Chapter Twenty-Eight

‘No, he’s sleeping, but that isn’t the point, Lina.’

‘Look, Jayce, I just want to see that he’s okay.’

‘He is okay, but Hobbes says he isn’t to be disturbed.’ Jayce managed to bristle, tensing his armoured body without actually moving.

Lina looked around herself, then leant towards him secretively. ‘Hobbes isn’t here,’ she said.

Jayce hesitated slightly, managing to convey uncertainty even from behind his featureless facemask. ‘No. . .’ he said. ‘But–’

‘I’ll be a few minutes max, all right? His friends will want to know that he’s okay. I want to know that he’s okay.’

‘Ella didn’t specifically tell me not to let anyone in. . .’ said Jayce, relaxing from his guard-standing-at-attention posture. He craned his head to check the medical room’s wall-clock, but of course it had stopped. He looked like some futuristic machine, made from polished ebony, but Lina knew that beneath that exterior he was at least ninety-percent idiot. She supposed Ella had been desperate, to have left him here in charge.

‘Well then, that’s settled,’ said Lina decisively. ‘Thanks, Jayce!’

He stammered something that she didn’t catch, but she was already past him and into the red-lit dimness of the medical department, looking through the open doors of the treatment bays. She thought perhaps he would follow her, but he didn’t.

The first room was empty. The second contained one of the medical techs, bent over some shiny piece of equipment, doing something precise-looking that took all of her attention. Lina moved on without the tech seeing her. The third room, just round the corner, contained Eli. She slipped inside as silently as she could, feeling illicit and slightly wired. The foul taste in her mouth had become ubiquitous now, an ever-present reminder of how bad things had become, like the taste of failure itself.

At first, she thought that Eli was indeed sleeping. He lay curled up on the hospital bed like a comma, with his face to the wall, dressed in light hospital pyjamas. He looked as if he had shrunk somehow, collapsed in on himself. His breathing was rapid and shallow.

‘Hey,’ she said softly, not really expecting any reaction.

Eli jerked as if he had been electrocuted and turned to face her, pushing himself up on one elbow before collapsing again limply. His eyes were wide and blank and his face looked vacant, paralysed in an expression of bewilderment.

‘Hey, Lina,’ he said in a small, weak voice.

She went to his bedside and embraced him, alarmed at how brittle he felt in her arms. It was as if something had been extracted from him, like he’d been bled by some vampiric parasite to within an inch of death. She felt a shudder go through him, and he stiffened for a moment, before becoming boneless and relaxing against her. She held him for a while, wishing there was something she could do to help him. Eventually, he pushed himself away from her and lolled against the wall, defeated-looking.

‘Eli, I know this is hard to believe, but what happened is for the best,’ she said, trying to look him in the eye. She wished she’d had the foresight to plan what she would actually say at this moment. Eli wouldn’t look at her — he seemed to be staring deep into the wall behind her left shoulder. ‘Nik was sabotaging the station, trying to kill us all, I suppose. I know that’s insane, but that’s what was happening. You may just have stopped him in time. Perhaps he was going to blow the reactor next. He had to be stopped, Eli.’ She moved closer again, forcing him to look at her. His lower lip was trembling minutely. ‘He had to be stopped,’ she repeated, more emphatically.

‘Yes,’ agreed Eli distantly. ‘I had to do it. That’s right.’ A wave of emotion washed briefly across his features, distorting his face for a moment into a caricature of purest misery, then was gone again just as quickly, leaving only that awful blankness behind. ‘And I have to do more, yet.’

Lina shook her head, feeling tears well up inside her. ‘Eli, you don’t have to do anything now except get better. You just have to accept what happened, and somehow move on. I can’t tell you how to do that, but that’s what you need to do. That’s all you need to do right now. Maintenance are on the power problem, and they’re gonna crack it, I know they are. We’re going to be okay. But you have to get better. And that means accepting that you did what was necessary.’

Eli exhaled slowly, his head wobbling slightly from side to side. He looked like one of the shell-shocked soldiers Lina had seen on the news, back in the days of the Platini Alpha Civil War.

