Death is the breath between one Life and the Next.
— Message of the Will
Book of the Seven Holies, Ancient Dak Scripture
Death came for Michael while he slept.
He woke, gasping and trembling, from a dream of being pushed out the airlock. His fingers were cold and numb; the weight of his head on his arm had cut off his circulation. Michael sat up, wiping sweaty strands of hair off his forehead. Shifting his feet out from under him, he cursed as pain lanced up his leg.
Shit. I fell asleep. I can’t sleep. How long was I out?
Michael crawled along the vent to the grille that covered its entrance, stopping once to catch his breath. Despite having dozed, he was exhausted and cold. The air in the vent left a metallic taste in his dry mouth and he couldn’t stop shaking. The wound in his leg, which he’d bandaged with cloth ripped from his pants, made a white-hot line down his shin.
God, it hurts. If I don’t find some meds soon…
He had to figure a way out before he was incapable of going on, or lost consciousness again–maybe for good. Michael pulled himself onto his knees, inching his way toward the harsh light that shone through the grille. Dust motes danced in the path of square patches of illumination.
Then he heard it.
Faint, a mere whisper: the brief sound of air being expelled from lungs. And it came from outside, from the corridor below the vent. Despite the fact that he was freezing, sweat broke out all over his body.
Fuck. Oh, fuck no. Please, no.
Michael strained to hear, ignoring the pain in his wounded leg, which had become twisted beneath him. There was nothing but the impossibly loud sound of his own breathing. Seconds ticked by, then minutes. He blinked as sweat dripped into his eyes.
Heart tripping, he decided he must have imagined it all. He began to shift his weight in a careful movement.
Tap, tap, tap.
All the air left his lungs. The grille wavered and darkened before his eyes.
The sound came from right below him, on the wall just under his hiding place.
Tap, tap, tap.
He recognized the rhythm. It had been centuries since anyone had used it on a military vessel, but everyone had studied the same vids in their naval history holobooks during basic training.
Three short, three long, three short. SOS. Save Our Souls. A cruel jibe. The only soul left to save was his, and the very thing he tried to escape stood right outside, mocking him with the ancient distress signal none of them, least of all him, would ever be able to send.
The tapping stopped. Michael stared at the opening in front of him, seeing the grille being yanked off like paper as if it were already happening, seeing the light falling fully into the narrow vent, revealing him where he crouched, helpless and too terrified to move.
Not that he would be able to escape even if he could.
The silence pushed at his ears. The grille in front of him continued to filter the light into shapes on the inside of the vent. He waited, certain he was a dead man; wanting it to be over now, because he was tired, so very tired.
Eventually, it dawned on him that it had been silent too long. It took a few more minutes before he worked up enough courage to make his way to the front of the vent and look down to see the empty corridor stretching out on either side.
After he opened the grille and slid down from his hiding place, his legs gave way below him and he crumpled to the floor.
I’m still alive. I’m still alive.
But not for long if he just sat there. He had to find medication. That meant Med Bay–and the bridge.
He shuddered, his mind shying away from the endless corridors that waited for him, lights flickering while darkness edged their walls.
Don’t think. Just go. Go now.
Leaning on the wall, Michael pushed himself to his feet. He started limping down the corridor, slow at first, and then faster. The way to the bridge would be long and dangerous, and if he was right, he had very little time to get there.
Desmond Obuki was not particularly kind or generous. He gave to charity for the tax breaks and avoided fund-raisers like the plagues they were usually trying to eradicate. He was a businessman, not a meal ticket. But he was also something else.
And if the shoe on the unmoving foot he had spotted told him anything, it was that the Elutheran had a human down on the ground. It kept lashing out viciously, its muscular proboscis waving between its short, sharp beak as it chirped away to itself. The feathered red ball of its body rippled every now and again, as if caught in a stiff breeze. It was at least knee-high; definitely an adult.
After that, he couldn’t very well walk away. The warren of alleys surrounding Bradley was dangerous. Not so much for a former soldier like himself, but even he wouldn’t be here now if he wasn’t trying to beat the clock.
He had no idea how the Elutheran had managed to overpower the human, but a mudsucker couldn’t be up to any good in an area like this one. The guy had probably fallen asleep drunk in the gutter, and the Elutheran must have come across him. Humans were few and far between in this part of PortCity; the least he could do was drive off the little mudsucker and help the poor bastard up out of the gutter.
He didn’t need to check the dim street for friends of the alien. The alley finished in a dead-end beyond the spot where the Elutheran had the human backed up against the building. The smooth seventy-foot walls of the ore factories on either side offered no hiding places.
“Hey! Get the fuck off him!”
The Elutheran panicked. It sucked its feeding tube back into its head, rolled across the narrow alley, bounced along the lower edge of the wall and shot past Obuki before the man could grab hold of it. Shrugging his shoulders, Obuki walked over to the gutter and bent over the shape clad in a dark jumpsuit and a pair of spacer’s boots. There was a faint smell in the air–like rust.
