Author's Note: I think maybe two or three chapters after this, and we'll be finished with our journey through Ceti Alpha. Thanks again to you wonderful people who are sticking with me until the end! :)
It was late evening. The sun was a bright, burnt orange on the horizon that shot laser beams of light into their eyes whenever they dared to look at it, laser beams that seemed to pierce through the eyeball and dance on the tender nerves behind them, and each footstep was a throb of pain that made them blink and look away.
There should be noise now. Children should be coming out of their homes to play in the still warm sand before the icy winds of evening swept over them, making things crack and split with the sudden, violent change of temperature. Parents should be coming back from whatever hard labor was being done around the camp or in the caves. They should be milling around as the silver bars were distributed, should cluster in murmuring groups as their tongues, not completely stifled by their physical exhaustion, began to make tired small talk, to associate with friends they barely recognized by the glaring light of day.
But a hush was seeping into the world around them like water into a towel, suffocating them, smothering them. They were all quiet, all clustered together in one large circle.
It had been a hot day. One of the hottest so far. There had been no sandstorms, no wind to wipe dry sand across their sweating skin. Just the heat pushing down on them and the sand steaming up at them, a constant pressure that seemed to force all their strength out of trembling, shaking limbs. And still, they worked.
In the center of this circle, his legs crossed, his strong back bent like that of a beaten animal, sat Nyguk. His mother, an Augment bandit named Tsei-Tso, had terrorized Asia for years during the great Rebellion, when the Augments rose up and overthrew their scientist-mentors, overthrew the very governments that had paid to create them. Tsei-Tso had been too late to take the throne in New-Peking before her future husband, Leo de Soto, claimed it for his own and produced an army to defend himself. They fought each other bitterly and spilled enough blood to water several farms before they fell in love and had Nyguk.
He had the dark, thick hair and slanted eyes of his mother, but those eyes were blue, like the wide, low sky of Spain. The parents had been proud and violent; the son had been proud and bold. Once, he would have been a great king. Now, he was an exile in the desert.
For many weeks now he had spoken aloud of his past, of the beauty of Asia, the snow capped mountains and green, low valleys of China, the spicy sea that flowed around its shores, the sweet flute notes that echoed in palace halls. The pink blossoms of the cherry tree, the smooth feathers of the nightingale. But what was alarming was the fact that he kept speaking even when nobody was listening.
Then, that morning, he had come out of his hut, taken a good look at the sun and then just sat right down on the sand, legs crossed. He refused to move. Khan was called. With a surprisingly delicate blend of gruff kindness and stern authority, he tried to get the man to snap out of it and get back to work. Nyguk said nothing.
With a growing dread in his stomach, Khan announced that the sun would soon drive him to move; they would check on him in the evening.
The evening came, and he was still there.
"Nyguk, this has gone far enough," Khan's voice broke the silence. The crowd seemed to shift towards him in tense relief, like children in trouble who see a parent enter the room. Khan crossed his arms and moved to stand directly in front of Nyguk, blocking the sunlight.
Nyguk was undwarfed by his shadow. He merely looked up. "It certainly has. Far, far too long, you have kept us here, made us eat and drink and work and sleep…what for? Look at the sand…" he gently picked up a handful and let it trickle through his fingers, "look at it, Khan. It is here, it is endless, it is the most powerful thing left on the planet…and it is not even alive." He dusted his hands off and smiled blankly up at Khan, "don't you understand?"
"You are speaking nonsense and worrying your friends. Get up!" Khan barked.
Nyguk reared suddenly to a stand; Khan imperceptibly swayed backwards, surprised. "Alright, I am up. I obey the words of the great Khan…am I any better for it? Am I free from this planet? No."
The crowd listened, enthralled. Khan stared at the man, his face dark and foreboding, warning him to stop before he went too far. Nyguk ignored him. "Do you not understand, Khan? The only things that can survive on this planet are the dead!" he leaned forward suddenly, thrusting his face towards Khan's.
