When your senses are pushing the physical world into your brain, it's those first seconds of consciousness that are the worst. To say that I was not a morning person was putting it mildly. The cheery bouncy happy demeanour that other people seemed capable of mustering so early in the day was a categorical lie, as far as I was concerned. Certainly since becoming a teenager, I had garnered a substantial amount of hatred towards anyone that tried to wake me before the sun was well up in the sky.
That was about to change.
His fingers on my face were the first thing, then legs shifting on mine, entangling us a bit tighter. I opened my eyes and he was there, a couple of inches away. Stroking my cheek, his hand moved with meticulous care, savouring and treasuring each touch as the most cherished prize. He gave a winsome smile when he saw I had awoken and slid his head a fraction closer on the pillow. A little sunlight was stealing through the window and as he moved, dusky flaxen hair became a nimbus of glowing spun gold; his eyes bolstering the lustre with shimmering avidity; a clear lucid sentiment.
My thoughts short-circuited and nothing else coherent came. I- ... oh, wow. He's beautiful. It was the punch of emotion, the perfection of the moment, the unrivalled depth of feeling that I had never seen another human show, and it was all for me. It was intoxicating and scary and humbling, and the strength of everything it stirred in me actually felt so intense, so tightly furled that it physically hurt, like my chest was almost cramping every time I breathed. As with the moth drawn to the flame, would getting too close to something so bright mean being burned?
Beautiful seems hollow. He looks like an angel.
It was enough to just bask in the warmth of his aura, a halo of passion, for those opening seconds as I tried to frame my mess of physical attraction, feelings and just-awake confusion into a meaningful response. Yet, before I could kick my brain into gear and say anything, his hand slid to behind my ear and next thing his lips were on mine and the world did that thing where it just fell out of existence. Just us, the gentle pressure on the back of my neck and the blissful satin smooth heat of his mouth. Time became immeasurable. Maybe a minute later, maybe an hour, we resurfaced and as he pulled away, there was the biggest smile I'd seen on his face so far and a satisfied 'I was waiting all night for the chance to do that, and it was totally worth it' look.
"Good morning to you too," I croaked. I don't care how early it is, how bad his morning breath might be or how cranky I am from being disturbed ... if I get that treatment every day? What a way to wake up. Flustered, I tried to wipe off the dopey grin that kept threatening to embed itself permanently. He beamed at me, giving another look that said 'you can relax, I've had my fill -- for now.' Yeah and how long will that last you?
"We've got a long way to travel today," I told him, "and I hope I'm not too distracted by you that I can't think straight." Can't think straight because of Mira? Hugely ironic pun right there. "Well anyway, it's probably a good thing I'm awake. I need to be in the right frame of mind for this trip. It could be dangerous."
I pressed on, my mind shifting to today's agenda. Had to constantly fight the urge to break out into smiles as Mira's fingers continued to softly rub the back of my neck while he listened. "We're going to a place called Lorentz. It's to the northeast quite a long way, but Konstantin told me it has a hospital or something like that, with medical computers and stuff in it." Just like GSPI except probably more dangerous. "He said if we can get it working, it might be able to tell him what makes me immune." Or at least give some good clues about how I'm able to resist the virus.
"I'm a bit scared," I admitted, and his head tilted in a sympathetic nod, his hand at last retreating from my neck to the warmth of the covers. "But not really that much. You and Konstantin will be there." The hand came to rest on my hip and began to trace gentle circles. "I feel safe knowing that, uh, that you- ... " A pause, the widening circles deviating my attention. That feels nice. "Uh, that you -- I mean, both of you -- will, um, be around to-" Really ... nice. I stopped talking completely, my breath hastening as I could only pay attention to the fingertips sliding very tentatively away from the ridge of hip bone and across the top of my butt.
Touch feels good. I had re-entered the territory of linguistically challenged thought processes. Knowing I was semi-coherent, he seized the moment, leaning forward to steal a light kiss. The diversion was an overwhelming success, and when I didn't fight it, he extended the kiss, deepening it. The hand shifted down, cupping my behind for a second, and gave a gentle squeeze. Hand ... squeezing ... good too. I whimpered into his mouth, utterly lacking any kind of self control and will to resist.
