Gods and monsters, kings and pawns, saviors and slayers. Strange how the paths to become all of the above can be so similar.
— attributed to Ryland LeSarte, circa 4850 PD
10 Novem, 5249 PD
Ezra stared at Alana as Alana stared at realspace. They were drifting quietly just out of sensor range of Anduril’s installations, looking like just another piece of debris in the field that stretched from the edge of the system inward. He wondered about that as a piece of what was once a larger ship drifted past the viewport.
“They leave it all here to deter traffic,” Alana said softly. “Most of the debris has been here since the last war or longer.” She gestured to the drifting shell of metal that they were easing past. “That’s from the Theodosius. Her crew mutinied in 5229. They sent a squad of five to deal with the problem.”
Alana shook her head. Her metal hand twitched, as if she was snapping someone’s neck with a touch. Ezra winced.
Five people. And she was one of them.
She smiled tightly up over her shoulder at him. “It’s not a time in my life I’m very proud of, Ezra.”
“No,” he murmured softly. “I guess not. I’m sorry, Alana.”
She shrugged slightly, half turning to see if Brendan or America were awake. Brendan was out like a light, unmoving. America was out, too, but she was sleeping more fitfully than the pilot.
Nightmares, probably. I’d have them, too. Ezra exhaled slowly. “Do you want me to wake him?”
“Let him sleep a little longer. Rather have him rested in case he has to actually do something on this leg of the op.” She didn’t seem too worried—not from her tone, anyway. Not yet. Of course, there wasn’t much to read in the flat, almost dead tone of her voice.
Sometimes, he wondered how much she buried, how broken and jagged she was inside. Everyone worried about Brendan and Lindsay, worried about me. No one worried about you, Alana. No one even thought about it. Ezra reached down and squeezed her shoulder.
She started to reach up with her metal hand. She stopped herself and switched to her flesh and blood hand. Her fingers covered his and she squeezed his hand gently. Her eyes never left what was beyond the viewport. “Thanks Ezra.”
He shook his head slowly. “You don’t have anything you need to thank me for, Alana.”
She didn’t protest, though he knew she considered it. She just squeezed his hand again. For a few long moments, they were silent. Alana finally cleared her throat. “Should I give you or Meri a weapon to cover the door with?”
Ezra took a deep breath. “I can cover the door.”
She finally looked up at him, almost squinting. “Are you sure?”
He hesitated for a moment before nodding. “I shouldn’t have to use it. We’ll be parked out in the middle of nowhere.”
Alana inclined her head. “Out here, y’never know.”
Ezra grimaced and hoped for a moment—only a moment—that he wouldn’t have to use it. After that moment, he decided that he’d better save his hopes for more important things. Like Alana keeping herself alive—and safe.
“You think too much, Ezra,” Alana said softly. “Don’t overthink. Feel. Go by touch. Safer that way.”
He wasn’t so sure about that. Alana nudged the controls. “I hope he’s feeling up to flying when he wakes up,” Ezra mumbled, glancing back toward the bunks. America’s sleep had quieted, perhaps deepened. Either way, nightmares plagued her no longer, at least for the moment.
“Nothing you can do about it if he’s not, Ezra. Just have to hope. Nothing else to do.” Alana shrugged slightly. “We do what we have to do.”
What we have to do. “Alana…”
“Don’t say it. That’s not something you have to do.”
Ezra sighed and squeezed her shoulder again. “Okay.” He let go, turning away, moving toward the bunks. He’d check on them, then prepare himself to maybe kill someone today. Her voice made him pause.
“Ezra? Thank you.” She didn’t look at him. Her eyes were looked on the control boards, on the debris outside.
He smiled. “You’re welcome.”
● ● ●
Brendan slowly pushed himself up on an elbow as he came awake again. The ship shuddered gently as Alana settled it into a clearing amidst a thick copse of trees and a stony rise. His eyes weren’t hurting anymore—an improvement, to be certain. He glanced across toward America. She was still down for the count. He sat up a little further. His vision swam, stomach twisted, then settled. A dull pounding rose again behind his eyes. He groaned softly, rubbing his face.
“Whatever you gave me is helping a little, Ez.” He slumped against the wall, half upright.
Ezra turned from where he was standing near Alana. “Good. Was hoping you’d wake up.”
Brendan grunted. “Where are we? Anduril?” If we’re at Anduril, that means I slept the ten hours between the correction point and here. That might be why I feel better.
“We’re about three klicks north of target, yes.” Alana was securing the console, kicking engines to standby and checking sensors. Brendan straightened up a little more, pausing to let his vision normalize and his stomach settle. “It looks like there may be some weather in the area, but we shouldn’t have to worry about that, I don’t think.”
“Hope not,” Brendan murmured, rubbing his eyes. They didn’t hurt, per se, but they ached a little.
