Thursday, May 7, 2015
May 18, part 2
“Turn right and straight on. I’m just a few yards away now.”
I thought I could hear Candy’s voice echoing slightly in the dimness. I hurried to find her.
The space between the hull and the bulkhead wasn’t totally dark. Some wall panels glowed, probably plenty for sensitive Kalquorian eyes to see by. I passed a lit computer interface that cast an eerie green glow. Every ten feet or so, I passed beneath supportive struts that ran from the floor to arch across the ceiling.
I was nearing one of these struts when Candy’s voice came from in front of me instead of from my com. “Stop there, Shalia. Don’t come any closer – at least not yet.”
I halted, still concerned by how Candy didn’t sound much like Candy. Now that I had found her, caution showed up. “Are you okay? Tell me the truth.”
“I’m fine. What about you? How are you feeling?”
There seemed to be some undercurrent to her question. It was as if she was asking about something beyond my general health and well-being.
A truthful answer would have included phrases like: scared shitless, angry, freaked out ... but I didn’t want Candy to run away again. So I tempered my reply a little.
“I’ve been worried sick about you, Candy. We all have. The Kalquorians are turning the ship upside down trying to find you. What is going on?”
“You don’t know.” Her sigh was both concerned and frustrated. “Why is it not working with you?”
Her reply had me more flummoxed than ever. “Hey, I’m perfectly willing to work with you on whatever the problem is. Just tell me what I’ve done wrong – what any of us have done wrong. We’ll fix it. I promise.”
“You just need more time. Maybe there was damage through the years. Maybe hibernation sickness of some kind. I can wait for a little while longer. As long as we can stay hidden, the objective will be achieved.”
It was like talking to someone who spoke another language. “What is this objective? This is the second time you’ve mentioned it. And why won’t you come out where I can see you?”
I was on the brink of charging forward, of yanking Candy out from behind the strut she hid behind, of demanding answers. I thought maybe she’d gone insane. I was sure of it, in fact. I wanted to shake the crazy right out of her.
“Yes, you should see. It might help. It might hurry things along if you recognize me.”
With that, Candy stepped out from behind the strut, out into the dim excuse for light. All my questions died in my throat when she came into view, replaced by new questions. And horror. A whole lot of horror.
Candy had taken off the gloves and coat I’d last seen her in. She wore one of her frilly tank tops and a short skirt despite the chill in the space next to the hull. She seemed unmindful of the cold that had my body covered in gooseflesh.
Even in the soft light, I could see gray plating over the entirety of her left arm and covering most of her chest and neck. Candy wore some sort of crazy armor. Tubes, fluorescent green in the light of the nearby computer panel, snaked from wrist to elbow and from elbow to shoulder.
I knew the armor of Earth’s now extinct ground troops as well as the protective gear that our police forces had worn. Kalquorian armor was built into their uniforms. What Candy wore bore no resemblance to any of that stuff. It was alien armor, the likes of which I had never seen. And yet it seemed familiar for some reason. I had a flash of deja vu that came and went before I had an adequate grasp on the memory.
I stared at my friend, trying to wrap my head around this new, bizarre wrinkle in whatever had gone awry with her. “What the hell, Candy? What are you wearing? And why are you wearing it?”
She grinned, and it was not her old happy, ‘cheerleader at the pep rally’ grin. This leer was dark and mean. “We have to finish our mission, don’t we? I estimate five more days and I’ll be back to full strength again. Meanwhile, there are still things to be done, steps to be accomplished.”
I shook my head, tears filling my eyes. Candy had gone completely around the bend. That hateful, awful smile she wore went further to convince me of that than anything else. My own earlier forays into mental breakdowns had not come close to the madness that had infected my dear, sweet friend. She looked monstrous, like some vile being that had somehow put her skin on.
Keeping my tone careful, speaking softly so she wouldn’t see me as a threat, I said, “You have to come back to Medical with me, Candy. This isn’t you.”
She laughed. “No, it’s even better. Just wait. You’ll see. When you get going—”
Candy stopped an instant before I saw the shadows behind her move. She turned with a furious howl an instant before Oses and Betra came flying out of the darkness to meet her.
I believe they had planned to confront her, to try and talk to her. They never got the chance. She attacked them, moving with a speed that was almost Kalquorian quick. Her armored fist caught Betra square on the chin. The blow lifted him off his feet, and he flew to crash against the bulkhead.