“Hey, you, wake up. This is no place to sleep off…”
He rolled the body over and sucked in his breath.
His hands were wet. He looked at them and it dawned on him that the top half of the jumpsuit was not red. It only looked that way because of the blood.
He’d lost his comm panel on the flight back. Hadn’t thought much of it at the time as he had a replacement at the office, but that wouldn’t help him contact the police now.
He looked at the battered face again and sighed. It had to be a woman. And she was still breathing.
Well, he thought, no good deed goes unpunished. He would be late for sure now. Grumbling under his breath, he picked up the unconscious woman and strode out of the alleyway.
Colin usually knew who wouldn’t make it. After a while, you got a sense. Not the patients that yelled and moaned, cried and complained–they had a chance. But the quiet ones–they were the ones you had to see to first.
Today, Colin had a sick feeling in his gut the minute he walked into the trauma room. It didn’t stop him from doing his job, but in the back of his mind, the objective part of him whispered, waste of time. Less than fifteen minutes later, bloody clothes in a pile on the floor at his feet and the slim, still body on the floating gurney before him, he watched as the medbot withdrew glimmering threads from the monitor patches on the girl’s body. Gray tentacles folded the sensors into its spherical body before the bot floated up to its ceiling station.
“Patient has expired,” the medbot said in a soft, unisex voice. The yellow dot of its camera swiveled its circumference until it found him. “Time of death noted for the record.”
He did so as the new attendant stared, her face saying: how did this happen? How did I fail?
“It wasn’t your fault,” he said as he stuck his hands in the sanitizer built into the wall and felt it suck away his gloves. A blast of coldness followed as it cleaned his hands. Colin focused on it, trying to ignore the dull frustration, the come-down from the adrenalin rush of action to the reality of failure.
She looked up at him, shaking her head. “But she died.”
“She was dead before she got here. You want to start the paperwork?”
She nodded, hesitant, but starting to pull herself together now. He remembered those days, when he had been brand new to the job and had never had a patient die on him. A million years before, in another life.
“She your first?”
She looked up, nodded, her lips a thin bloodless line.
Colin sighed. “I’m sorry. But she won’t be your last. There’s nothing we can do for her now, so we’d better get on with it.”
With one last look at the gurney, she turned her back and gave him a firm nod. That’s it, Doc. Back to work. Nothing else to see here.
The doors slid open as the new attendant exited, comm in hand, ready to begin recording her report. He glanced back at the prone body as he withdrew his dry hands from the sanitizer, sadness washing over him. The dead girl looked young–too young to be so broken. And he hadn’t saved her. God, I hate this job sometimes.
He turned to go, but the tinted doors to the corridor slid open again on a whisper. Something small and green flashed past him. There was a crash as a tray went down. The medbot sounded a high-pitched whine that made him cover his ears. He swung around in time to see its yellow eye spark and go dark a second before the noise came to a blessed end.
What the hell…?
A biped sat on the dead girl’s chest. Hairless, it had green skin stretched paper-thin over an almost human skeletal structure, void of genitalia. Its arms and legs ended in four long, thin digits. Its large, round head had enormous black orbs over two tiny holes Colin took for nostrils, and a lipless mouth. It sat in a lotus position, head lowered, with long arms wrapped around its torso and clasped together in the middle of its back.
He reached out to haul the thing off and the next thing he knew, he had slammed into the crash cart in the corner of the room. He sat up with a grunt, his back screaming where he’d impacted on a sharp corner–and barely had time to get his legs out of the way as a huge gray figure strode into the room.
Seven feet tall, the Algaran marched past Colin toward the gurney. The brown toga he wore–which left the breathe flaps on his wide chest exposed–made a sibilant sound as he passed.
“Come now, come to Andraju,” the Algaran growled in Universal to the creature sitting on the girl. Andraju stood next to the gurney as though unsure how to proceed. “You’ve caused enough fucking trouble. Let’s go before security arrives.”
The creature did not move. Colin pulled himself to his feet, ignoring a sharp, unpleasant tingling under his skin.
“Come on, I said. If we leave now, together, I will forget this when we get back to camp.”
The creature remained motionless.
“Sir,” Colin began, but Andraju hissed, oblivious to all but the unmoving creature.
“You fucking useless little–” The Algaran reached out and grabbed the animal’s shoulder. A second later, his muscular arm shot up and back as though slapped away. He cried out, a shocked look on his gray face, his black, marble-sized eyes wide. Grabbing his arm, Andraju cursed fluently in his own language.
So that’s what happened to me. It looked as painful as it felt.
“Is thi…animal yours?” Colin asked. “If so, you’d better get it out of here. Neither of you are allowed–”
His voice died as his gaze fell on the girl again. The sitting alien had not moved an inch. But the girl had. Her chest rose, then fell. Rose, then fell. The creature rode her breathing, its arms still wrapped around itself.