‘There’s more,’ he said darkly. ‘There’s more there’s more there’s more there’s more there’s–’

She cut him off, a little spooked: ‘Eli, you’re done,’ she said. He turned his vacant cow’s eyes on her and she couldn’t even see the man behind them any more. All she saw was her own frightened face, reflected back in perfect miniature, cast in glass. She lurched upright and involuntarily fell back a step, feeling her heart beginning to race in her chest. ‘You’re done,’ she said again, but it came out in a whisper this time. His eyes. . .

Eli’s head shook ponderously, but that vacant gaze stayed fixed on her. ‘No,’ he said simply. That one word, filled with grim significance.

Lina suddenly felt a lump in her throat, so pronounced that it was hard to breathe. Something was wrong. That’s not Eli! some dark and irrational part of her mind screamed. That’s not Eli in there! In another, more stable part of her brain, a grim and undeniable thought was taking shape. She fell back another pace, her hand feeling behind her for the doorway. ‘What?’ she breathed. Her mind was whirling again — damn it, she felt like her whole body was whirling — as if the station had suddenly begun to spin in the opposite direction, like a waltzer in some nightmare theme park, a ride designed to induce insanity and sickness in equal measure. Eli’s mouth cracked open, showing his teeth, and slowly widened in a smile. And then, without knowing she had any intention of doing so, Lina turned and simply ran from the room.

She pelted past Jayce without slowing, out of the medical department and along the blood-lit corridor, tears in her eyes, desperation in her heart, and a dark, swelling certainty bubbling along beneath it all. She couldn’t — as yet — bring this certainty out into the forefront of her mind, where the light of reason shone brightest, and examine it. Instead, she let it simmer down there in the darkness, aware of its existence, letting it guide her body to its goal like an autopilot system, driving her towards the hangars once again.

She supposed she knew what she’d been looking for the first time now, when Ella had stopped her. She just hadn’t known then — not really. Or rather, she’d known, perhaps, but she hadn’t known she’d known — she hadn’t wanted to know. But she had to have proof. She knew, but she still didn’t believe — couldn’t believe, not without proof. His eyes! Not Eli’s eyes — the eyes of a grieving, damaged man — but the eyes of something mindless and hungry and reptilian.

She rounded a corner at a full sprint and skidded to a stop, almost pitching herself onto her face, hands outstretched for balance. The corridor was filled with people, clearly in two opposing groups. Somebody was on the floor in the middle, and they looked hurt. One man — Lina thought it might have been Tryka from the refinery — was shoving another man, whom she couldn’t identify, and voices clamoured, competing for dominance.

Without waiting to see if whatever was going on here would turn into an all-out brawl, Lina spun around and bolted off, back the way she had come. She took a right, down a floor, past aeroponics — where she briefly saw worried, scampering figures in the darkness, desperately administering to the doomed crops that dangled in the darkness like hanged men — and right again, into the warehouse, that towering mausoleum of machine spares and oil-stains, where the stark architecture angled up into invisibility above her.

She wondered what she would do if Ella tried to stop her again. She didn’t think she’d be able to explain herself verbally, the way her mind felt at the moment, so she supposed she would try her best to fight her way into the hangar, if need be. The idea sounded ridiculous, especially when you considered Ella’s size, strength, and martial talents, but Lina just couldn’t imagine herself reacting in any other way. The beating of her heart had become a frantic buzz, a hummingbird trapped inside her.

As it happened, though, it wasn’t necessary to fight Ella Kown, because Ella Kown was nowhere to be seen this time. Neither, for that matter, was anybody else. Lina searched around the hangar door for a manual crank-handle. She found a slot, intended to receive a key that wasn’t there. She ran into the side room where she had sat drinking moonshine with Ella, what seemed like years ago now. She searched through the desk, turfing objects out onto the floor behind her, and was genuinely amazed when she found exactly the item she was looking for. She held it up in the rusty light for a moment, staring at it as if it might melt into shadow and simply bleed away. It was a heavy, dog-leg spanner with a star-shaped business end and a bare metal handle. She dashed back to the hangar door, shadows lapping at her heels.

She inserted the spanner into the access panel, where it snicked smoothly into place as if it had been used a thousand times before. She tried to turn it, expecting it to move with some difficulty, but was surprised when she couldn’t budge it at all. She adjusted the position of her feet, bracing herself to apply greater force, and tried again. Nothing. She swore softly to herself and stood back, chest hitching and heaving. And then she realised: she had been turning the damn thing the wrong way!

