It cut them down like all the others, and then it was standing over me. The black armor that covered its chest was rising and falling, like it was panting. Before my brain could finish that thought, the black figure crouched down and scooped me into its arms so quickly I didn’t realize what had happened until it started running forward, carrying my armored body like I weighed nothing.
Pressed against the alien’s chest, I was close enough to study its face. This was also as I remembered it, the sleek, black scales broken only by two narrow, glossy black eyes. There was the sharp mark of a nose and no mouth at all, just like before, and I knew it had to be the same one I’d seen with Ren.
As the alien carried me, it briefly occurred to me that I should be afraid, but my drugs made that impossible. Mostly, I was worried that my weight would hamper the alien’s fighting, but I should have known better. The black figure moved like death itself, kicking the xith’cal away with enough force to send them flying into the distant walls. Its arms held me like a steel trap, squeezing so tight I couldn’t even wiggle, and I felt a trickle of terror at the idea of being trapped. That trickle started a flood of panic of a different kind, and I snapped out of my focus on the alien to see my countdown timer blaring red at the center of my vision.
“Out of time,” I muttered.
My rescuer looked down at the sound of my voice, and I tried to give it a reassuring smile. “Listen,” I said calmly, hoping to the king that it spoke Universal. “In fifteen seconds, I’m going to look kind of scary.” That was an understatement, but I didn’t have time to explain. I could already feel the drugs fading, taking the last of my supernatural clarity with them. I started talking faster. “I’m locking my suit so I don’t hurt you when I start to seize, but you need to get me to a doctor as soon as possible. My unlock code is five five six eight two.”
The alien nodded and started running faster.
But drugs aren’t a certain thing. Though my timer said I still had ten seconds, I could already feel the pain and panic coming back. But even as I clamped my teeth to keep from biting off my own tongue and prayed to my king to guide me to the gate of heaven, the honorable part of me demanded I take one last risk, just in case I didn’t get a chance to say it later.
“Thank you,” I said as my body began to shut down.
“No!” cried a deep, almost frantic voice. “Stay with me, Devi!”
The words sounded very far away, but I’d know that accent anywhere. That was Rupert’s voice.
And with that realization, the first seizure hit, and my brain went black.
I woke up in terrible pain. I was lying on something freezing cold and metal and my body was arching off it like I was trying to touch my stomach to the ceiling. I hadn’t even known I could move like that, and I would have been impressed if my shoulder hadn’t felt like it was being cut off. I heard an annoyed hiss, and then someone’s arms pushed me down.
New pain rocked through me as I hit, and I might have started to cry. I certainly screamed, but whoever was holding me down with that impossibly strong grip didn’t listen. I felt straps slide over me and cinch down as they tied me to the table. But even when I was lashed so tight my suit couldn’t have gotten me out, the person holding me didn’t let go.
I heard a voice begging, but it took me several seconds to realize it was mine. I should have been ashamed of myself, pleading like a dog on that table, my babbling voice switching from King’s Tongue to Universal with no rhyme or reason, but all I could think about was the pain in my shoulder as another pair of hands, these gentle and cold where the others were hard and warm, tore out my collarbone. Or, that’s what it felt like. They might have just been setting it, but they could have been beating me to death with it for all I knew. The world had shrunk to me, the table, the hands, and the pain, and when the cool hands stabbed something into my arm that made me sleep, I leaped gladly into unconsciousness, completely determined never to wake up again.
I did wake up again, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared. My shoulder still hurt, but the pain was distant, someone else’s problem. I was still strapped down, but the straps made me feel safe instead of trapped. The cool hands that had torn out my bone were gone and the lights were dimmed, though I couldn’t tell if that was because it was night cycle or out of courtesy to my eyes, which felt strangely raw.
I went to raise my hand to rub them and realized I couldn’t. My arm was trapped by the hard, warm hands from before. The ones that had held me down.
The hands vanished the second I started to panic, and Rupert’s face appeared above mine. He was saying something I couldn’t understand, but the calm reassurance in his voice was clear even if the words weren’t. He stroked the hair out of my eyes and then gently folded my hand in both of his. They were warm and strong, and I realized with a start that his arms had been the ones holding me down.
Somehow, knowing they were Rupert’s took the panic away, and I collapsed back onto the table, tumbling into sleep as I hit.
The third time I woke up, it was for good.
I was lying on a gurney in the infirmary dressed in a white medical gown. The straps were gone, but I could feel where they’d been. If I could have gathered the strength to lift my head, I’m sure I would have seen bruises wherever they’d touched, but since I was sure of what I’d see, I didn’t bother. Instead, I lay still and focused on getting myself together.
Battle drugs normally left me feeling like my head was going to explode for three days after, but this time, while I didn’t feel great, I didn’t feel like I was going to pop either. Mostly, I felt like my brain was full of cotton, which was much better, but I was having trouble focusing. Before I could get really worried about it, however, a handset appeared in the air in front of my face, its screen covered in angry, bold type.
Are you aware enough yet to be lectured?
“Not if you put it like that,” I said. My throat was so dry, the words came out as a croak.
