Page 47

Author: Rachel Bach

The symbiont Cotter had sliced just before he’d gone down lunged through the door from the cargo bay. His side and front were still gaping and bloody from the gyro ax, but the black scales had closed over the hole enough to let him stand. Still, the wound slowed him, and that was the only way I managed the miracle that happened next.

The injured symbiont never saw me. His attention was all on Rupert and Brenton. He charged forward, claws ready to rip into Rupert’s exposed back, but before he’d taken more than one step, Sasha’s bullet hit him solid in his injured side.

I’ve never been as good a shot with my left hand as I am with my right, but Cotter’s ax had left me a pretty wide target. Even so, I almost didn’t make the shot. As I raised my pistol, I hesitated. My left arm isn’t as trained as my right, and even if I did manage to relax enough to spare my bones, shooting with my weaker hand would almost certainly dislocate my elbow. I had one arm out of commission already, the idea of losing the other scared me witless.

But as the injured man’s claws reached out for Rupert, little things like broken arms and the almost certain grisly death that would come if I didn’t kill the newcomer with this shot became trivial. I’d faced my death several times today already. I’d embraced it, even demanded it. I was not afraid of death, but the idea of living on knowing that I had let Rupert die, knowing that the man I loved was gone and it was my fault because I’d been too slow, because I’d been a coward, that was more than I could bear.

Sasha’s shot exploded in my ears, and the force of her kick knocked me all the way to the busted blast door. I landed on my back, my head slamming into the floor so hard I saw stars. My left shoulder and arm felt like they were on fire, and I knew I’d broken something this time, but I couldn’t work up the strength to care. It took everything I had just to stay conscious as I lay panting on my back, ears ringing, which was why I didn’t see or hear the symbiont until he was on top of me.

The first thing I noticed was that he was bleeding freely from his side, and I felt a surge of triumph. I’d hit him. But the triumph burned out as he raised his black fist. Not hard enough. That was my last thought before the symbiont slammed his claws into my stomach.


The word came from two throats, Rupert’s and, to my surprise, Brenton’s. Another time that would probably have struck me as significant, but at the moment I was too focused on the feeling of the hand in my guts to think much about it. I did feel when someone ripped the symbiont away, though, because his crushing weight on my hips vanished, and then a pair of steel-hard arms scooped me off the ground.

I don’t think I could have fought those arms if I’d tried, but I didn’t have to, because it was Rupert’s voice that rumbled through the chest I was pressed against. “Hang on!” he shouted at me.

I obeyed as best I could, curling my body around his as he backed through the busted blast door into the hallway. In front of us, I could see all three of the symbionts who’d stormed our ship: the one I’d killed, still on the ground, the one Cotter had chopped and I’d shot lying on the floor, dying if not dead, and Brenton pushing himself up from where Rupert had left him. Brenton stared at Rupert a moment, and then he lunged forward, grabbing the bleeding symbiont and running down the cargo bay steps so fast he seemed to fly.

“Rupert,” I whispered as he turned and started running down the hall in the opposite direction. “Rupert, they’re getting away.”

“Hush,” he said. I felt his chest tense, and then the black scales covering his face slid back and Rupert, my Rupert was over me, his eyes set forward with absolute focus as he turned us into the medbay. “I’ll take care of them later. All that matters right now is that you don’t die.”

He laid me down on the emergency gurney in the corner, the one with the trauma shell that’s saved for really, really bad cases. I didn’t want to go under the black shell. Rupert must have seen the fear on my face, because he leaned down and kissed me quickly.

“Everything will be all right,” he said, his voice determined. “I won’t let you die, Devi.”

And then he closed the trauma shell over me, and the world vanished.

I don’t know how long I was under the black healing shelter of the trauma shell, but I hated every second of it. Trauma shells surround you in a field that slows your body down to nothing. That might not sound so bad, but the reality is that you feel like you’re constantly on the edge of suffocating. Plus, they’re dark. Being in one always made me think of being buried alive, though usually I had drugs to get me through.

No such luck this time. Rupert must have pulled my hand out to put in the IV at some point, because I could feel the pressure of the needle in my skin just as I could feel the hazy weight of high-grade painkillers on my mind, but I couldn’t seem to pass out. Hyrek had mentioned something about the battle drugs ruining all normal painkillers for me, but I hadn’t realized just how bad that would be until now. Of course, I should have been ecstatic I was alive to be in this much discomfort, given everything that had happened, but feeling like you’re about to run out of air at every moment makes it harder to appreciate the little things, so I just focused on trying to stay still and wait it out.

I must have drifted off at some point, though, because Caldswell’s voice woke me up. He was whispering, but even when he pitches it low, Caldswell has a captain’s voice, and it was enough to snap me out of the light sleep I’d managed.

“…better this way,” he was saying. “Dammit, Rupert, you think I like this? She’s the best merc I’ve had in a decade. That was Mikel’s body in there. He was an Eye for ten years before he turned, and she took him out like so much trash. You don’t let someone that good go without sound reason, but she knows too much. I’ve bent the rules for her twice already, I can’t keep doing it. She’s hovering on the edge of death as it is. Let her rest. She’d want it this way.”