Seconds or maybe a full day later, I'm not sure, and my fourth kiss with Mira finished. I'm up to four? I'm counting? I am counting! Mentally chiding myself not to be such a loser, I balanced those thoughts with the fact that each one was clearly pretty fucking memorable. My heart was drumming in my chest -- again -- as we separated. This time it was a little wet, the feeling a soft slurp of decompression that should have grossed me out. It didn't. It was all exciting. Not just exciting, but, um, arousing. Inhaling deeply, I willed my body to calm itself. Kissing is one thing, but being so turned on is intimidating. Sex ... with a boy? Isn't that a bit fast, a bit much too soon? Do I really even want it? It was a stupid question, and I already knew the answer. I don't want it- ... well, not with 'a boy' or 'any' boy, but only this boy. My boy. The possessive still gave me those delightful jitters inside. One day. Just not yet.
"Stop that!" I scolded him. He shot me an unrepentant playful look that said 'you've let me get away with it twice and you've only been awake a couple minutes, chances are looking good for round three.' Oh really? "How do you do that to me? I can't think about anything else. I can't talk either. I- ... I need to concentrate and I- ... well, we ... need to get up."
Head cocked to one side, he discretely leaned forward again, a fresh prelude. Oh no you don't. Not being fooled again. I leaned forward too, pretending to meet him and at the last second, twisted, kissing him on the tip of his nose. From him, an exhale of mystified surprise, but I was already pushing the sheet back and climbing over to get off the bed. The gambit was halfway to freedom when he tried to stop it, and I fell into his old nest of blankets on the floor, dragging Mira along.
Haha! Smirking as he thumped to the floor behind me, I began to crawl on my hands and knees but he tackled me around the waist and held on for dear life. Giggling, the blankets scrunched as I struggled for purchase and he tightened his grip. I squirmed around, trying to lose him, then I rolled onto my back, bringing him with me, trying to pin him underneath. Easily as could be, the manoeuvre was reversed and he deftly slid around and kinda flipped me at the same time, ending up on top. I was back where I started. We were both red-faced and panting from exertion -- me more than him -- and I realised then I wasn't the only one snickering. He's laughing? Wow, he hardly even talks, let alone anything else. Another first. Konstantin was right again. Mira really is discovering the world through me, through his 'bond' with me.
"Mira," I huffed, "we really do need to get up, okay?"
Admitting defeat, he collapsed from hovering victoriously above to the floor beside me. One arm fell protectively across my chest and he nuzzled into my neck. As soft and quietly lyrical as any could expect, his voice came from nowhere, a sucker punch to my expectations of the most awesome and thrilling kind.
"Okay." His simple reply was a soft blast of whispered air right by my ear, his hair brushing my neck and face as his head moved carefully in nodding agreement.
It was at that exact moment that I decided I quite liked mornings after all.
The distance to Lorentz was substantially further than to the GSPI. Even with an early start and Lily's sensible homily on staying together and trusting one another etched firmly into us, we were riding for somewhere between two and three hours. One stop for a bathroom break and twice sharpelings were sighted, but both times Konstantin simply accelerated away, powering the bike to a speed that they could not come close to matching.
The road to the GSPI had gone nearly directly north from the Andropov Villa, the institute building located in the northernmost reaches of the Palatus provincial area. While I had a very basic idea of the topography of Palatus, having travelled through it from the east and Aspira after I arrived on the planet, the neighbouring regions were enigmatic. The only other provincial capitals I remembered on this side of the continent were Lorentz and Mersenne and I knew nothing about them beyond their names and rough locations. Konstantin had told me that his father had been to Lorentz once when he was younger, though he also did not claim to know anything more about the town.
It was a countryside similar to near Volkov, forest and grassland spliced together in a continuous tableau of greens and browns. Flatter though and less dense; occasionally we would catch sight of plots of old farmland, though precious little remained of the trappings of agriculture now. The journey gave me time to think, although it also gave me ample opportunity to enjoy having my arms wrapped around Mira's stomach. Something I no longer felt any denial or qualms about and there were clearly none for him either as his back was pressed against me as firmly as my arms and chest were hugging him.
