September 17, 4233
Hyperion Sector, Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base, Medical One
“Welcome back, ma’am.”
Natalya Archer blinked away from the light shining in her eyes, but the medic with the blurred features held her head in place gently but firmly. “This will only take a second, commodore.” He sounded young. “Our scans didn’t show any permanent damage, but I still need to check.”
The commodore blinked again as the medic withdrew the light, the young man’s features becoming clearer as her vision returned. She was in one of the hive’s medical bays, a private room. Every so often, the intercom called for a doctor to respond to a different site. She tried to sit up, but restraints on her arms and legs held her in place. She gazed down at them in shock and a more than a little fear ran through her. Why am I…? “What-what happened… doctor?”
Her attendant’s lips turned upwards. He was in scrubs, but not a doctor’s uniform. “I’m sorry, I’m only a senior medical technician, commodore. I’m afraid that you’re stuck with me for the moment, since the senior staff are still tending to casualties from the battle. I can assure you that I’ve only lost four patients today, though.”
His graveyard humour was lost on Natalya and she jerked at her restraints again, catching his attention.
The medic – David Kawalski by his nametag – noticed her tugging at the binding. “Oh! Sorry about that, commodore,” he replied as he released them, calling for an orderly to bring Archer some water. “You had some kind of a seizure two days ago. We don’t know what brought it on, so we tried to sedate you, but you were fighting us pretty hard. We had to switch on a presser field initially just to keep you stable.”
She was parched and the water felt like ambrosia to her dry, sore throat. Had she been screaming? It felt like it. But why would she be screaming?
Natalya rubbed her wrists; they were sore and bruised. “Lovely.” She froze, remembering the feel of something else, the razor-sharp sensation of someone screaming inside her skull, of thoughts, emotions and images that weren’t her own. She quelled the sensation of violation and nausea that threatened to shake her. “You don’t know what happened,” she stated carefully. “Did anyone else… did anything else similar happen to anyone else? I thought… I don’t remember what happened but…” she wasn’t quite ready to admit that she was hearing voices. “It was like a dream; I wasn’t in control, it was like there was… like it was happening to someone else.”
“Out-of-body experiences are not uncommon in those party to traumatic events,” Kawalski tried to assure her. “I’d have to check the literature, but not many happen during seizures. It could have been an unconscious defence mechanism; OBEs are known to occur due to sensory overload, particularly during painful experiences such as torture – or in your case, a seizure of this magnitude. It’s not inconceivable.” The medic took her wrist, checking her pulse. “Otherwise, there were a few migraines, the psych ward reported a rash of nightmares, but in the aftermath of a battle, especially one with this level of casualties, that’s not unexpected.” There was a dullness in his tone as he’d said that; Natalya could only imagine what kind of horrors that he’d seen already.
“Oh.” It was just me? Was it just a hallucination? Latent trauma? She didn’t know what was more frightening; that someone had gotten into her head and could have killed her, or that something was wrong with her.
Kawalski ran a scanner over Natalya’s temples, watching a nearby monitor. “There’s no sign of internal bleeding any longer and it looks like the regen treatments have handled your damaged neural tissue. There wasn’t anything major, but you had several small strokes during your episode. We got them fixed up before major oxygen starvation could set in. Your memory centers didn’t appear to be affected, but if you suffer black-outs or there are gaps in your memory, you contact us or your shipboard physician immediately,” the young medic sternly informed the commodore. “Your chart doesn’t have anything like this in your record and there’s nothing in your family history, either.”
Natalya shook her head. “No, there shouldn’t be. Nothing like this has happened to anyone in my family.”
“Hmm. I’d like to keep you here longer for observation, but you check out fine and to be honest, we need the beds. However, if there are more problems – it doesn’t matter if it’s double-vision, dizziness, slurred speech or something more serious like black-outs – you contact a physician immediately. You’re also going to be on light duty for the next week. Understood?”
The young woman meekly nodded her assent to the medic’s demands. Contrary to the media images of plucky captains too tough to listen to their doctor’s advice, she knew firsthand what could happen when one pushed herself too hard. As a junior officer aboard the destroyer King Snake, she’d been caught in a pirate ambush on leave, an act of reprisal for King Snake’s destruction of several raiders in the local sector. Shrapnel from a frag grenade had torn up her intestines. The destroyer’s doctor had recommended light duty until the regen treatments were complete, but she’d wanted the raider bastards who’d attacked her and the captain had allowed her to participate in the investigation.
