Where there should have been nothing, there was pain.
There came a sensation like panic, then despair. A sense of flight aborted and the wailing of the mothers of stillborn. He made a noise that brought to mind the wordskittering, as though he possessed too many legs, as though he was a spider. Except the sound didn’t come from outside of him, but inside.
The pain showed itself to him. Not his head. He thought he might be hungover, though he didn’t remember drinking. It was his back. His goddamned spine ached. Felt like he’d slept on a pair of scissors.
He wasn’t supposed to be sleeping at all. He didn’t remember sleeping. The afternoon was too full for anything like a nap. He’d promised Ashburn they would run over the disaster protocols. He had to log his weekly contact with mission comm HQ. After he got off the round, he still had to meet Djen for the shift reports and tomorrow’s duty roster. And maybe coffee later, after the business was done.
His heart shuddered in his chest just thinking about it. He was such an idiot.
Brett opened his eyes. He looked up at the pale brightness of the ceiling that wasn’t his private quarters. He frowned, then remembered. He cursed.
“Doc, I think I just fucked up my image. I fell asleep. I didn’t realize I was so tired. Is that going to be a problem?” He sat up grinning. “Please don’t tell me we’re going to have to do it again.”
But Liston wasn’t there. No one was there. The med bay was empty.
The cart with the imaging unit had been wheeled away, he saw. Maybe the image took after all. Liston must have decided to let him sleep. The wily old bastard probably decided the pressure of command was getting to him and justified the nap as a recuperative measure.
Brett rubbed at the sore spot on his back. He’d have to talk to Liston later, give him a good natured undressing for promoting dereliction of duty.
He noticed that Liston wasn’t the only one to receive an undressing. He was naked. The tile floor sent a chill up through his feet that made his calves ache.
What the hell?
He found a clean shipsuit, underwear and socks, all neatly folded on the table beside the bed. There was a pair of boots on the floor. Brett put the clothing on quickly. It occurred to him that he might have been ill. That would explain a number of things. Maybe he’d been delirious.
Brett went to the door, but the sensors didn’t seem to read him. It didn’t open. He keyed the comm pad on the wall, but it didn’t respond when he ordered it to break the seal. He punched the code three times with no results. Annoyed, he toggled the comm port to order Cassandra to release the latch, but when he called to her, she didn’t answer. He gave his order and his passcode anyway.
Cassandra wasn’t answering. He didn’t have to know exactly what had happened to understand that something was wrong. If Cassandra wasn’t on line, it must be critically wrong.
He was going to have to force the door. That was fantastic. It could take hours if the seals were all intact.
Brett made his way toward the storage cabinets and searched them for something stout enough to wedge into cracks of the door. He found sheets and pillows, bottles of isopropyl alcohol, boxes of bandages, but nothing that resembled a pry bar. He was about to move to the cabinets on the other side of the room when the door to Liston’s office opened.
Brett looked up, then frowned. “You’re not Liston.”
Ilam grinned at him, a stupid cow-eyed expression like he was the escort delegated to bring the guest of honor to a surprise party.
“Do you have the codes to unlock the med bay doors?”
“No, I can’t say that I do, unless you count the pair of scissor jacks in the office. That’s more than enough code if you ask me. You should have seen the devil of a time I had getting them to seal in the first place.” Ilam continued to grin, but finally seemed to understand that Brett was not amused. “I’m sorry, Commander, I’d hoped to be in here when you awakened. To ease your transition, I mean. I’m afraid I nodded off.”
Brett processed the information with something less than complete understanding. If Ilam had been left to watch over him, he must have been ill, and probably for quite some time. Liston wouldn’t have left him unattended unless he absolutely had to.
“What time is it?” Brett asked.
“Three in the afternoon, relative station time.”
He’d arrived at eleven for his image. Four hours wasn’t long enough to explain the situation as it stood. And why the hell would they need scissor jacks to open the door? Scissor jacks were reserved only for a complete power grid failure because they destroyed the pressure seals. Brett winced at the possibilities.