She stepped forwards again, getting a good grip on the spanner, and turned it the opposite way. This time it moved easily — almost too easily — and she stumbled and came close to falling. As she continued to turn the spanner, the massive door began to inch its way open, its motion accompanied by a hideous metallic screaming which made Lina’s teeth hurt. Once the opening was a half-metre wide, she dropped to the floor and wormed her way into the hangar on her chest, pushing herself through with her feet and clawing at the sticky, oily floor with her hands.

The hangar was clotted with shadow, utterly silent and still. Lina had never seen it like this before, and she was more than a little spooked, painfully aware that she was not supposed to be here. She crossed the floor in a rapid skulking crouch, half expecting somebody to grab her at any moment, eyes darting left and right as she attempted to check in every direction at once. The Kays lurked in the shadows, watching her with their dead-eye canopies.

She went to the wall beside the control room and opened the emergency cabinet. There was only one torch left in there, and she removed it from its clip to check the battery. Its charge indicator showed only fifteen percent, which was probably why it had been left. Still, that should be plenty for her purposes. She didn’t expect to be long. Deep inside, where that stream of certainty bubbled darkly, she already knew what she’d find.

She moved down the ranks of Kays, the yellow beam of her torch washing over rusted machinery and muscular bunches of cable. She stopped in front of K6-10, trying to summon the willpower to continue. Her breathing was a torn, rasping sound, loud in her own ears. She stood for a moment, trying to summon the will to actually carry through with her task. Truth be told, she didn’t want to. She didn’t want proof, didn’t want to make that certainty into fact. Really, she just wanted to go home and crawl back into bed, where she would lie in a foetal ball until either the air became finally unbreathable or the crisis had passed her by. But she had to, damn it, she had to. . .

She stepped towards Eli’s ship, letting the torchlight wash across its blistered surface. That surface was pocked and scuffed in probably a hundred places, mostly from micro-impacts in the belt, lending it the unwell appearance of a patient in the late stages of smallpox. Here and there, it was also marked by the distinctive rectangular dents left by the dead-lifter’s forks. Several of these were so deep that Lina was surprised they hadn’t pierced the hull, but she supposed the Kays were actually tougher than they looked.

She crouched down, checking the underside of the ship, moving around it with her heart high in her throat. And then she saw it: a crumpled patch of metal about the size of her hand. It looked like nothing, really, the sort of thing that one could easily glance at and not even see, especially on the cratered surface of K6-10. But Lina knew it for what it was. She reached out one trembling hand, watching it as if it belonged to somebody else, and touched that damaged area of wrinkled metal, trailing her fingers across the sharp little waves and jags.

That damaged area was where Eli had bumped Sal’s ship out in the belt. It was the mark of death, the black spot, the proof — the dreaded proof that she had needed.

‘Oh no,’ she sighed, her fingers caressing that crinkled patch of metal. ‘Oh no. . .’ She had never felt less happy to be vindicated in all her life. But that was what it had to be. It couldn’t be a coincidental impact from a micro-asteroid — it was too big, and a ding of that size would have been reported and known about. It wasn’t a scar from the lifter. It was what it was. Proof.

And then she was on her feet and running, the torch clattering unnoticed from her hand, rolling away under one of the Kays with its beam zigging and zagging crazily across the floor, making another shadow-Lina that briefly ran beside her. She pelted out of the hangar door, slipping in a patch of oil, almost falling, stretching out a hand to right herself, swerving round the corner and into the warehouse. She ran through a haze of red light, bunched darkness, regiments of shelving that gave way to bare corridors. She crashed into one of the techs from aeroponics as she sprinted past, knocking them flying, steel instruments spilling from their hands. She didn’t even see who it was, let alone stop to apologise. She ran, on and on, her heart jumping and thumping in her chest, wishing she was fitter, wishing she would wake from this insane dream.

She rounded the door of the medical department and skidded to a halt. Where was Jayce? She looked around frantically, checking behind the door of the small canteen room that adjoined the main reception area. Nothing. She ran to Eli’s treatment bay, already knowing what she’d find.