“Devi would never want this.” The voice was so cold and angry that it took me several moments to recognize it as Rupert’s. “Not like this, Brian.” I’d never heard him use the captain’s first name before, either. He said it like a curse.

Caldswell’s sigh was more tired than anything else. “She knows what you are now for sure,” he said, calm and reasonable. “The tribe ship I could excuse since she was half dead and high out of her mind, but this? This is unrecoverable. And since whatever idiot blew up my bridge completely destroyed the security feeds, we have no way of knowing what Brenton told her. Considering he was here waiting with his daughter while we were out chasing nothing, though, I’m betting this whole planet was a setup.”

“Even more reason not to do this.” Rupert’s voice was desperate now, almost pleading. “If all Brenton wanted was information, he could easily have gone after the crew. They were the softer target and they’ve been with you longer. But he specifically came to the ship and interrogated Devi. He even tried to take her with him. She knows why, she could tell us—”

“Brenton wants to destroy everything we’ve suffered all these years to protect,” Caldswell snapped. “I don’t need a detailed description of his plans to know he was going to use Morris against us.”

I felt the table creak beneath me, and I realized Rupert had grabbed it, denting the metal right by my arm. Caldswell took a deep breath at the sound, and I got the strangely distinct impression he was rubbing his eyes.

“If it was just that Brenton wanted her, I’d let things slide,” he said. “But she’s seen too much. Also, as you’ve just proven, she compromises you, and that’s a risk I can’t afford.”

Rupert didn’t answer, but I could almost feel the silence getting colder. Caldswell must have felt it, too, because the next words out of his mouth were the gentlest I’ve ever heard him speak.

“I tried to warn you,” he said softly. “I told you not to get attached. No matter how you try to protect them, it always ends up like this. Always.” His voice was so longing, I started to wonder who Caldswell had lost. “I wish we had the time to work through this more gently,” he continued, his tone shifting back to his usual brisk command. “But we’re up against the wall here. She has to go, now, before the crew comes back. The only question left is do you want me to do it, or do you want to do it yourself?”

The silence stretched on so long I was afraid I’d passed out again, but then Rupert answered, his voice so low I could barely hear. “I’ll take care of it.”

There was a creak as Caldswell left. I heard Rupert step away, and then the scrape of a chair as he dragged it across the room to sit beside me, his forehead resting on the table next to my shoulder. I held my already short breath, waiting for him to do something, but all I heard was his low, steady breathing until, at last, it lulled me back to sleep.

I woke next to bright light as the trauma shell was peeled back. I tried to cover my eyes, but I couldn’t move. Neither of my arms would obey me. In the end it didn’t matter, because something leaned over me, blocking the light. It was Rupert.

“Shh,” he whispered when I flinched. “I have to be fast. Your body isn’t stable enough to be out of the shell for long.”

I hadn’t realized I’d been trying to get away until his voice made me stop. My brain was fuzzy and disconnected, but the conversation I’d overheard before was still with me. I’d been sure Rupert was here to kill me, but the moment he spoke, I knew I was wrong. No one who came to kill you could talk like that, and they certainly wouldn’t worry about you being out of the shell for too long.

He reached out and gently cupped my face. I relaxed into his touch, letting myself revel in a moment where I was alive, no one was trying to kill me, and Rupert was here, safe and whole beside me. He was so close I could feel his breath against my lips, but while his voice was soft, his tone was almost frustrated.

“Devi,” he whispered, dragging my name out with a long sigh. “You make me lose all sense. All my life I’ve trusted my control even when I trusted nothing else, but when I’m with you, it all vanishes.” He kissed me gently. “You make me crazy, do you know that?”

Inappropriate as it was, I couldn’t help myself. “A lot of people tell me that,” I croaked, smiling against his mouth.

He broke away from me, ducking his head. For a second, I thought he was laughing, but there was no laughter in his voice when he spoke again.

“When I saw you on the floor, saw him jump on you, I thought I was too late.” His lips were pressed against the hollow at the base of my throat, and I felt the words more than I heard them. “I thought I’d lost you. I didn’t know I could be that scared anymore.”

He took a deep breath and raised his head to look me in the eyes again, tightening his grip on my face so that I couldn’t look away. “I love you,” he said, his voice hard and earnest. “And I won’t let anyone take you away.”

My poor heart, already abused by the trauma of the last few hours, skipped a beat at his words, and the only thing that kept me from throwing my arms around him was the fact that I was too weak to move. “I’m not going anywhere,” I said, struggling to get enough breath behind the words. “I lo—”

He cut me off with a kiss. “No,” he whispered, his voice rough. “I might not be strong enough if I hear that.” He kissed me again and leaned forward, his hair falling over my face as he lowered his mouth to my ear.

“I don’t deserve to hear that,” he murmured against me. “I’ve done—” He stopped, and his fingers began to tremble. “I do terrible things, Devi. Terrible, necessary things that I cannot undo. Would not undo. What you’ve seen is just the surface. What I am, what I’ve done…”