It's all still a bit surreal. Yesterday morning it was a few weeks or months since I'd gone to sleep. Today it's 200 years. Trees flashed by, the wind was clean and cool, the landscape so pristine. It's almost like humans were never here to begin with. In a lot of places, it seems the signs of habitation are just gone. Of course, this amount of time passed would mean nature reclaiming a lot of things, the environment destroying whatever wasn't made to suffer years of exposure to the elements. Buildings in particular, machinery and electronics in general were built to last on Lucere, a product of high standards and a technologically advanced industrial base.
But ... that just means the countryside is near fully back to nature again and is somewhat safe, while the towns and cities are scrapyards of salvage and whatever bits and pieces of technology have persisted. Not to mention they'll be full of sharpelings. I remembered my father talking about how competitive Lucere's economy was before all this, so there had to be a lot left to find, even now. He was always complaining about how they were doing so well despite Earth's large advantage in population and dominance as 'the home planet.' Then, of course that introduced a new consideration.
What about Earth?
That question was hard to fathom. The news article I read said Earth cut the link to Lucere on, um, 28 March? If I remember the date correctly. The Sharpe virus broke out on 14 February, so it took them about six weeks to come to that point. Six weeks of the virus getting out of control, the government trying and failing to contain it. What had that article said again? It was something like 'after a fortnight of increased silence.' So then, one month into this thing, the federal government on Earth starts dropping lines of communication until at six weeks -- that's it. Close the door and set the people of this world adrift, to fend for themselves.
What exactly did that tell me? I don't know much about politics, but that seems really fast. In that amount of time, they decided it was better to break all contact with the most successful, wealthiest, most populous human colony than try to save it. Meaning ... what? They saw what was happening, and it scared the hell out of them. To me, it still didn't quite add up. The government was still around when that article was written. Aspira City was still standing and the military had probably turned it into a fortress. Sure, there are difficulties transporting stuff through space even just the relatively short distance between planets, but compared to here, Earth had massive amounts of supplies and people to help with, and wasn't Lucere worth saving? Why didn't they try?
The answer wasn't clear.
There is one thing that's pretty clear though. Two centuries later and the gate is still closed. There had not been any sign that showed otherwise, and Konstantin had never once suggested that there could be contact or that he expected any from Earth. Like Palatus, the hope of getting home was destroyed. They haven't come back. Which means one of two things. They're so ridiculously scared of the Sharpe virus that no one will dare to reconnect with Lucere. The prospect of perpetual abandonment was bad, but the alternative possibility was many times worse.
Maybe the Sharpe virus reached Earth.
The idea on its own was chilling and I shivered and hugged Mira tighter, leaning into his neckline as the airspeed fanned by. He turned his head more towards me, rubbing his cheek in my hair. I hope that didn't happen.I don't even want to think about the consequences.
Buildings had just begun appearing as we entered the outskirts of Lorentz. A couple of streets went by, the houses as derelict as any we had seen. Then, before the third, we dismounted and stopped just off the corner. Wheeling the bike, Konstantin motioned us forward and we followed until we were standing close enough to look along the street. The far side was houses and following from the corner near to us were also houses, four or five of them, until an open area with a much larger triple storied building.
There was a sign in front of it facing towards the road, rather difficult to read from this angle, but squinting I could just make out the faded text. It read: Lorentz Provincial Health Commission. Yep, sure is the hospital. Around that sign and in the lengthy grass that must once have been a manicured lawn were the reasons Konstantin had killed the engine. The man had a very good sense of when to take the cautious approach, as there were half a dozen of those reasons playing in the grass and a further ten or so milling about on the road and through the properties on the opposing street.
They moved lazily, the larger sharpelings sitting or idly sunning themselves, while the smaller tussled and snapped at one another, shifting restlessly. Almost like a pride of lions. I could see the similarities, right down to the ways in which the youngest sharpelings played; males, lionesses, cubs, although gender wasn't at all apparent. Only much faster moving than lions. Also highly intelligent, virulent, and with a fondness for hunting and eating humans. Not so great for safari.
"It looks like we'll be using the service entrance," the Russian whispered. "Back along the previous street, the hospital should join to the road. Shay, with this many of them out front, I will not use the Tokarev if we run into anything inside. It would be suicide. We need to be very quiet."
Fine with me.
