Of course not, Hyrek clicked. They don’t even honor their dead unless it’s a central mind. They’re all hooked up, you know. They have one mind that does all the thinking for a colony and controls the rest.
“What, like a queen?” I said.
Hyrek shrugged. You could call it that, though I don’t think it’s an accurate designation, as queen implies female. So far as anyone’s been able to tell, lelgis don’t have genders.
I opened my mouth to ask another question but snapped it shut again when the Fool began to move. Basil must have had a heavy foot on the thrusters, because we jerked away from the tribe ship like we’d been burned, racing full speed in the other direction. As we fled, the beautiful shapes of the lelgis ships darted behind us with amazing speed, surrounding the tribe ship in seconds. And then, in a blaze that whited out the screen, they began to fire.
The tribe ship lit up as the lelgis’ cannons crumpled its hull, tearing through the inner levels in waves of pale blue fire. They kept up the barrage the entire time we were flying out, and by the time I lost sight of the attack behind the asteroids that floated across our camera, the enormous tribe ship was all but destroyed.
“What was that about?” I cried.
I don’t know, Hyrek typed. And considering how fast we left, I don’t think I want to. It’s very probable that, were our captain not who he is, that fire would have consumed us as well.
I went very, very still. “And who is our captain?” I asked, eying the xith’cal.
Hyrek glared down at me. The kind of man the lelgis do not want to make an enemy, he wrote. I suggest you leave it at that, mercenary.
I didn’t need the growl Hyrek added. I let the subject drop instantly, but I didn’t forget a word.
“Well, at least the lelgis had the right idea,” I said. “Purging it with fire is the only good solution to a nightmare like that. Tell me how we made it out. I don’t remember anything after the drugs crashed.”
Hyrek leaned on the edge of my bed. Cotter came out first, raving about monsters. We couldn’t see your cameras, but we could still pick up your vital signs. We knew you were alive. The captain was trying to bribe Cotter to go back in for an extraction when you floated out on your own. We roped you in and sealed up. Once the air was back, Rupert unlocked your suit and carried you here. You’ve been my burden ever since.
I closed my eyes so Hyrek wouldn’t see the doubt in them. That wasn’t what had happened at all. In addition to the extreme focus, or maybe because of it, battle drugs make sure you remember every detail of what happens while you’re on them. I could see my rescuer clearly, the black scales, the blindingly fast movements. I’d thought it couldn’t speak when it would only nod to me, but I knew I’d heard its voice at the end. Rupert’s deep, accented voice, lovely even when it was frantic, telling me to hold on.
Hyrek’s claw tapped me on the shoulder, and I opened my eyes to see his handset hovering above my face.
Get some rest, it read. I’m going to get something to eat and then I’ll be back. Punch the button if you need me. He tapped the handset against the large red button on the gurney’s arm.
“Gotcha,” I muttered, turning over as much as the pain would allow.
The xith’cal’s claws clicked on the metal floor, and then the door whooshed and I was alone. I lay there for a long time, trying to get my brain together enough to solve the puzzle I found myself in.
The biggest piece was Caldswell. Not only did he have a Royal Warrant, but the lelgis had listened to him. Before today, lelgis had been little more than spacer’s tales to me. I’d been amazed to see dead ones, let alone a battle fleet. Now that I thought about it, though, I was having a hard time believing our captain had just stumbled upon a derelict tribe ship thousands of light years outside its normal range filled with sick xith’cal and dead lelgis right before a lelgis battle fleet showed up to destroy it. I mean, it could have happened—and I could wake up tomorrow and be the princess of Paradox.
Given how important Caldswell and whatever he was doing were to my future, I should have spent the next several hours obsessing over what he’d been after on that ship, why the lelgis cared, what the rotting xith’cal were, and why he’d sent Rupert to save me, but my brain kept sticking on that last one. When I’d first seen the black thing standing behind Ren in the video, I’d assumed it was an alien of some kind. Now, though, I knew, knew it was Rupert. Even if I’d imagined his voice at the end (and to be fair, the drugs had been fading at that point, so it wasn’t impossible I’d hallucinated the words), Hyrek had said Rupert had been the one who’d gotten me out of my armor. The black scaly figure was the only one I’d given my emergency code to, and the Lady Gray doesn’t give me up easily. Without the code or Caldswell’s Warrant, I don’t think anyone on the ship besides Cotter would have had the strength to rip me out. But Hyrek had said nothing about the captain or ripping, just Rupert pulling me out and carrying me to the infirmary.
I closed my eyes. If I’d come floating out like Hyrek claimed, that meant Rupert must have let me go before we got to the Fool, pushing me toward the cargo bay. I was a little insulted at the idea of being shoved off like so much unwanted baggage, but the more I thought about it, the more things started to click into place.
I’d known something was going on with Rupert, and the idea that he’d been the thing standing behind Ren in my video made way more sense than an unknown alien. I had no idea what the scales were or how they worked, but he’d crossed the vacuum in them and somehow gotten back onto the Fool without being seen, probably through the emergency hatch on the roof. I didn’t know of anything that would let you do that other than a suit, but those scales didn’t look like any suit I’d ever seen.
