"Oh, thank god," Nailah says, wrapping her arms around my neck and hugging me. "Thank god. I thought you were dead or...I don't even know. You wouldn't respond."
"I..." How could I even explain what was happening to me? One second I was here, if this was even the present, and next I might be ten or twenty years in the past. It didn't even make sense to me. Also, I'm so thirsty it feels like I am going to puke, which I didn't even know was a feeling. "Water. Help me." My voice sounds very ragged.
"Huh?" Nailah pulls back and blinks down at me.
"Water," I repeat. "Water."
"Oh! Right." Nailah half-drags me back to the river. I try to help but I still only have one working arm and I feel weaker than I ever have. At the river, I dunk my head in. It occurs to me as I drink that I have no idea if the water is safe. It doesn't matter. I feel like I will die without it. Once I've drunk my fill, I pull my head up gasping for breath. Then I scuttle backwards a bit and rest my forehead on my arm, still breathing hard. "Are you alright?" Nailah asks.
I turn my head slightly so that I can see her kneeling next to me. Her hair is tangled, her face is smudged and her clothing is torn and dirty but she seems basically fine. The incongruity of her being here suddenly hits me. "How did you find me so fast?" I ask. The gorge that Flynn tossed me in must be at least a hundred kilometers from the Psychopomp.
Nailah's eyebrows rise. "Fast? It's been four days."
That statement hits me like a hammer. Four days! No wonder I was so thirsty. Even with my body, four days is a long time without water and that's when I am in peak condition. But more pressing is how. I can remember slipping into memories of the Doctor's meeting and my twelfth birthday but those were no more than a few hours long. Where did the rest of the time go? Was I unconscious? Slipping into memories that faded? Was I awake but my short-term memory short-circuiting? A chill runs up my spine. This is even worse than I thought. With a struggle I manage to sit up. "Even so. How did you find me?"
She sits down across from me. "I saw what direction they took you in. When you didn't come back but others did and started trying to break into the Psychopomp, it was obvious something happened. I decided to come this way because..." She shrugs. "I didn't have any other plan." She wipes tears away from the corners of her eyes with the heels of her hands. "I honestly was starting to think I would have to live on this planet alone for the rest of my life. Or give myself up to those pirates. When I saw you from up there," she points to the cliff where me and Flynn had conversed. "I was sure you were dead."
A sharp pang in my stomach alerts me that I am as hungry as I was thirsty a moment ago. I touch my belly with one hand. "Have you found anything to eat?" I ask.
Nailah nods but looks apologetic. "Some berries or something in the forest but I didn't think to bring any down with me."
"They weren't poison or anything?" I ask with surprise.
"I guess not," Nailah says. "I did eat some leaves the second night but I ended up throwing them back up. I thought I would die before I found those berries."
I close my eyes and then snap them back open, afraid I might go somewhere else again. "Nailah," I say. "If I suddenly don't seem focused on the present, slap me across the face or something." The two times I can remember being reoriented to the present were when I stepped in the river and when I heard her voice, so maybe physical stimulation in the present would refocus me mentally.
"What do you mean?"
"There is something wrong with the wiring in my brain," I say. "I'm slipping in and out of consciousness abruptly so I'm relying on you to keep me here."
"I...what does that even mean?" Nailah asks, looking completely confused.
I shake my head. "It's hard to explain but if I seem like I'm not present...like, I don't know, like I'm daydreaming or something, you might have to do something extreme to snap me out of it." With distressing effort, I manage to stumble to my feet. "Now, let's head for the Psychopomp. Do you think you can find the way back?"
"I probably can but what about you? You look like you're about to fall over."
She's right but I scowl at her. "Let me worry about that," I snap. "You just make sure I stay moving. I need to get back to my ship."
"Maybe we should at least eat something first," she says stubbornly.
"Eat what?" I say with exasperation.
She points at the river. "I noticed things moving in the river. Maybe we can catch something."
I glance at the river. My stomach is sending nearly debilitating pangs of hunger every few moments. I shuffle over to the river and stare down into the water. Sure enough, I can see creatures swimming in the depths. They don't look like fish. More like squids or something, with lots of churning legs. I unlimber my sword my sword and then reverse my grip so that can stab down. My eyes follow the creatures, waiting for one of them to swim into my strike zone.
