Nine: In Vivo

I wake, feeling pain where I should not, and tired when I should not be. I groan as I roll over in my bed, feeling fresh scars across my back. So, they had sent me out again, it would seem. I hate them more now than ever before – and for what, I have no memory.

I sit up on the too-small-cot hanging from the single brick wall in my otherwise barred cage. I nearly black out from the ensuing rush of blood to my head. It tells me they bled my brain again, and my hand finds the fresh puncture on my temple to be sure.

Something must have happened, something they didn't foresee in their trials. I wonder what it was I saw that they wanted so badly. It's too late; I never remember when they release me. My head throbs, and I lie back down to sleep.

I awaken in a cold sweat. My dreams are too troubled to sleep through. There was a ship – something like a mangled Hellier – that I nearly blew out of the sky. They weren't going to be a problem, but they didn't leave, didn't keep going; they were almost out of the zone when they turned around. I found their ship, but they didn't leave when they should have. They persisted, and I had to neutralize them.

Did I have to? I didn't want to. There was something about them, some reason I fought against my own gut….

I sit bolt upright. Oh gods, Sarrin.

-

I half-drag Sarrin to the Infirmary. She's stopped resisting, but she's not helping much either –listless in my arms, she hunches into my chest. There's no way for me to imagine what she's goin' through right now. I'm barely hangin' on to my own senses 'cause I know I have to take care of her right now, but she's just seen something out of a science fiction movie leap out of her own hands.

"Cripes, Sarrin, what did they do to you?" It's the closest to a swear I've heard the doctor use, and I haven't even laid her on the table yet.

"It's nothing. It doesn't matter. Just patch it up." She writhes on the table, trying to tuck her hands out of view.

I have to grab her wrists, she's flailing around so much. "Sarrin. Sarrin!" She quiets some. "It's okay, I'm here."

Hoepe and I have our first real look at the damage.

"I—I – I'll get something for the pain." Hoepe stutters, blanching.

"It doesn't hurt." She moans, pleading, "Just fix it, and we can forget about it."

Hoepe looks at me strangely.

"The, uh, she told me the nerves were stripped – no feelin' in her hands."

"Yea." She says, her voice small and mousey.

"Evangecore?" he asks, choking the word out

I nod silently.

Hoepe turns away, his hand to his mouth.

"Doc?" I say.

He turns back slowly, and I can see he's strugglin' to keep it all down. "We have to tell someone, Sarrin, do something. The 'verse has to know about this."

"Just fix it." She grunts, "It's in the past, it doesn't matter anymore. Sew the skin back, and we'll move on. That's all I want."

Hoepe looks at me, and I look at him.

He turns away and returns with a 30cc syringe filled with some clear fluid that spritzes out of the 20-gauge he's got on top. "Thiotal." he tells me, "I guess carpal-placement won't be possible." He smirks wryly as I pin Sarrin's arm and he expertly punctures a vein above her radius.

She screams. I can't hold her, and she kicks out. Then, suddenly, she falls still, completely anaesthetized.

He starts to probe the shredded skin.

"Say, Doc, could you restore the nerves to her fingers? Is it possible?" I ask, watching him try to piece together the organic puzzle.

"Hmm." He doesn't stop suturing as he thinks and replies, "Possible: yes, but I would need more time to prepare. Know this Kieran:" he stops momentarily, meeting my eyes with an alarming intensity, "if I can fix this for Sarrin, for all of us, I will."

I nod, still pressing Sarrin down onto the table, transfixed as he resumes his work.

-

There is a way out of every room, every situation – they told me that some great number of years ago. The question now is, which way out of this particular cell?

The guards are positioned strategically to see me from all angles. The last time I wrung my hands together behind my back, they gassed the room and I bashed my head against the concrete floor. The truth is, they're all afraid of me, and some days it's nice to know that they consider me such a threat. Today it's more of a hindrance.