Breathing deeply, I thought back to my first glimpse of Rupert tearing his way through the xith’cal to get to me. The drugs brought the picture back crystal clear, and again, I was struck by how beautiful he’d been. How deadly. In hindsight, I should have guessed his identity earlier. The black scales were heavy, but the shape of Rupert’s tall body was lovely enough to recognize beneath them now that I knew what I was looking at.
That thought made me smile. I might not know what to make of it, but it seemed I’d found out Rupert’s secret at last, and I hadn’t even had to break my promise not to question him about it. But my smile faded as quickly as it had come. Why had he risked that secret to save me?
After the drugs, my memories were less reliable, but I remembered Rupert’s hands—how they’d held me down so I wouldn’t hurt myself on the table, how gently they’d stroked my fingers and brushed my hair out of my face. I remembered the relieved look in his eyes as he’d talked to me, and that made me think back to last time we’d been in the infirmary together, when he’d treated the ankle I’d almost broken on his side. He’d been so worried that I’d be afraid of him, and I’d told him I never would be, right before I told him I wouldn’t ask what he was.
A lot of things had happened since then, but had anything really changed? Then, as now, he’d taken care of me. He’d rescued me twice, I realized with a start, here and back on Mycant. Ren certainly wouldn’t have yanked me out on her own. He’d made her save me, just as he’d come himself to save me this time. Now that I knew for certain, I couldn’t sleep any longer.
Modern medicine is a wonderful thing. Back home broken bones had taken months to heal, but once I’d gotten into the military I’d never had to wait more than an hour or so. Bone knitting was expensive, but downed soldiers were even pricier. Apparently Caldswell agreed, because my broken collarbone had been knitted beautifully. Hyrek must have used a skin grafter and synthetic blood as well, because I didn’t feel weak like I usually did after a big wound, and the skin of my shoulder was healed smooth with only a circle of faint red marks left to show where the xith’cal’s teeth had dug in.
Sitting took me a long time, but that was mostly due to the painkillers Hyrek had pumped into me. Once I was up, I shook off the haze quickly, breathing long, deep breaths until the cotton-headed feeling went away. When I was thinking clearly again, I slid off the table and rolled my shoulder in a slow circle.
It was sore, but no more so than after a good workout. I tested my other limbs one at a time without incident, and my face broke into a grin. It looked like I’d danced out of death’s jaws yet again.
I found my clothes in a bin by the door. My underarmor was a shredded, bloody mess, but someone had dug a fresh set of clothes out of my duffel, a red and gold T-shirt from the Kingston Armor Rally, my purple capri running pants, and a fresh bra and underwear, both sky blue. Considering the color combination, I figured it had to be Nova, and I made a mental note to thank her as I shed the medical gown. Someone had washed the blood out of my hair as well, but drying spread out over my pillow had left it in huge, unmanageable waves. I combed it down as best I could with my fingers, and then, dressed and presentable as I could make myself, I slipped out the door.
It was night cycle, and all the corridors were dark. Even so, I moved like I was on a stealth stakeout, sliding along the walls to dodge the cameras, my bare feet silent on the padded rubber floor. I wasn’t breaking any rules that I knew of, but I wasn’t dumb enough to believe Hyrek or Caldswell would think very highly of what I was doing. If either of them caught me, I’d have to stop, and stopping was the last thing on my mind. So I kept quiet and low, sneaking down the spiral stairs to the Fool’s lower level.
By the time I got to the bottom, my heart was pounding so loud I thought I’d wake the ship. Part of it was anticipation, but mostly it was the need that always came over me whenever I’d narrowly escaped death. Much as we try to dress it up, fighting is an animal business. Even though I’d become a merc for the money and the glory and the chance to make a better future for myself, at times like this, when I’d cut it so close I could still feel death’s breath on my back, all I wanted to do was throw myself into someone’s arms and celebrate the fact that I was still alive. And here, now, after all that had happened, there was only one pair of arms I wanted.
The Fool had two levels of cabins. Nova and I were upstairs, along with Basil, the doctor, and Cotter. The lower level was the family floor where the captain and his daughter lived, along with Mabel. Rupert’s room was down here as well, a small cabin tucked up against the back of the engine right next to Caldswell’s suite. The drone of the long-haulers covered my footsteps, but even so, I crept like a thief until I was standing right in front of Rupert’s door.
I felt strangely nervous as I reached up and knocked softly. Usually, this situation happened the other way around, with me being inside and the boy in the hall. But I was the one dangling this time, and I held my breath for several seconds until the door opened and Rupert stood before me.
I took a moment to drink him in. He’d always been lovely to look at, tall and handsome with his long black hair and bright blue eyes, but somehow he looked even better now. I must have woken him, because he was dressed in a soft white undershirt and navy sweatpants, the only thing other than a suit I’d ever seen him wear. His hair was free and hanging down around his shoulders except for the little bits that were sticking up from where he’d been lying on the pillow. His eyes widened when he saw who was at his door, and then he gave me an exasperated look. “You should be in the infirmary.”
“I’m fine,” I said, stepping a little closer.
His face grew wary, and when he spoke again, his voice was unusually low. “Do you need something?”
“Yes,” I said, proud that my words weren’t as breathy as I felt. “I need to thank you.”
He pulled back, crossing his arms over his chest. “No need,” he said, trying for casual and failing. “All I did was pull you out of your armor and get you to the infirmary. Anyone else would have done the same.”