by Alicia McKenzie
DISCLAIMER: The characters belong to Marvel, and are used without permission for entertainment purposes only.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Latest in my series of 'Stories For People'. This one's for Falstaff.
This was ridiculous, Scott Summers thought, swallowing convulsively and gripping the arms of his chair tightly. He did NOT get motion sickness. This was just--not him. He'd had more wild rides than he could count during his years with the X-Men, in Earth-atmosphere and beyond, and he was a pilot himself damn it. He had the proverbial iron stomach--or so he'd thought.
At the moment, though, he was struggling not to lose his lunch all over the immaculate deck plating. Glancing up at the screens, he flinched, grimaced and looked away against as the Starjammer, roaring through the asteroid field at far too high a speed, swerved violently to the right to avoid a head-on collision.
"Dad," he tried again, plaintively, "shouldn't we be slowing down?"
Standing by the helm, Christopher Summers gave him what could charitably be described as an unnerving grin. "Scott, you're no fun at all," his father told him. "Live a little, son! You're going to go gray before your time--no pun intended."
"Telling Scott to lighten up is like telling the wind not to blow," the helmsman said blithely, never turning away from his station. "He was forty years old at birth, and you can't teach an old dog new tricks--"
Scott laughed wryly. "You watch your mouth, Nathan Christopher--" With a gasp, he grabbed the arms of his chair even more tightly as Nathan put the Starjammer into a dive. "Nate!" he blurted. "Would you mind?"
"What?" his son asked innocently. "I'm just getting us out of the asteroid field. I'm doing fine, aren't I, Gramps?"
"Just don't crash my ship, Nathan, and I won't have any complaints," Chris said amiably. Nathan gave one of those grating laughs of his, one with a surprisingly delighted edge to it, and brought the ship out of the dive, rather more gently. "There we go," Chris said approvingly, clapping Nathan on the shoulder and grinning rakishly. "Done playing chicken with the giant rocks yet? Or do you want to bring her around for another pass?"
Scott rolled his eyes. They were doing this just to test his patience, he was all too aware of that. Perverse, the pair of them, and it was almost frightening how much alike they were. They got along far too well, in his not-so-humble opinion. It was ever so slightly alarming.
"I don't think Scott's self-control would survive another pass," Nathan said, shooting a deadpan look back over his shoulder at Scott, who raised an eyebrow at him.
"You're not too big to spank."
"Pay good money to see that, I would," Hepzibah said irrepressibly from the weapons station where she was lounging, watching everything with a lofty, amused air. "Very entertaining that would be." Nathan grinned at her, and she bared her teeth at him cheerfully. "What, cub?"
"Oh, nothing. Just thinking there's no accounting for taste--"
Hepzibah laughed."Always you must have the last word, cub."
"It's a personal failing of mine," Nathan said with another laugh, a laugh with nothing forced or reserved about it. Scott shook his head, smiling despite the fact that his stomach was still trying to tie itself into knots. They'd been aboard the Starjammer for nearly a week now, and Nathan and Hepzibah had hit it off almost as well as Nathan and Chris had--in their own unique sort of way, admittedly. *At least they promised to to stop challenging each other at the breakfast table--I think Dad was a little put off by that.*
This had really been a good idea, this whole impromptu 'vacation'. It was good to get away from his responsibilities - and the constant crises - for a few days. And as for Nathan--he didn't think he'd ever seen his son so relaxed. This trip had been good for him, too. Jean had been saying something at lunch on the day they'd left about how soothing the quiet of interstellar space was for a telepath--
"Captain," Raza said suddenly. "I am detecting a signal." All eyes on the bridge went to him, and Scott could almost feel the tension level shoot up.
"Shi'ar?" Chris asked sharply, and even Hepzibah sat up a little straighter. Officially, the Starjammers were under Lilandra's protection once more, but his father had admitted that they'd had several encounters with Shi'ar cruisers whose commanders hadn't been particularly meticulous about upholding the Majestrix's directive--especially since the Starjammers were still running loads of Kree refugees to the safety of the Clench worlds. That hadn't been going over well at all with the Shi'ar commanders out here on the Rim, to hear the crew tell it.
Frowning, Raza adjusted the complicated headset and then shook his head. "I do not believe so. Methinks this is a distress call, but the translation doth be garbled. I can determine from whence it originated, if not the identity of those who did send it. 'Twould be easy enough to identify, were it Shi'ar."
"How close?" Chris asked. Nathan rose abruptly from the helmsman's chair, letting Keeyah take his station once more, and moved out of the way.
"Two hours travel, no more," Raza reported.