She’d gotten a lead and stupidly gone off by herself to check it out. Though she’d managed to track the pirates down, she’d also been spotted. She’d managed to escape, but she’d ripped open her earlier wounds in doing so, very nearly bleeding to death in some filthy alley. She would have if not for the timely arrival of a Marine unit. She’d gotten a medal for that as well as a very keen appreciation for the necessity of obeying a doctor’s advice.
“All right,” the young man responded, reaching forward and attaching a small circular clip to Natalya’s temple. “You’re also going to wear this neural monitor for the week, in case you have another episode.” With that, he took his leave, moving on to the next patient as an orderly returned just long enough to return Natalya’s uniform.
Natalya stripped out of her hospital gown, pulling her clothes back on. They smelled fresh, like they’d gone through the wash. Probably for the best. Light duty? With Intolerance laid up, there was virtually nothing but that on her schedule. Right now though, she had a different lead to check. Someone she had to see.
Exercise was one of the few things she had to do to pass the time in her prison and Arykka tried to quell the manic side of herself as she ran through her usual routine, slowing her breathing and quelling the beating of her heart. If she was to have any chance of escape, she needed to be patient and rested, fit and ready. She might only receive the smallest of opportunities and she had to be ready to take advantage if and when it arrived.
There was a burst, a flicker, a shimmer on the edges of her perception. Arykka hid a surprised smile. Someone was nearby. Maybe oppurtunity had arrived early.
The Lefu was standing on one hand, her legs and other arm sticking out to the sides, moving in slow arcs in some exercise ritual. If she had noticed Natalya’s arrival in the cell bay, she gave no sign of it. “Give me a moment,” she asked of the guards. They exchanged a quick look before acquiescing, stepping just outside the door, letting it hiss shut.
“So you’re what’s scaring the Concord,” Natalya said aloud as she shifted the window from one-way to two-way, turning on the comm. The Lefu raised her legs together, toes pointing up at the ceiling of her cell. Her muscles rippled in a wave from her calves down to her forearms as she stretched. The tattoos on her exposed flesh glinted under the fluorescent lights. “You’re what’s killing us. Our own damned species,” her voice was rough, her throat tightening with revulsion, aching with each word. “But you’re not, are you? Not really. You might look like us, but there’s nothing inside that makes you human. I wonder if you even bleed.”
Were you in my mind? she demanded silently of the creature, watching her splay her legs back to right angles, switching hands on the ground. Abruptly, there was a slight stutter to her movements, but it was barely there – if Natalya wasn’t just imagining things. The Lefu’s feet hooked out towards the glass. Natalya felt ridiculous, standing here trying to send telepathic messages to this pale murdering… thing. We’re never going to let you go. Once we learn everything we can from you, you’ll be lucky to get a bullet in the brain. Do you know that?
There was still no reaction, the enemy pilot continuing to run through her exercises, either unaware or uncaring about Natalya’s presence.
This was a waste of time. Suddenly angry, Natalya slammed her hands onto the window. “God damn you! I know you can talk! Are we not worth even that much from you? One fucking syllable! What gives you the right?” she seethed. “What gives you the right to pass judgment on us like you’re so much better? To show up and start killing without even one fucking word? Hundreds of thousands – millions of people and you still won’t talk! What does it take? What does it take for you to see us as people, damn you? To even fucking talk?”
Natalya leaned forward, resting her forehead against the window. “I keep sending men and women to die against you,” she admitted hoarsely. “I’ve lost one of the few people in this universe that meant a damn to me. If that hasn’t earned me the right to hear you, then what will? How many do I have to kill, how many have to die before that happens?” Was it even you? Am I just going crazy? It was insane; she couldn’t have heard the Lefu. Telepathy – that was still science fiction. And she routinely flew faster than the speed of light to visit alien worlds.
When she lifted her head, she found herself staring into the arctic eyes of the prisoner. Despite herself, Natalya jumped back from the predator’s glare.
<Little Echo,> a soft voice whispered to her. Inside her. <If you are the last sighted being amongst a kingdom of the blind, does that make you insane?>
Natalya clutched at her temples, gasping aloud. Every word was pain. “So you can talk,” she hissed, bracing herself against the window. She forced her anger to the surface, banishing the fear. A telepath. This… thing was a telepath. What else can you do? she demanded of the Lefu. Can you hear our thoughts?
The pilot froze, her expression uncertain as she debated just how much to tell her captor. <Only you,> she informed Archer. <The others… signal, but no substance. Whispers, half-heard and not understood. Fractured images, nonsense verse. I can only hear you. Shouldn’t have been able to hear me.>
“You almost killed me.” She thought the words at the same time she spoke them aloud.
