By: Ghost (ironic, ain't it.)
Disclaimer: Standard stuff. I don't own 'em, and couldn't afford the medical bills, let alone the spare ship parts, if I did.
Notes: I re-watched TWG yesterday and this wouldn't go away. Warning, this is a dark ride. And contains a lot of foul language. Just so's you know. And I know the endings… a little weak. Any help/ advice on that score would be welcome.
Spoliers: for TWG. This is set post- Magog world-ship-- maybe three weeks after?
As always, any feedback (good, bad, or indifferent) is more than welcome.
"Ghosts." Harper muttered. Only ghosts. Shadows and memories. Not real. Not there. Hollow and empty. Walking dead.
Just like him.
Looking around the vacant machine shop made his skin crawl. Everything on Andromeda did. All he could see and think was, here: here-this table- was where he had sat and sipped a Sparky while chatting with Trance; here--this corner, had been where Tyr first grabbed him; here, right here, was where Rommie had shocked him; here- right here had been where they over took them, where they grabbed him, where they bit and spit and clawed and hurt--
But the whole ship was that way for him now. Haunted. Hated. Full of pain and fear and desperation.
He slept in his berth in the Maru, now.
It disgusted Rommie. She needed him. Had a use for him. She wanted him where she could see him. Where she could monitor his life-signs and send Beka or Trance running when his adrenaline spiked and the memories pulled him down down down.
Down and away. Down dark tunnels and tight, entrapping spaces, that had once been the Andromeda's halls and access ways. That had once been his personal playground. A place of wonder and endless amusement.
Now it was just another scorched, blasted ruins, filled with the stench of death.
Welcome back to the real world, Harper.
He stalked the halls, not much more than a ghost himself now. But what was one more shadow in a floating city full of them? They were everywhere, the ghosts. The first crew dead. Dylan's crew dead. His own personal dead. Even the ones that had trailed him from Earth had found a home here, now. The echo of screams--Tyr's, Beka's, Dylan's, *his*-- that he knew couldn't possibly still be there, yet heard anyway. Like he still felt the twitch of phantom claws and teeth and, and--
Hot. Hot breath on his neck, his back, his flank, blood dripping, running, pouring, rough tongue thicker than human, scraping; muscle being shredded; greasy, heavy pelt, pressed into his bare back and, and acid and fire and a scaled palm of a three digit hand holding his shoulder, pressing into his hip, claws digging in, finding purchase, holding him steady while--
No. nonononono. Please.
Something in his gut twisted.
He could still feel them!
Harper lashed out at the debris on the table and sent it flying. It hit the floor and far wall with a clatter, the noise drowning out the sound of the screams that were. not. there!
Heart thudding painfully in his chest, he attacked the table, wrenching it up and tossing it almost easily over. He turned then to the exposed cables.
The whole time he ripped and tore and savaged the room, he was eerily silent. He snarled and he spit, but nothing louder than a low growl came from his throat. His thoughts were all pain and red and hurt and unclean and trapped…
Trapped in a nightmare he had thought he'd left behind so many years ago. Trapped in a war that no one else on board could *ever* understand. Trapped and pent and buried with the screams of people, loved ones, who had died so long ago. Who whispered in the dark of the night that he knew what he had to do….
He was halfway across the room, gun pulled, before the hand could land on his shoulder.
Panting, hands dripping gore from his pointless fight with the room- with the memories that it held-- he stared at Tyr, standing tense, but motionless, near the now open door.
"don't. touch. me." He gasped the words, biting off the screams that wanted to tear from his throat.
"As if I would want to." Tyr watched him, arms crossed. They all knew he allowed no one to touch him anymore. Tyr looked tired and cold and hard and far too uber for Harper. And worst of all, there was the subtle light of pity glaring in the perfect eyes.
Harper fought his emotions, fought to get his mask back in place. Fought to put both the screams and the gun away.
