Chapter Twenty-One

The waiting is always the hardest.  Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.  They’re lying, or they’ve never had to wait for something they really gave a damn about before in their lives.

— Adam Windsor, circa 5240


7 Novem, 5249 PD


            “Have we heard from them yet?”  Lindsay slipped into operations, a light jacket hugged tightly around herself.  Dark circles ringed her eyes, circles that were mirrored by those under Adam’s.

He shook his head, taking a long swallow of coffee that was stronger than usual.  He’d given an order about that when he’d walked into operations twelve hours ago.  “Not yet.  Have you felt anything from him?”

She shook her head slowly, sitting down at one of the unmanned consoles.  “No.  But I haven’t tried reaching, either.  Aunt Rachel and Marshal Rose told me I’d know if he was dead, though.”  I hope they’re right.  God, do I hope they’re right.

If any of the staff on duty were listening to their conversation—and undoubtedly a few were—they didn’t let on, didn’t react at all.  I don’t care if people start finding out about him and I.  It’s time they knew.  It’s time everyone knew.  I should have told the Council a long time ago, fallout or no fallout.  It’s my life, and we love each other.  It’s none of their damn business.  She licked her lips.  “When can we expect to hear from them, then?”

Adam shook his head slowly, staring at the starplot.  “I’m not sure, Lindsay.  Could be hours.  Could be days.”  He scrubbed a hand over his face.  “You want some coffee?”

She started to shake her head and hesitated.  It sounds like it might be good.  Haven’t had it in a long time.  She nodded.  “Yeah, I’ll have some.”

He nodded and gestured to a young officer—no, that wasn’t right, the uniform was the wrong color—who was apparently doing nothing important.  “Go get Consul Farragut some coffee, would you?”

The blonde girl nodded and slipped out of the room.  Adam watched her go.

“She’s one of Brendan’s cadets,” he said, almost absently.  “Bright girl.  She’ll make a good officer.”

Lindsay nodded slightly.  She licked her lips.  “Do you really think they can do this?”

“It’s too late for me to say no now, Lindsay.”

She smiled wryly.  “Your honest opinion.”

Adam stared at the starplot for another few long moments, then nodded.  “Yes.  I do.  They will.  And they’ll be home before you know it.”

“And until then, I get to sit here and worry about him.”

Adam smiled wryly.  “Now you know what your aunt went through for a few years, Lindsay.”  He’d barely stopped himself from calling her Linny-pie.  She could hear it in his voice.  She smiled back.

“Aunt Rachel’s stronger than I am in a lot of ways.”  I wish I had her strength, sometimes.  I’m glad I didn’t have to go through what she did, though, to develop that strength.  Really, really glad.  “I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

Adam nodded.  “You’re young.  You have time to learn those lessons—in the due time that it takes to learn them.”

The cadet returned with a mug of coffee.  Lindsay smiled, nodding in thanks.  The cadet smiled back and withdrew back to her position near the door, where she seemed to be watching everything.

Job shadowing?  Lindsay wasn’t sure.  If she was one of Brendan’s cadets, she was supposed to be a pilot.  Wonder if we’re preparing for the worst—making sure everyone can do whatever job needs doing at any given time.  “When do you leave to go claim that ship?”

Adam shook his head.  “Plans changed.  We’ll be meeting with their representatives in the asteroid belt in two days.  It didn’t seem prudent to leave with the operation that we’re running right now.”

Lindsay agreed with that, and she knew that Adam realized that even without her saying a word about it.  She cradled her mug in both hands, staring at the starplot.

“Sir?”  One of the technicians turned away from his console, fingers pressed against the earpiece of his headset.  “We’re getting a transmission from Omega team.”

Adam made eye contact with Lindsay, then nodded to the technician.  “Put it through.”

It was Alana’s voice that came crackling over the speakers.  Lindsay swallowed hard as her heart dropped.  Oh god, please.  Please.

“Quebec Operation control, this is Omega team with the halfway status report.”  Her voice was firm, professional—cold.  Colder than Lindsay had ever heard it.

Things went poorly.  Oh no.  She bit her lip, hands tightening, knuckles going white around the mug.  They were wrong.  He’s dead…

Adam cleared his throat.  “This is Quebec Op control.  Go ahead, Omega team.”

“We have her, Marshal.”  That was all Alana said.

We knew that already.  Doesn’t she know that we knew that already?  Brendan let me see her.  Lindsay swallowed hard, looking at Adam.  “Uncle Adam…”  Her voice was quiet, desperate.  Please.  I need to know.  I need to know!

