Why


Captain Aral had herded them back into the suite, leaving them to cluster in a huddle in the middle of the room, watched over by the inamorata. Until the Hound captain tried to barricade the main door with the sofa and table, and winced from the wound in his shoulder.

"Gah-!" he hissed, then looked up, straight at Lelie. "I need to know I can count on you," he said, and she started a little; Stoll had said the same thing, once. He pointed to her hands. "If I let you out of those bracelets, you swear to me you won't run?"

Lelie didn't even have to think for her answer: "No."

Something hard – and big – thudded against the main door, from the corridor, and the poly-alloy metal rattled.

Lelie stared at it, but only for a second, before the captain barked at her:

"Look at me!"

She did, feeling not at all confident about that shaky look in his eyes.

"We can negotiate over your charges once we're out of this," he told her. "But, right now, we're both in the shit. So are you going to help us help you stay alive? Or would you really rather I throw you to the wolf right fucking now?"

"We'll help," Stoll said, stepping forward with his hands thrust out, showing off his locked wrists.

The captain didn't wait. Glancing to one of the younger men beside him, he jerked his head toward Stoll. "Unlock them."

The trooper's eyes wavered. "Sir-?"

"Just do it!" the captain snarled, as the door shook again, and Lelie heard a rumbling voice call out:

"You're only making this harder on yourself, Aral!"

The second trooper – the slightly older one, who'd spoken in such awe of Imien only a few minutes ago – stepped over to them and started unlocking their manacles with some kind of humming, computerized key as he muttered, "How'd he get out of that lift?"

"Probably ate his way out," the captain answered in an equally disparaging mutter. "Now, help me with this. The security locks won't hold him back for long."

"Why is he after us?" Stoll asked, as he moved to the sofa and lifted one side of it. He gave it a forceful heave, tossing it toward the door.

"Not all of us," Lelie corrected him, at the same moment as the tall trooper finished with Imien's wrist-locks, leaving her to rub lightly at her arms. She couldn't stop looking at her – her pale skin, her white hair, her blank eyes (what did he see, what could he see, in them?) – and couldn't help the ugly twitching of her nose.

"They're not after all of us," Lelie said again. "Only Imien. She's the only one they want." She flashed a look toward the captain. "That's what you said."

Unlike Imien, the trooper captain could see the flashing in Lelie's eyes; she could tell, could feel, that he understood.

"Look, kid," the captain murmured, his stare steady and cool, much more than it had been a moment ago. He drew a quick breath. "Lelie, right?" he said, and the timbre of his voice rose, to one almost conversational. Persuasive.

"We're in this together, now," he went on. "What's outside that door is worse than anything my team could dream up for you. So, don't go getting any crazy ideas about-"

But Lelie shook her head as she stumbled back from him. "No. No, we can end this, right now. If we give them what they want, then-!" She stopped, pulled a gasp that was mostly hitch, and spit out the words: "Then, the rest of us can go free!"

The captain drew back a little, but it was Stoll who stepped toward her, now, his arms open.

How long had she wanted him to open his arms for her? But it was still just for Imien...!

"Lel," Stoll muttered, and, as she looked into his face, Lelie saw that he understood, too. "Listen to what you're saying. You can't be serious-"

"We did this to be free!" Lelie cried to him, clenching her hands into fists at her sides. She blinked, her vision clearing as she spilled sudden tears. "This is the only way we're going to be free. Can't you see that?"

Stoll's handsome face contorted, as though repulsed. As though he'd swallowed something black and rotten.

Like the blackened rottenness Lelie felt bubbling in her belly. Despite that, she still said, "Just give her to them. Give her to them, and they'll let the rest of us go."

But Stoll straightened up, tightening the muscles in his face to a firm scowl. "No. We're not trading any of us for anything. We started this together-"

"What is so special about her?"

"She's one of us-"

"She's not one of us!" Lelie told him, and swung her arm toward Imien. "Look at her! She's different, a freak-"

"Why would you say that-"

"Why do you love her?" Lelie cried, at last, and even the insistent pounding from the corridor seemed to stop, as she sputtered and stared up at Stoll.

For a long second, he just stared back at her, the formerly harsh and authoritarian lines in his face softening and smoothing, until there was just that beautiful freshness that had – once, what felt so long ago – made her creep into his tiny cubicle of a room at the Institute and beg him to come with her, to a life they could make together.

"I don't know," he finally murmured. "I just do."

Her sinuses felt raw, but Lelie drew a long and aching breath anyway, only to wheeze, "Is she the only reason you came?"

He didn't quite answer: "They were going to lock her in a lab. And they were going to send me some place far away. Some place I couldn't look after her. I couldn't be with her." His head shook. "I couldn't let that happen."

Lelie squeezed at the clasps on her borrowed jumpsuit, the ones between her breasts, where she'd felt for so brief a moment the beat of his heart. "Why her?" she asked, the fabric grating in her fist. "Why not me?"

Stoll's frown returned, but not the same as before. This time, he looked...sad, even as he spoke, in a gentle and tender voice she'd often dreamed of hearing come from his lips around her name: "Lel."

"You'll take me," Lelie said, the words burbling between her teeth. "But you won't love me. Why?"

He sighed a little, his shoulders drooping. "I don't know that, either," he said, and, as he did, she felt all of the dammed envy she felt for Imien and all the loathing she felt for herself burst out from her, with a loud, spitting sob.

"Lel," Stoll said again, and, now, she felt his hands on her arms, just as they'd once been. And even though she rapped her fists flat against his chest, his touch was still warm, still kind, as he whispered her name once more:

"Lelie. We can't give up, now. And we can't go back, not any more. We can't ever go back."

She dropped her head to his chest, her reedy breaths gasping.

He still held her.

"They'll take her apart," Stoll said. "And they'll kill the rest of us. You, me. Even Tych. And what did he ever do to anybody? All he wanted was to be able to fly. He'd still be back at the Institute, if it weren't for you and me. Because we just needed a pilot." And he pushed her away, to look into her face with his own red-rimmed eyes. "Remember? When we came up with the plan? We said, we just needed a pilot."

Her throat closed at the memory of those words, and she couldn't even force down the thick, wet sniffling in her nose without coughing up a bilious glob of what she could only define as shame. Then, despite the pain and anger, she threw her arms around his chest and pressed her face against his breast, unable to do anything more than weep.

"Speaking of pilots," the trooper captain muttered a second later. "Sounds like ours is almost here."

Lelie felt Stoll push her away again, gently. Before he could caution or scold her, though, she blurted:

"I did it for us. You know that, don't you?"

Whether he did or not, he gave a quick nod of his head. "I know," he said in a hushed voice. "I did it for us, too."

"This is all real nice, kids," the captain interrupted, as he shouldered his way nearly between them. "But we've got a ship to catch." He jerked his head toward the open doorway close to them, and the balcony beyond.

Lelie nodded, too, stepping back from Stoll.

And, just as she did, there was a grating, screeching whine from the main door, and Lelie couldn't decide whether to cry again or scream, as she saw one edge of the metal crumple behind the biggest robotic hand she'd ever seen.