"Could be a trap," Hepzibah pointed out, clearly suspicious.
"Or it could be a ship in trouble," Ch'od rumbled, ignoring the disgusted look that Hepzibah gave him. "We could go in cloaked," he suggested. "Take a look, weigh the risks, get out if things go bad."
Chris grimaced. He gave Scott an odd, almost measuring look, and then glanced back over his shoulder at Nathan, towering behind him. Scott didn't need to be a telepath to know what was going through his father's mind.
"Sounds workable," Chris finally said with a sigh. "Cloaked it is, then. Raza, forward the coordinates to the helm. Keeyah, set the course." Shaking his head, Chris leaned a hand on the back of the helmsman's chair and grinned ruefully at Scott. "We'll see if whoever this is makes a liar out of me about the relaxing vacation I promised the two of you, eh?"
Scott snorted. "Try not to look so enthusiastic, Dad, it sort of ruins the implicit apology," he said dryly. "Let's just think positively, shall we? Hard as that may be for some of us--" He trailed off in mid-lame joke, frowning at Nathan, who was standing there, head tilted in a definite listening way and a distant look in his eyes. "Nathan?" he asked, puzzled.
Chris turned and looked up at Nathan, raising an eyebrow. "What is it?" Nathan not only didn't answer, he didn't even blink at the sound of Chris's voice. Chris looked back at Scott, clearly perplexed.
Scott was already halfway out of his chair. "Nate," he said tightly, crossing the distance between them in a few swift steps. He reached out and took his son by the arm, shaking him lightly. "Nathan," he tried again, more urgently. "Snap out of it." Even then, he didn't get a response until he repeated the words mentally, striving to project them down the thread-thin link he shared with his son.
Nathan shivered, once, and then looked down at him, eyes refocusing. "The signal," he said, sounding almost frustrated. "I heard the signal."
"What?" Chris scowled, his eyes narrowing. "How could you have heard the signal?" He looked over at Raza in bafflement and then back. "What exactly did you hear?"
Nathan looked up at the viewscreen, showing the stars speeding by. "Maybe not the signal," he muttered, shaking his head a little, as if to clear it, and then rubbing at his right temple with a pained little frown. "But I heard--them."
"Them," Scott said flatly, not letting go of Nathan's arm. He wished, abruptly, that Jean had come along. "What did you hear?" he asked insistently, since Nathan hadn't answered Chris's question directly yet. "Nathan, details. Give us something to work with here--what was the strongest impression you got?"
"Desperation," Nathan said and shivered again, folding an arm across his chest as if to hug himself. "How far are we?"
"Still a couple of hours," Chris said, his scowl deepening. "Nathan, we just changed course, remember?"
Nathan glanced at him swiftly, the flash of honest startlement all too obvious. "It seemed longer," he said in a strange, lost-sounding voice, and looked back up at the viewscreen almost warily.
Nathan lowered himself down into a cross-legged position on the deck, glancing at the door with a mixture of wariness and mild hostility. If Scott followed him here to his quarters, now or an hour from now, the two of them were going to have words. He'd told him and Chris both that he needed time to meditate, and Chris at least had taken that at face value, or had seemed to. Scott, though--with how quiet it was out here, only the few psi-traces of the crew to clutter up the psychic atmosphere, Nathan could feel his worry from here, heavy and inescapable and incidentally quite infuriating.
*He wouldn't be so worried if I'd been Jean.* Maybe that was being uncharitable. Scott still probably would have worried, but he would have at least trusted Jean to know what she was doing. Clearly, Nathan didn't warrant the same consideration. *He looks at me like I'm a toddler walking through a field of alligators waiting to make a meal out of me at the first misstep.* The mental image was so bizarre that he gave a short bark of laughter.
Really, the whole thing was laughable. This was utterly ridiculous. The situation seemed simple enough to him. There was a ship in trouble out there, whose crew was trying to communicate their distress telepathically, as well as over standard com-frequencies. That was all. What the flonq was there to be so worried about?
*Well, you probably did 'blank out' from Chris and Scott's perspective,* his conscience pointed out helpfully. Nathan grimaced. All right, that was true. He'd gotten so lost in the contact he'd been sharing that he'd lost track of time--but so what if the first words out of his mouth had been the equivalent of 'are we there yet?' He'd been--distracted, caught up in their desperation, and since when was empathizing with people in trouble a bad thing?
He knew the solution, of course. More information, a clearer picture of whatever was going on aboard the ship they were rushing to reach--that would be the most productive thing he could do. Much more productive than snarling at his father and grandfather, despite how much he wanted to remind both of them that neither of them was a telepath and that he, novice though he might be, knew more about this sort of thing than both of them put together.
