Chapter Six – They also Serve who only Stand and Wait
Suzee fell off her seat.
Granted, she was still somewhat dizzy from the hangover feeling she'd gotten for whatever reason, but it did serve to break up the tension from Bova's most recent statement. Nobody laughed. Nobody remembered how at that moment… But at least the crew started breathing again.
"First things first," Commander Goddard said, looking to each of them in turn. He watched as Suzee struggled to sit up, the decided perhaps remaining on the floor was a much better option. Bova crossed his arms in front of him… Seth could count on the Uranusian to come up with any tactical flaws in their plans… They'd need everyone, really… Rosie would have to be Bova's foil when he got too hopeless. Radu's strength was indispensable. Suzee would need to install the new engine components, and run diagnostics through the computer – hopefully with T.J.'s help - if she didn't faint.
After the Commander had everyone's attention, he repeated himself for emphasis. "First things first. We put together what we know about these people. Their strengths, their weaknesses… And what happened. Thelma?"
"How long before the En'hegians reach the ship?"
Her eyes rolled back momentarily as she spoke to the Christa. "Given their current speed, they will be in contact range of the Christa within twenty minutes."
"And Radu… You noticed holes in the hulls of the ships outside?"
Seth pondered for a moment. "Harlan… What were the conditions of the accident?"
Their pilot turned blind eyes toward the Commander's voice. His eyes fell somewhere in the general vicinity of where they were meant to, though never met the other man's eyes. "…Radu and I were walking down what we thought was a sidewalk. I stepped over to avoid one of the En'hegians walking some sort of pet."
"And the vehicle was just there," Radu added.
"It wasn't quite an accident…"
They all turned toward Suzee. She was lying on her side, on the pedestal where her console was situated. Her dark, streaked hair fell over the side and trailed on the floor. "…It was staged. I could feel it when I was in that one En'hegian's mind. They didn't just outright plan it… It's hard to explain… Someone thought of it, and the hive mind agreed."
Everyone absorbed this information. Rosie finally asked, "Why?"
Suzee's eyes opened just a bit. "…Think about what they eat. Now. Think of what they may realize when another race… Or several different races… Land on their planet willingly."
"We invited ourselves to dinner," Bova said.
Suzee nodded, then instantly regretted it, and closed her eyes again. "…Exactly."
There wasn't any time left to talk. Seth turned away, warily eying the view screen. They seemed close… "Thelma. Time."
"Fourteen minutes, eight seconds."
No time. No time!
"Rosie. I want you to keep an eye on the monitors. If they start boring through the hull, I need you to reinforce it. Just like you did when we were on the planet, you remember?"
Goddard continued. "…Radu, Bova… I want you to take the power fence. Set it up around the perimeter of each of the supports that are holding the Christa upright. If they can't destroy those, they can't get to the hull. But do it quickly, then get back inside the ship."
They nodded, and hurried off to comply.
"T.J., you and Suzee head down to engineering. Suzee, I need you. You have to do this."
She pushed herself up, eyes opening. "I know, Commander."
Miss Davenport was visibly shaken. High stress situations weren't the best for her; however, the voyage so far had already made her stronger than she ever knew she could be. Helping Suzee up, she then guided the Yensidian to the jumptubes. Suzee looked as if she were about to be sick (again), though she didn't complain as T.J. half shoved her into the entrance tube, then followed after.
That left Harlan. He looked at the floor… Or rather, bowed his head toward it. "And I wait," he said.
"It's the best thing you can do right now, Harlan," Seth said.
The night was calm. Empty. Except for the approaching noise from the En'hegians, it was peaceful. All around the Christa were ships from who knew where, and who knew when. Empty shells, unused for years, their technology ripped from then and integrated into a society of people that lived by eating other people.
It made Bova sick. And now that he knew that Harlan's accident hadn't been a mistake, he didn't feel so bad about what he'd done before. Of course, it would always bother him… Better he than Rosie, though. Or Radu. At least he could claim indifference, and actually believe it.
The two cadets stood around one of the Christa's supports. The installation of the power fences was quite easy… It was just the fact that the order in which they set up the posts was complicated by the shape of the supports. Each post had to be able to 'see' another, and since the supports flared outward in back, they had to use four for each, instead of three.
That left them with one undefended support, as they only had three posts left. It figured, Bova thought. There was probably another one somewhere in the cargo hold, but they didn't have time to look for it.
"How much time… would you say we have?" Radu asked.
"Does it really matter?" Bova countered.
Radu remained silent on that issue. "So what do you think we should do?"
Bova remained silent on that issue.
"…I can't… I can't think. I can't do this."
Miss Davenport shook Suzee's shoulder. "You have to. You have to get the engine running. Suzee…!" Her voice rose with every word she said. T.J. fought to keep from panicking, but it seemed like exactly the thing to do in a situation like this. She couldn't help it. And what was worse, she already felt light-headed.