He touched her arm.  “Casualties?”

There was an agonizingly long pause.  “We’re all still alive, sir.”

Lindsay leaned against Adam, knees weakening.  He’s alive.  But he’s not…flying the ship?  Or is he?  Is that why Alana is on the comm?

“What about your pilot?  Is he at the controls?”  It was as if her uncle had heard her thoughts—and Lindsay wasn’t sure he hadn’t.

Another pause.  “No, sir.  Dr. Grace has him sedated.”

Sedated?  She bit her lip.

“Have Dr. Grace wake him, please, and get him on the comm.”  Adam looked at Lindsay for a long moment, then looked toward the girl who’d brought her coffee.  “Find Consul Farragut a headset, Tomasi, and get her a console ready.”

Brendan’s cadet nodded.  Lindsay squeezed her uncle’s arm, stomach flip-flopping.

Please let him be okay.  Please.


●   ●   ●


The pain had ebbed only slightly as he came around, apparently more slowly than Ezra wanted him to.  Brendan groaned softly, waving a hand impotently in an attempt to ward him off.  “What is it?”

“Alana says Marshal Windsor wants you on the comm.  You need to sit up, man.  I’ve got the headset here.”

The thought of sitting up wasn’t very appealing.  Brendan swallowed.  I’m going to need a patch or something to make it through sitting up, I think.  Probably more than a patch.  “How long since my last pain patch?”

“You should be good for another half an hour.”

Brendan swallowed again, squeezing his eyes shut.  “Okay.”  Deep breath.  He slowly pushed himself up on his elbow, keeping his eyes closed.  His head swam; the pounding increased for a moment.  It didn’t seem like it was going to ebb anytime soon.  He stayed propped on his elbow, leaning slightly against the bunk’s back wall, and held out his free hand for the headset.  “I don’t think I’m going to be able to get much more upright than this, Ez.”

Ezra nodded a little.  “I think that’ll work.  Here.”  He handed over the headset and straightened up, looking toward Alana.

Brendan eased the headset into place, taking another deep breath and exhaling it slowly.  He gestured slightly to Alana, who nodded and tapped a control.  Brendan closed his eyes, sagging against the wall.  “This is Cho.”

“Brendan?  You sound terrible.”

Lindsay.  He exhaled, breath catching in his throat for a moment.  “I’m okay,” he managed to say, knowing his voice sounded strangled, rough at more than just the edges.  “I will be, anyway.  Are you all right?”

all right.  Worried as hell about you.”  She still sounded more than a little relieved despite her words.  “What happened?”

He swallowed hard.  So sorry, Lin.  I’m so sorry.  His head swam a little and he squeezed his eyes shut a little more tightly.  “They were trying to take control of the ship.  I had to stop them.”

“They shot you?”

It was all he could do not to start laughing.  I wish they’d shot me.  It’d probably hurt less.  “Not quite like that, no.  Through the implant.  It…didn’t have an off switch.”

“Oh, Brendan.  You didn’t…”

“I did,” he whispered.  “I’m sorry, Lin.”

There was a trace of faint, rueful humor in her voice.  “I’m going to kill Ezra.”

“Do me a favor and wait until after he patches me back together again when we get home, okay?  He said I’ll make it that far.”  Brendan cracked an eye open and looked up at Ezra, who was giving him a dirty look.  He smiled a little up at his friend.  “Remind me never to get another implant, Lin.”

She laughed weakly.  “Don’t worry, I’m never going to let you out of my sight again.  Ever.”

Brendan laughed a little, too.  “That’s going to get a little awkward.”

“I don’t care.  I miss you.”

“I miss you, too,” he murmured.  “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” she said quietly.  “Come home safe?”

“If I have anything to do with it, we will.”  He licked his lips.  “You have to go?”

“Uncle Adam said if we talk longer, someone may be able to track the transmission.”

Uncle Adam?  She knew.  Why didn’t we?  “I love you,” he repeated.

“Come home to me,” she whispered.  The words were like her fingertips against his face, gentle, almost ephemeral.  He closed his eyes.

I promise.  He might have breathed the words.  There was no way to be sure.

The transmission cut off and he took off the headset even as he heard Alana start talking at the console.  Brendan sank back down to the mattress, groaning softly as Ezra relieved him of the headset.

“She’s angry at me.”

