Monday, June 23, 2014
February 18, Part 2
Oses was pacing back and forth in the cage when we arrived, my abandoned fur shift clutched in his fist. Finiuld gave me the same old Death-to-the-Nobek warning he loved so much before bringing me inside. Then he let go of me. Oses, who was facing me from across the enclosure, nearly jumped out of his skin at my abrupt appearance. He raced over.
“Shalia! Are you all right? I woke up and you weren’t here and I was sure the worst—”
He stopped yapping. His arms went around me, holding me close. He glared around the habitat, as if looking fierce meant a damned thing to Finiuld.
“I’m okay,” I told him. “Just fucking exhausted. I need some water, Oses.”
“Of course, my poor Matara.” He picked me up and carried me the short distance to our cave where he set me down. “Don’t move. The service left water and food a couple of hours ago.”
Oses collected the meal that had come for me in my absence and brought it over. It was only then that I realized I was actually hungry as well as thirsty. I’d been too disheartened to notice. My sweetheart fed me and took care of everything without asking what had happened. The only thing he did ask was, “Were you injured? Someone has been spanking you to judge from the redness of your ass.”
I shook my head and kept eating. Between mouthfuls I managed, “I’m okay. I’ll tell you everything in a moment.”
The food and water revived my flagging energy a bit, enough that when I was finished I shared the harrowing ordeal with Oses. I waited to the very end of my story to tell him the bit I’d heard about the pulsar screwing up another ship’s power, its connection to our collar controls, and the phase mechanism. I was hoping that Finiuld had left by then and wouldn’t overhear.
Oses mused about the information for a few minutes. While he thought, I curled up in his lap, snuggling against his chest for comfort. I was so glad to be with him again, even if my poor Nobek couldn’t really keep me safe. Just having him there gave me strength.
His voice rumbled through his chest against my ear when he did speak. “So the collars and phase device are powered by something on the ship. Somewhere on here is a mechanism or computer that’s running them.”
“That’s good information, huh?” I asked, hoping I’d helped our situation somehow.
“Any intelligence is worth having. It’s not like the usual collar systems, like the Bi’is have. That would explain why Finiuld didn’t collar you on the space station.”
I leaned back to look Oses in the face. “How is it different?”
“Bi’isils use a system in which the collar controller is on their person. It has to be recharged from time to time, but it’s completely portable. I thought perhaps Finiuld’s controller might be similar, but it would seem not.”
I considered. “It would be easier if he did carry it around. We could have hoped to get it from him.”
“It’s more defensible to not get collared in the first place, but once he gets these things around our necks, they’re a damned sight harder to break free of. Just touching him makes us senseless from pain. I must make myself get past that somehow if I’m ever to overpower him.” Oses fell silent again. His brow furrowed as he thought more about our situation.
I sighed. “We can’t grab the phase thingy off him either. Not that it matters. Even if we could, with a single command he’s got us writhing on the floor, screaming our heads off.”
Oses looked at me. I felt something inside me go cold as all emotion drained from his eyes.
He told me, “As hard as I try to figure this out, I can’t seem to find a way to save you from the situation. I can’t protect you against this monster. I’m of no use to you, Shalia.”
Terror filled me. I thought perhaps Oses was thinking of killing himself. The dead quality of his voice told me he was giving up.
I clutched at him. “I need you, Oses. Just having you here to hold me is restoring my sanity after that awful party. If anything happens to you, I won’t survive it.”
I’m not sure he heard me. His gaze went distant as he said, “This feeling of helplessness ... I can’t bear it. One failure, one loss was enough. I can’t do this again.”
I stared at him. “When have you ever failed?”
Oses blinked and seemed surprised I was there. He’d gone away for a few moments, somewhere awful. I didn’t really want to know where that place was. If it left my big, bad Nobek in despair, it had to be the worst imaginable situation ever.
There was such pain in his eyes. Nobeks might not be much for venting grief, but there is no doubt they feel it. I might not have wanted to know what it was that made Oses feel so beyond hope, but I needed to know. Not just for myself, though I admit to that selfish impulse. My Nobek needed me for his survival as much as I needed him for mine. He didn’t have to say it for me to figure it out. Sometimes I’m not so dense.
“Tell me,” I insisted. “What did you do that makes you feel you’ve failed somehow?”
He took a long time to answer. I thought he might not. Finally, however, he relented.
“It’s what I didn’t do,” Oses said. “I let my brother die. I stood there and watched him drown and did nothing to stop it.”
The story is as sad as one can be. Oses had an older brother, one who’d been classified as an Imdiko. He’d been much gentler boy than Oses, but that didn’t keep him from acting like an older brother might: occasionally bossy, teasing, and playing tricks. Oses alternated between idolizing and despising this sibling named Roweld, depending on what stage the rivalry was at.
“It was during one summer when it happened. I was all of eight years old, and Roweld was ten. I lived at the training camp as most Nobek boys do, and I’d come home for a scheduled visit with my family. Our parent clan surprised us with a trip to the beach. We’d been to the local lake for water sports before, but having never visited the coastal shoreline, we were ecstatic.”