He couldn't even manage the gun.
He turned his back to the Nietzschean until he could get control over his face and body language. Dangerous, but necessary. His mask had been slipping far, far too often lately. The others were starting to give him that look.
"Rommie worried about my health?" he sneered, still not meeting Tyr's gaze.
"Actually, I believe she was more concerned with her coolant lines." Tyr's cool voice washed over him, as unwelcome and acidic as the rainwater in the camps. "Ripping out a chunk of her system is a sure way of drawing attention to yourself."
Harper snorted. "Yeah, well- tactical mistake. I wasn't thinking clearly."
Harper didn't respond. There was nothing to say. Which was just as well, as he wasn't sure he'd have been able to say it, anyway. He knew he was a little crazy now. That he'd gone just a bit too far 'round the bend. That was a good saying, really, 'cause that's exactly how he felt now... bent. Bent and twisted and unable to fit….
He stepped over to the cool, smooth wall, and slid down it, crouching, arms around knees in the wreckage. He was shaking as the adrenaline hung unspent in his system, turning sour. He was suddenly so tired. And cold. The gun was a comforting weight in his hand.
Tyr squatted down, coming to his eye level. "Your hands are bleeding, boy."
Harper shrugged absently, bringing the pistol up so he could see it. Blood on metal. Whisper on a scream.
"This… apathy does no one any good, least of all you." Tyr's tone was impatient, even angry. It caused Harper to look up from his gun, to meet Tyr's eyes. "Let me wrap them. You can't afford an infection, boy."
Anger in those eyes, yes, and pity-- but there was also something else, something deeper. Guilt. And maybe fear. Guilt for talking Harper out of death, time after time… telling him he himself would kill him if the Magog infested him? Of knowing now that he would never keep that promise? That he was afraid of Harper dying?
And why was he afraid? Because Harper would suffer the death that he had managed to escape-- and he would have to watch? That he would remain whole and strong as the larvae slowly, painfully, leached the strength and life out of Harper? All because he couldn't keep a simple promise-- or let Harper keep it for him. Fear of Harper living, fear of Harper dying…
Or maybe he just knew that Harper was the only one who could fix the ship right now, and so he wanted him to stay healthy, and therefore alive.
"Fuck you. You've helped enough, uber alise." Harper turned the gun and switched off the safety. The soft whine of the chamber charging was very loud in the still room. It was even loud enough to override the shrieks in his head.
"More melodrama, little man?" Tyr sneered, inching forward slightly. "Would you like me to go get the others, so they can witness your little performance? How very pathetic." But his eyes still glowed with guilt and fear. Harper could see it. Hell, he could smell it.
Harper laughed softly. A broken jagged sound, not entirely unlike the screams that bounced around his skull. He put the gun to his stomach. "Do me a favor, Tyr. The next time you make a promise, have the balls to keep it. It would just make life easier on everybody."
Tyr's eyes narrowed, his crouched body becoming tense, offended. "Go to hell, you little bastard," he hissed. "I have wasted enough precious breath on trying to talk sense into that metal clogged, twisted, little brain of yours. If you are intent on ending that pathetic excuse for a life, then do so, and soon, because I am sick to death of your endless whining! But do not expect either help or hindrance from me. I am shut of you. I did not survive that desert hell, just to fall because a kludge can't deal with his problems. I had thought you were a survivor. But obviously, I was badly mistaken, and I will not spend anymore energy on a sniveling little cowar--"
He broke off as Harper slammed into him. Taken by surprise, Tyr fell backward, Harper on top, until his head met the floor. Before he could move, a snarling Harper had wrapped his fist in Tyr's dreadlocks and slammed his head down twice more, grunting at the effort.