Instinctively, Khan shoved him back. Nyguk stumbled. "You will soon join them if you keep up this foolishness!" Khan roared, "You think we have time to nursemaid your insecurities and dissatisfaction? Your wanton despair? If you can eat that, then well and good. But if you, like us, need sustenance, then I suggest that you, like us, keep working!"
Nyguk laughed shortly. "You are living a lie, Khan. Living a lie and forcing us to live it too! What gives you the right?"
"Since you swore to live and die under my command! Since you elected me as your rightful leader and eagerly took the chance of escape I offered you!"
Nyguk threw his hands out wide; his eyes, everyone suddenly noticed, were dilating wildly. Sweat streaks had dried along his face during the burning afternoon. It was a wonder he was still standing there. "Yes, thank you, your Excellency! For we have escaped to hell!"
"We are alive, you fool. If you wish, however, to die, by all means despair and help satiate this planet's appetite." Khan's fists were clenched. He watched the man warily, unsure what he would do next. He had never before seen an Augment gone mad with hopelessness.
"Yes, yes! Now you come closer to the truth…" Nyguk approached again, heedless of peril as he invaded Khan's personal space, planting a finger square on his chest, grinning, his voice wavering with the force he used to push it out. His eyes, wide, blue, wild…stared into the dark fire of Khan's brown ones, searchingly. Then, as if he had discovered the darkness he sought, he smiled like a demon finding a friend. "We…we are all dead. All we have to do is lie down in the sand to sleep. Let us stop the charade, shall we? Stop pretending. Let us join the ghosts, let us be sucked into the darkness, deeper and deeper into nothingness…in your heart, you know this to be true."
At these last words, Khan's eyes widened with what might have been considered panic; but he quickly hardened under this new kind of attack, his jaw clenching, face working with outraged fury. He spoke, but anyone could tell it took a terrible amount of willpower to keep his voice level and strong. "The question here, Nyguk, is not what I believe. The question is whether you are going to work again…to live again. As long as a man has faith, he is never truly dead."
"Aha!" Nyguk cried excitedly, his eyes glinting madly in the evening sun, "there! Where did you get that idea? It is not your own…it was given to you."
At that moment, Marla pushed through the crowd. She stopped uncertainly, worriedly. Whenever she saw Khan in confrontation with another Augment, she always feared the worst. Nyguk's eyes lit up with a mad, frenzied flame, his own hands clenching into fists as he stared at her over Khan's shoulder. "The woman…the little, watered down human, who betrayed you most unmercifully, who gave us over to the power of Kirk and his fellows…."
Khan quickly glanced back and saw Marla standing there, eyes wide, mouth partly open as she stared urgently at him, mutely asking what was going on. He flew back to look at Nyguk, a strange tension building in his body, like a spring never used before. It was worry. Worry for a loved one. "My wife has nothing to do with this." The look in his face had changed from grim to deadly.
Nyguk sidestepped to get a better look at Marla, pointing at her. Khan moved with him, keeping his arms away from his body. "The she-demon who buried us here! It is all her fault…"
He was cut off instantly, violently, as Khan's brown hand clamped onto his throat and shoved him backwards. Caught off guard, Nyguk tripped in the sand and fell. He caught himself, but he wasn't even looking at Khan, wasn't even looking at the man who just attacked him. It was then that Khan knew he was truly mad. Still staring at Marla with fixed, glazed eyes of hatred, he got up and started rushing towards her.
"She buried us, and now she will not let us lie in peace!"
Khan slammed himself bodily into Nyguk. Marla turned to retreat, to take herself out of a situation she knew she was only making worse. With a start, she realized the other Augments weren't letting her through. She wheeled around again, betrayed, caught between a hammer and an anvil, unable to save herself or her husband.
Sand sprayed from beneath the combatant's boots…it was a messy struggle. Nyguk had no control, no strategy or grace. He merely kept trying to drag himself towards Marla, to grab her and probably kill her. Khan kept throwing him back, panting, teeth clenched. Nyguk was insane. He would not listen to reason. The crowd was watching their leader and the maniac struggle over the woman, as if they were two beasts fighting over a bone. His esteem in their eyes was plummeting. Their hostility felt like a warm, prickly fence around him as he cursed Nyguk in his mind. Khan was losing control of the situation …something that could never, ever happen.