Mira took the lead, his human perception combining with the carried-over sharpeling hunting instinct to make him a very keen scout. He had already reached the rear entrance door as Konstantin was standing the bike in the sheltered lee of the exterior steps. As I was climbing those steps, he leaned casually against the wall, watching me. The same impartial mask of public expression was being worn, but the private side was almost excited to be here. Excited but with a healthy tinge of caution: 'I want to go inside and poke around, but I'm not letting you out of my sight for a second,'That wasn't a problem to me either. I don't intend to leave your sight for a second.
Inside was dusty, just like the GSPI, spider webs festooning any corner available. The rear entrance connected through to an intersection between two wide corridors. One led off straight ahead, stretching into the middle distance, the other reaching to the left and right. Doors were dotted along the walls, half-visible in the dim grey light that filtered through the windows high on the exterior wall. The floor was like a small minefield, broken remains of gurneys, medical equipment, metal and plastic odds and ends were crunched and scattered about. Okay, now this looks more like what I was imagining this place to be.
"Let's see." Konstantin peered at the wallsigns. "'Administration and Reception'. 'Accident and Emergency'." He scanned over the offerings. "Ah! Here. 'Lab. Research and Advanced Diagnosis.' This way." We went right, picking our way past the rubbish and a number of doors. For some reason, looking into the darkened rooms through the little portals on some of the doors made me feel squeamish. Undoubtedly many people had died in this place during the Sharpe outbreak. It's a hospital after all and hospitals during an epidemic would be very busy places. This in mind, knowing there might be skeletal remnants still lying around -- or not, I wasn't sure what would be left after 200 years -- it felt like disturbing a grave. This place is almost like a cemetery. How many other buildings across Lucere feel this way? A monument to so many people lost.
The double doors into 'Lab. Research & Advanced Diagnosis' were ajar, Mira already fearlessly exploring the nooks and crannies inside. Large, squarish, it was maybe a dozen metres a side. Several computer stations were on one wall and a good amount of the floor space was filled with bulky diagnostic equipment. His head peeked up from behind part of it and Mira glanced around comically, then giving me a bemused look that was quite apparent even in the gloom; 'okay, so now what?' I stifled a giggle but I had to agree.
"I don't think anything in here is going to work without a proper power source," I told Konstantin.
"Mmm," he agreed. He frowned and looked around, casting an eye over the neglected electronics. "Dirty, but that is to be expected. It will work, I think." A heavy pause, and a second evaluation. "Well, I hope it will. You are right, however. It will take a dedicated power source, I do not think ODEI will be enough. I don't know if these machines have them."
One of the more important developments in electronics had come in the middle of the 21st century and was dubbed 'on demand electrical induction' or ODEI. It had been around since long before I was born and was a sort of battery-generator hybrid; a generic power source made by a number of different manufacturers. It was designed for use in any major piece of electronics that was normally hooked directly to a permanent AC/DC power point. The ODEI was fixed inside the device and would take over when the main power was disconnected, capable of filling that role for some time. It would act as a sort of backup generator until things were working again.
The main advantages were that it was reliable, smaller than an actual generator, with greater capacity than a battery of similar size. They had the ability to sustain electronics that needed a higher amount of electrical current to keep operating. The disadvantages were the materials and the rather complex and obscure scientific process involved in constructing them created a lot of expense. That cost wasn't something suitable for anything smaller than a desktop computer, as the ODEI itself was more valuable than smaller electronics, and was still too large to be installed in handheld devices.
It represented the continual miniaturisation of technology meeting the increasing demand for efficient uninterrupted energy. By the time I was a teenager, they were a common thing in commercial and industrial workplaces, and in richer households. It was also what had allowed the computer I'd used at the GSPI to work, even with the Lucere electrical grid being dead for a very long time, and what had prompted the Gillespie Info-Net server to come out of its slumber and resume service.
But not here.
Konstantin is right. As usual. The diagnostic equipment in the room looked a bit too advanced for ODEI to keep it going. I bet it wouldn't keep this stuff working for more than a couple of minutes, not long enough to do what Konstantin wants. "Okay, so what then? I hope we didn't come all this way without a backup plan if there wasn't power."
The Russian snorted in amusement, pulling me back into the corridor and beckoning Mira outside also. "Of course not. Where there is a will, there is a way." He chuckled and gave me a slap on the back. "I do my homework, young Mr Andersen. I happen to know that this building, like many hospitals of its day, has a generator in the basement level. All we need to do is go down there, into the darkness, find where it is, avoid being seen and eaten, and assuming it isn't broken beyond repair, turn it on. Simple, yes?"