The bars on the cage are a titanium-duranium alloy – very strong – and even if there was a loose one, they're too close together to open an area I could crawl through before they triggered the sedative. The wall behind is a solid foot and a half of poured concrete. It's penetrable, but not easily broken without a laz-gun or cleaver, and, again, time is an issue. The floor itself is some kind of smooth, rubberized sheet linoleum over more poured concrete – impenetrable. And the ceiling is forty feet in the air, but might be a possibility. I'll have to lie down and study it inconspicuously.

I sigh, and the guards shift from one foot to the other.

-

"Dammit, Rayne, what are we supposed to do?" The Captain vents, smashing his fist against the control panels once more. "Why isn't the damn engine starting?"

The Captain's got a right reason to be as vexed as he is. We waited for nearly two hours after we ran out of ammunition for that man-beast to leave. We were crouched behind that one crate. We didn't dare move, or speak, or breathe.

There was something strange about that man. I know I landed a solid dozen shots on him, at least, and he never showed an ounce of weakness.

After our battery-packs ran low, there wasn't anything we could do but wait. We couldn't retreat back to the ship, or rush him. We couldn't even find out what happened to Sarrin. It was a hard time – not being able to act at all.

He stood vigil over us, and then, he was just gone. We snuck back on board the ship, so we could get off this cursed planet, but we seem to have run into another snag.

"It must be the coil injectors." I say grimly, "Kieran said they were running down."

"Dammit!" Gal shouts, bashing the metal engine casing. "Next time that boy asks for something, Rayne, I'm gonna buy him two."

"There must be a way, sir. We've been running for weeks since he told us about it."

"Where is he?" He continues to shout.

"I don't know, sir. I expect he's still with Sarrin in the Infirmary."

"Yeah, closed doors and all." He mutters under his breath. "I just don't understand why it started up cold this morning, and now it won't start up at all."

"The strain must have been too much, we probably fried them."

"We need to get off this planet." He pauses, looking around wildly, "Dammit!"

-

"How would you feel about that Sarrin?" the Doctor prompts one more time.

She's fidgeting on the bed, trying to hide her massively bandaged hands, while at the same time examining them.

"It would be a lengthy procedure, but I think it's possible." He continues. I sit facing her from the same direction, trying to convey it's a good idea. "I believe it would really improve your quality of life, Sarrin."

She stpos and stares back at us, her expression not even broaching what I'd been expecting. "What?" her voice is cold as ice, just like her eyes.

"It might be --." I start.

"No." she interrupts firmly. Then she stops for a minute, before making something very clear to us: "It's who I am. This thing happened, and it changed everything – but it is who I am now, and that's important."

"But, if we fix this, then that will make you someone else – maybe that's who you're supposed to be."

She shakes her head at me. "It's not something you choose."

I nod, I know what she's trying to say.

She stands, and smiles briefly, "Besides, it's come in handy. If it was different, I wouldn't be able to do what I do."

She waits until I smile back, however sad it may have been, and then stumbles out the door – the anaesthetic's not fully worn off yet, but I stop Hoepe from going after her.

"What are you gonna tell the Cap'n?" I ask.

Hoepe leaves a lingering look down the hallway. "She burnt her hands holding down the bomb, I patched them up."

I nod.

"It's the truth."

-

I can't trigger the suit to help me get out of here – they'll just stop me, the same way they can always control me. Up is going to be my only way out, but I've got to stave off the gas somehow. The guards all have masks that filter it, and I could use the suit the same way, except that it wouldn't be me in control anymore.

I was thinking, there must be a way they can open the cage to get me in and out, and to feed me. They gas me before they do it though, so I'm not really sure how. But, it's a plan, and I'm sure I've only got one shot, so it'll have to do.

It's almost 18:00, and the head guard signals the others in the room, and presumably, someone behind the walls who I can't see. Like clockwork, it happens. "Grant, it's time to lie down." I'm told over some invisible loud speaker. It's really quite courteous, the way they ensure I don't fall and hit my head every time.

I curl up on my bunk and, hearing the initial hiss of the ventilators. I was taught that you can hold your breath longer when you have full tidal volume, but vapourized toxins still enter your blood stream by diffusion, so I exhale. I focus on slowing my metabolism to sustain myself better.