*But that would be petty,* he thought, half-amusedly, half-disgustedly as he slowed his breathing and levitated gradually into the air. *They're not worrying just to piss me off--I need to keep that in mind--*
He opened his shields and reached out in the direction of that first contact. Nothing, at first, and then, all at once, that same desperate, wordless cry rocked him, shattering the psychic 'silence' for the space of a heartbeat, and no more.
#I can hear you,# he sent back, feeling tears spring involuntarily to his eyes at the keeness of the pain he'd sensed. It was almost terrifying, how such a fleeting touch could hold so much emotion--pain and loss and despair and a strange, futile anger. #I can hear you. We're coming to help you--tell me what's happening, please--#
But just like before, there was no answer.
"Docking clamps secure," Keeyah reported as the Starjammer shuddered slightly. "Matching our new friend's drift."
"Good," Chris muttered, frowning down at the sensor data displayed on his screens. The small, sleek vessel to which the Starjammer was now docked was apparently - apparently being the operative word - all but dead in space. The sensors were reading some sort of power source still active over there, but it was weak, weak enough that it was very unlikely that it could be active weapons systems. Chris wasn't entirely reassured, considering that the computer hadn't been able to match the ship's profile with anything in its databanks. There were still an infinite number of ways that this could possibly be a trap--
"No response to hails," Raza said. "I shall attempt to negotiate entry into yonder ship's systems so as to restore minimal life support."
"There's no life support over there?" Scott asked with a pained look, and then bit off whatever else he'd been about to say--which was probably, Chris reflected grimly, what they were all thinking right at that moment. Namely, were they too late--
"Raza, can you tell if they still have atmosphere of any sort over there?"
"Aye," Raza said after a moment. "An oxygen mix, though most certainly corrupt." He paused again. "In a purer form, 'twould seem to be compatible with our needs, from what I am able to discern."
"All right, then," Chris said with a sigh, rubbing at his chin speculatively. "Either they're being shy or they can't answer us. I suppose the only thing left to do is go over there and take a look, if we can get our friend's life-support back up." He glanced over at Nathan, who had returned to the bridge a while ago and had been leaning against the same bulkhead ever since, his expression so forbiddingly blank that no one had tried to speak to him. "Nathan, are you sensing something still?" Nathan didn't even blink, and Chris scowled. "Nathan?"
"Define something," Nathan muttered, not looking at him.
"Oh, I don't know," Chris said, unable to keep the frustration out of his voice. Nathan could at least pretend to be cooperative. "The 'let's wait until they're over here and then kill them all' sort of something?"
"Nothing like that," Nathan growled, straightening and giving Chris an unnervingly direct look. "But I guess we'll see, won't we?"
It was a challenge, there was no mistaking that, and Chris rose to it almost before he'd finished processing the thought. "Oh, no," he said, firmly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Scott start and then smile ruefully. "'We' will not. You and Scott are staying right here. Raza and I will check things out--"
Nathan smiled thinly. "I don't think that's a good idea," he said simply.
"Nathan," Chris said, trying to keep his voice more or less level, "I don't recall asking you whether or not you agreed with me." This was still his grandson he was talking to, Chris reminded himself, even if Nathan was pushing his luck by questioning his orders in front of the crew.
"He does have a point, Dad," Scott put in, his voice heavy with reluctance. Chris looked over at him incredulously, having expected his son to agree with him wholeheartedly, given how worried he'd been earlier, but Scott only shrugged, visibly uneasy. "You don't want too many people over there, in case things--go badly, so I'm willing to stay behind. But if there is something or someone over there trying to communicate telepathically, it'd only make sense to take the only telepath we have aboard." *Much as I might like to disagree,* the look in his eyes said, quite plainly.
"I don't think they're hostile," Nathan interjected. "I KNOW they're in trouble, whoever they are." His brow furrowed. "I've been feeling it more and more strongly the closer we've gotten," he said, his voice dropping to little more than a whisper.
"Alive they are still, with bad air?" Hepzibah asked. "Seems unlikely."
"There is something aware over there," Nathan said forcefully, before she could go on. She gave him a mildly surprised look, and he sighed, taking a deep breath before he went on. "They're just not responding to me--I can't establish any sort of link with them. I don't know whether it's because they're hurt, or whether their minds are too alien. All I can think of to do is get closer, and try again."
Chris grimaced. "What's to say you're going to need to establish any kind of link with them?" Maybe, between Nathan and Jean, Scott was used to watching members of his family face things he couldn't hear, see, or do a damned thing about, but Chris couldn't say the same. "We can go over there, give them whatever help they need, IF this is actually a real distress call--"
"It is," Nathan said harshly. "Question whatever you want except that."