Dazed, Tyr bucked, trying to free his arms The younger man's position made it impossible to use his arm spurs; they were pined by Harper's knees, pressed into his elbows. Tyr managed to lift the engineer up, but before he could bring his superior bulk and muscle into play, Harper spit at his face. Tyr jerked back, instinctively protecting his eyes, and Harper used his flinch to hit him on the side of his head with the butt of the gun. Then Harper hit him again, smacking him hard in the side of his face. The blow split his lip, and opened a gash over his eye, as well as feeling like it shattered every bone on that side.
The barrel of Harper's gun pushed heavily into the hollow under Tyr's chin.
"If you so much as twitch, I swear, I will pull this trigger and blow that wasted matter you call a brain all over this deck-plate. Then I will use it to finger-paint insults to every genetically enhanced prick in the universe on the walls."
Tyr looked through cloudy eyes at the creature straddling him. Harper's lips had pulled back from his teeth in a snarl. His body shook, not with shock or fear, but with suppressed rage. Still, the hand holding the gun to his throat was rock steady, the finger pressed into the trigger, taunt.
A look glittered in the back of Harper's eyes.
At that moment, Tyr knew the boy would not hesitate to kill him.
He also knew the boy was not entirely sane.
"We," Harper panted, rocking forward slightly, putting a sharper pressure on his knees, making Tyr bite back a pained groan, "Are going to have a little talk."
"About what?" Tyr hissed, glaring at the engineer.
The gun pushed in harder. "Wait. Maybe I should rephrase that. I meant, I'm gonna talk, and you're gonna listen, and if you're a good little Nietzschean, I may--may-- let you live."
And despite the gun, or maybe because of it, just to prove the boy couldn't frighten him into submission, Tyr spoke. "How in the nine hells did--"
"Did weak lil' 'ol Harper manage to take down Tyr the big and bad?" Harper snorted, the fist still wrapped in Tyr's hair jerking slightly. "As if I don't know all you Uber's fucking little secrets. Your vulnerabilities. Your kind don't like strobe lights, do ya? Don't even equip 'em on your ships, 'cos those genetically superior pupils can't react fast enough to the extreme spectrum changes. Leave you blind. Don't like sudden loud noises, either. Perfect beyond perfect hearing and shrill sounds don't mix. Kids used to carry whistles on Earth. It might- might- give you a chance to get away when the Nietz's wanted to play."
Harper leaned back, half panting, half growling. His common had slipped into a thick, fast accent that Tyr could only guess was an Earther brogue.
"'Corse, all of that only works for a second. But that's okay, 'cos mostly," Harper continued, smiling slightly, "you fucks are just overconfident and unaware of your surroundings. You're so self-centered, that by the time you become aware of the feelings of the people around you, they've already had the time to take you down." He whapped Tyr's head into the flooring again.
"But you get away with it, 'cos most people are too afraid to move." Harper leaned in close and grinned. Tyr had to repress a shudder for the ferialness of it. "But guess what? I'm *living* my worst nightmare, and *nothing* scares me anymore."
Tyr barked a laugh. "You're telling lies, boy. Everything frightens you! You're afraid of the Magog, of the larvae, of the ship, and of your dreams. You're so afraid that you spend every day in endless contemplation of your own death! You make me sick!"
The gun pushed even farther into Tyr's throat. For a moment he couldn't draw breath for the pressure of it.
"You know *nothing*, Nietzschean."
"I know how to survive! I know what living in hell feels like, *boy*, and I know you are not the survivor everyone takes you for!"
Harper laughed-- a manic sound that bounced off the metal walls and made the hackles on the back of Tyr's neck rise. "You want to talk survival? You know about living in hell, do ya? Well, I grew up there. I spent twenty fucking *years* there. For those of you who are mathematically challenged, that's 80 seasons, you arrogant fuck! 80! So you'll forgive me if your pathetic little story about your tragic season in the desert doesn't move me to tears.