Having a gun in each hand feels weird. I cannot have this operation connected with Hachimantaro, though, and he is the only person in space crazy enough to use a sword as his primary weapon. I also feels strange to be killing a bunch of humans. It made all the sense in the world to start an organization dedicated to smuggling and information broking but I hadn't thought about the gang warfare this might entail. These goddamn Star Devils keep getting in my way and this last affront was too much to take. Their idiotic name alone was reason enough to wipe out the lot of them. It was time to show them what comes of crossing the Exile King.
I crash through the window and roll to my feet, immediately firing. Two bullets into the chest of the closest Devil and a disruption wave rolls over two of the others. I swing around, dropping into a crouch and a slap whips my head around. I freeze. A slap? There is nobody near me. Another slap hits me and I look around. Nailah is in front of me, face full of concern and hand raised for another slap. "Wait!" I say hurriedly. "That worked. I'm back."
Nailah's hand drops so that it is resting against her chest. "What the hell was that? I thought you were just waiting to get one of the fish and then I come around and your eyes are glazed over like you were tripping or something."
I sigh. "That honestly might not be a bad way to describe what is happening. My brain chemistry is getting messed up, I think. You did good, though, to bring me around." I stumble based on nothing more than my own weakness and nearly fall. "Shit!" I hiss. I hate feeling like this. I never feel like this. Nailah puts a hand on my shoulder, face drawn with sympathy. That just makes me feel worse. I offer her my sword. "See if you can catch something. I am going to be useless."
Nailah takes the sword, blinking in surprise. I totter away from her and sit down heavily. "What do I do?" she asks.
"Wade into the depths knee deep or so and wait for one of the creatures to swim close. Then stab it," I say. Simple but not easy.
Nailah nods with resolve. "I can do that." She takes a few steps into the river and holds the sword up over her head with both hands.
"Make sure you are standing in a way that you can maintain for a while," I say. "The creatures will only swim back near you once they've forgotten the disturbance you made. And moving shadows will startle them all anew."
Nailah peers back at me over her shoulder. "Okay." She lowers the sword so that the hilt is chest level, still holding it with both hands. " Is this better?"
"Stand however you feel most comfortable," I say. She nods and turns back. I watch her, lacking energy to do much else. Plus, I have very few memories of Nailah, so maybe she won't trigger any episodes. Not that that is how this seems to be working. After a long pause in which Nailah is impressively still, she abruptly and awkwardly stabs down.
"Damn it!" she cries, slipping and nearly falling.
"Did you get anything?" I ask, half mockingly and half hoping she really did.
She glares at me. "No." She straightens up and slips again, just barely catching herself. "Fucking, stupid, slippery...there are rocks down here. Really annoying." She lifts one foot out of the water, reaches back and pulls of her shoe. Then she throws it ashore and does the same with her other shoe. "There, let's see if that helps." She crouches a little and holds the sword point down in front of her once more.
"Try dipping some of the sword into the water," I say. "It will make your stroke cleaner. I haven't seen any birds on this planet so maybe the sea creatures here aren't as cautious about the surface of the water." Nailah nods and lowers the sword just a touch, so that the point is in the water. Then she stabs down. This time, she maintains her footing with only a little wobble.
"Almost," she growls. She stabs again. "Come on." One more time. She doesn't straighten up at first and I'm about to ask what happened when she rips the sword out of the river. There is a creature impaled on the point of it, flailing its many legs. "I did it!" Nailah shouts. She wheels around and tries to run toward me but slips, falling face first into the water. She keeps my sword held aloft, though, and scrambles right back to her feet. "I got one!" she laughs and I find myself laughing with her.
"Good job." Nailah stops in front of me, dripping wet but beaming. She presents the creature to me. It is pretty ugly; brown, with scaly skin and eight legs. Four of the legs are at the top of the body with four at the bottom. Though with no discernable eyes or mouth, there doesn't seem to be a way to tell the top from the bottom. "Not exactly appetizing," I say.
"Yeah." With obvious distaste, she pushes the creature off of the sword. It falls to the ground in front of me with a squish and finally stops twitching. She looks a little put out.
I lever myself up. "Well, maybe it will look better once it is roasted up. I'll go collect some tinder and get a fire going. See if you can't catch another one."
Nailah nods. "Okay."
"And, Nailah, if I, you know, don't come back after a few minutes, come and find me."