They’d spent the next two weeks as boys would, building sand fortresses, playing games, learning to body surf. Brotherly rivalry often meant competition between the pair.
“Roweld was older, bigger, and therefore usually better at most things,” Oses said, his eyes getting that faraway look once more. “However, I was going through rigorous physical training in camp, so I was pretty sure I’d finally be able to beat him in a few of our games. I challenged him to see who could swim the farthest.”
There had been a sandbar a short distance from the shore. The idea was to see who could swim back and forth the most laps before giving up. Roweld had taken the challenge up, delighted to put his upstart brother in his place.
“He’d always been the faster swimmer,” Oses remembered. “I was certain he could still beat me over a short distance, but I felt I could outlast him. Speed was his strength, but endurance was mine.”
The boys commenced the challenge. Their parents had been nearby, sitting and talking with another clan taking in the sun-soaked beach that day.
“I have no doubt they checked on us from time to time,” Oses said. “But it takes only a minute of distraction for tragedy to come.”
As Oses had thought, Roweld pulled ahead fairly quickly. The young Nobek didn’t let that bother him. He kept swimming, plowing through the water to reach the sandbar, turning back to shore, and doing it again. The current was strong, fighting him. Around the third lap, he caught up to Roweld. By the fifth, he was well ahead of his older brother.
“I reached the shore and looked to see where he was. I could see Roweld out near the sandbar. I noticed he wasn’t really swimming anymore, just kind of bobbing up and going under the water, over and over. He would show up farther and farther to my right each time. I thought he was trying to trick me into thinking he was being pulled under by some animal and dragged away. I just laughed and waved to show him I wasn’t falling for his games. But he kept doing it, except him coming up was happening slower and slower.”
There was a sudden yell from behind Oses. His Nobek father raced past him, diving into the surf and swimming with strong, quick strokes towards where Roweld had been the last time he’d come up. The water there was now unbroken, but for the waves.
“My other fathers followed him in, along with the men of the clan they’d been talking to. It was only then that I realized Roweld had not been trying to trick me. I didn’t know how quiet drowning was. I didn’t know all his strength was being spent in fighting his way to the surface to draw a breath of air. There were no cries for help. There was no flailing wildly to get our attention. He just came up and went down again until he couldn’t come up anymore.”
They found Roweld fifteen minutes later. By then it was too late. The current had grabbed him and pulled him away from the last place he’d been seen, making his safe recovery impossible.
“You were a child,” I told Oses, while sobbing over the loss of a little boy I’d never met. “You said yourself you didn’t know he was drowning. How could you? It wasn’t your fault.”
“Perhaps not,” he said, his gaze still far off in that awful place where older brothers die. “But I stood there and watched him. I laughed as he drowned. I failed to keep him safe, the way a Nobek should keep an Imdiko safe.”
“Surely your parents didn’t blame you?”
“No, they blamed themselves. We were in counseling a long time to come to grips with what had happened to Roweld. It was a terrible tragedy, and we all suffered horribly from it.”
Oses drew a deep breath and looked at me. His face twisted a little, as if just the sight of me was the equivalent of shoving a knife in his guts. “I swore after Roweld died that I would never again fail to protect those weaker than me. And yet here we are. You are being harmed, and I cannot stop it. Just as I could have saved Roweld, I should be able to save you.”
I reached up and grabbed his face between my hands. “You are saving me, Oses. Maybe not the way you feel you should, but you are my sanity. You and the hope of finding a way out of this mess is what’s keeping me together.”
His gaze dropped. He refused to look me in the eyes. “I am doing nothing. Just as before. I am standing aside and watching you drown.”
“The only way you can fail me is by not being here. Without you, I will give up. You are keeping me above water, Oses. Not having you will be the reason I drown.”
“You can’t mean that. You have to despise me for not saving you.”
“Listen to me,” I said, digging my fingertips in his jaw. His eyes snapped up to meet mine, giving me hope that I might reach him after all. “I have endured much worse than being treated like an animal. In the past, I have been raped. I have been attacked. People have done their best to kill me. I survived all that, and I will survive this as long as you’re here to remind me I have a reason to. Don’t you fucking turn coward and leave me alone to do this by myself. I will never forgive you.”
Oses blinked. His mouth dropped open, and I saw a flash of anger. Inside, I cheered. Calling him a coward had done what begging and reason could not. Pissed-off Oses was a damned sight better than hopeless Oses, even if his anger was directed at me.
I watched as he dealt with his emotions, willing him to find his strength and not use it to pound me into jelly. I could have screamed with joy when I saw the dangerous light that was so much a part of his personality return to his eyes.
“I am here,” he declared with a growl. “I accept the challenge of being your strength. I will always be here for as long as you want and need me. Do not let my momentary weakness ever make you suspect otherwise.”
Relief nearly made me faint. I had my Nobek back.