He was gone.

‘No. . .’ she said, but it came out in a whimper that was frighteningly small in the deserted medical department.

She checked the next treatment bay. The technician whom she had avoided earlier was lying crumpled in one corner, entwined with the equally-dead body of Jayce. Blood had formed a veritable lake around them, almost reaching to the doorway where Lina stood with her mind hitching and misfiring, unable to believe what she was looking at.

Unwilling, but unable to resist, she felt herself drawn into the room as if by some magnetic force, her feet moving slowly through the clotting blood, making little sucking and squelching noises as she went. She took hold of one of Jayce’s arms and tried to turn him over. Instead, his whole body rolled and splashed onto the floor, splattering her legs with gore. His arm unfolded slowly and plopped down beside his helmeted head.

Eli had jammed something sharp up under Jayce’s helmet and into his neck — maybe a surgical scalpel or something. Whatever it was, it had done the job efficiently enough, because Jayce was undeniably stone dead.

Lina looked up at the technician, whose face was a frozen picture of fear and surprise. Her mouth was locked open in a final scream, her eyes were liquid circles of terror, and she was latticed with slashes, some of them deep enough to show the bone beneath her flesh. Lina noticed that her hands were also cut to pieces — the tip of one finger was actually missing — as if she had used them in an attempt to protect herself from the onslaught. An ultimately futile attempt, then.

Lina stood back, horrified, her stomach suddenly filled with butterflies. ‘He’s gone,’ she said to herself. ‘Eli’s gone. . . But where?’ And then an idea began to dawn on her with slow implacability, crushing and grinding everything before it. ‘Marco. . .’

When she reached the door of her quarters she found it ajar, and knew that she might already be too late. An agonising surge of fear and anger and love exploded inside her, almost stopping her in her tracks. But somehow, she made herself open the door fully and step inside.

She padded through the deserted living-slash-dining room as quietly as she could, on legs that felt stuffed full of lead. And then she heard Marco’s voice, weak and frightened. Maybe hurt.

‘Eli. . . don’t. . .’ that voice said.

Lina forgot all notions of stealth and burst into Marco’s room with her blood keening in her ears, barging the door open with her shoulder. It smashed into something meaty the other side and she heard another voice — Eli’s voice — utter a short grunt of pain and surprise.

And then she was in there, her mind filled with a savage blood-lust — the rage of the protective mother — a rage so clean and bright and pure that it shut off all conscious thought, scrubbed it into nothing.

Eli, behind the door, recovered his balance and stepped back a pace, the scalpel he had stolen from medical swishing and slicing in the air. Red light ran along its blade like blood, hypnotic and terrible. Maybe it was blood — Jayce’s and Tamzin’s.

Marco was on his bed, his back pressed up against the far wall, with the covers pulled up tight around him. All children know that bed-covers are monster-proof, thought Lina distantly. He looked utterly terrified, and her heart stung to see him that way.

‘Eli,’ she panted, stretching out one hand to keep him back, mindless of how little good it had done Tamzin, trying to circle in between him and the bed. ‘Don’t!’

Eli turned with her, still drawing patterns in the air with the blade, feinting left and right minutely, like a big cat about to pounce. Unbelievably, tears squeezed from his eyes and tracked down his trembling face, dropping from his chin to the cold floor. His bottom lip convulsed, then his whole face began to quiver, but he didn’t relax from his fighter’s stance.

‘I didn’t want to, Lina,’ he said thickly, advancing slowly towards her. His face hung like a curtain of flesh, undulating with rage and misery.

‘Then don’t,’ she replied, backing away from him. Her calf bumped against Marco’s bed, and she almost overbalanced and fell onto it, which she suspected would have spelled the end for her and her son. ‘It’s easy, Eli. Just don’t.’

‘Mum!’ cried Marco in a terrified little squeak. Lina didn’t look back at him, didn’t dare to take her eyes off the weeping, slashing madman that had used to be her closest friend.

‘But I’m the emissary!’ sobbed Eli, as if that explained it all. He sounded like a toddler in a tantrum, torn by raw, intense emotion: It’s not fair! was how it sounded to Lina.