Hyrek’s scaly face appeared above mine, and for a frantic moment, I thought I was going to have a panic attack. Just seeing him sent the memory of that horrible rot flooding back up my nose. I could almost feel the enormous weight of the xith’cal on my stomach, his milky eyes staring blindly at me as he bit down. But as my breath started to grow short, I forced myself to look at Hyrek’s scales, to see how green they were, how clear his angry eyes were, and the fear gradually subsided.
“Okay,” I whispered, flattening myself against the gurney. “What lecture did you have in mind?”
Hyrek snatched back his handset and clicked it furiously. You nearly died three times in the last six hours, and do you know why?
“Because my shoulder was nearly bitten off?” I guessed.
Your shoulder was the least of your problems, Hyrek clicked furiously. Your shoulder—he highlighted the word twice—was set within five minutes of you coming in. It was the drug-induced convulsions strong enough to nearly break your spine that caused our difficulties. Do you have any idea how dangerous that sludge you pumped into your system was? I’m not even sure those drugs are regulated for human consumption.
“Why Hyrek,” I muttered. “I didn’t know you cared.”
I don’t, Hyrek wrote, claws slamming down. But if you die, Caldswell yells at me, and I’m not about to take the heat for your completely idiotic and irresponsible use of illegal drugs in battle situations. Honestly, you’re lucky you have a nervous system left, or a brain for that matter. I thought for sure you’d fried both.
“Nah,” I said. “This isn’t nearly as bad as last time.”
Hyrek’s scales stood up, and he gave an enraged snarl. You’ve done this before?
“Only twice,” I lied. I’d done it four times, but this didn’t seem like a good time to admit that. “Look, if it comes to dying or getting five more minutes on my feet, I’ll take my chances with the seizures. We all do. That cocktail is standard Paradoxian issue.” Well, mostly.
Hyrek threw back his head with a hiss. And you call my people animals.
That sounded like the perfect place to change the subject. “What happened to the ship?” I said, trying to sit up, only to lie back down immediately. Sitting was a very bad idea.
Hyrek glared at me again for good measure and then sighed, a low, whistling sound. That’s a complicated question. Your camera went out early, but Cotter’s caught several shots of the xith’cal before he got away. I’ve never seen xith’cal like that. Those were not Stoneclaw’s flesh.
I wasn’t quite sure what that meant from a xith’cal point of view, but I agreed. Those things may have been xith’cal once, but not now. “I don’t know what they were,” I said. “Xith’cal usually run cold, but I couldn’t see these on my thermal scan at all.” They’d been cold as the metal they lay on, I realized with a shudder of my own. Cold as death.
I stopped, suddenly terrified. One of those things had bitten me. “Oh, god,” I moaned, staring up at Hyrek. “Please tell me I didn’t get some kind of xith’cal rabies.”
Hyrek snorted. There are so many things wrong with that statement I don’t even know where to begin. First, xith’cal and humans are completely biologically incompatible, which renders interspecies transmission of any sort impossible. Secondly, even if our races could infect each other, xith’cal are cold-blooded. Rabies only affects warm-blooded carbon-based Earth-descended life-forms.
“So, that’s a no?”
Definitively, Hyrek typed.
That made me feel a little better. Still. “Those lizards were sick with something,” I said. “Did you send Cotter back in to get a sample? They were fast, but not smart. I bet we could lure one into the airlock and trap it long enough to get something.”
Hyrek gave me a look that, on a human, would have been horror. No, and we’re not going to.
“Why not?” I demanded. “I thought the captain was doing this because he was curious, and I want to know what the hell attacked me.”
See for yourself. Hyrek set his handset down and walked over to the battered monitor on the wall, which was currently displaying my heartbeat and vital signs. He touched something on its side, and the screen flickered, changing to an exterior view.
The camera was on the tribe ship, which looked exactly as it had before, huge and dark, but no longer alone. It was now surrounded, as were we, by enormous ships like nothing I’d ever seen. They looked almost like deep sea creatures, thin and long with beautiful muted patterns in blues and greens. The things glowed with their own phosphorescent light, throwing lovely pale colors across the tribe ship’s drab hull as they slid gracefully through the space around it like fish through calm water. So gracefully, in fact, that I didn’t realize how big they were until one passed right over us.
“God and king,” I hissed, cringing against the bed. The ship gliding over us was large as a Royal Cruiser, easily ten times the size of the Fool. “What the hell is that?”
Hyrek walked back to me and picked up his handset. A lelgis battle fleet.
“Oh,” I breathed. I guess they weren’t happy about the dead lelgis we’d found inside the tribe ship. But while I didn’t know anything about the lelgis, I did know a thing or two about battle fleets, and this seemed like a pretty huge show of force for a relatively small number of dead squid. Of course, I’d only seen one room. Maybe it would have gotten worse if Cotter and I had been able to get farther in. “What do they want?”
The captain is talking with them now to try and figure that out, Hyrek typed. If you could even call communicating with a lelgis talking, that is. They appeared five hours ago, and they’ve been circling like carrion eaters ever since.
“Are they carrion eaters?” I whispered, my nose suddenly full again of the terrifying rotten smell of the xith’cal ship.