"My parents didn't *bother* to copulate, they made a business arrangement in a back ally. I was born into a world where the ubers bought, and sold, and *claimed* us like cattle. I lived through the droughts and the fires and the floods and the plagues. I lived through heat and freezing cold and famine. When the ubers sold us out to the Magog, I lived through the hunts. I survived by *any* means necessary.
"You say you were sixteen when you lost your parents?" He laughed bitterly. "I watched my mother have her face burnt off by Magog acid when I was barely old enough to remember. Did you know that human flesh can actually boil? That eyes can steam?"
He broke off, swallowing. Then started again. "On my own, I survived. While you were being powdered and primped and told you were the Divine's gift to all things uber, I was clawing and biting and scratching for life. I was drinking seep water and eating ally rats." He laughed, obviously enjoying throwing the Nietzschean's words back in his face. " But I survived. I hid. I learned. I avoided the Nietzschean raids and the Magog hunts. Oh, eventually they found me. They sent me to the camps. I survived there too. Doing whatever I had to do. They caught me. Twice. They--" he panted, and Tyr could feel him shaking from the memories. "They *interrogated* me."
Harper shuddered, the spasm jerking at his limbs and causing him to pull at Tyr's hair again. But still the gun didn't wander. "When they purged the camp I was still a kid. But by that time, I was useful. Just not useful enough to make a good sell." He let go of Tyr's hair, gun still lodged in the Nietzschean's throat, and reach toward his 'port. "They took away *everything*. I had to learn to fucking walk again!"
He glared at Tyr. "I survived all of it. And there's something you don't understand about survival. There is no hope there. 'Cos *hope* demands thinking of the future, and when you're *just* surviving, there is no future. There is only now-- this day, this breath, this heartbeat, and what you need to sustain it right this second! There is no tomorrow, there is no 'better'. Hope is a fickle bitch. She makes you weak, 'cos she demands that you see a future. That you look beyond *now*. That can blind you. While you're daydreaming about better days, you'll miss the knife that's waiting just over your shoulder.
"You say 'where there is life, there is hope'. But you don't understand-- there is no 'life', there is only survival. Endless, pointless survival.
"So you will not *ever* lecture me on *survival*."
Harper punctuated the last phrase by whacking Tyr on the chin with the gun. While Tyr fought to clear his vision, Harper scrambled away, a fast, graceless move that ended with his back against the wall, his gun still pointed at Tyr.
Tyr sat up slowly. Came into a crouch. He looked at the shaking young man with hawk's eyes.
"I would kill you for that, boy, but I believe that's exactly what you want me to do."
Harper laughed raggedly. "Yeah. Maybe. But ya gotta admit, it would make things easier on me."
"Why? Why after all that you've suffered-- all that you've survived and conquered-- why do you now want to die?"
Harper giggled maniacally. He dropped his arms and looked up at the ceiling with haunted eyes. "Oh, for fucks sake, Tyr. I don't want to die. That's the whole problem."
Tyr blinked. "Then what has all this…fuss, been about? Why did you say that Trance should have left you for dead? That I should have kept my promise? Why do you keep making these idiotic attempts? Is it too make us stop you?"
Harper met Try's eyes steadily, his gaze slightly amused. "Oh come off it, Tyr. If I wanted to die, do you really think any of you could stop me? Take my gun, and I'll find another way. Brake a glass and eat the pieces. Shove myself out an airlock. Hell, there are about 12 simple things that I could do to my 'port alone that would fry my gray matter into a nice, golden brown. If I really wanted to die, I'd already be dead."
"I must admit, I do not understand you, Master Harper." Tyr found a convenient surface and leaned back. His head hurt, and trying to sort out Harper's thought processes was not helping.
Harper softly hit his head against the wall behind him, external reflection of internal pain. "I know. You can't understand. No one can understand. You don't know."
Try jerked, reaction to the echo those words stirred. You don't know. You don't even know. He shook it off. "So explain it to me."
Harper slid down the wall, tucking his hands and head down. "I don't know if I can." The words sounded hollow, tired.