"Fine," Chris said impatiently. "But unless we go over there and they can't talk with us normally, why do you need to be involved?"
"Why not have all your bases covered?" Nathan countered swiftly. "Better to have me there if you need me. If something does go wrong, you might not have time to wait for me to get over from the Starjammer."
Damn logic, anyway. And he supposed the pesky protective instinct was a little unreasonable, all things considered.
#Flonqing right it is,# Nathan's voice said in his mind. #Now are you going to stop being unreasonable, or do I have to keep arguing?#
Chris swore under his breath. "All right," he said grudgingly. "You, me, and Raza, then. But if I even think that something's going wrong, we drag you back here, and I don't bloody well care if you're in the middle of first contact with a new species at the time."
Nathan gave him a twisted smile. "Lighten up, Gramps," he murmured.
"Wishing you were with them, you are," Hepzibah said with a smile as they watched the 'boarding party' depart the Starjammer through the docking tube. Scott gave her a quick, almost defensive look, and her smile turned into a broad grin. "So do I. Will have to punish Chris, I will, for having fun without me."
"Your idea of fun is a little frightening, Hepzibah," Scott said dryly, looking back at the screens. Raza, Nathan and his father disappeared from view into the other ship, and Scott sighed quietly. "I'm just hoping they don't have 'fun' of any kind over there."
"Too cautious, you are," Hepzibah pronounced. "Gotten most of his genes from his dam, the cub must have."
Scott caught his eyebrow as it was headed for his hairline, wondering rather bemusedly which 'dam' Hepzibah was talking about. "Must have," he muttered, and laughed a little nervously. "I suppose then you get into the whole heredity versus environment debate--"
"Feh," Hepzibah scoffed delicately. "Either way. Bold is good."
"Except if it will get you killed," Ch'od rumbled cheerfully from his station. "Then caution is better."
"Is not," Hepzibah said, making a face at him.
"Here they go again," Keeyah said with a matyred sigh, grinning ruefully at Scott.
Scott sighed, fighting the urge to sink his face into his hands. Ch'od noticed, and gave a laugh that seemed to vibrate the deck plating, ever so slightly.
"What's your opinion, Scott?"
"I have no opinion," Scott muttered, staring fixedly at the image of the empty docking tube. "Really, no. None at all."
"Good answer," Keeyah chuckled, and mock-cowered as Hepzibah hissed at him.
"I've seen this movie before," Nathan muttered, taking a cautious step forward and half-expecting himself to float up off the ground. There was air - stale air with a distinctly acrid edge to it - thanks to Raza, but only minimal gravity, and no lights at all. Shining the hand-light Corsair had given him forward into the pitch-black corridor, Nathan half-wished that something would jump out at him. At least that would break this flonqing quiet.
"I beg thy pardon, Cable?" Raza asked from behind him, looking around from where he had his hands buried up to the wrists in the innards of some kind of control panel. Chris had told him to see if he couldn't get more of the ship's systems back online, but he didn't seem to be having much luck.
"Nothing. Just talking to myself." Might as well, since no one was talking to him. Raza was busy, Chris had gone up to what he'd guessed was the bridge to take a look, and as for whoever was here--
Nothing. No response to any of his attempts at contact. He could still feel something here, lurking almost nervously at the edges of his perception, still projecting that same dark mixture of emotions, if at a very low level. Almost as if they were--suppressing it, he thought suddenly.
#Why won't you answer me?# he 'shouted' abruptly, his patience fraying. #Oath, we're here to help you--we can't do that if we don't even know where you are!#
Over the headset he wore, he heard the distinct sound of someone clearing their throat. "I don't know why they're not answering you, Nathan," Chris's voice said with a hint of irony audible even over the comchannel, "but I'm hearing you loud and clear. You just about scared me out of my skin."
"I'll watch the volume," Nathan muttered darkly.
"That'd be nice. No luck yet, I'm assuming."
"Nothing," he grated, taking another few steps down the hall. He was suddenly, overwhelmingly aware of being stared at, and looked back at Raza with a scowl. "What?" he demanded.
"Best not to go far," Raza said, almost placidly.
What, had Chris told him to keep an eye on him or something? Nathan seethed inwards. "Thanks for your input, Raza, but I'm not getting anywhere standing here watching you work," he growled.
"Nathan," Corsair's voice said warningly. "Don't go wandering off. We don't know what else is in here with us yet."