"You got it." Nailah flashes a smile and then heads back for the water. I go in the other direction, toward a small collection of trees. There is plenty of dead wood on the ground so I collect a number of sticks, tucking them under my dead arm. To my own surprise, I manage to do all this without slipping away. Maybe it is having my mind focused on an immediate task or, hopefully, it means that my mind is finally returning to me. After all, the initial mental scrambling that left me unable to string two thoughts together evidently wore off.
More pressing, now, though is the fact that I really, really want to sit down. Only a little activity and I am already exhausted. That bodes ill for my chances in a fight for the Psychopomp. One thing that has me very worried is the fact that the so-called 'fight or flight' chemicals in my brain don't release of their own accord. The Doctor wanted that to always be a rational choice. I instigate my own adrenaline surge and while it is practically reflexive for me at this point, whatever is happening in my brain might keep me from doing that. If so, I have no idea how I can possibly overcome my current state in a fight.
I dump the sticks in a pile near the dead river creature. A splash makes me look to Nailah and I see that she is wading back ashore with another creature impaled on the sword. I also notice that the star this world orbits is starting to get pretty low in the sky. It hits me that if we start a fire out here it might catch the attention of Oquendo or any pirates he left on the planet. I get an itch between my shoulder blades when I consider how exposed I've been this entire time, in fact. My god. It has been a while since I needed to worry about something like this but am I really this off my game?
As soon as Nailah reaches me I hold out my hand for the sword. When she gives it to me, I stab the other creature and rest the sword on my shoulder. "Gather up those sticks," I say. "We need to find somewhere to spend the night."
"Alright," she responds, clearly a little annoyed with my tone. I can't help it. Now that I realize how easy it would be to spot us, I'm feeling very anxious. Once Nailah has the sticks, I set off. Not in the direction of the Psychopomp. That cliff would be too much for me to climb at the moment. In the other direction, the path out of the valley is gentler and I can see the beginnings of a forest.
That forest turns out to be further than I thought, however, and the sun is nearly down by the time we reach it. Also, I am so tired that it is taking every ounce of willpower I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It is worth it though, for the sense of peace I get when we enter the trees. The potential eyes are gone. The sense of relief saps my resolve, though, and I really want to stop right here. I know that we need to move deeper in the forest so I make myself keep moving. I also put out an ear for running water.
What a miserable world. It's no wonder the niao keep little more than a research station and a small trading outpost on the planet. The small surface area is little more than ice and constant, howling winds. I'm starting to think it was idiotic to even come here. The Doctor would certainly say that it was. I'm curious though. The sentients that live in the niao empire aren’t all that different than humans, on the grand scale of things. There are rumors that the niao have discovered other kinds of intelligence. Things that they have blockaded from the empire. And supposedly, just such an intelligence lived the in the deep, dark oceans of this world.
I duck into the doors of the only inn on the planet. Despite being covered in layers of clothing, the looks I get from the other patrons tell me that they know I am human. Making a snap judgment that cringing will get me nowhere on this planet, I keep my back straight as I walk up to the bar. "Cato!" Someone shouts. That doesn't make any sense. Who here would be called Cato? I must be the only human on the planet. Somebody punches me in the short ribs. I grunt in pain. Who did that? "Cato!"
I blink and Nailah is in front of me. She cocks her head, staring me in the eyes. "Are you back?" she asks.
"I am," I say, rubbing my ribs where she hit them.
"So weird. One moment you're striding along so fast I can barely keep up. The next second you're stopped dead. I thought you saw a predator or something. Sorry about the punch. You weren't responding to my shouts."
"I understand," I say. "Though I wouldn't take it amiss if you could find a gentler way to wake me up.” Now what was I doing? Oh, yes, trying to find a place to stay for the night. It is getting very grey now so we'll need to find some place in a hurry. I close my eyes and still my breathing at am rewarded with the sound of a babbling brook. "This way," I say, setting off.
We reach the brook shortly and find an open area where we can make a fire. "So how do you want to go about this?" Nailah asks, dumping her sticks to the ground. "I tried a method my dad showed me but I could never get it to work."
"Just set them up and I'll get the fire going." Nailah raises an eyebrow but does as I ask. Once the sticks are placed, I say, "Step back." She does and I unclip the Lightsaber. It seems to be fine but I can barely get it to spark up. Luckily, it is enough to set the sticks ablaze.