"The man who could talk a Midigan ice-maiden out of her ohegas can't explain why he does and does not want to die?"
"I don't want to die!" Harper growled the words from somewhere in the twist of his arms. "I just learned how to live. Living is not something you do on Earth. I didn't learn how to really live until I met Beka. I'm still learning. I don't want to die now."
"So what is your problem?"
A long pause. Harper started to shake again. "I have to die."
Tyr regarded the boy carefully. Either this made some sort of twisted logic to the child, or he was much further gone into madness than anyone on board had suspected. "You don't have to die, boy. The girl said she has time to find--"
"No. No no no no no no. You're not listening to me. I. have. to. die." The tone was intense, despite being muffled. The words were strong, sure; but also childlike, lost and sad.
Frustration warred with concern. Frustration won. "You make no sense, boy!"
Harper sighed, a heavy, wet sound. "Let's say you had a wife and child. You live on an old ship. The main power grid on it's about to implode, and there wasn't enough room, and air, and supplies in the lifepod for everyone-- so that one of you had to stay behind… oh, and your wife's pregnant-- what would you do?"
Tyr blinked, startled by the sudden change in topic. He wondered if it was further sign of the boy's degrading mental status. "What?"
"You heard me." Harper's head came up, his eyes hard. "One of you, either your child, your pregnant wife, or you, has to die. If you don't decide quickly the pod won't have time to clear the blast wave, so make up your mind. Who dies? What's the answer?"
Try shrugged. "Easily answered, little man. The others would go. I would stay and try to find a way to survive."
"Why? Why stay? Netizieans are motivated by self-preservation first last and in the middle, so why stay?"
Tyr growled. "Because if I had offspring, they would have to survive, to carry on the Anisazie genetic line. The young ones would need their mother for survival… food and such. So they go and I stay."
Harper's eyes narrowed. "And if you were sick? Something you could pass along to your wives and children. To your whole Pryde. Something deadly?"
Tyr snorted and looked aside, refusing to meet Harper's gaze. He knew now where this argument was headed.
"Well?" Harper demanded.
"The same. I would go off alone somewhere and try to find a cure. But I would not risk their lives." It was spoken grudgingly.
"And if you knew there was no cure? That there was no way to put enough distance between yourself and everybody else to make them safe? That there was no way out?"
Tyr rubbed his aching head.
"Well? Answer me, damnit!"
He leveled a stare at Harper. "I would not kill myself."
That manic giggle again. "No, probably not. Not a Nietzschean kind of thing to do." He turned the gun over in his hands again. "On Earth we dealt with this thing all the time. It was considered…right to end your life before you became a weapon of mass destruction. Before they hatched and went forth to slaughter. You were selfish and, and, evil if you wanted to live. Just to make others die. It was right to end it. Good. Fuckin' noble, if you can believe that shit. We had to. We owed it to our families… to the others, not to become a weapon for the enemy. Hell, I helped infected people do it. I held the needles, or the cups, or the ropes, or the guns…. I helped my own cousins that way. So that the Magog couldn't win. So that they wouldn't be used to help hurt anyone else."
He looked up at Tyr, his eyes raw, and more open then the Nietzschean had ever seen. "Was I wrong?"
The room was silent as Try struggled with the question.
Slowly, Tyr took a breath. Let it out. Rocked back on his heels. "Do you really feel that way? About hope? About life?"
"You didn't answer me."
A hesitation. Harper looked aside, as if Tyr had disappointed him somehow. "You don't?"
"Cynicism is not a survival trait."
Harper snorted. "Says who?"
Tyr sat down flat, finally, as Harper rubbed his eyes, gun dangling dangerously from loose fingers. "It…distracts one." Tyr responded slowly. Speaking from a childhood's training. "Causes you to miss possibilities and openings that, although improbable, could be beneficial."
