can do to a human to make them emulate some of their more... exotic powers. And what happens when the subject says 'screw this' and manages to bust out by use of deviousness and main force. I've been on the run since. Since." She looked down at the sleeping Florence. "I think what happened to her did a little of the same to her too. Just a guess. It's... how I managed to contact her. I held off her nightmares, she held off any insanity waiting to happen to me. I've been kind of working this direction for a long time now, trying not to let the Invid find me, but finding out the whole bit a few days ago stepped it up. That good for starters?"
"And how do I know that's not a cover story by a simulagent trying to work in after all this?" Matthew's voice was dead even. The woman's eyes flickered with frustration, quickly repressed.
"Florrie's corrobation won't help?"
"Not a hell of a lot. Not with this group. A lot of them look funny at her anyways as is. And she's a seven year old kid. Kids can be deceived."
Gina snorted. "And how long have you been fooling the so-called adults about your friend the Solugi, huh?"
"A few years. So yeah, gullible isn't a function of height. Your point?"
Gina growled softly, looking as if were it not for the child sleeping on her she'd be on the verge of leaving. "My point being, I saved your friend's life. I risked my ass doing that, big time. My point is, I've got little reason to enjoy having the Invid on my case, either. My other point is, right now, you're in a damn tight situation right now, as you said, with the Invid probably ready to breathe down your neck given you just sent up a hive and one of their leaders, and a dearth of manpower. I can help you with that, damn it. I know how. And if you're so damn worried--" Her knife was suddenly out, flashing in the monitor lights. Ulm froze, Amanda starting to slide off of him as he tensed.
He then saw the blade do a quick, surgical, slicing cut across the pad of one long finger, as Gina sucked in a hissing breath. She then slapped her hand down upon her knee, palm up, where he could see. Blood dripped off the end of her left ring fingertip, making a muted plap as it splatted on the ground.
Amanda grunted, resettled herself on Ulm, and went back to sleep in the meantime, completely ignorant.
"Well, how's them apples?" Gina said tightly.
Matthew looked from finger to ground, seeing the dark--but definitely red--wet splotch below her hand.
"You want a band-aid for that?" he asked mildly.
Gina grunted and nodded.
Ulm handed her one from his kit, then leaned back as she blotted and bandaged the cut.
"So. What evidence I see posts you as human. And faith. I guess I'm going to have to stretch everybody's quota of it a little more to take you in on it, given all this other crap."
Gina stared back at him. "Looks like."
Matthew Ulm's eyes were lidded, with weariness and assessment. "Time to invoke Murphy's Law. 'How much worse could it get?'"
Frederick Bohms finished getting torso armor off of his body, then accepted a mug of something hot, steaming, and unidentifiable from Gerald Wilson, who himself hadn't looked like he hadn't had a decent night's sleep in a while and had the fifty-yard stare to prove it. Bohms swigged and didn't care what the unidentifiable was, as long as it was hot. It was going to be a bitter, miserable night.
"Hey," Wilson grunted back. "Nothing?"
Bohms shook his head. "Nope. No nothing. The only thing I got on patrol was my nose losing all feeling."
Wilson nodded his shaggy head. "I'll take it. Won't last forever, but I'll take it."
"Right." Bohms left and slouched for the impromptu barracks, desperate for some sleep.
Wilson watched him go, his lips a white line, and followed, leaving the rest of the night mechanical crew to finish the turnover to the day shift.
There would be whispers soon. The medics would be talking, if nothing else.
He'd have to figure out what to do when the information leaked out, if it wasn't moot by then.
He didn't know, yet.