Brendan snorted softly, then winced as he realized that had increased the pounding in his head, too.  “You have to ask, Ez?  She’s worried about me and probably more than a little aggravated at what I had to do to myself.  It’s not your fault, though.  You had no way of knowing, and I never told you that they could do that.  It didn’t cross my mind.”  Brendan slowly pulled his blanket back up over his shoulder, shivering a little.  “I’ll run interference for you, I promise.”

“You hungry?”

“No,” Brendan said quietly.  “I wouldn’t be able to keep anything down right now.  Pain makes me nauseous and I don’t want to puke all over the deck.  We’d never get rid of the smell.”

On the other bunk, America stifled a quiet laugh.  Brendan tried to wink at her but found that it was more a long blink.

“Something tells me that you know what that feels like, Meri.”

She smiled a little.  “You could say that.  Lots of things used to make me nauseous.  War—and other things—help strengthen the stomach.”

Brendan grunted.  “Yeah, but some things never change.  I couldn’t eat for a week the last time I did this to myself.”

“A week?”  Ezra stared at him.  “That’s…generally a bad thing, Brendan.  Why didn’t you say something?”

“I kept those rations you gave me earlier down,” Brendan mumbled, closing his eyes.  “That’s a good sign.  I’ll eat a little more later.  Just…let me handle this the only way I know how.”  By sleeping as much as my body will let me.  This shouldn’t be too much longer, right?  We’re at the halfway point.  Alana just has to do her part, then we go home.  Easy.  My part was harder.  Alana’ll just go in and kill anything that gets in her way.  She’s good at that.

When he opened his eyes again, he could hear Ezra snoring softly somewhere outside of his vision.  He didn’t remember falling asleep, but he must have.  America was sitting up on her bunk, staring at him.  Brendan frowned.  “Trying to read me, Meri?”  He rasped.

She smiled faintly.  “I must be rusty if you woke up.”

He smiled a little back, shifting uncomfortably on the bunk.  His right arm was numb from laying on it.  “For some reason, I don’t think it was your attempts to read me that woke me up.”  His stomach growled a little.  His head was still pounding, but not as badly.  For a moment, he wondered how long he’d been asleep, only to decide a moment later that it didn’t matter.

“He awake?”  Alana called from the console.

Now what?  “I’m awake.  What’s wrong?”  He started to push up on his elbow, pausing after his vision dimmed for a moment.  I don’t think I’m going to do any more flying this trip.  If I do, it won’t be much.

“Ezra said to make you eat something.”  Alana tossed a few ration packets onto his bed with a bottle of water.  Brendan stared at them for a few long moments, then exhaled quietly as his stomach growled again.

That’s a good sign.  He managed to get half upright this time and resumed the lean he’d enjoyed while on the comm with Lindsay.  Alana went back to the boards as he ripped open the packet of rations and started in on the dried fruit inside the package.  America kept watching him.

“Someone helped you get me out,” she said softly after a few long moments.

He went tense for a moment, then forced himself to relax.  “How did you know?”  Brendan wet his lips and took a sip of water slowly.

America smiled.  “A hunch.”

He took another sip of water, swallowing hard.  “There was a girl.  Maybe eighteen.  She said I had to hurry.”  His brow furrowed.  “Who’s Zaki?”

America winced.  Brendan could almost feel the recoil, his stomach twisting in sympathy.  He winced himself and took another long swallow of water.  His stomach settled.  It was a few long moments before she spoke again, voice quiet—clearly, the only one she wanted to hear her was him.  “He was the scientist in charge.  I was trying to undermine him when I could.  Who knows whether or not I really did.”  She smiled weakly, licking her lips.  “I must have, because someone helped you.”

Brendan shivered.  “You did more than that, Meri,” he said quietly.  “The girl…”  He closed his eyes for a moment.  “She said they know the Cullings are coming.  They can feel it.  They can’t deny that anymore.”  He tried to push away the image burned into his brain, of the girl on the rack.  He took a deep breath.  “What did she mean,” he whispered, almost to himself.  “‘you’re the only hope we have’?”

“She said that?”

Brendan shook his head slightly.  “She said it, but I don’t know what it means.  Maybe that the colony is all any of them have.  The only hope for them, only way out.  I don’t know.”

“Maybe,” America said softly.  She hesitated a moment, as if she was going to elaborate, then thought better of it.  She took a sip from the water bottle sitting against her knee, took a deep breath.  “Yes,” she said softly.  “It must have been that that she meant.”

He knew that she was lying.  He just couldn’t bring himself to ask why.

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