<I’ll scream louder next time.>
“There’s a button that flushes all the air from your cell. You’ll die, too.” As she spoke, the Lefu’s lips moved in time with hers like a ventriloquist’s dummy. As if she was learning the words without speaking them.
There was no malice, no despair. Simply acceptance. <So be it.>
The guards monitoring the Lefu’s cell observed half the conversation between Archer and the prisoner, confused as they saw the commodore respond to unsaid comments.
“Who’s she talking to?”
“Magic pixies? Who the hell do you think?”
“No, I’m running a complete sonic breakdown; Commodore Archer’s the only one talking.”
“I heard she had some kind of freak-out a couple days ago. Maybe she’s bent.”
“Yeah, I suppose it’s possib – shit! Medical team to Cell Bay One!”
Natalya sagged to her knees, shaking with pain. Blood dripped from her nose as she gasped for air from burning lungs. <Fragile Echo,> the Lefu coldly appraised her. <Not bred for this, are you?> She crouched on the opposite side of the glass, watching as the Enemy tried unsuccessfully to pull herself back up to her feet, leaving dabs of blood from where her fingers clawed for purchase on the window.
Blood curled down around her lips as she rasped out a question. “What… what are you?”
The door to the cell bay hissed open and a pair of medics pulled Natalya away from the window, setting her onto a stretcher, wheeling her out. As she was taken away, Archer heard the fading voice of the Lefu shuddering through her mind.
<I am Evea’shi. You are Enemy. That is enough.>
This time when she woke up, she found herself looking in Admiral Foraker’s eyes. The older man nodded. “Commodore.”
Natalya tried to pull herself up, but there were firm hands on her shoulders. Not Kawalski, but Captain Winters. “Easy,” the chief doctor lectured her. “Just lay back for a moment.”
“When you were brought in, you’d suffered several burst capillaries in your brain tissue,” Winters replied first.
Winters and Foraker shared a glance. “We were hoping that you could tell us the rest,” the admiral added. “Security footage shows you going to the Lefu’s cell; it looks like you were trying to talk with her. Then you collapsed.”
Natalya closed her eyes. “I was talking to her,” she admitted, realizing how this was going to sound. “But she responded in my head; she’s a telepath. That’s what happened the first time – she started screaming, …I don’t know why.” She wrapped her arms around herself, looking away. “I could feel her inside me. Pain and rage and fear. All of it.”
She didn’t have to open her eyes to see the skepticism.
“Is she telling the truth?”
Winters shrugged. “I don’t know. I’d never considered the possibility of telepathy, simply because it’s so unlikely… psychic powers?” The captain shrugged. “There is some corroboration for her story; at roughly the same time she had her first episode, there were multiple reports of migraines, panic attacks and nightmares, but my staff didn’t think it was anything more than post-battle stress. There is something troubling, though.” He called a file on a nearby screen. “This is from the scan data from Commodore Archer’s neural monitor; you can see where the time logs match with the instances that the Lefu would have been ‘communicating’, right down to the second.”
“What – precisely – am I looking at, doctor?”
“Ah? Oh, sorry, sir. These bright areas are the active portions of her brain. This one here is a normal scan from the commodore taken from her last medical. You can see the most recent images – it’s a like a wildfire was set off inside her skull. If – with that caveat firmly in place – she’s not suffering a catastrophic mental breakdown, her brain became too active during these periods. It’s mostly localized around the areas that control speech and information processing.” Winters paused a moment, thinking. “The human mind – ours, anyways – was never supposed to accept or handle information of this nature. It’s like,” he fumbled for words. “Like trying to run an advanced computer program on an outdated system – if it recognizes it at all, you’re going to see freezes, overheating, system crashes.”
“Why didn’t anyone else respond like this?”
“As I said, our brains simply aren’t built to recognize telepathy as a viable source of information. Like seeing into spectra of light other than the visible, or hearing ultrasonic frequencies. It’s important to note that out of the hundred thousand personnel present on the hive at the time of the commodore’s first episode, less than a tenth of a percent had any reaction whatsoever – and some of those may be simple coincidence. She was the only one who could sense the Lefu. Which either means that there’s something just different enough about her to interact with the prisoner… or, well… this may be nothing more than a hallucination brought about by stress and/or brain damage.”
“Is there any way to tell?”
“Well, initial medical scans showed nothing wrong; I’d like to put her through a battery of tests just to confirm our results. If it’s not organic dementia or a psychological breakdown, then I’d have to recommend barring her from any additional contact with the prisoner. If we’re seeing these results after a conversation that brief, then it’s very likely that further interaction will kill her.”