Simple? I tried not to let my disbelieving are-you-fucking-kidding me expression get too big. Sarcasm will have to do. "Uh, when you put it like that, yeah ... real easy," I told him sourly.
Konstantin beamed, ignoring the cynicism completely. "Excellent! Let's keep moving then."
He stepped away and Mira cocked his head, giving me a bright hopeful look that most definitely said 'we're going to explore more, aren't we? Can I go first again? I'm going to go first again,' before bounding effortlessly away after the big man.
Great. Am I the only one here who isn't utterly suicidal?
The steps that led to the basement from the ground floor were something from a horror movie. The stairwell was narrow and felt cramped; the stairs were chipped concrete that descended into a rectangle of inky blackness. I wasn't that happy going into the dark under normal circumstances, but walking down a flight of stairs into a pitch black enclosed space that could have anything waiting for me?
Mira pushed on with his typical eagerness, slipping into that blackness with abandon as we trod hesitantly in his wake. The door creaked slightly and swung open, and to my relief it didn't seem completely pitch black. Whether it was light from the stairwell or something else allowing it through from above, I wasn't sure, but shapes were barely visible.The stale odour of grease, oil, rusting metals and bleach wafted across as the air stirred from our movement. Rows of shelving about head height stretched off towards the interior and I could faintly see something that looked vaguely the shape of a generator's housing.
I stepped next to Konstantin as we both let our eyes adjust to the dark. It doesn't seem like there's anything down here. I turned to him and he gave me a reassuring smile. "See?" A soft murmur, no more than that. "Not so dangerous after all, huh?"
A timid smile was the best I could muster and I opened my mouth to reply but there was something, a flicker of movement near the doorway and a shadow played momentarily across the light from upstairs. What ... ? That briefest of moments was all I had to register what I'd just seen.
"Look out!" I blurted and then I was sprawling back onto the floor from the impact as it barrelled into us. Dazed, I sat up. Ah, fuck! Feet away, a sharpeling was on top of Konstantin. His hands gripped the forearms, the claws held back millimetres from his neck. I was struggling to my feet as the jaws opened wide and the head reared, mouth in a hungry fanged yawn, preparing to bite down on his face. No! Then the Russian's leg came up and in the nick of time, he planted his boot firmly into the creature's stomach with a heavy thud, throwing it backwards onto the floor.
My hand closed around the metal pipe, the insurance we'd taken for self-protection. The sharpeling stood, scrambling with impressive agility back upright much faster than Konstantin could. As he was finally coming to his feet, it hissed and darted forward again. I charged to meet it, the pipe coming round in my best imitation of a baseball batter. There was a ting of claw brushing metal as I swung but not enough to impede the blow, and then a chunky clunk of contact, the metal clashing against the skull.
Concussed for a second or two by a blow that would have instantly killed a human, it staggered. Arms outstretched, claws flexing, chest forward, it was still just for that moment. I didn't give it another second, as I brought the pipe back across, smacking it the other direction. The terror was palpable, the sharpeling shaking its head, the second blow not nearly as hard, the stunning effect negligible. Fucking dammit! I lifted the pipe frantically, preparing for a third swing, the sharpeling's jaws snapping full open as it hissed angrily and then ...
The blade of the axe scythed into the plating on the shoulder, right by the neck. It screeched and Konstantin booted it, sending it to the floor again, free from the blade. Following his lead, I brought the pipe down in the same spot, the gouge on the shoulder, my weapon sinking in somewhat to the mushed damaged organic armour.
"Shay, the head!" He bellowed, hefting the axe again. "Do not stop! Do NOT!"
It tried to pull upright, the injured shoulder slowing the normally sinuous quickness. My downward strike forced it back flat, and the foreclaws lashed out. The tips slashed through my pants leg, so close to reaching flesh, then the Russian flexed his large frame. Muscles tensed, the shaft and the blade rose high. With a yell and the combined might of his physical prowess and the whirling arc of gravity, the axe whistled downwards, striking the sharpeling's skull with a splitting crack.