But he could not call for help. He could not show weakness and cry out for anyone to come forward and hold Nyguk down; he had started this fight impulsively, out of pure instinct, to protect Marla. He had started it with his bare hands; he had to finish it in the same way.
Finally, he crushed the already exhausted man into the sand face first, holding his arms behind his back. Taking a second to breathe, he leaned over the struggling Augment, flicking black hair out of his eyes. "Now, Nyguk," he whispered harshly, "will you be still?"
Nyguk went limp. Khan held his breath, hoping against hope that the madness had somehow, impossibly, lost its target. Then, the man nodded sharply.
Khan got up, willing the adrenalin fuel to flow through his limbs and not linger where it might cause his hands to shake. Nyguk struggled up but stepped back from Khan warily. Still looking at him, Khan held his hand out behind him, towards Marla. "Marla," he said; his voice was clear and controlled, "come here."
Marla moved forward; afraid, yet knowing that she had to support him; that she had to trust him. Khan put an arm around her shoulder and brought her close, facing Nyguk defiantly. "Now, Nyguk, is there something you wanted to tell Marla?"
Some of the Augments would have smiled, had the situation not been so serious and, as they could instinctively tell, important.
Nyguk snarled. He lurched drunkenly towards the crowd, reached a still-standing Augment, and whipped out his knife. Again, no one interfered; they wanted to see where this was going. And some, although they wouldn't admit it…some of them had listened to Nyguk and believed him.
Marla felt Khan's fingers dig into her upper arm as the knife appeared; but he made no other movement. She wanted to faint. Nyguk was just as tall as Khan if not a little taller; strong and burly and capable of cracking her spine with his bare hands. And now he was trying to kill her. She relished the pain in her arm, because it kept her focused, like an anchor in a storm.
Nyguk held the knife, feet planted far apart as he glared at Marla. "You have corrupted his Excellency, Marla McGivers. What he saw and maybe sees in you…none of us could see it. We never thought your alliance would last longer than a season. But you…you think you strengthen him with this talk of a heart that not only pumps blood, but also loves and believes and sacrifices? Why not spare yourselves? Why not let us die in peace?"
He turned to look at Khan; the world had gone dead silent again. All eyes watched them. "And you," Nyguk sneered, "great leader of men…protector of my mother, murderer of my father! Father of these Augments whose brothers and sisters you slaughtered during the war! What are you doing?! What are we doing here together? We don't belong. We kill. Or we are killed. There is no one left to kill…" he looked around wildly, as if searching for a target. People stepped back, "then it is high time we were killed."
He looked up at the sun as it was settling on the rolling dunes that bordered the horizon. He didn't even blink as it pierced his eyes. Instead, he brought the knife up, touched it to his neck, and stabbed right through it with a wet, crunching sound.
His eyes widened, staring out accusingly, as if he couldn't even believe he had done it. Marla cried out in shock, her hand flying to her mouth; even the crowd of Augments gasped. Before Khan could take a single step forward, Nyguk fell into the sand with a lifeless thump, like a heavy rag doll.
Aghast, Khan stared down at the corpse. The people stared. No one moved. It was almost as if they were afraid to.
Then, Marla knelt softly by the body. Without blanching, she felt the bloody neck for signs of life, put her ear to the mouth, listening for the soft touches of breath…she felt nothing. Her blue eyes were sad. "Poor man," she said tenderly, closing the eyes that had been staring so wildly less than a few seconds before.
Khan marveled at this sudden show of strength from Marla; but he had little time to muse over this surprise. The Augments. He could feel their gazes, burning into him. And his inherent instincts told him exactly why. In their eyes, he had just sided with human against one of their own, madman or not. Furthermore, what had been whispering in their minds for a long, long time had finally been outspoken by this maniac who had so suddenly and forcefully been silenced.