She was looking at him. “Will you be able to fly?”
“Not sure. Maybe.” His stomach growled. He reached gingerly for the half-eaten packet of rations next to his pillow. “Hopefully not in inclement weather and hopefully not anything too fancy. Not sure I can stand up right now, let alone deal with either of those things. Significant g-forces would be murder at this stage.” He began to chew slowly on a corner of jerky.
“Eating’s a good sign.” Ezra brought him a filled water bottle.
Brendan grunted. “Probably. Thanks. Sleeping helped, too. A lot, I think.” The thought of reaching for Lindsay still brought a faint thumping pain to his temples, though. It was too far and his brain was too scrambled. Even as soothing emotionally as the touch might be, the physical toll would be too high. “When are you going, Alana?”
She finished at the console and stood, checking her hand and then her other weapons with the certainty and speed of long practice. “In five. It shouldn’t take me longer than a few hours.”
“Assuming you don’t run into complications.”
Alana glanced at Ezra, then at Brendan, then back to Ezra. “Remember what I said before?”
“That was another example.”
Ezra looked confused for a moment, then blushed and shook his head. “Right.”
Alana twisted her hair up into a tight coil and tugged on a hood to hold it in place, hide the flaxen color, and keep it out of her way. “Double click on the comm means I have him. Short long short means problems.”
Brendan winced. “We don’t have any backup to send you, Alana.” Just Ezra, but that’s not going to happen.
“I know that.” Her voice was soft and for some reason, that left him shaken. They stared at each other for a few long moments before she turned away and headed for the hatch. “Don’t try to call. Let me call first.”
“Right.” Brendan was pretty sure the statement was aimed at Ezra.
“And don’t let America start worrying, either. At this range, their connection will be reestablishing itself and I don’t need Commander Channing distracted.”
Brendan stared at her. How does she know this stuff?
Ezra touched Alana’s shoulder as she cycled the hatch. No words passed between them. Alana smiled tightly and was gone.
What was that all about? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He slumped against the wall took a long swallow of water. “She’ll be fine,” he said finally, staring at Ezra. “This is Alana we’re talking about. She’s the most deadly person we know.”
“Yeah,” Ezra murmured. “I know. I’m just worried about what this is going to do to her.”
“Anyone who tries to lay a hand on her will be dead before they hit the floor.”
“I know.” There was a mournful note in his voice. “That’s what I’m worried about.”
My brains are more scrambled than I thought. “She’ll be fine, Ez.”
He exhaled noisily. “Yeah. You’re right. She’ll be fine.”
What’s gotten into you, Ez? Brendan swallowed the last of the ration packet and slowly straightened a little further. His head swam a bit, then the vertigo passed, at least momentarily. “You okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.” Ezra was still staring out the windshield, as if he was still watching Alana, who’d already vanished.
Brendan opened his mouth to ask, then closed it again, deciding that maybe he didn’t want to know. A faint throbbing rose in his temples, which was peanuts compared to everything else lately. He stared at the ration packet in his hands, squinted. He couldn’t quite bring it into focus. “Hey, Ez? What did you give me, again?”
Great. Brendan grunted. “Can’t fly.”
“Can’t fly when I’m on KT. Fine motor skills and focus go to shit. Can’t pick out fine details. Reaction time drops. I thought you knew.” If I had a functioning implant, it might not matter, but that shuttle’s already left the dock.
Ezra mumbled a curse and stared out the viewport again. “I knew. I just didn’t think,” he said finally, then sighed. “Sorry Brendan.”
“Apologize to Alana, not me. I get to stay horizontal this way.” Brendan started on the rations again. I’m just grateful I don’t want to unscrew my head and set it on the floor next to me. I’m going to feel like crap on a cracker when it wears off, though. “Apologize when it clears my system and I feel like shit.” Because it’s not going to be pleasant. I know that much. He paused. “Is there something different you can give me?”
“Yeah, I think so. Might not be as effective.”
“That’s fine. If the kelteminaphine clears my system fast, I might be able to take the controls. Maybe.” He took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.
Ezra was more terse than he’d ever seen him before. Brendan’s brow furrowed.
What the hell is he—
“You’re worried about her. Why the hell are you so worried about her?”
“I’d have thought it was obvious by now.”
Ezra sighed, not bothering to look at him.
Brendan grimaced. What have I not been seeing? He started in on the packet again, chewing slowly, thoughtfully. It finally struck him. “Has something been going on between the two of you while I’ve been sleeping?”
Ezra shook his head slowly. “She’s not the inhuman monster you think she is, Brendan. That’s all. There’s more to her than just the killing machine.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Brendan mumbled, mouth half full. “She only shows the killing machine.”
Ezra shrugged, staring out at the trees and grass. Brendan fell silent, concentrating on eating. Eventually, he went back to sleep and left his friend alone with his thoughts.