“She shouldn’t,” he says softly. “This wasn’t a military operation, and you’re not our commanding officer. And even if you were . . . well, all leaders know that conflict comes with a certain level of acceptable loss. You said it yourself.”
Yeah, but I didn’t mean it. That was just something I said to keep the others from panicking. Mary, I hate when my own words come back to bite me. I thought I’d have March out of this mess by now.
He goes on, “You’ve given this your best. Nobody expects you to do the impossible . . . save the day every time. Hell, you’ve already accomplished more here than anybody ever has. And you’ve already sacrificed so much . . . how much is enough? Do you have to give your life, too?”
Mary, his words make so much sense. It’s like hearing what my subconscious has been whispering for days; the selfish part of me nods in vehement agreement. When do I get a break? When do I get a rest? The only person who ever gave me a quiet place to call my own without asking anything in return lives in a tenement on Gehenna.
I hate him for saying what I’ve been thinking over the past few days of banging my head against a wall so high I can’t see the top of it. I don’t know if I’m strong enough to withstand the temptation to ease back into my old skin. The old Jax would love to go back to living for herself; she’s tired of sorrow and sacrifice. She says it’s been a damn long time since we lived for the thrill of it.
He leans toward me, taking my hands in his. “No, I have to speak my mind. Just from what I’ve seen during the short time I’ve been with you, people seem to think it’s fine to force you to do things you don’t want, over and over again. I’ve been there. I know how it is when people use you. They offer you a Hobson’s choice that’s no choice at all. It’s time to walk away, Jax.”
Is he right? Maybe I’m just too stubborn to know when I’m licked. I don’t want to undo all the good I’ve done here for selfish reasons. I waver, thinking of how easy it’d be.
But . . . no. I can’t leave him. To this day, it haunts me that I considered leaving March on Hon’s Kingdom and that it took someone else to make me do the right thing. His injury made him a liability; I thought he’d slow me down and lessen my chance of survival. Back then, that was all that mattered to me.
Kai’s loss haunts me. And it haunts me that I couldn’t save Loras. I can still see his face as the door closed on him, trapping him on the wrong side. I’ll carry that until I die; I just don’t have the fortitude to bear any more weight on my soul.
“No.” I say it aloud for emphasis. “I’m in this until the end, and if you don’t like it, take one of the shuttles up, turn on the emergency beacon, and hope for the best.”
“Fine. Your funeral.” His hand goes to the knife in his side, covering where I’m putting pressure on the wound. “I’d say it’s mine, too, but I’ve always found it difficult to die.” Beneath the levity of his tone, I glimpse the stark solitude of a man who has always been alone and always will be.
Vel arrives before I can reply. He takes stock of the situation with a glance, then he checks out Jael’s injury. “Did you notify Dr. Solaith?”
“He’s on the way,” I confirm.
Though he has to come from the ship, Doc turns up before the security team, which makes a joke out of their emergency-response system. But maybe they give better service to citizens. They could hardly do worse.
Saul takes a look and regards him incredulously. “How aren’t you dead? Never mind, don’t tell me now. Let’s get you taken care of.”
The Doc I know and love doesn’t insist on answers before helping someone who’s in pain. That can wait. While he’s working on Jael, the Bug squadron finally deigns to put in an appearance.
There’s no question this corpse shouldn’t be on my floor; it signifies criminal trespass and my bedding is shredded where the knife went in, so that validates my claim of a murder attempt. At least we’re spared a situation where they try to make this my fault. I was in my bed, exactly where I ought to be. Still, I can’t help but notice that the security personnel don’t care much.
None of them ask any questions. They just remove the body and cleanse the stain on the ground. The team leader adds, “We will be checking all possible leads. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Inconvenience . . . ? It’s all I can do not to go upside his head with another decorative pot. Vel restrains me with a claw on my shoulder. His body language says a confrontation would be pointless. I agree, but I’m spoiling for a fight. Every spark of jumper in me wants to make somebody sorry. I rein in that Jax with great effort, and, instead, offer an insincere wa of thanks.
Afterward, I take a look at how the patient is faring. While I look on, Doc finishes closing the top of the wound. “Ordinarily, I would never do it this way,” he says with a disapproving frown. “There’s too much internal damage just to seal it up and hope for the best, but Jael says he’ll be fine.”
“He will be,” I agree.
Maybe it’s callous, but I’m not that worried about him. After all, I’ve seen him heal worse. On Emry, I didn’t have any niceties like liquid skin, antibiotic preventives, or a sonic cleanser either.
“I didn’t want the blood all over the floor,” Jael says in a self-deprecating tone. “Gut wounds bleed like a son of a bitch. It was better to have a professional at hand.”