"Oath, are you under the impression that I'm five flonqing years old or something?" Nathan snapped irritably.
"Nathan--" That was Scott, from the Starjammer.
"Flonq you, Scott!" Nathan swore, and switched off his headset. Why couldn't they understand? Wasting time, they were just wasting time! He started to make his way down the corridor, shining his light back and forth to make sure his path was clear of obstacles.
The corridors were rounded, and much smaller than the ones back on the Starjammer, clearing the top of his head by five centimetres at the most. Ch'od would have had a problem moving around over here, Nathan reflected as he cast his mind outwards, struggling not to widen the range of his scan - he knew that whoever it was was here on the ship, after all - but to deepen it, reaching down to levels he'd never touched in anything but a full scan of a human mind.
Frequency, he thought, leaning a hand against the wall for support as pain started to burn dully behind his eyes. Maybe that was the problem. They weren't human, so their minds would be on a different telepathic 'frequency'--
#Answer--me,# he managed. Projecting at this intensity felt like wading through mud, and the pressure was unbelievable, as if the minimal gravity had suddenly been multipled by ten, but only in the area inside his skull. #Talk--to me, please--#
He felt--something, some response, for the first time. A flicker of--surprise, that manifested on the dark of the astral plane here in empty space as a flare of brilliant green light. Nathan stiffened, closing his eyes as he struggled to reach out towards it.
#Will help,# he sent doggedly. #Recieved--your signal--#
The green light flared again, brighter, and--lunged at him. Nathan flinched, seized in an instant by sheer terror, and as the presence seared through his shields, a cry started to rip its way free from his throat. Something stopped it--not him--and he beat frantically at the presence enveloping him, cursing silently as it sank deeper into his mind, filling him like he was an empty cup--
The pain of the invasion was gone, as quickly as it had come; the fear receding, soothed away by the emerald presence. His knees began to buckle, but he was held upright, supported and reassured as the rush of adrenalin faded.
And he could hear them whispering. More than one, unmistakably a 'them'. Arguing? he wondered, the thoughts coming sluggishly. Arguing--over him? Over him. Panic surged somewhere beneath where the presence sat, inside his mind, but was gently yet firmly stifled, almost instantly.
Nathan found himself putting one foot in front of the other, walking unerringly down the corridor, without apparent need of the light. He heard Raza say something, but he couldn't make out the words. It wasn't important, anyway. The presence whispered encouragingly to him, and he let it take him where it needed him to be.
"Captain!" Raza's voice was sharp and concerned over the headset, and Chris straightened from the console he'd been examining in a futile attempt to decipher the symbols there. "Cable hath clearly sensed something, but he will not answer mine inquiry and doth seem very determined to leave this part of ths ship. He doth not appear to be acting under his own volition, Chris."
*Oh, crap,* was Chris's first thought, before he snapped into action. "Go after him, Raza," he said tensely, grabbing his light and striding over to the access tube he'd used to get up here. "Scott," he said, reaching up and adjusting his headset. "Can you hear me?"
"Loud and clear, Dad," his son's voice said over the headset. "Nathan's not answering me--what's going on?"
"I don't know yet. Tell Keeyah to get ready to uncouple us as soon as the three of us are back aboard," Chris ordered. *I knew this was a bad idea, damn it, but was the stubborn bastard going to listen to me? No, of course not. Wonder which side of the family he gets THAT from--* "Keep trying to get Nathan to answer you--"
He trailed off as the lights on the bridge suddenly came up--and almost immediately went dark again. "What the hell?" Chris breathed, looking around instinctively as the pitch black reasserted itself.
The silence shattered, a bizarre atonal screaming noise suddenly filling--not his ears, but his mind, Chris realized, clutching desperately at the edge of the tube to keep from falling. "Raza--" he managed, with difficulty. "Raza--can you hear--"
There was someone shouting in his ear, he realized, an agitated voice coming over the headset. He forced himself to focus on that, rather than the other, and realized it was Hepzibah.
"Chris! Our systems are going down--break the link with the stranger ship we cannot!"
The Starjammer? His ship was in trouble? "Stop it," Chris muttered thickly, tasting blood at the back of his throat. The screaming just kept going on and on, without stopping for an instant. He could almost feel the anger in it. This wasn't just some sort of defensive system, it couldn't be--"Stop it, dammit, we're not--don't--"
It cut off. Chris swayed, gasping, and the lights came back up in a sudden swoop. A hissing noise, unmistakably hostile, came from somewhere for a moment, and then was gone, as soon as the lights went back down.
A warning, Chris thought dazedly, and then fought for composure. "Report!" he said hoarsely. "Zee! Raza!"