Konstantin jerked the weapon free, the creature's limbs shaking and it twitched on the floor. Holy fuck, it isn't dead! Keep going, he said don't stop! I brought the pipe down again onto the skull, and he was already copying me. We alternated hitting it, and it was two more blows each before it finally stopped moving; the skull a smashed watermelon of bone and brain. I fell to the floor, exhausted and Konstantin slumped next to me. His breathing was ragged and so was mine.
Fuck this place. There's always something trying to kill me no matter where I go.
Then, there was a soft scraping of claws and an equally low hiss. Materialising from the gloom, another larger sharpeling walked out from between the shelving next to us. We both stared up, a new apparition of horror right there. It stood, glaring malevolently down at the two cornered humans in front of it, vulnerable and desperately weak from the last conflict. The arms came wide, viciously lengthy claws poised, and the jaw opened, rows of painfully long and sharp incisors bearing themselves for the imminent attack.
From the top of the shelving there came a very pissed-off growl and a shape launched itself from on high, out of the murky depths. For the shortest time I had no idea what had happened and then I realised Mira was clinging to the creature's back. His arms were around the neck under the jaw, pitching the head backwards as he hung off it. It couldn't see or focus on us like this, blinded by the vertical tilt, but the claws clutched fiercely at the interloper. I knew that, evasive as he was, Mira could not keep this up for long without risking his life.
He didn't have to. As the creature whirled and he clung to it for all he was worth, Konstantin was on his feet as quickly as he could. One hand went to his belt, and mindful of the wayward claws, he chose his moment, stepping in, the hunting knife stabbing upwards into the exposed unprotected skin of the throat. It cleaved cleanly into the flesh, Konstantin burying the knife all the way to the hilt. He twisted it, hooking the flesh firmly onto the blade then ripped it straight back out. The trauma was far more immediate and fatal this time, the sharpeling going rigid, Mira sliding off the back as it toppled onto the floor, dead.
"Well, that could have gone better," he muttered hoarsely, wiping the knife clean and slotting it back into the sheath. "Your concern about dark places maybe has a sixth sense with it, eh?" The attempt at levity almost made me smile, but as soon as I looked at Mira, I couldn't help but draw a fearful breath. He had discarded his shirt for the kamikaze attack on the sharpeling, preferring nothing to slow him down. I had seen him shirtless before only once, right after he had first become human, but what should have been an enjoyable view was marred. There were three deep gashes at the top of his left bicep where the claws had found him, close to the joint of the shoulder. My eyes met his and he looked away, unable to meet my gaze.
Oh my god, he's hurt. I took a shuddering breath and moved to him and then Konstantin was there too, first aid in hand. Mira flinched at the touch on his shoulder, but obediently let him sterilise the wound. While the gauze went on, he finally made eye contact and the look was begging forgiveness. It was asking for leniency with a large amount of resolution; 'I don't want to scare you, but I'd do it all again.' He's not concerned for himself, it's worry about me? My heart melted and the emotion seized me. How can he be so selfless all the time?
I could feel Konstantin look sidelong at me as he stowed the first aid supplies into his backpack. "Comfort him," he told me, zipping the pack closed. "He needs it."
"What?" Confused, reluctant. "I don't want to m-"
"Forget about me." He gave me a pointed look and an admonishment. "Don't be afraid of showing feelings. Comfort the one you love. It's safe for me to start the generator, we've made enough noise. If there were any others down here we would already be dead." Hoisting it over his arm, he turned and strode off.
The one I love? My arms went around his chest and his over my shoulders. There was the slightest sigh of discomfort as the lacerated arm pressed around me, a small but sure indication that he was hurting. He hides that from me, downplays it. He doesn't want me to see it, but I know he's in pain. Physically, he was more developed than I was, which wasn't saying much at all really, but he did have some definition, a supple graceful strength that I lacked. Right then though, he felt fragile to me, his lithe frame so delicate. I squeezed him close and felt him do the same to me. Blinking away the tears, I let go a long wavering exhalation as I kept him pressed to me. Is this what love is like? Being so scared for him, so upset that he's hurt, so relieved he's alive and thankful that I get to touch him again ... it's like a rollercoaster. How do people deal with it without it overwhelming them, without going crazy? I've only known him for days too, a week. What will it be like in months or years?
Hold on -- am I really thinking of us years from now?