Suzee leaned on the Protomix. "This is Cat's department. I've never worked on this one before."
"So let Cat tell you what to do!"
The girl nodded, seemed to listen… Reaching forward, she removed an access plate, which fell out of her hands and dropped to the floor. Seconds later, Suzee dropped to the floor as well.
Suzee said something very inappropriate.
Davenport kneeled next to her. "Okay, then tell me what to do. I'm not bad with computers. I'm sure I can figure this out."
"Cat says… Cat… says… God Damnit!"
Miss Davenport doubted very much that Catalina had said that. "Okay, I know your head hurts. But we're all going to be very dead in a few minutes." She was shaking. Couldn't control the fear. Any second now, she was gonna…
"Suzee… Could you pitch into me? Would that give you more control?"
One eye opened. She looked up at the older woman and shook her head. "No, because it's still my mind. And it's still connected to me. You get it?" She fumbled with the panel again, forcing herself to her feet to look at the wiring behind it. Suzee knew what they were, of course, but at the moment, she couldn't make sense out of them.
"Okay, okay… Would I be able to talk to Cat?"
The Yensidian's eyes widened. "I think so. Yeah. Uh… it's worth a try." She turned to face the teacher, then decided it probably wasn't a great idea to remain standing. Crossing her legs, she sat down. Miss Davenport followed… Subconsciously, she averted her eyes.
"I hate doing this," Suzee said. There was a pause. "Miss D., you have to look at me."
Hadn't she wanted to face her fears? She turned her eyes toward Suzee's, which started to glow violet.
There was an uncomfortable cold sensation, and then an incredible calm. Confidence. Almost unshakable… But there was fear, too. And pain.
This is Suzee's mind?
Yeah, this is my mind.
The thought hit her, and she realized she was communicating telepathically with the engineer.
You have work to do.
In front of her, Suzee fought to keep her eyes open.
"Hey, Miss Davenport…" Came an uneasily cheery voice from behind her.
T.J. turned. For the first time in over a year, she was face to face with Catalina.
Rosie placed ungloved hands on Harlan's knee, concentrating heat into it. She was a natural healer, and actually enjoyed medicine. Not, she thought, a practice, but an art. There was a specific way… Not many people had that knowledge. Rosie did, and it was one of the few things she really prided herself on. Of course, she never spoke about it. That would be rude.
As she concentrated, she forced the heat to pass through Harlan's skin, and wrap around the damaged ligaments. The one on the inside was snapped. The one across the front was merely stretched… That one would be easier to repair. A comfortable warmth enveloped it, and for perhaps the first time in the past several hours, the Earther found himself smiling a genuine smile.
"The other one's gonna take more work," Rosie said. "I can't just heal that one. But the good news is that I'm sure you'll be able to walk again within a week or so."
"Thanks, Rosie." Harlan didn't want to ask about his eyes. He didn't want to hear the bad news.
"I'm gonna take a look at your head injury now, okay?" Rosie gave Harlan time to nod before she touched him. As they were in the ComPost, she only had a first aid kit… She'd have to offer better medical attention when they got back up into space.
When. She put her gloves back on.
Rosie removed the sleeve Radu had used as an impromptu bandage, wincing at the sight of the injury underneath. "I'm gonna have to clean it, and it's gonna hurt. You might wanna lay down." Harlan did so, lying on his back, dead eyes looking straight upward. Rosie tried not to pay attention to them.
She slid the first aid kit toward her, removing from it a small bottle of clear liquid in a strangely labeled bottle. Removing the top, the Mercurian smelled it and smiled, having confirmed the fact that it was rubbing alcohol. Retrieving what looked to be a piece of gauze or some other type of absorbent cloth, she poured the alcohol onto it, before pressing it to Harlan's head.
He yelled, digging his fingernails into the floor to keep from lashing out.
"Sorry!" Rosie offered, meekly.
"No, it's alright… Just… Ow."
She worked at the wound, trying not to hurt Harlan too much as she carefully removed bits of dirt and stone that had worked their way into the injury. It wasn't as deep as she first thought, which was good. It meant there was less of a chance of infection.
Startled, the girl turned around to look up at Thelma. "What's up?" she asked the android.
"I should inform you that the En'hegians should be nearing the Christa in approximately four minutes and thirty-eight seconds."
Rosie looked beyond Thelma, to Commander Goddard, who had been monitoring the viewscreen, before addressing Thelma again. "Alright. Let me bandaged this up."
Satisfied with the answer, Thelma turned, shuffling back toward the Commander.
"I wish there was something I could do," Harlan said.
Rosie smiled… she wished that he could see that smile. "Don't worry, Harlan! Everything's gonna be fine."
He could hear the smile in her voice as she re-wrapped his injury… And that was enough.