Scott answered first. "Dad, we've lost everything but life support and coms over here--what the hell was that? Are you all okay?"
"Some sort of power surge," Ch'od cut in, sounding mildly perturbed. "Came through our link to the other ship, I'm sure of it."
"Captain--" It was Raza's voice, little more than a groan, and fear settled like a rock at the base of Chris's chest.
"Raza! What happened down there?" he snapped, heading down the ladder so quickly it was a miracle he reached the bottom without falling and breaking his neck. "Raza!" he bellowed, setting off at a run for where he'd left Raza and Nathan.
"I am--well, Captain," Raza said, his voice sounding stronger. "I did attempt to stop Cable--'twould seem that he and whatever intelligence doth exist upon this ship both took exception."
"He attacked you, Raza?" Scott demanded from the Starjammer, sounding horrified.
"Aye, and the ship reacted not an instant later, 'afore I had even regained my feet."
"I do not like this," Chris growled vehemently. "Zee, Ch'od, get our systems back up. Scott, you'd better get over here." Yet another example of an instance when he should have followed his instincts. "Hindsight," he snarled. "Always twenty-twenty."
The room to which he was led was surprisingly large, considering the size of the ship. The ceiling, twenty or thirty feet above his head, was a perfect dome, oddly faceted in the same vaguely opalescent metal that surfaced the walls.
*Engine room,* the presence whispered to him. It had grown calmer, somehow, if no less intent. Nathan paused in the doorway, blinking at his surroundings, wondering why he was being so calm about all of this. There was an alien presence sitting in his mind, at a level that even a deep scan would have had difficulty reaching without causing him intense pain.
But there was no pain, he reflected, and the presence was--wasn't hostile, he thought.
*No hurt,* it whispered. *Look.*
He took a deep breath and studied his surroundings. At the center of the room was a tall pillar of smooth quartz-like crystal, almost reaching the ceiling. Surrounding it was a circle of six almost throne-like chairs.
Each one of which was occupied. Nathan moved forward to stand beside one, to get a closer look at the corpse slumped there. It was small, no larger than a ten year-old child, but it looked humanoid, clothed in a bodysuit that still gleamed like opal, just like the walls. The face was fine-boned and slightly triangular, with cropped, faded hair that was still faintly silvery, and deep-set eye sockets that gaped empty.
The corpse reminded him of the Egyptian mummies he'd seen in museums over the year. He supposed that the cold, dry conditions of the ship could have done this--couldn't they? If they had been here for long enough--
*Long,* the presence whispered.
*So very long.*
He walked around the circle, examining each corpse meticulously. The whispering was oddly hopeful, now. "I think I see," he said hazily, the words coming of their own accord. "Show me more. Show me--"
The column began to glow the same emerald-green as the presence in his mind. He stepped past the chair, into the circle--
And nearly fell, the image jolting through him like an electric shock. He saw the people in the circle sitting down, speaking to each other. Relaxed, calm. Getting ready to--to what?
Another image hit him, and he went to his knees with a gasp, every nerve in his body screaming in protest. In his mind, he could see the column blazing with life--could hear them screaming--
*Save us,* the presence whispered simply, and then released him from the memory.
He felt something cool beneath his cheek, realized it was the deck, and pulled himself back to his feet. The column was glowing softly, beckoningly. He took a staggering step forward, reaching out a hand, and the whispering became exultant--
"Nathan!" Scott's voice shouted from the doorway. His head whipped around, towards the sound, and he heard a shriek in his mind. A blinding flare of light lashed outwards from the column, hitting him in the chest and hurling him across the room.
"No!" Scott shouted, and was halfway across the room before Chris and Raza had done more than start to react, almost before Nathan's limp body had hit the ground. "Nathan!" he said desperately, falling to his knees beside his son and reaching out to him. Something hard and painful started to unclench in his chest as he saw that Nathan was already stirring. "Are you all right?" he asked frantically. "Nathan, answer me--"
Nathan pushed himself to a sitting position, raising his head and looked right at Scott, who froze as he met eyes that glowed the same luminous green as the column in the center of the room. "Nathan," he whispered, his stomach churning in slow horror. "Nathan--can you hear me?"
Nathan regarded him silently for a moment and then got to his feet, all in one fluid motion. Scott stayed precisely where he was, but Nathan's strangely threatening posture eased as the column drew his attention again. He took a step towards the center of the room, and then stopped, tilting his head in the same listening way he'd done on the bridge of the Starjammer.
"Scott," Chris muttered, coming over with visible caution and giving him a hand up. Both he and Raza had their weapons drawn, but Scott motioned them sharply to keep them down. "Any ideas?"