Nailah laughs. "Well, that certainly makes things easier." We set up the river creatures to cook by impaling them on sharp sticks and then planting them in the ground so they are suspended over the fire. Then I head for the creek and bend over it, drinking like a damn animal or something. When I return, Nailah is gone, presumably answering the call of nature. I sit near the fire. Now that the sun is down, it is starting to get cool. There are trees all around our campsite but none as close as I want to be to the fire. How annoying. I should have thought about that when picking a spot.
Just as I am starting to get worried, Nailah returns. In a pouch she made with her shirt, she has a bunch of the berries she had been eating. They are bright blue, asymmetrically oblong and as big as a thumb joint. They are also very tart but not bad, all things considered. When it seems like the river creature is as cooked as it is going to get, I try an experimental bite. The skin tastes like dirt. I peel some of it away and try the flesh beneath. It's strange but tolerable. Like sweet chicken. I eat my way steadily through it until I reach what looks like the organs. After appraising them, I decide that I'm not quite that hungry and toss the carcass aside.
Nailah takes longer to eat hers but eventually finishes and we sit in silence. I think that I should get some more firewood but can't find it within myself to move. I start to drift and just as I am at the precipice of sleep, Nailah softly asks, "Cato? Are you still awake?"
I blink and straighten up. "Yes. What is it?"
"Oh. I was actually kind of hoping you off in one of your memories or whatever happens," she says with a chuckle.
I look at her. With the fire affecting my night-vision, I can't see her very well. "Why?"
Nailah forced another laugh. "Well, you see, when I fell into the river my shirt got soaked. My pants seemed to have dried all right but this shirt is still wet. And I'm kind of freezing."
"Oh. Alright." I scoot back a little until I hit a tree I can sit against. This puts me a little further from the fire than I would like but that's fine. It's more comfortable anyway. "If you sit down in front of me then I won't be able to see anything. Hang your shirt on one of the sticks we used to cook."
Nailah gets up and moves to where I was sitting. She glances at me over her shoulder and then peels off her shirt. Getting her shirt to stay up with the two cooking sticks takes some trial and error. I watch her while she does it but what catches my attention isn't her nudity. It is the two scars that run down her back. Starting from her neck, they serpentine their way down before disappearing into the waistband of her pants. They are deep scars, as well as being wide and jagged. One is layered on top of the other and is seems as though they must have been made with the same weapon.
Once her shirt is rather precariously suspended near the fire, Nailah sits down. Without thinking, I reach my hand out and run a finger across one of the scars. She stiffens and I pull back my hand. "Sorry," I say. "Were those made with a neural whip?"
"Yes," she says softly.
Had to be. Nothing else leaves a scar like that. I've never seen somebody with two of them, however. "Niao like to say that nobody gets whipped twice because the first one will reduce the most defiant person to subservient worm."
"So they say."
"Can I ask how you got them?"
"You can ask." After that the silence stretches. I don't feel like pushing her on the answer if she doesn't want to give it. I can find out pretty easily by digging into Crescent records when I am out of this mess, anyway. But then Nailah says, "The first one happened when I was sixteen. My employer at the time said something about my father and I snapped for some reason. I'm not sure why. I'd heard worse before and swallowed it. But it got to me this time and I attacked him. Hurt him bad, too, the fucking creep. I probably would have gotten off with just some time added to my sentence but I somehow set off a mini-riot and a few other niao got attacked."
"The neural whip taught me to keep my emotions in check when I had to, that's for sure. That fucking thing. Put a dent in my back like I don't even know. A spear? I would have died from blood-loss but they sprayed some kind of sealant over the wound." She laughs mirthlessly. "That was the fun part, though, if you can believe it. The whip activates neurons and my muscles started spasming randomly but constantly. I don't even know how long it lasted because I couldn't focus on anything but the endless pain. It was two weeks before I could even walk again."
That squares with what I've heard about the neural whip. The pain is like nothing else. I'm guaranteed to lose an agent if they get the whip. Either they cut ties with me because they are afraid of feeling that pain again or they come back to me and I know that they've been turned. "Yet you did something to put yourself under the whip again," I say.
Nailah hesitates a long time before answering. "You could say that. But it's a longer story than the other and I don't think I'm up to telling it tonight."
Interesting. But I say, "That's fine, Nailah. Try and get some sleep." I lean my head back against the tree to take my own advice.