Chapter Four – Friends Departed
Call to the soul when man doth sleep:
So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes
And into Glory peep…
John Milton – Excerpt, Friends Departed
"I'm never gonna… Never gonna see them again…" Harlan leaned heavily on Radu's arm, his own hand holding tightly to the Andromedan's shoulder on the other side. He wasn't making it easy at all… Half delirious with the thoughts that were finally catching up with him, Harlan wasn't even trying to support his own weight. Radu, his strength all but gone, was doing his best to keep the Earther from crashing down as he helped him over the rocks.
"You'll be fine."
Harlan whimpered as Radu finally gave into his own annoyance and half dragged him over the top of the barrier. To his credit, though, he didn't complain. Maybe he was in too much pain to complain.
Radu paused. Thankfully, his direction sense wasn't affected by whatever it was that had sapped his strength. They'd gotten turned around at least a dozen times since leaving the Christa, though for him, it would be easy to find their way back. It wouldn't, however, be easy to get there. They'd come a long way, after all, and Harlan was pretty much dead weight.
"What am I gonna do?" Harlan's weight shifted. There was less pressure on Radu's shoulders now, so at least he could stand straight.
"I don't know. I can't carry you. I can… hardly support you."
The Earther's eyes opened a bit as he absorbed that bit of information. "You can't…?"
"Something happened. I'm not sure what it was… The En'hegians started… Well, they're still coming this way." Radu looked toward them. "Their heart rates are collectively increasing… I don't know what to make of it." Radu neglected to mention that somewhere in the course of the past twenty minutes, his own heart had first slowed, and was now beating in time with theirs. He'd first noticed it when massaging his ribs where he'd been kicked… And had focused an ear on it to confirm the fact that it matched. Almost perfectly, in fact.
"I'd settle for making it back to the ship," Harlan said through clenched teeth. "I can hear them… I can hear them really well. They're close, aren't they?" He remembered reading something back at Starcademy that when one sense failed, the others would take over stronger, to compensate. His hearing seemed much more acute.
"Yeah, they are, but they're just kinda staring."
"Is there a way we can go?"
Radu looked around. Automatically, his mind sorted out possible paths that would lead them to dead ends, or more En'hegians.
Harlan tensed. "There's gotta be a way."
Radu opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again.
"No, we're surrounded."
The sun was setting rapidly, though the sky wasn't darkening as much as one would expect. There was a smaller star rising in the East, almost as if the setting yellow sun was pulling the little white dwarf along with it. A binary system… Quite interesting, really, or it would be, if Miss Davenport wasn't focusing on the Yensidian walking along in front of her.
Suzee weaved back and forth, as if drunk. In fact, had T.J. not been with her since they left the Christa, she almost would have believed alcohol was to blame. As it was, something was playing with the girl's mind.
"'Sh getting' dark—" Suzee noted, her words slow and slurred. "Mm. Sun's goin' down. 'Nother one o'er there. No, I'm fine, Cat."
"Suzee, are you alright?" Miss Davenport asked. She realized she was probably mirroring Catalina's question.
"Shure. Just told you I was. You deaf or invishible?"
T.J. couldn't hold back a chuckle, and though she was quite concerned about exactly what it was that was happening, she felt she could spare a little bit of laughter. In front of her, Suzee stumbled a bit, and fell on her knees. Seconds later, she fell forward on her face.
That was nothing to laugh about.
Crouching down next to her, T.J. took Suzee's shoulders and turned her over. She was surprised to see that the girl was smiling… Laughing, even. "Hey, Miss D! Tol'ja I was invishible. You said I wasn't, but I am!"
"Oh, yah. Guess you're right." Suzee's head slammed back onto the ground, and despite her current state, she winced in pain. "Ground just keepsh coming right up n' hittin' me. Weird, huh? And theresh this voice…"
T.J.'s eyes widened, her brows knitting over her eyes at the same time. There was no way she was going to be able to get Suzee back to the ship without help… And the only help around was the tranced En'hegians… They certainly weren't going to be of much use. As the Yensidian's eyes cast a purple light on the rock structures around them, T.J. heard footsteps that seemed to be very close. Not knowing whether or not there was any other bipedal species on the planet, she dragged Suzee back against a wall, as far into a shadow as she could get. It wasn't easy; it wasn't that she was fighting being dragged. It was more like she wasn't attempting to help at all.
