Thursday, August 5, 2010

Things Done in Confidence

Alex had never believed that your life would flash before your eyes when you died, but there it went. Snippets of what made him into who he was, some parts just a stuttering slide show of his life, other moments stretched out to weeks. It was confusing at best, but it wouldn’t have been better if he could have understood the narration.

The first thing he noticed as he came to was that his Amp was not rebooting. The familiar sound of chimes did not occur like it did every other time he woke up for the past ten years. Which was weird, because it had just been... The memories came flooding back. The Ehom battle group, the scoutship taking several rounds from their rails, the darkness...

The darkness. He couldn’t see a damn thing. Alex tried to sit up, to roll over and then simply tried to thrash around to find purchase on whatever was holding him in place. His arms made contact with nothing, but he still didn’t move.

“Stop struggling.”

He did as instructed, instantly. The effect was deeply disturbing to him, it sounded like Shipmaster Tshalan, but she didn’t speak English. He didn’t think she spoke English. Christ, did she?

“You suffered several severe trauma, Pilot Sorenson, motor functions are obscured by the sta-” She paused, apparently to correct herself. “medi-board.” 

His eyebrows may have gone up in surprise. That was the Shipmaster.

“Oh.” It was a lot for him to process just now. “Am... I blind?”

A hesitation. “The lights are not engaged.”

He could actually just barely make out the light from one of the kinetic buffers, a dim orange thread that did nothing to illuminate the room. As a child, Alex had been terrified of the dark. Slept with a nightlight until he was 12, not that he’d ever told anyone. He had learned to deal with it, becoming a ship pilot he had to be used to looking out into the darkness of space and seeing nothing in the visual range.

But he was in control of his body then. “Can you turn them on?”

Another hesitation, longer this time. “No.”

That was not the answer he wanted. The old fears started to creep in around the edges, he fought to keep himself from starting to thrash, despite knowing that his body would do nothing while stuck to the medi-board. That seemed to make things worse, desperation hinting in his voice.

“Just... Just to ten percent.”

“I am indecent.”

She was indecent? His mind raged for a moment. Had she forgotten her goddamn gloves? That was how you could tell how comfortable they were around you. They’d wear their encounter suits everywhere, armor clad from the neck down and maybe take their gloves off if they trusted you. He’d only seen pictures of them in normal clothes, and the Shipmaster hadn’t even turned her shields off around him until they’d been in the black for two weeks.

It did not help his situation. He laughed, nervous.“Come on, just turn the lights on.”

“No.” Her voice carried a particular venom that time. Maybe malice?

His fear crept back in, faster than before. She was going to let him lay here and lose his mind. He was going to die insane, several thousand little nanotech pins jammed into his body keeping him plastered down, and it was going to be in the dark. He actually felt his heart rate increase briefly before the medi-board brought it back down.

“Fear! I’m afraid of the dark!” He shouted at her using Tslao emotional syntax. “Dammit, I’m terrified.”

It wasn’t easy for him to admit. Pilots were supposed to just take whatever the universe threw at them and deal with it. This was basically the exact opposite. She didn’t respond for what felt like a very long time.

“It is only fair.” A sigh, decidedly unhappy and more than a bit resigned followed, then the lights came up.

His eye - one seemed to have fixed it’s unwavering gaze on the ceiling for some reason - looked around and caught sight of the Shipmaster at the foot of the bed, medi-gel dispenser in hand, a dozen empty cartridges floating in the air behind her. His eye bulged, he imagined, when he found out what she meant by indecent. Naked and smeared in fresh red blood and sprinkled with black flakes that looked like they might have been skin at one point, she glared at him. They certainly were mammals, weren’t they.

That wasn’t exactly true, she was still wearing the black metal lump of her personal AI clipped to her shoulders, antenna slicked back down into their interface sockets. None the less, his functioning eye rolled away as he started to fumble for an apology.

“Stop. That is an embarrassment to us both.”

“Oh-kay.” His eye stayed focused on the far wall, vision doubled weirdly and threatening to make him sick. This certainly was more awkward than he had expected it to be. Maybe a little small talk would help ease the situation. “What happened to your encounter suit?”

“The armor plate caught fire and could not be extinguished in reasonable time. I discarded it at the airlock to determine if you still lived.”

Nope. She caught on fire and still put his life first. This was going to be difficult to live down. The click-thunk of a fresh medi-gel cylinder cleared the silence for a half second. “How is the damage to the ship?”

“Severe. The third cartridge damaged the waverider drives, but it the damage is asymmetrical. One may be rebuilt from the two.” That was better. She sounded far less aggravated now.

“Shipmaster Tshalan, I must apologize for my behavior, It was uncalled for.”

Again, she did not respond for a few long seconds. “Call me Carbon, Alex.”

That stunned him for a moment. More than anything else that had transpired for just about as long as he could remember, this was a surprise. “That... That’s an unusual name.”

“My parents enjoyed the way it sounded. My father trades mineral commodities, my mother is a teacher. I do not speak your language by accident.” She set the dispenser down into it’s holder, clicking it into place. “If we are to survive, formalities will not help us.”

With that, she turned and pushed off from the medi-board, gliding silently out of the sickbay. He couldn’t do anything but lay there, one eye unblinking. Tslao did not address one another by first name often. It was usually reserved for family or trusted friends. Someone they would share a neural link with.

It wasn’t his life flashing before his eyes, it had been flashing before hers.

He really wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

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