I hear a loud popping sound, and a side of the cage pops open. The head guard efficiently strolls in carrying my dinner tray. He sets it quietly on the wash basin that doubles as a table. He's close, but not close enough.

It's in my luck that they sent me out just last night, because he opens a jar of salve, and rolls up my shirt. Just as his fingers brush the wound, I fear I can't hold on any longer – my body is starving for oxygen.

I roll over, catching him by surprise, and reach first for his mask. His eyes open wide as I pull it from his face. In his shock, he gasps, and immediately falls to the floor.

I rip off the mask, pushing it tight to my face, and breathe in gratefully. My head swims for a minute, and I'm scarcely aware the other guards are firing their laz-rifles at me.

I climb up on the basin, and leap against the cage as high as I possibly can. I can feel the suit threaten to take over, the sound and heat of passing laz-bolts triggering the danger-centres of my brain. With all my mental control, I force a more serene state of mind, as I scrabble up the grating as fast as I can.

I climb on top of the cement wall. I had determined the ceiling was made of standard tiles, and had assumed the cage itself did not actually reach all the way up for just such an emergency as this one. I was right. The ceiling is ten feet above me. It's likely that the tiles are not heavy, and that with the right force it would be possible to move one, but if I missed, the fall would likely kill me.

I jump – ahead and to the side, where the nearest junction is. The tile lifts up, and I grab the support beam with my finger-tips. I start to pull myself up – then the ceiling drops.

The supports are thin, way too thin to support my weight. And the guards are still shooting at me. I climb up anyhow, heading to the nearest wall along bent and broken rods only an inch wide. I slip twice, falling and catching myself once with my hand, and once with my knees. It doesn't matter now, whether I fall or they catch me, I'll be dead.

-

"Yeah, alright, I hear you're complainin' 'bout the engine. I told you this would happen. Give me a minute – and hand me that torch."

Kieran's about as wound up as Gal. It's understandable with what happened today. My guess is there's a little more between Sarrin and Kieran than the Captain would allow, at least on Kieran's part. He's like that: a pretty girl, a strong face – she's even pretty good with an engine – and suddenly he's a romantic martyr until she's gone. There was a time I thought the two of us might not be so bad for each other, despite my being a good couple years his senior – but I expect I'll end up old and alone on this ship with Gal. The sudden revelation isn't so alarming as it should be.

"Just get the old girl flying again." Gal yells back.

"We're on bloody Junk, an' we don't have a useable coil injector, and there ain't nothin' we can do about it." Kieran yells back, "What do you think we ought to do, or maybe oughtta have done way back when I mentioned it for the umpteenth time."

"We're not going outside – I'll get you a new injector, but we are not going back out there." Gal shouts, pointing ambivalently.

"Alright, alright. I didn' really want to go out there myself." Kieran says, fiddling with a few dials and crankshafts. Then he flicks on the torch, an inch long, thin blue beam appears. "Flick that switch." He tells me, motioning with his hand while watching the engine. He crawls up on top. "Ready? The blue one." He addresses me again.

I press it down, and he brings the laz-torch in range of the coils. The whole thing jumps to life, moving parts and all, and Kieran jumps out of the way.

"There." He says triumphantly, "She oughta fly now."

"Thanks, Kieran." Gal smiles, clapping him on the shoulder. He sprints back to check our other systems quickly, and I rush to the Bridge.

"Remember what we discussed." Kieran shouts after us.

-

The wall here is about as precarious as the ceiling rods. I don't know the layout very well, but I want to get as close to the hangar as I can. Fortunately, there's enough space in the ceiling to run around, but the drywall on the walls is not particularly sturdy.

I pull up a panel just a crack, peeking through it. The room below jogs a memory: I'm bound in rope and thick cables, drowsy, hanging off a long pole, face to the floor like some sacrificial sued. Two men carry me off a ship, and down a long passageway. A doctor examines me on that table; Dr. Guitteriez. He says something, and they pick me up again before I pass out.

The drywall crumbles under my foot, forcing me back to present time. One of the guards below looks up, and shouts to his comrade. The both start firing as I drop the panel and sprint to my right.