Harper shrugged, closing his eyes as if suddenly exhausted. "Difference in upbringing. You knew, when it got bad, that things could be better. For me…that was as good as it ever got. The best there was. I didn't miss any opportunities, because there were no opportunities *to* miss."
"You're here." Tyr pointed out, while he gently probed at his swelling jaw, wondering if the little professor had managed to break it.
"It wasn't opportunity. It was chance. I was sold into a space-faring company. After I was off Earth, my options…expanded somewhat."
"You found hope." Tyr couldn't help the smugness that crept into his tone-- not that he would have hidden it in any case.
"I found out I was capable of murder and worse. Is that hope? I'm really asking, here. 'Cos I don't think I even know what that word means, the way you talk about it."
Tyr was silent. Again, he found no words to answer that. It was not a question he had ever heard asked before, not even of himself during his season in hell.
"No answers?" There was a false brightness to Harper's tone. It made Tyr shiver.
Tyr only shook his head, still watching the boy, and his gun.
"Welcome to humanity, Uber Alies." But there was no venom in the words. They were spoken tiredly, sadly.
They sat together for a time. Tyr leaning against a solid, stable surface, and Harper crouched in the wreckage. Neither able to say, or do, anything to help the other.
Finally Tyr sighed, feeling the swelling slowly forming in his face. Straightening and looking Harper in the eye, he spoke, "I do believe you have managed to do me even more damage than the Magog." He sounded oddly impressed. "You won't do it again." The warning was clear.
Harper just sneered. "You never thought I could've done it *this* time."
"Point," Tyr acknowledged. "But I know better now." He stood, trying to hide the slight shakiness in his knees. Watched as Harper slowly, deliberately pushed the safety button on his pistol and holstered it. "So. You've decided…?"
"Decision? What decision? Who said I've decided anything." He grinned. "I've just put off the whole decision making process until further notice."
"Ah, so Hunt's bureaucracy is rubbing off on you."
"Hey! I'll have you know that I was perfectly well skilled at procrastination even before making Dylan's acquaintance."
"Of that I have no doubt." Tyr actually found himself smiling. "Not a characteristic I usually approve of, but in this case…."
He watched as the younger man rubbed at his raw eyes and then, shaking out his abused hands, hissed in pain. And Tyr knew he could leave, should leave even. But something held him back.
"You will be …all right?"
Harper snorted at him. "Not just no, but Hell no. I'm *dying*, Tyr. I'm just about as far from all right as a person can get." Then he looked up, eyes tired and hooded. "But if your asking if I'll still be breathing for the next couple'a days…probably. " He shrugged. "No promises, though."
It was Tyr's turn to shrug. "I don't ask for any."
Harper nodded, as if they had settled something.
Tyr turned, walked to the door. Stopped and spoke. "That promise I made. When the time comes, I'll keep it."
Behind him, Harper snorted. "Do you expect me to thank you?"
Tyr shrugged. "No. I just thought you should know. I might even find it pleasurable."
Harper snorted again. "Of that, I have no doubts."
"And…" Tyr paused, swallowing. The words came hard. "And, for what it's worth… I'm not sorry I haven't kept it yet."
Harper sighed. "Most days, I'm not either." Something big shifted as Harper began to repair the damage he had caused. "Most days."
Tyr nodded, and slipped quietly out of the room, leaving Harper to his repairs.
That was all right. Harper really didn't want his help anyway.
And so, Harper turned his attention to doing what he had always done best. Imposing order on chaos. Taking scraps and making something new. Fixing the broken.
The work numbed him; allowed him to escape… stilled the voices for a time.
They'd be back. He didn't even try to fool himself about that. The next time he had too much free time on his hands-- or the next time he tried to sleep-- they'd be there. The same questions. The same ghosts.
But for now they were still. For now he was …content, surrounded by wreckage, and slowing building life. For now, he could loose himself in the work, and let the memories sleep. For now.
And hadn't he said that now was all that really mattered?