Candy whirled to face Oses, swinging that armor-covered arm like a bludgeon. She slammed it against the Nobek’s chest, and I heard the air leave his lungs in a great whoop. He fell back, his body smashing to the floor. Candy was on him in the blink of an eye, her armor-gloved hand closing around his throat and squeezing.
I screamed to see Oses’ face turn purple. “Candy, stop! You’re killing him!” I ran for her, reaching in desperation.
I have no idea what I would have done if I’d gotten to her first. She had already owned two Kalquorian men, taking them down like little Joshadans. I wouldn’t have stood a chance of getting her off Oses. She could have turned that strength against me. My child would have been endangered if I’d made it to her.
Yet in that moment all I knew was that Oses was in trouble and Candy was my friend. I had to do something.
However, Betra shoved past me before I got there, a medical injector in his hand. He pressed it to the side of Candy’s neck. An instant later, she went limp and fell unconscious on top of Oses.
The weapons commander heaved in a breath, muttered a curse, and sat up. His arms wrapped around Candy to keep her from falling off of him. Oses eyed Betra. In a raspy voice he said, “Thank you, Imdiko. Are you hurt?”
Betra rubbed his swelling chin. “No permanent damage from what I can tell. What about you?”
“I might drink my next meal. She bruised my throat.”Oses grabbed Candy’s armored arm and held it up, eyeing the strange stone-like covering. “What in the name of the Mother of All is this shit?”
“I don’t know, but I’m calling Medical to come get her.” Betra gave me a look that could have frozen ice water. “And then I’ll want an explanation of why Shalia came after her alone. You can also tell us why you were about to risk yourself and your child to help Oses.”
As he spoke into his com, Oses crooked a brow at me. “Both actions were extremely foolish. I know Candy’s tone made you think she would harm herself if you didn’t come alone, but you should have known better, Shalia.”
All the defense I’d been readying to make faded from my lips. “How do you know how she sounded?”
“Because we’ve been monitoring your com link as well as Katrina’s since Candy disappeared.”
My jaw dropped open. “You’ve been spying on me?”
Betra had finished calling for help. “We figured if Candy didn’t come in on her own, she’d contact one of her closest friends. We tracked your signal once she commed you.”
Oses eyed the insensible woman in his arms. “It’s a good thing. She’s obviously come unhinged. She could have posed a real danger to you, Shalia.”
“Candy would never hurt me.” My protest sounded feeble to my own ears.
“Candy is not herself,” Betra said. He put an arm around me and hugged me close. “Whatever that thing is she’s wearing might have something to do with it. Have you ever seen armor like that, Oses?”
The Nobek shook his head. “No. And these things—” he ran a finger over one of the tubes running the length of Candy’s forearm “—at first I thought they might be carrying hydraulic fluid to the pieces. But this covering isn’t metal. It and the tubes appear to be organic in nature.”
Betra jerked in surprise. “You mean, living tissue of some sort?”
I gasped. “That stuff is alive? Is it in her?”
Before Oses could answer, footsteps echoed in the space. Dr. Tep arrived with two orderlies and a hover stretcher. “I see you found our wandering Matara. You had to sedate her? What is she wearing?”
“That’s what we need to find out,” Oses said grimly. “Be careful about removing it, Doctor. It might be attached under the skin. And be aware that whatever that thing is, it makes her stronger than any man I know.”
“Alien fighting technology then. Not any type I’ve come across though, and I’ve been around soldiers for decades.” Tep ran a portable scanner over Candy’s arm and chest. The crease between his eyes deepened. “You’re right about it being under the skin. There’s hardly any Earther cellular structure under this thing.”
“Maybe that’s why she stopped showing up on the sensors,” Betra said.
“She also accessed the ship’s computers, which would have allowed her to cancel out her presence to our programs,” Oses replied. He glared at the nearby computer panel, the lit one I’d passed to get to Candy. His jaw was tight. “To look at her, she’s still mostly human. Yet we picked up nothing. I don’t think she’s gone insane. I think she’s being run by an alien intelligence.”
Tep’s worry was plain to see. “We’ll find out soon enough. Put her on the stretcher and let’s get her to Medical.”