I drop down the hole between two walls. Landing hard on the floor, I push head-first through the soft mortar. The guards are still intent on the crack in the wall some four metres away, but turn quickly at the new shattering of drywall.

I dive towards them, a smooth continuation of my breaching the wall. The one falls against my weight, hitting the back of his head as I land on top of him. I pick up his head and pummel it into the floor once more just to be certain. Then I take his laz-gun and, calmly-as-could-be, shoot the other.

I make my quick escape through the door, down the corridor, and into the hangar.

-

"Captain, what about Grant?" Hoepe asks expectantly, stepping quickly behind me on my way to the Bridge.

"We're leaving him, Hoepe." I grunt. "There's no point in risking any more."

"What?" Hoepe stops, reaching out and spinning me around with a hand on my shoulder.

"Because," I try to make this as clear as possible, "he almost got us killed – in fact, he almost killed us."

Hoepe sighs, and starts to shrug his shoulders, looking almost bashful. "I … It's just that … Well, …."

I expected he wouldn't have an answer for that.

"It's just –" he stammers as I walk away, "—just that it's not him, he's not like that. I think something's wrong, Gal. He needs our help."

"We took a big chance just coming to Junk." I tell him, not turning back, "You should be grateful."

He stops chasing me, and I jump up the ladder onto the Bridge.

"Rayne." I call out to her, "Up-date?"

"I'm just running through the final pre-flight checks now, Captain. Internal scans show no significant damage to the ship caused by our encounter." She's sitting at the helm, flipping a series of switches. "Engaging the launch boosters now."

I feel a rumble underneath the ship, and we're in the air.

-

I skirt into the facility's shuttle hangar, tiptoeing around the bulkheads with laz-gun poised. The guards are attentive – a shuttle's just come in and looks like it's being inspected and serviced. Using the element of surprise and the fact that I'm a fair bit more accurate at a distance than they will be, I jump out and launch four quickly interspersed shots.

The first three shots land on three of the five guards, on shoulder, shoulder, and torso respectively. They're not dead, but the pain from those wounds is incapacitating – I know. The fourth shot lands on the arm of another guard who's just pulled his own laz-gun from his holster. The automated reflexes in his arm let him shoot the fifth, and I sprint over their flailing bodies into the shuttle.

I bolt the door and withdraw the gang-plank as soon as I enter. My hands float over the controls easily – thanks to the extensive equipment training given to me by the government. I laugh a little that it's only because of them that I've been able to escape at all.

The roof slides back into the upper layers of the ground, and the hangar doors are open. The entire facility is built underground, being only slightly less secretive than my very existence.

The shuttle warms up only as I begin to hear the start of a weapons barrage on the door paneling. I'm not really concerned about it – considering the hull is made of triple-enforced duranium made to withstand atmospheric re-entry – but suddenly the clunks are interrupted by a new noise, and I spin around to see that there's a smoldering hole in the equipment locker just opposite the door – they've breached the hull.

I push the shuttle's thrusters straight up in the air at full power, and zoom off to the last known location of that Hellier.

-

"Sir!" Rayne shouts nervously across the Bridge, "I'm picking up multiple small vessels coming to our position, and fast."

I leap out of my quiet chair. "What?" I bark, waiting to see the readings for myself, "UECs?"

"Yes, sir." She confirms.

"Kieran?" I shout into the intercom.

"Here." He answers back almost immediately.

"We've got a UEC contingent on our tail, I need shields."

"Yes, sir."

A heavy shot shakes the ship.

"I've got an incoming transmission." Rayne tells me, clinging to her seat as the ship quakes underneath her.

The Poet enters the Bridge at the same time, Hoepe behind him.

"Ignore it." I bark, holding my own chair.

"It's a non-government frequency." The Poet informs me calmly as he braces himself against the communications station.

He opens it against my orders. Out of the corner of my eye, I see it's a young man, about Kieran's age, but with a few more scars. There's blood dripping out of his temple, and he's being shaken around badly. It looks like he's in one of those shuttle's that's just outside our windows.