She’s dead. She has to be. The medbot’s never wrong.
The girl arched away from the bed, her body making an impossible curve, like a bow. Her head dug into the plastic sheet under her and the veins in her bruised neck stood out like cords. The white sheet they had half-pulled over her fell away from lean arms as her fists dug into the gurney. One of the monitor patches peeled off and fell to the floor. A strangled gargle came from between her puffed lips.
Still straddling her, the creature stretched one stick thin arm toward the girl’s head and touched the center of her forehead. Her body collapsed as if a string had been cut…
…and then she was holding the outstretched finger, her hand clutching the alien’s in what looked like a death grip. Her whole body shook from the effort. Her eyes were green, Colin realized, bloodshot, but incredibly green.
“By the sacred Host,” Andraju whispered. “What does this mean?”
Colin did not, could not, reply. She was dead. I watched her die.
The girl’s breaths sounded harsh, each one a faint moan. She struggled to get an elbow under her, but fell back onto the gurney, still clutching the alien’s hand. Gasping with pain, she did not break eye contact with the alien on her chest.
The creature leaned down, as if listening for something. Seconds passed before the girl choked out two short words Colin could just barely hear. Her eyes closed and her hand fell back on the gurney, still holding her saviour’s finger.
“Fucking pest,” the Algaran said, but Colin caught an undertone of confusion and fear. The Algaran had no idea what had just happened. Neither did he, for that matter. But he knows this…thing. He can help.
Above them, the medbot suddenly whirred to life, flexing tentacles and swiveling its camera eye.
“Patient revived,” it announced. “Prepping for surgery.” It began reattaching the sensors to the monitor patches.
‘Aida me’. She said, ‘Aida me’. Help me, in Latin. Who uses Latin anymore outside of medicine and law school?
The creature leaped from the bed with surprising agility and landed on Andraju, its long arms encircling his short, fat neck. He sneered and cursed it in his own language.
“Troublemaker! You’re going back to the fucking cage and will remain there until that bastard son of a prostitute comes back for you. I’ve had enough.”
“Wait.” Colin grabbed the Algaran’s arm. With the other, he touched the wall sensor that would summon the nurse. “Stay where you are. I have to speak with you.”
“So you will help me?” Andraju asked, his Universal sounding thick and heavy through his growling vocal cords. “The receptionist said this was a human hospital. But this thing won’t eat and I can’t afford a vet.” He paused and Colin saw something else in his black, black eyes–
(fear? algarans fear nothing)
–before he went on. “I can’t have it die on me. The owner will never…forgive me. I run a sideshow and if the performers think they can’t trust their animals with me…”
Colin’s smile was grim. “Rest assured, Mr…Andraju, is it?”
The Algaran grunted in assent.
“I’ll help you figure out what this thing eats, if you allow me to examine it. Something very strange happened here. If I’m going to treat this patient properly, I have to find out what. I’m going to be busy here for a while, so have a seat outside and for God’s sake, don’t go anywhere.”
In the clean, pale-blue corridors of the hospital, Andraju placed the alien on a chair and backed away from it, studying it suspiciously.
Chris had not left instructions on what to do with the fucking thing. In fact, he’d suggested that Andraju would be well advised to leave it alone. But he had to feed it, and that was where the trouble began.
“After everything I tried to do for you,” he spat at the motionless green creature, “you repay me with pain? You are worse than a female.”
The creature did not move; its enormous eyes held a flat shine, like onyx or marble.
If it dies on me, Chris will blame me. But if it dies here… Andraju bared his teeth, thinking hard. Then he sneered at the alien.
“You can understand me, can’t you,” he said, rather than asked. “I’ve seen your shows with Chris. You’re good money. But I have my limits. I won’t have that bastard blaming me when you die. He won’t play his nasty tricks on me.”
Still the eyes held their unmoving shine. The Algaran fought off a shudder, unnerved, as he always was, by the thing’s intelligent silence. He knew that if he walked away and Chris found him, it would not be pretty. The animal was all that fucking human had in the world; without it, his act was worth nothing. But after all the trouble Chris had caused him the past year, maybe it would be good to give him a taste of his own medicine.
“I won’t spend another minute with you. You’re dangerous and…” he fought for the word, the flaps on his torso sucking air “…strange. If that fucking doctor wants to study you, he can have you. I wash my claws of you.”
He turned to go, thought of something and turned back.
“Don’t bother following me, either. Just wait for the human in there. He wants you. I don’t.”
With that, he stomped away, part of him relieved to be rid of the silent presence of the beast, the other part more than a little disturbed over what Chris might do to him if he found out.
“But he’ll have to find me first,” he muttered to himself, already planning how best to pack up camp and be gone within hours. Chris wasn’t due back for a couple of weeks, but the more distance he could put between himself and both members of his prize act, the better.
Behind him, the tiny alien watched him go. Then it turned its head back to the closed doors of the trauma room, wrapped its arms around itself and waited.
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