"Suz, close your eyes, dear."
"Mmmkay." She did.
Then she continued talking.
"Y'know, Miss D., I never 'pologized to you. N' I'm really sorry. But you gotta understand, talkin' in classh is kinda fun, 'speshuly when no one can see you."
Frantically, Miss Davenport attempted to silence the girl by putting a hand over her mouth. "You gotta be quiet, okay? I'll take my hand away."
Suzee nodded. Miss Davenport removed her hand.
There were about three seconds of silence, then, "And I know I've been hard on you, but you weren't fair, either."
"M'shuttin' up right now. Right now! Not gonna shay anozzer word—"
"Stop shutting up!"
Finally, the girl fell silent, but T.J. didn't think it was in time. She could still hear the footsteps… One a shuffling, quick pace. The other seemed to be walking a little more slowly… Both were heading in their direction.
"Hm. How odd. Commander, my scanners show that both Miss Davenport and Suzee should be in this area, but they seem not to be!"
"That's Thelma!" Suzee belted. Miss Davenport visibly relaxed against the wall.
"Thelma, we're here. Commander? Is that you?"
Seth Goddard rounded the structure behind the android. "Yeah… what are you two doing hiding? The En'hegians don't seem to be dangerous… At least, not to Thelma or I. We passed a bunch of them. They didn't even look at us."
"Just… being careful," T.J. said.
Suzee giggled. "Oh, Harlan is so in for it when they catch up with him."
Seth tilted his head. "…What's she mean? What the hell's wrong with her?"
"…Suzee pitched consciousness into one of them… She found out a lot. I really think Harlan's in trouble…" She paused, briefly sucking in a breath as she pondered what to say. "I don't know what's wrong with her… But before she… well, before, she told me that… En'hegians are cannibalistic. They eat their injured. Or sick."
Seth made the connection. "You think Harlan's injured."
Suzee giggled again, pointing to Seth and T.J. while speaking to no one in particular. "Those two like each other."
They stood in the middle of them all. Some of them were getting closer, and as they did, Radu would guide Harlan further toward the center.
"…God. I can hear their heartbeats. I can hear yours!" Harlan pushed away from the Andromedan a bit.
"I know… For some reason, mine is matching theirs. It's gotta have something to do with the fact that I can hear them. They… they just keep repeating the same thing over and over…" Radu and Harlan stood back to back, and while Harlan couldn't see them, he could hear their scaled bellies as they slithered across the ground. Could even sense their yellow eyes on them.
"…How close are they?" Harlan asked.
"Close. You could probably reach out and touch one." Radu looked back toward the rock barrier. "There's more space over the wall… I think we should go back. How's your head?"
"I'm dizzy," Harlan answered. He reached up to touch the bandage, suddenly feeling a tearing in his forearm. It took him a couple seconds to get it. To understand.
"Hell. It bit me!"
Radu turned, looking at the four or so puncture wounds in the earther's arm. They were actually rather deep, and blood was spreading on the already tattered grey uniform jacket, being soaked up like water into a sponge. Oddly enough, Radu could easily reach out to them without the En'hegians reacting at all… Which didn't make any sense. Why would they want to hurt one, and not the other?
Without a word, he took Harlan's arm, guiding him back toward the pile of rocks that served as some sort of barrier. Whenever they got too close to one of the creatures, it would lash out with teeth or claws, but only at Harlan. It seemed that to the aliens, Radu was entirely invisible.
Besides the fact that it was getting dark, Radu didn't want to venture too far from the city. Currently, he had his bearings, but what would happen if he lost his sense of direction, too? Would they ever find their way back? "They're increasing their pace," he explained as he helped Harlan back over the wall. It was difficult… The wall wasn't steep to climb, but the human's knee was possibly very badly damaged. Plus, he was blind… And had to rely on touch for footing. "As their heart rate increases, they speed up."
"Yeah, and they're after me."
"We don't know that."
Harlan had his hand wrapped around his arm, trying his best to stop the bleeding. It was much worse than the injury to his head. Deeper. He almost slipped on the looser rocks and fell several times, though Radu's arm was there to steady him. By the time they were on the other side, Harlan was exhausted… The best cure for that was to sit down, and he was about to… Except that same steady arm kept him standing.