The little human female made Khan weak. She divided his loyalties, dimmed his concentration, poisoned his willpower. He was not the fierce murderer king they all feared and remembered; he was a man who killed only when necessary, and ruled with his words rather than a sword. And it all happened when the planet died and he began spending more and more time with her, in the secret darkness of their own shelter. She-demon, pretty-poison, witch-soul…
They hated her. But not because of whatever fantasies their boiling brains had cooked up…it was because she was at peace. She had a strength, a control that none of them, for all their power, could seem to find. They were jealous. They did not understand. So she instantly became a threat, a threat they hated.
And now, Khan was not just their leader, a target for assassination but also a respected and even admired warrior: now, he was a traitor.
Marla found him later; standing with a shovel by the rubbish pit. He should have been digging there; sand was always falling in and demolishing the boundaries of what was, sadly, one of their most valuable resources.
When he heard her soundless steps behind him, he flipped the shovel upright and began digging busily; but before that, he had been as still as a cold, hard monument of stone. That was wrong. Khan Noonien Singh was never still. Even when standing in one place, his breathing caused his body to swell ever so slightly and made him just seem like a birthplace of life…as all the Augments seemed to be. Men at their greatest…strong, swift, deep breaths, bright eyes, tall enough to look down on all and powerful enough to subdue anything. They were beautiful and awe-inspiring and terrifying.
But at the moment, Khan seemed far too brittle to be terrifying. He shot her an unwelcoming, hard glance as she came up beside him; his hands clenched tightly on the handle of the shovel. She threw the armful of rusted metal in with a clatter, then stood there, watching him work.
"Well?" Khan said at last, turning to look at her as she knew he would, "what do you want?"
Well, that was rude. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Instantly, his eyes narrowed with a defense so desperate that it ended up being an attack. "What is wrong is the fact that my wife is wasting my time with her idle chatter and unjustifiable curiosity."
Marla felt the back of her neck go hot. "Sorry I'm wasting your valuable time…I see it was very well used indeed, staring into space for half an hour."
"It could have been, yes," Khan growled stubbornly, "my genetically engineered intellect might just have been coming up with a few ways to save our lives just a little longer."
"That's a big lie if I ever heard it," Marla muttered, "you don't snap when you've got a brainchild, because you're so proud of yourself."
"I do not get 'proud of myself'!"
Marla snorted helplessly, covering her mouth as she fought to suppress the rising tide of laughter in her stomach. Khan glanced sharply at her. He seemed to realize what he had just said, and his face softened. A reluctant, almost sheepish smile crept up his face. "And the sands are not sandy, and the sky is not blue, I know."
"This one isn't, anyway," Marla shook her head, reaching forward fondly to touch Khan's arm. "What was absorbing Napoleon's concentration today?"
He raised an eyebrow at her, "I would not be compared with Napoleon for anything. He was a bold but irregular thinker…hardly a true genius."
Somehow knowing that he was just trying to avoid her question, Marla gave him a cynical you've-got-to-be-kidding-me look.
Responding with an amused smile, Khan moved to hold the shovel with one hand, wrapping his other arm around her slender shoulders. "You are far too inquiring for your own good, Marla."
"Well, my good is not what's worrying me right now."
Khan didn't reply. His brown eyes shifted their focus as he gazed out over the hot sand dunes afar off, casting long shadows in the dusk. In the sudden silence, Marla could hear the low moan of the wind as it scattered the sand, causing it to rustle like a sea of tiny voices.
"Do you believe in..." he stopped, deliberating, his brow furrowed in concentration, staring out at the desert as if it was a difficult math formulae or a hidden enemy, "do you believe in ghosts, Marla?"
Impulsively, Marla hugged him around the waist, resting her head on his chest, forcing him to turn away from the horizon as she stared out at it herself. A long, long time ago, she would have laughed. Now, as the wind moaned and the sands rustled beneath their feet like something underneath, something alive was moving, trying to come up…she realized with a peculiar start of terror that the idea wasn't so funny anymore.
But still, her mind, rational, calm, worried…it came to her rescue. "No, I don't," she looked up into her face, gracing him with her best smile, "I don't give a hoot about ghosts."