“What day is it?”
Ilam waved him toward a stool set against the microscopy counter. “You should sit down.”
“Just give me the damned date.”
Brett dropped heavily into the seat he’d been offered. “That’s almost three weeks. Have I been sick for three weeks?”
“More or less.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Then get Liston in here to explain it to me. You’re not getting the job done .”
Ilam crossed his arms. His expression became hard. “Liston is dead.”
Brett blinked at him. Once, then again. Nothing worth saying entered his mind.
“There are facts of which you are currently unaware, Commander. You will find that the situation has changed dramatically from what you expect. There is indeed an explanation, and you’ll be provided with it in soon enough. But understand this first, I’m the only one who knows. The only one still alive. Not just in Persia, but on the entire planet. Do you comprehend what I’m saying to you?”
Brett nodded. “What happened?”
“Persia is gone. The project has failed. Most of our personnel are dead. You ordered the rest, those who survived, into the Escape Module for evacuation. Those five are Vernon, Ashburn, Whitney, Djen and Attler. And me. I would have made six, but I disobeyed your direct order and stayed behind. To rescue you, you understand.” Ilam retrieved a portable computer from the counter and passed it to Brett. “The complete record, including all the gory details you might want to know has been downloaded. You’ll want to review it as you have time. You’ll also want to be careful with it. There’s sure to be an investigation when we get home, and that may be the only evidence that remains to support our story.”
“When we get home?”
“It’s in the documents. But we’ll need to be moving soon. I’ve got the remote atmospheric devices functioning, but the heat exchange was almost a total loss. All the heat it can generate is being piped up here.”
“What’s the matter with Cassandra?” Something liquid froze in his stomach. Emily. “She should be managing the autonomic systems.”
“You dismantled her, I’m afraid. She’s beyond repair.”
Brett sucked in a breath, then rose from the seat. Fear gave way to panic. “I have to go see.”
But Ilam restrained him with a hand on his shoulder. “Sit down. You wouldn’t get to the first hatch before you froze to death. Besides, Emily is fine. I’ve seen to that, already. What you hadn’t already done, I mean.” Then he smiled again. “I don’t mind admitting when I’m wrong, Markus, not at a time like this. And I was wrong, though you don’t remember. Would you like to see her?”
It was too much. He didn’t understand the things Ilam knew, how Ilam could know them. His knees folded. He was going to faint.
Ilam held him up with his powerful hand. With the other, he snatched the computer from Brett’s hand before he dropped it. “Mind that equipment, Markus. I told you it’s all we’ve got.”
“It’s all right. More my fault than yours, really. It is as difficult for me to remember what you’ve forgotten as it is for you to try to grasp what’s happened. I suspect you’ll continue to feel a bit overwhelmed for a while yet.”
“You said–about Emily. . .”
Ilam nodded. “It’s a damned good thing about Emily, Brett. I would have been too late if it hadn’t been for her. After I saw the others safely away, I was all over the station firing up the remote atmospheric devices. I thought you had a bit more time, you understand. If she hadn’t begun to scream, I might have arrived too late. For both of you.”
>Brett didn’t understand half of what he said. He wasn’t really paying attention. “Where is she?”
Ilam led him across the bay. The green privacy curtain had been swept across the far portion of the room. When they reached it, Ilam parted it with his hand, but he stopped in the middle, blocking Brett’s access.
“You’ll need to be careful. She’s fragile, Brett. You have experienced only the smallest taste of her disorientation. For you, the lost time is measured in days, and that’s difficult enough to grasp. She’s been out of time for the last five years. I’ve given her a sedative to help ease the transition—an analogue for you, of course. I thought that would be best. She’s been asking for you.”
“How is that possible? Ilam, there are suppressions—”
Ilam waved off the question. “That isn’t important. You’ll understand when you read my report. For now, remember that it is, and that it’s been a traumatic experience for both of you.”
A voice, quiet but unmistakable, reached him. “Markus? Is that you?”