"Not at the moment," Scott breathed. The column was pulsing with light, almost insistently, and Scott tensed as Nathan moved smoothly towards it, stopping once he reached it and laying both hands on its surface.
The light flared blindingly, and Nathan staggered backwards with a moan, swaying on his feet. The pain in his voice was all too audible, and as Scott saw Nathan's techno-organic arm rippling ominously, his self-control snapped.
"You're hurting him," he said harshly, staring right at the column. "Stop it! Tell us what you want, and we'll do it."
The light began to pulse again. Nathan straightened and turned, staring at the three of them with eyes that still glowed green. The T-O virus stabilized as Scott and the others watched. Once it had settled, Nathan opened his mouth and started to speak. The voice was still recognizably Nathan's, but eerie and flat, the words sibilant and incomprehensible. After a moment, he paused, as if he expected them to say something, and then tilted his head when they didn't answer.
"'Twould be very helpful at this moment to have the translation program available," Raza muttered ironically, and then sobered. "Shall we not attempt to remove yon construct?" He gestured at the column with his gun.
"We can't!" Scott snapped, quietly but insistently. They couldn't afford to give in to a knee-jerk reaction, not when they didn't know what sort of hold this thing had on Nathan. "We don't know what it could do to him."
He heard a muttered curse from his father's direction. Chris stepped forward, holstering his gun. "I'm the captain of the ship currently docked to yours," he said in a voice whose neutral tone was clearly forced. "We responded to your distress signal in good faith. You have no reason to attack us."
Nathan stared at him, his expression intent. Behind him, the light inside the column faded almost to nothing, and his eyes, in response, glowed almost incandescent. "Not--an attack," he said, still in that flat, lifeless tone. "Assistance. Help us."
"We're here to help you," Scott said insistently, taking hold of his self-control with both hands and holding on tight. He had to stay calm. If this--being was telepathic, it would pick up on what he was feeling. "We can't help you if you don't tell us what's going on."
"Not--you. Only this one." The air in the room grew heavier, suddenly, thick with a sadness that Scott could almost taste. "So long along. Calling out to the--deaf. They came and left. Left us alone. Trapped."
"We will help you," Chris said, quietly but forcefully. "I swear it. Just release him, and tell us how."
"Not you," Nathan repeated, and raised a hand, clenching it slowly into a fist. Scott watched disbelievingly as golden light formed around Nathan's fist in an unmistakable blade-shape. "We have what we need," he said, a trace of emotion in that eerie voice, finally.
It sounded almost like joy, Scott thought, absurdly, and then surged forward with a cry as Nathan whirled and plunged the psychic knife into the column.
It exploded soundlessly, light surging up and out of it like a volcano erupting, lashing outwards into the room in green and gold snakes of power that drove the three of them back against the walls, even before the rain of crystal shards started to fall. Scott raised a hand to shield his face--
Then it all died--the sound, the light, all of it. The silence that fell in the moment after was almost deafening. Scott straightened, the part of his brain that was still working logically realizing that he was bleeding from half a dozen minor cuts. His knees acted like they didn't want to hold him, and he threw out a hand against the wall for support, breathing heavily. *Dear God,* he thought shakily. *That wasn't precisely what I expected--*
His father pulled himself to his feed, bleeding heavily from a gash over one eyebrow and looking badly shaken. "Okay," he said raggedly, glancing at Raza, who was standing up and brushing himself off casually. "What the HELL was that all about? And why do I seem to be saying that so often today?"
Scott really didn't think his father wanted him to dignify that with an answer. "Nathan," he said raggedly, seeing his son standing there beside the stump of the column, still as a statue. Scott hurried forward to his size, wincing as crystal shards crunched beneath his feet. Chris followed him, but Raza stayed well back, and frankly, Scott couldn't blame him.
"Nathan?" he tried again, weakly. That alien glow was still burning in Nathan's eyes, but it dimmed and faded, even as Scott watched. "Nate, can you hear me?"
Nathan blinked. "Perfectly," he said, his voice breaking, and then collapsed like a marionette whose strings had been cut. Scott and Chris both reached for him at the same moment, and managed, between them, to lower him more or less gently to the ground.
The crew of the 'Walker Among Far Stars' lingered for a moment on the border between this reality and the next, watching the headblind ones tend to their rescuer. They were used to waiting--they had waited, after all, for longer than any of them cared to remember. Compared to that vast stretch of lonely time, the moments until their rescuer began to stir were nothing but a blink of the eye, and easily enough borne.