Khan smirked bitterly, turning to look out at the desert again, "it is not you who buried them."
Marla's eyes widened. She grabbed his face and turned it back, almost roughly. "Oh, no you don't! Don't you start blaming yourself now! It's far, far too late for that." He jerked his face out of hands. She kept talking, "What about me?! I freed Kirk and helped him retake the Enterprise! Wasn't I the one who betrayed you all in the first place?"
"No!" His outraged roar startled her, "It was I! I betrayed my people by closing my eyes, by trusting a human woman…and I betrayed you by taking your trust and bending it for my own purposes, by taking your heart and your love and forcing it into a shape where it would not fit."
Marla was shocked; for a long time now, she had known that Khan regretted his actions where she was concerned. But she had not realized just how deeply he blamed himself, nor just how far his self-crimination extended. And she suddenly realized that he considered everything to be his fault: the defeat, the exile, the hardships, all the deaths, all the ghosts…
"No," she realized her voice was trembling and brought it down, "you couldn't have known…"
"I should have known!" He cut her off harshly. When she looked up, she saw so much pain and guilt in those eyes…those eyes of a prince and a warrior and a man she loved more than anything in the world…she reached for him wordlessly, not knowing what else to say or do.
Anger and longing warred in his face for a split instant. But then, disgust poisoned it. "What, shall I seek more weakness from your arms? More reward for my gift to us all? Shall I forget!?" The last word echoed across the desert as he stared wildly at her, as if wondering why she couldn't see how he was responsible for everyone's misery.
Not even realizing how much his words hurt her, he left her, the shovel still standing upright, forgotten, in the sand.
Marla grabbed the handle to steady herself as she nearly fell to her knees. She sniffed, then realized she was crying.
Oh you stupid, stupid man! She roughly wiped the tears away, seeking emotional safety in rage, how could you…how dare you…I lived with you for ten years, and you never thought to show me that you were carrying the weight of the world on your back! Why?! You're being crushed inside, and you were too proud to let me see, too proud to let me help.
He enraged her with his arrogance, his way of looking at the world as if it was shaking in his shadow. He exasperated her beyond words with his misplaced values and false beliefs, his idolatry of strength and control, his disgust for kindness and compassion. He frightened her and turned joy to ashes with his outbursts of rage and his periods of stony, brooding silence. He worried her because of the way his life seemed to be empty of everything but the drive to lead, so powerful that sometimes she thought he didn't care if he lived.
But he loved her.
She knew that. She knew it because he would listen to her words even when he didn't agree with them, that he would seriously consider ideas that to him seemed strange and unnatural. He would take the time to explain even if he was wrong, because he thought he was right and truly wanted her to share his beliefs. He would carry Joachim outside if she was tired and take her workload upon himself if he thought she couldn't handle it. He never hit her. He never tore her down with words…at least, never maliciously, for the pure cruel joy of seeing her pain. Despite what he said or pretended, he would do anything for her.
And he fought for her. She knew how hard he had…and still was…struggling with his natural passions, his desires that he had given reign to for so long, that everything he had ever learned or experienced told him he should let run free. He was holding himself back for her all the time, denying himself and his pride. All for her.
Because he loved her.
Marla was happy with how things were going. Khan was, slowly but surely, changing into a better man. A man of strength, goodness, love, fire…but now, this new demon had reared its head. The beast was not yet defeated, and it had struck back cruelly by taking a noble impulse: responsibility, and turned it into a poison Khan was slowly killing himself with. Only two hands could pull him up now. Love…or the animalistic strength that comes from rage and destroys the soul.
She could see all the horror and terror building behind his eyes, like living pain behind flames. She wished he would open himself to her, give her a chance to show him what strength and courage love could give…but he trusted in himself as he always had, not even realizing how damaged and destroyed he already was by broken dreams and self-hate and despair. She wished he would, just for a moment, trust her not to destroy his heart if he exposed it, instead to grace it with all the support and love she could. She wished he would let her carry some of his horrible burden.
She wished he would just cry.