"We can't stop now," Radu said. They're coming. "And we have to get down this hill… I think we can walk along there. It leads back into the city, but all the En'hegians are heading this way. If we're fast enough, we can get ahead of them."
They walked in silence for a while. The effort Radu put forth to keep Harlan from falling, and the effort Harlan put forth to keep his knee from crumpling, pretty much sapped their energy for conversation. It seemed like a huge amount of time passed, when Radu suddenly ceased walking. Harlan nearly toppled.
The Earther tried a good-natured jibe, despite the situation. "Warn me before you do that."
Radu pointlessly held up a hand. "Wait… do you see…" He stopped himself as Harlan shot him a vacant-eyed stare that could have frozen lava.
"…What," Harlan asked.
Radu squinted, looking into the darkness at the bottom of the hill. The single white dwarf star that served as the planet's moon shed a little light on the packed earth, but he didn't need the light to reveal to him what it was he saw. A figure, wrapped in electricity, was heading toward them… And walking next to that figure at a safe distance was a young, pink-skinned girl.
"It's Rosie and Bova," Radu said, relief creeping into his voice.
Harlan's blank stare turned away from Radu and toward the electrostatic noise he heard coming from not too far away. "Rosie! Bova!" He called out to them, limping forward while keeping a hand on Radu's shoulder for both support and guidance. He wouldn't admit that if he wasn't in contact with the Andromedan, he felt completely lost. There was also the fact that he felt like his head was spinning, and he had a migraine to end all migraines. There was a certain numbness there, though, that allowed him to push the pain aside.
As the two younger cadets got closer, Radu could see that Rosie's face was slightly burned, and that her uniform jacket was charred. How was that possible? Electricity. She may have been able to absorb heat, but Bova's electrical charge had hurt her. Why was he sparking?
"Harlan?" It was Bova's voice.
"Yeah, yeah… I'm here," Harlan had to stop when he reached the end of his arm's-length distance from Radu.
"Don't get too close," Radu warned. "Something's wrong with Bova."
Harlan's eyes lidded. "The electricity?"
Rosie started running forward toward Harlan… Or toward him, he wasn't sure. The thing was, Radu couldn't let her tackle Harlan. Not now. He pulled away from the Earther, intercepting Rosie in a bear hug, minus the strength, before she could do the same to Harlan. Surprised, the Mercurian pulled back, and looked into Radu's eyes.
"Radu! You're here, too! There's these aliens… You know. The En'hegians. And then Bova said he heard them… They were sayin'…"
"Let the hunt begin."
Rosie brightened. "You hear it too? I wonder why I can't. And then we decided to follow them and Bova just kinda electrocuted me even though we're not sure why but I'm okay so don't worry and now we found you and Harlan and now we can go back to the Christa!"
Radu smiled, hugging Rosie close again. "Why didn't you go back? You shouldn't be out here right now."
Bova stepped forward, lightning arching across the ground before it died for lack of conductivity. "…Rosie and I discovered that there's no edible plants. Anywhere. At least, none that we can find."
Rosie nodded. "So we were tryin' to figure out what they ate… And we found you."
Harlan chuckled, limping forward into the light cast by Bova. "Hey, that's kinda interesting that you would say that. Because we think you found what they want to eat."
Rosie shook her head, confused. Then she noticed the limp. "Harlan…? What's wrong?"
Harlan smiled. It was not a pleasant smile.
Radu looked to Rosie and Bova in turn. "…Harlan was in an accident. He can't see."
"…You're…" Rosie stood, taking slow, deliberate, and noisy steps toward the Earther. Harlan could feel the slight heat from the girl, and reached out to her. Rosie took his hand, noticing the emptiness in his eyes.
"Yeah, Rosie. I'm blind." He tried to smile for her. He really did. "…Can you help me get back to the Christa?"
Rosie gently embraced her friend, careful not to knock him over. "…Of course, Harlan! Everything'll be alright!"
Bova looked up toward the rock barrier. It was lined with En'hegians. "Well, now. I wouldn't say that."
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Their hearts beat faster, the instinct inside each mind and body taking over. Soon, the steady rhythm would break, and it would be each for themselves. Others would be injured in the fray, and there would be a feast then it was all over.
Whomever had started it, they did not know. They did not care. All they could sense was the injury.
It was a cycle.
They were born. They lived. Without fail, one day, one of them would slip up.
They surged forward, pausing only now and then to feast on those that had fallen before them.