The physician darted forward, mindtouching him lightly to ensure he had taken no harm from his merge with them. *He is well,* she reported, the complexities of their language serving well to express her relief. *No action on our part is warranted.*
*An acceptable risk,* the security officer observed. *Considering the result.*
*Agreed,* the science officer said tentatively. *Still, I would have regretted it had he come to any harm.* The others agreed with her, the security officer a trifle grudgingly.
*He did not,* the captain said. *And we are free.*
*We are free,* the engineering officer who had been the oldest among them, the most well-versed in the intricacies of the psionic engine - and thus the one who had been most consumed by guilt over the disaster - observed, a warmth to his mind-voice that none of the others had heard for centuries.
*It is over,* the captain said firmly. *Let us go.*
Each of the crew agreed. They joined again, taking joy in it, now that they were free of their prison.
And passed beyond.
"So let me get this straight," Chris said painstakingly. "The crew was dead--"
"Their bodies were dead," Nathan said wearily. He was still deathly pale, and his hands shook as he took the cup Ch'od offered him. "I don't know if you consider that death or not." He took a sip from the cup, and then grimaced. "Oath, what is this?"
Chris coughed. "It's supposed to be coffee," he said darkly. "I haven't managed to tinker with the food synthesizers enough to get it quite right, yet."
Nathan made a face that somehow managed to convey overwhelming distate. "Coffee. Oath," he said, a little life creeping back into his voice. It was a relief to hear it. "Use it to grease your engine or something--"
"Nathan?" Scott said, with remarkable patience in Chris's estimation. He'd held back the questions until they'd gotten Nathan back aboard and had Sikorsky make sure he was all right--which he seemed to be, save for a few irregularities on his EEG that the medic had assured them were only to be expected after such an intense telepathic experience. "Can we get back to the subject? The crew's bodies, were dead, you said--so their minds weren't, I'm assuming."
Nathan muttered something incomprehensible under his breath. It sounded vaguely obscene, and Chris couldn't help a snort. "The ship was psionically power," he said finally. "You saw those chairs, right? Six telekinetics, and the column in the center focused and amplified their abilities. They sailed through space under their own power." His eyes went distant again. "I can almost see what it was like. It must have been incredible."
"But something went wrong," Scott prompted.
"Yeah. I don't know what, that wasn't clear. Something happened to the engine--" Nathan's eyes narrowed, and he rubbed at his right temple again, his expression pained. "A--crack in the crystal, something like that. It made the engine unstable. They went to use it, and they were--ripped out of their bodies."
"Sounds most unpleasant," Raza observed.
"It was. You can't imagine what it was like. Their astral forms were trapped in the column--they watched their own bodies die, knowing they were trapped and helpless--" Nathan took a deep, shuddering breath. "It's still so vivid," he confessed almost helplessly.
"It'll fade, I'd imagine," Scott observed softly, his eyes intent on Nathan's face.
"It seems so hard to believe," Chris said lightly, thinking to break the tension that still simmered beneath the surface.
"Stranger things we've seen than this, no?" Hepzibah offered, laying a hand lightly on Chris's shoulder. She was perched on the arm of his chair, watching Nathan with bright-eyed interest.
Nathan shook his head slowly, turning the cup around and around in his hands. "They kept sending out that signal every time they sensed a ship in the vicinity. A lot of ships did come, to investigate, but none of them realized what was going on. They all just thought they'd found a derelict." He sighed, setting the cup down and sinking his face into his hands for a moment. "There were no telepaths on board any of those ships, or none strong enough to hear them, I'm not sure which--"
"Or maybe none that did listen," Raza said quietly. Nathan gave another heavy sigh, rubbing his eyes. "How long had they been drifting?"
"I think--a thousand years," Nathan said, almost in a whisper. He didn't seem to notice the various expressions of shock around the table. "They've been floating out here for centuries, waiting for someone to find them, and help them--"
"Which you did," Chris said with a faint smile. Nathan looked up at him, almost warily, and his smile grew, almost despite himself. "Not a bad day's work in the end, even if you did manage to scare the shit out of most of us."
"Thanks, Gramps," Nathan said wryly. "I'm so glad you approve."
"So where have they gone now, cub?" Hepzibah inquired when the silence dragged on for a few moments. Not uncomfortably so, but Zee had never been one for leaving a subject alone unless she'd beaten her curiosity to death. "Now that freed them, you have?"
Nathan's smile turned wistful. "First star to the right and straight on 'til morning," he murmured. At Chris's raised eyebrow and Scott's semi-incredulous look, he shrugged, his mouth trying to quirk upwards into a grin. "What?"
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