I didn't get a chance to contemplate that, as Mira gently pulled away, taking my hand and towing me towards Konstantin. We were almost to him, when the floor gave a solid vibration, then a low bass rumble began, coupled with the revving whirr of fans. The basement lights came on and I blinked from the unexpected contrast. "Brilliant!" Konstantin gave a triumphant chortle. "It was doubtful that the ignition primer would work, but here we are! Power! What else does this place have to throw at us?"
It amazed me how quickly the man would bounce back from the shock of some very unnerving situations to confront each new challenge of survival as if it were another day in his life, no different from the last. Either he was desensitised to the extremity of living on Lucere, or he simply had a mental fortitude, a toughness of spirit that did not dwell on the negativity, finding hope and humour wherever it could. Maybe it's his character, maybe it's his faith in God that allows this. People like that are rare.
"Uh, the power didn't go on everywhere did it? Because we will attract attention if the hospital lights up like a Christmas tree."
"No," he shook his head. "I disabled the switches for everything but the diagnostic block before I started it. We should still be in the clear. The real question is, my friend, are you ready to find out just how unique you are?"
I shrugged. "I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
"Good." He handed Mira his shirt and nodded at me shrewdly. "In that case, let us make some more history. Better history."
It took a few minutes to get the diagnostic equipment wiped clean of grime and for the startup procedure to perform a self-maintenance routine. Konstantin had booted the core diagnostic computer and as soon as it turned on, he had burst into laughter and nearly doubled over. The machine had sternly noted that the last bi-monthly maintenance check was scheduled for 20 March 2104 and that according to the re-synchronised system clock, it was 78,349 days overdue and required urgent attention. It then glibly informed him that this limit exceeded federal statute for 'safe and ethical use of medical apparatus' and could result in 'significant fines and/or imprisonment for culpable parties' before locking the user controls and beginning maintenance anyway.
He was still sniggering five minutes later when he had me lie in the examination bench, which retracted into the 'biometric scanner' as he called it. I lay still as the machine did its work, not at all unused to this. I'd had plenty of experience being attached to machines in hospitals for any number of different reasons since I was quite young. Just another day at the office. Only this office looks a hell of a lot worse than the last one I visited.
"Well, I am now a criminal by Earth's law, and that makes you my accomplice in wrongdoing." Konstantin couldn't keep the laughter out of his voice. "We are enemies of the state, you and I. Fugitives from justice. How does that feel, Shay?"
"Living a life of crime was always my dream," I quipped. "Do you think they'll catch us?"
He let out another surprised snort of mirth. "Hahaha! If they didn't get me for homicide and bootlegging, then a little unethical medicine is safe ground."
"I haven't seen a police officer in about, um, 78,000 days, I guess." Giggling, I watched Mira's face as he peered at me curiously inside the scanner, wondering what the heck was going on. "Jail is unlikely. I'll just stay on the run."
"Hah!" He grunted. "Maybe we're already in the jail! I don't much like the other inmates, they've made a mess of the exercise yard and they keep trying to eat me. What sort of prison allows this? I think I'm going to write an angry letter to the warden."
We were both still snickering when I came out of the scanner and then he sat me down into the chair and wrapped sensor pads around my wrists. I winced as he slid a syringe-like needle into my arm, calling it a 'tracker probe,' a cable snaking away from it into the computers. "Normally I think they use some kind of transmission gel for the sensors, but we will make do without. You'll just need to stay still, sit upright and let it do the job."
"I know. I got to see a lot of doctors and hospitals and stuff. Sometimes it felt like I spent more time there than at home."
The deep brown of his eyes shined with empathy. "I do not doubt it," he said, soft and serious. "A burden for any boy, one you carry with a grace beyond your years."
I shrugged, and he turned his attention back to the screen, not wanting to make me uncomfortable.
"Mhmmm." An absent-minded response.
"It's been such a long time. Why are so many people still alive?" I hesitated. "I'm sorry, I guess that sounds kinda morbid. I mean, I didn't think there would be so many people still here, hanging on, after 200 years of this ... place. The virus is everywhere and everyone has it. Well, except me and Mira. The odds are stacked against anyone being alive still."