“Try to limit your movement,” Doc says. “And take it easy for the next couple of days.”
Jael mutters, “Unlikely. Jax is determined to stay, despite the danger.”
“Such attacks will escalate,” Vel predicts. “Until you are dead or . . . gone.”
I joke, “I thought they were one and the same.” Nobody seems to think that’s too funny, but it’s the middle of the night, dammit. I sigh and run my fingers through my hair. Finally, I offer, “I’ll be careful, okay?”
“Do that,” Doc admonishes. “I think I’ll head back.”
“Thanks for coming out,” I murmur.
Jael seconds that, rubbing his side. Doc’s obviously distracted, or he would have asked about March by now. I’m hoping that distraction will hold, but I guess my wishes carry no weight. Saul draws up short of the door and turns back slowly.
Of course, it’s the million credit question. “Why isn’t March with you? And where is Constance?”
I wish I could answer the second, and I wish I didn’t know the answer to the first. Before replying, I take a seat because this could take a while. I gesture at the place across from me. Vel and Jael join us, more from expedience, I think, than any desire to participate. Being the bearer of bad news is clearly my job.
“He’s been arrested,” I say starkly. “And he’s due to be sentenced tomorrow, today actually, and sent to the mines within a few days. It’s only because their justice system works so slowly that he’s not already there.”
The saving grace in the situation? Doc’s temperament. His eyes go dark, but he doesn’t lose his cool. He merely asks for all the details, and we spend a good hour filling him in on what he’s missed by staying on the ship so much. Certainly, I don’t blame him for that. If I didn’t have to be here, I’d be on the ship, too. Unless there’s a medical emergency, he has research and Rose, not necessarily in that order, to occupy his time.
When he says, “Let’s look at the facts objectively,” I stifle a smile.
We should have brought him in long before now. Outside of Constance and Vel, Saul is the most logical thinker among us. Once he’s sure he has the big picture, I pause to consider if I’ve left anything out.
Oh yeah . . .
“I also think Constance knows who orchestrated the attack on Sharis,” I add. “Since the Bugs don’t have her, that’s the only explanation that makes sense.”
“She could tell us if she’s still functional,” Doc offers.
Vel says, “Functionality is no barrier. I can still salvage the data unless the damage is all-encompassing.”
For the first time in longer than I care to consider, I feel a flicker of hope. Maybe I couldn’t do this by myself, but that’s fine. I should’ve called a crew meeting over this two days ago instead of working secretly with Vel. I can see now, by trying to take it all on myself, I’ve done everyone a disservice. They don’t need me to shield them from reality. Good intentions can cause a wide variety of terrible results.
“So instead of trying to find out who this hooded guy is, we should be looking for Constance?” I gaze around at my team to make sure we’re on the same page.
Jael asks, “What hooded guy?”
“We’ve got an image on one of the static security cams, showing someone sneaking into Sharis’s quarters. Around your height, too.” I smile at him. “But you were playing Charm with Dina and Hit that night after you left the party, right?”
“Lost more than my shirt,” he grumbles in confirmation.
I go on, “We think it was an Ithtorian, who donned clothing to make himself seem human to the casual observer. Most wouldn’t know how to do what Vel does . . . that technique takes time and practice to master.”
“And they consider using our ability in such a way a greater shame than resorting to cloth,” Vel adds.
“Yes, it’s only to be used as insulation for the honorable stalking of prey on the great tundra.” I smile to show I mean no insult with the cavalier summation.
Saul stirs, restive. If he has to be up in the middle of the night, he wants all of us focused. “We’ve gotten slightly off task. Does Constance possess any feature that could be used to track her? I know the PA-245 is an expensive model. It stands to reason its owners would want to be able to retrieve it if lost or stolen.”
Genius. Though I don’t know off the top of my head, I glance at Vel. He’s already at the terminal, working, as he answers, “There should be. If she has any power left to her at all, I should be able to devise something that will pick up her signal.”
“We should have thought of this sooner.” Regret pierces me.
“You should have brought this to me sooner,” Saul says with some asperity.
Jael makes a product of yawning. “I can see you lot have it all under control, so I’m going to catch a few winks before the next assassination attempt. Thanks, Doc.”
Lost in schematics, none of us pays him any mind as he slips out.
Tarn’s response to the message I bounced days ago, regarding the successful alliance, finally arrives the next morning. There’s no telling whether the satellites were acting up or whether he played my message for a hundred different people before answering.
To say he seems surprised doesn’t quite encompass it. During the course of his reply, he says, “I can’t believe it,” more than once. I should probably be insulted by that. He closes with, “Just sit tight. Once we’ve had a chance to make arrangements, I will notify you of where to take the Ithtorian representative.”