‘Eli, just be cool. Put the knife down,’ she said, reaching behind her with one hand, seeking to touch Marco for what she supposed might well be the last time. ‘It’s me, Eli. Me and Marco.’ As if he didn’t know that.

‘It’s the dragon,’ wailed Eli. His tears were coming faster now, and Lina wondered how much he could actually see. Maybe this was her chance, maybe her only chance. She wished she’d had the presence of mind to grab a weapon on her way in. ‘It said it might be difficult. But I have to do it, Lina, I have to. I’m going,’ he said in the tones of one pleading for understanding, ‘to cut him up small, Lina, into little bits. And if you want to go first. . . well. . . the dragon said that was okay, too.’

‘No!’ screamed Marco, sending a jolt through Lina’s body. Eli was itching to pounce, she knew. She could see the tension in his posture, almost hear it crackling inside him.

‘Eli, no. . .’ she said, feeling tears begin to well in her own eyes, knowing it was useless, that her son would watch his mother murdered, and then the madman responsible would butcher him, too.

‘NO!’ screamed Marco again — deafeningly loud this time– a sound that filled the room and made the walls vibrate like a struck drum.

And then Eli moved.

Several things happened at once. Lina, sensing that Eli would spring for Marco, attempting to simply bypass her, launched herself into his path. Caught against the bed-frame, she staggered and fell, right on top of her son. As went down, she saw somebody else in the room, a hulking shape behind Eli, moving in a swift and purposeful blur. Marco screamed. The sound drew out and stretched like chewing gum, hideous and tearing. Eli practically landed on her, the keystone in a veritable human pyramid. The scalpel, striking for Marco, who still cowered beneath his covers, caught Lina in the shoulder, opening it to the bone and tearing a jagged gash right down to her elbow. The breath that came from his mouth washed over her in a sickening wave. He smelled like something had died inside of him, and Lina supposed that was actually pretty close to the truth.

Whoever had entered the room behind Eli was now right on him, moving swiftly. For a terrified split-second, Lina thought it was the shadow from her dream, come to solid life and somehow inside the station itself. But the figure swung something at Eli’s head, which connected with a heavy clonk! As the light spilled across its face, Lina saw that it was Rocko, drawn by Marco’s scream.

Eli, who had until then been struggling like an enraged animal, the scalpel flitting past Lina’s face like a silver wind, trailing drops of her own blood from its edge, stiffened and went rigid. He uttered a sound of bestial pain and surprise and rolled off her onto the floor, coming up in a fighting crouch.

He moved fluidly, backing into the corner, a wild beast at bay, lips drawn back in a snarl. He seemed to have forgotten Marco, and went instead for Rocko, who backed away, alarmed at the ferocity on his face. Rocko held a length of metal pipe in one hand, but it hung uselessly by his side. Rocko had fought for the Unionists on Platini Alpha, but now he looked utterly lost. He had, after all, just hit his boss on the head with a metal pipe. And by way of reprimand, said boss clearly intended to kill him.

Lina didn’t waste any time. Rocko had staked his own life on saving Marco, a decision probably made in a moment — a genuine act of altruism. She couldn’t allow that act to be repaid with death. And so she moved, leaping up off the bed and kicking Eli in the back of his knee. He went down as smoothly as she could have wished, and she screamed Now! Hit him! at Rocko, not realising that no sound actually came from her mouth at all.

Rocko was still stepping away, though, staring at the stream of blood that was pumping out of Eli’s head where the pipe had hit him. Eli, however, recovered quickly — too quickly — and came up with the scalpel swishing. He turned to Lina, the blade held out before him, then back to Rocko, his head snapping frantically from side to side.

Lina backed away too, and Eli’s attention focused on her. He moved towards her, leering. ‘I am the emissary!’ he shrieked, his face trembling as if he might cry again, the blade pulled back for a killing blow. ‘The dragon will not take no for an answer!’

Emissary? thought Lina. Dragon? She saw none of the man she had known so long within that face — he had become a raving, hollowed-out shell. And then he simply stopped, momentarily frozen, head cocked as if listening for a faint sound, maybe a distant voice. A light seemed to go on inside him and his lips twitched in the simile of a smile. He turned, ducking low, then sprinted straight past Rocko and out of the door, raining spats of blood as he went.