"… request permission to dock. Repeat: I am a prisoner…." the rest of his incoming call is garbled, like the picture on the screen, meaning his shuttle must have taken quite a beating.

"It's Grant! It's Grant!" Hoepe yells gleefully, then he turns to me more seriously, "It's Grant!"

Grant – the guy who almost got us killed and is now doing it again Grant?

"We have to bring him in."

I stare at Hoepe – having not yet taken in the entire situation, I cannot yet make a decision.

"Open the cargo doors!" he shouts at me.

He barely waits for a reply. He scowls at me, and reaches down to my own control panel built into the armrest of my chair, tapping the intercom. "Kieran, open the bay doors."

"Yes, sir." Comes the Engineer's harried reply, even after Hoepe has already sprinted back down the main corridor.

I've decided not to stop him.

I go to relieve the Poet from flying the ship. Rayne has moved to the tactical station, and is firing volleys at the UEC ships. "Damn UECs!" she shouts – she's angry now, "Why – can't – they just – leave us alone!" She grunts horribly, and releases a spread of missiles that destroy their lead ship.

Woohoo. We're in this for good now, and I weave my little Thor around them like an obstacle course.

"Cap'n." Kieran shouts over the intercom a short while later, "We've got the shuttle on board – I'm shutting Cargo Bay doors now."

We've dog-fought our way around half the planet now, taking out three, half, of the UEC ships, and all that's left is a speedy escape out of atmosphere and across the galaxy. I gulp, I wish I had a better plan.

A shot clips one of our wing segments, and I'm thrown violently forward as the ship spirals down wildly. I fight to pull the ship out of its dizzying spin just before we hit the ground.

"That was one of our starboard hypercoils, Cap'n." Kieran buzzes me on the intercom, "I don't know how we're going to boost out of here without it."

I bash the 'com button irregularly in my struggles. "Can you fix it?"

"I don't know, but I'm gonna try."

So, we'll just have to fight our way out.

"Keep firing, Rayne."

She grunts in response.

Hoepe reappears on the Bridge, followed by the young man who must be Grant. He's at least a foot shorter than Hoepe, with only the slightest hint of dark hair buzzed down to the scalp.

"Thank you, Capt – ."

We're interrupted by a loud implosion directly ahead of us and clearly visible in the viewscreen. A single laz-cannon beam retracts. Rayne gasps in mortified shock – with good reason, no laz-cannon I know has ever made a ship blow like that.

"I see you've got the latest specs installed." Grant says to Hoepe, already moving for the tactical panel.

Hoepe shrugs, still staring out the window. "Sarrin must have."

"I always thought it was possible – it would be her that would figure out how." Grant continues talking casually as he accesses our controls fervently.

I half-think of stopping him, but realize I'm beyond the point of caring right now – that will have to wait for later, there's still two ships intent on destroying us.

"They're using automated targeting." Grant tells us, then turns to Rayne, "Is it possible to send out an EM burst of a particular frequency? We should be able to jam their sensors."

She nods quietly, and taps out some commands for him. I can't see anything physical, but I do note there's a significant decrease in the frequency with which we're being hit.

"Bring us back around." Grant orders me.

"Why don't we just get out of here." I order him.

"Because," he snarls, "you're Captain Gal Idim, with Halud and Sarrin deGazo. They are looking for you – they may even be aware of Hoepe, I don't know – and you have me with you now. They won't ever stop following you. We'll destroy the ships."

I turn the ship around.

Silently, and in a single pass, he destroys both vessels to a point beyond recognition.

"Alright," I say, "Now, let's get out of here." I jam the thrusters right up, shooting us vertically towards the outer atmosphere.

"Captain, you can't go that way." He corrects me again, "Take the Southern pole – the magnetic field there interferes with their defense system. They won't know you've gone."

I eye him skeptically, but nod in agreement to Rayne as she moves to relieve me. We have another crewman, just as wanted by the government as the rest of us, and so I've just added another level to my multi-dimensional stress headache. Out the south-pole we go.