He looked at me thoughtfully, his focus away from the screen again. "To you, it probably seems there are many left surviving after two centuries. In a way, that's true, but ... you have to understand." He sighed, a hand coming up to rub his hair. "All the people you see are the lucky ones. That sounds hard to believe, but it is true. Here, lucky means your ancestors somehow survived the outbreak. It means your parents and grandparents lived until they were old enough to have children before the Sharpe virus stopped hibernating and consumed them too. It means they etched a living in a hostile world where many others are still dying, every day. There is not much rhyme or reason to it, and sometimes I do wonder God's intent in these things."
He took a deep breath here and smiled at me. "Yet, I am braced by the knowledge that the disease has slowed, that something about Lucere stopped it from wiping us out, that the last humans here would have died long ago were it not for this mysterious fact. More, by the signs I find when I despair, that point the way to hope." He inclined his head to me and the resplendent sincerity in his face was humbling and touching. He means me. He must do. "We persist because in misery, such hope is the succour of my faith. I believe God's plan is worked through miracles that defy the chaos. Those small acts are the will made manifest."
His belief is simple, and magnificent. I cleared my throat. "I'm not sure if I really believe in anything like that," I declared, "but I do think there has to be a point to this. To all of it. There has to be. I can't accept so much happening as just chance."
"I would not expect you to. Faith is between a man and his conscience." He nodded succinctly. "Hold on to that questioning nature, Shay. The world must be made to stand up to the light of reason."
A loud beep came from the console and he turned back to it. "Oh, the analysis is done. Data export should be the last thing to do, then we can leave."
Right then, Mira stood up, quickly and unexpectedly. Both of us looked at him, uncertain and he stood utterly immobile, his head cocked. Anticipating?How does he do that? More to the point, what is he waiting for? Several seconds passed and nothing. I was about to prompt Mira about his behaviour when the sound came. Quite faint but still audible all the way inside where we were. Also, very distinct. Gunshots. There was no mistaking it. Someone else was here and they were armed.
It was time to leave.
We were on the bike and pulling away from the Lorentz Provincial Health Commission when I heard a shout behind us. Looking over my shoulder as we accelerated away, several men were standing on the steps. They were gesturing frantically, rifles in hand, voices echoing along the street. Couldn't tell any language, just that they wanted us to stop. Konstantin had no such intention. Then one of them went to his knee and brought the gun up to his eye. Oh fuck ... he isn't going to ...
BANG! The zing of the bullet ricocheted off the road in front of us. The bike leaped forward faster. Oh god, they're actually trying to shoot us down! Accelerate, please accelerate! A second shot, grazing the nearby ground. There were dozens of metres between us and them now and the gap was rapidly widening, but I still felt sick. Then a third shot and a noisy thunk as it hit the rear spoiler. The bike swerved wildly and I heard Mira give a cry of pain, the injured shoulder yanked by the unpredictable motion.
His fingers scrambled to maintain a grip, but he was already off balance and then slipping backwards. We fishtailed back and forth as the Russian fought to maintain control, but it was too late. The inertia had loosened Mira from his seat and me also, still clinging to him. Thrown free and suddenly airborne, there was the sensation of rushing wind and a blur of colour. Then for a tiny moment, the pavement, in full definition, before I struck it.
Everything went black.
Mira rolled along the gritty surface. Jarring scraping pain was everywhere and he could feel blood oozing in several places on his body. Ignoring it, a fire burned behind his eyes. Springing to his feet, the thousand ills of the physical torment were forgotten, his own trouble fading into insignificance.
Where was The Other?
There, lying supine in the midst of the flat hard expanse, he was as beautiful as ever. He came to Shay's side, disregarding the sound of running footsteps and shouting that signalled the approach of something else. His hand slid under the jaw to the neck, the precious yield of the skin giving way, his touch searching for the measure of life. The pulse of vitality was present and the knowledge was an instant amelioration.
Now, his fear was allayed. The primary objective was preserved. In place, there arose anger. It grew within him, a flower of twisting unstoppable convergence. The hunting imperative was promised a great boon of action. They would not desecrate his blessing, his rock of perfect salvation.
He crouched low over the unconscious form of his sanctuary. The men approached closer, rifles trained upon him. They would try their work upon him and he would best them. The conservator urge of the hunter fell back and the slayer aptitude came forward. His body ached and longed for them to come closer.
Oh yes. Let them come.
In fairness, his morning breath isn't that bad. I actually imagine Mira to be quite fastidious about hygiene.
Oh damn. Who *are* those guys and why do they have itchy trigger fingers
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