He shoved past Ilam. Against the wall was set a critical care isolation unit. The subdued flourescent lights glowed from inside, through the plastisheen observation port. The displays were active, showing a variety of graphs and readouts and monitoring data. The hum of the internal atmosphere generator filled the air.
Brett stumbled toward it, almost lost his footing. He slumped against the heavy rounded panels of the unit, peered into the wide observation plate.
And she was there.
Emily looked up at him as he studied her. Her eyes, clear and blue, brightened beneath half-closed lids. Her mouth crinkled into something like a smile. She was covered in a white blanket to her shoulders. Sensor wires were attached to her neck, their padded terminals ringed her skull, crossed the swell of her breast to monitor her heart. Long and flexible pseudo-metallic aircasts extended from each of her shoulders; a second set protruded from the bottom of the blanket attached to her thighs.
Brett’s vision clouded. He tried to blink back the tears, but they fell, large and fat, against the glass.
“I’m here,” he said. “I’ve missed you. . .so much.”
“We had an accident,” she said, but sounded uncertain. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m—I’m fine, Em. I’ve been worried about you.”
“That gentlemen who was here earlier, the British one, he said we weren’t in Atlanta. Is it really that bad?”
Brett laughed. He couldn’t stop himself. “Irish. He’s Irish.”
“Is he a doctor?”
“I guess so.”
Her smile widened. It was the most beautiful thing he’d seen in his life. “It doesn’t matter. I think he slipped me a mickey. I’m very sleepy.”
“You should rest. We’ll talk later. For the rest of our lives, we’ll talk.”
“It feels like I haven’t seen you in years. I don’t want to sleep now.”
Brett was aware of Ilam standing at his shoulder. “Rest now, Miss Rosette. It’s better. You’ve sustained some damage to your extremities, and the nanomechs I’ve prescribed to repair the damage work more efficiently if you don’t try to move.”
“My arms are numb. I think my legs are, too.”
“You’ll require some physical therapy.”
Emily furrowed her brow. “Is this safe, doctor? I heard that nanomech therapy can be dangerous.”
Ilam chuckled lightly. “You’ll find that this particular therapy is a few generations more advanced than the ones you’re familiar with. We’ve, ah, made a few strides that haven’t achieved wide circulation. Administration approval and all that, you understand.”
Emily studied him for a few moments, then turned her eyes to Brett. “Should I believe him?”
“I think so.”
“All right, then. I’ll take a little nap, but don’t leave me, Markus. Stay right here. I want your face to be the first thing I see when I wake up.”
The tears came again, bunching at the corner of his eyes. “I’ll be here. I promise.”
Her eyes closed and she was asleep within seconds.
Brett turned his head toward Ilam. “She’ll be all right?”
“Better than she has been. The mechs will take a few days to fabricate her limbs. She’ll have to learn to walk again. She’ll have some trouble with fine motor movements as well. But she’s fortunate. Limb replacement design and therapy has made considerable strides in the last five years. The hair was a much knottier problem. Those bastards at Palimpset were nothing if not thorough, but she should have a good prickle going by late tomorrow. I couldn’t very well deny the girl her vanity, could I?”
Brett didn’t know what else to say. “She’s going to be fine?”
“As good as new, or nearly so.”
“And we’re going home?”
“It will be difficult. I won’t lie to you. While you were sleeping, I started loading the MUT. Supplies, atmosphere modules, all the fuel components I could scrounge. I think Malibu should be safe now, given their last status report, and we have good reason to believe their Escape Module is still intact. If not Malibu, then Gobi or Sahara. We’ll try them all if we have to. With any luck at all, we’ll make the same rescue rendezvous as the others. What a reunion that will be, eh? You’ll have your hands full with all the introductions to your young. . .um, oh hell, your young bride. That’s as good a description as any.”
Brett mused over it, and it wasn’t just good. It was perfect. He smiled.
Another thought entered his mind, one he did not understand. It seemed to come from a deep place, a well of experience buried inside himself. Its source he did not know, but the thought was precious, equally perfect.
I am joy.