"I'm gonna have to be the fourth post," Bova finally said. Radu looked at him, thinking for the second time that day he hadn't heard someone right.
"Okay… the fourth post. Uh…"
Bova rolled his eyes. "It'll buy us a little time, at least. Of course, it'll be a hell of a lot easier to get through a living post than a non-living one, so… they'll probably come after this one first. Stand inside the power fence, then activate it."
The aliens were so close. In the scant light of the lesser sun, they looked to be something out of nightmares. Horrifying creatures with staring yellow eyes… It was hard to believe that they'd been so polite before… So inviting. It was hard to believe that such an intelligent race could have such a lust for blood.
It was also hard to believe that they were less than a minute away.
Radu stepped into the field area of the power fence, and leaned against the Christa's support before activating it. Bova face inward, and reached his arms out toward the two posts on either side of him. Radu couldn't see it, but he could hear the fence hum to life around them.
"Don't reach between the posts," Bova said needlessly. "It's live."
The Andromedan looked away from Bova, through the invisible electric barrier. The first En'hegians were quite close. He heard a proximity alarm go off inside the Christa… The ship was warning the rest of the crew.
A hand reached out toward Bova, the single claw on the end of the tentacle reaching to test the boy's shoulder. It received a nasty shock, and the creature fell back, instantly set upon by the others of its kind.
Radu looked away. It bought them time, but it was far too awful to watch.
"This is how they live, Radu," Bova said. It was meant to be a comforting statement, but it fell flat. The Uranusian winced as one of the creatures managed to contact his back before being propelled backward by a strong shock. He didn't have to turn around to know that that one was probably being torn apart now, as well.
The alarm went off. Miss Davenport dropped the wrench she was holding, glowing eyes looking everywhere she could for the source of the problem. She wanted to back away. Wanted to hide somewhere.
"Miss D.," Catalina said. She was trying to be patient… She really was. The fact of the matter was that this would be done by now if she was talking to Suzee. Every little noise was setting the teacher off… And yet, Cat had to admire the fact that T.J. was not yet passed out on the floor. "You're almost done. Stay with it."
Miss Davenport picked up the wrench. "Okay, now what?"
"You're gonna have to move the forward thruster wiring aside to get to the connection junction for… this." Cat pointed to a round plate-like chip on the floor next to Suzee. "See the green series? Yeah." She paused as Davenport pushed them aside. "Okay, now back there… You see the link where the old one was removed? Fasten the new one in there."
She'd been a fool to think she could do this. There wasn't any way it would work… Already, she could feel Suzee's consciousness slipping, and knew that they didn't have too much time. "I should have stuck to teaching," T.J. said under her breath.
"You're doing fine, Miss Davenport… See? Look, that's right. It's connected." Cat turned her eyes to Suzee momentarily. "Suzee, stay awake, okay? We're almost done… This is gonna work. Both of you, stay with me."
Suzee muttered something, but her eyes opened a little wider.
"Now what?" Davenport asked.
"Relays," Cat said. "All the components are installed, you just have to tell the engine that they're installed. The Christa should take care of most of it, but you're gonna have to manually do the data entry on that terminal over there."
T.J. arched thin eyebrows. "On the computer?"
Catalina nodded. Miss Davenport smiled. "Well! This, I can do!"
Bova was, by nature, a rather indifferent creature. Things happened as they happened, and that had always been his general philosophy. It was what they were born into. It was what they were brought up to believe… Uranusians liked to be alone. They didn't like to rely on other people. They believed that everything that could go wrong would, and that each and every one of them would ultimately come to an untimely, if expected, demise.
Having lived with the Christa's crew for a few years, Bova found that some of his instinct for the negative had slipped away. Yes, he still believed they were all going to die. He still imagined that their current endeavor was absolutely hopeless.
The difference was, he wanted to do everything in his power to prevent that from happening… Even though he was just delaying the inevitable.
And… he'd been far too lucky for too long. Something bad was going to happen.
He hated it when he was right.
Instead of the featherlight testing contact he was used to, suddenly Bova felt one of the En'hegian hands go right through his shoulder. In fact, before the shock knocked him back, he could see the clawed tip sticking out the other side.
His concentration lapsed. The field around the support failed. The En'hegians leaped forward to attack, but Radu already had Bova in his arms. The Andromedan wasted no time; running toward the airlock, he shouted as loud as he could.
She extended the spaceway passage from the airlock… Bova knew they wouldn't make it in time. He was watching as some of the creatures devoured their brethren, while others gave chase to the two retreating cadets.
Radu found himself struggling up the passage for the second time that day, and was spurred on by the fact that the Christa was slowly shutting down the spaceway behind him. Every once in a while, his foot would slip, dangling momentarily in mid air before he was able to pull it back in.
Against odds, they reached the airlock. It closed behind them.
Meanwhile, the En'hegians turned their attention to the now unguarded support.