I returned to the banquet hoping to get a chance to talk to Vasquez in private. Honestly, I didn’t think that was going to happen, but it didn’t hurt to try. I guess Hudson was right about there being dancing, though. They started playing really slow music and everyone interested partnered up. I saw Hudson trying to get some of the female Marines from other squads interested but they were having none of it. He was turned down a whopping ten times. I’m not sure which was worse, that, or if Viano had actually followed up on her threat to make him her dance partner for the night. I saw her sitting at one of the tables alone and I couldn’t tell if she didn’t want to dance, or didn’t see anyone she wanted to dance with.
Walking through the crowd, I observed everyone. Wierzbowski was blushing when a cute blonde private offered to dance with him, but she was quickly whisked away by Spunkmeyer, who I was shocked to see didn’t have two left feet on the dance floor. Frankly, I kinda hurt inside seeing the big guy looking so disappointed, but I struggled with finding something useful to say to him.
He noticed me staring. “Yes?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Sorry you didn’t get the girl, here.”
“That’s alright. Not like anything would’ve come out of it.” Wierzbowski sighed. “Are you going to be dancing with anyone, Drake?”
I peered through the crowd, looking for Vasquez, and saw her sitting at a table with Ferro watching everyone else go out and dance and make fools of themselves. Dietrich was nowhere to be found. Knowing her, she probably made herself scarce as soon as the dancing was announced.
Frost, Crowe, Hicks, Apone, and now Wierzbowski were the only guys not dancing. I watched Ferro and Vasquez turn down guys from other units. At some point, Spunkmeyer walked over to where Ferro and Vasquez were sitting and held his hand out to Ferro. Much to my surprise, Ferro took his hand. I watched as they danced, taking a glass of champagne from the refreshment table and downing it in one gulp. There’s no way dancing Spunkmeyer and Hudson being Hudson at this party was going to have good results.
The music changed and so did Ferro’s choice of partner. When she and Spunkmeyer got closer to me, she let go of Spunkmeyer’s hands and held hers out to me. “Care to dance, Drake?” she asked.
Stunned, I looked over in Vasquez’s direction. There’s no way she’d want to dance, and she doesn’t want people to know we’re together, yet I don’t think she’d approve of me dancing with somebody else. She gave me a faint, barely-noticeable shrug and I took that as she trusted me to treat dancing with Ferro like it meant nothing. With that in mind, I took Ferro’s hand. “Sure. What the hell.”
Grinning, Ferro squeezed mine. “So, how’re you?”
“Uh… good,” I said. “Wondering when we’re gonna go back to base.”
“I heard Viano say we’ll stay another hour or until Hudson drops his trousers.”
“And this wouldn’t be the first time he does that.”
I noticed Ferro didn’t move on to anyone else after picking me, even when we passed by other Marines. She stuck with me longer than Spunkmeyer. Frankly, I wasn’t sure what that meant. Either she just liked my company, or…
You know what? I’m just going to say she liked my company.
I was awake before anyone else was the following morning. We’re usually woken up around seven so it was a little strange to wake up to silence.
It wasn’t just strange, though. It was actually kinda terrifying, especially after last night.
No, it has nothing to do with the ball. The ball was fine. Hudson did not do anything ridiculous beyond the donut thing. It was something else. I was having bad dreams last night. It’s technically been over a month since the incident with the flowers on Gateway, but they’re only starting to come up in my dreams now. Why?
My dreams basically replayed everything that had happened. Every sound and feeling was extremely vivid, and that made them more terrifying. The hallucinations were in my nightmare too. How those were in, I’ll probably never know.
I sat up in bed with my journal until two minutes before breakfast, got out of bed, and got dressed quickly. On the way down to the mess hall for breakfast, I caught Ferro looking at me from the corner of my eye. I was still too rattled from my dreams to pay her (or anyone, for that matter) any attention.
After breakfast, I requested a three-hour pass to take the ferry out to the city. I needed to get some air and think. Once Apone signed my pass, I had to go out to the base docks and wait for the ferry. It usually comes by at the start of every hour, beginning at seven in the morning and ending at eight at night. As I stepped on, I glanced over my shoulder at the base behind me and then toward the skyline of Brisbane. It had been lit up just the night before. As we drew closer, I could hear car horns and trucks backing up and just the overall city ambience.
I stepped off the ferry at a sizable dock and felt a sudden chill. In my hallucinations, I had seen myself in a nameless city several times, either just walking or trying to rescue someone (who, I’m not sure). But I wasn’t hallucinating. That brought some sense of relief, but it did nothing to turn my thoughts away from my nightmare.
With nothing to do, I decided to venture out to where Delhoun said his Annexer facility is. The card he gave me didn’t have his address on it, so I pulled out my cell phone, flipped it open, and typed the number on the card into the video call function. The tiny screen went white as the word “Connecting” flashed across it until it changed to live feed of Delhoun looking at me through his own phone camera. “Bright and early, Drake? I didn’t expect to be hearing from you so soon.”
“That’s a bit of a story,” I replied. “I was thinking of dropping by your place and taking a look around if it’s okay. Can you give me the address?”
Delhoun gave me the address, and as soon as he ended the call I flagged down the first taxi I saw.
I found out later that the facility Delhoun spends most of his time at when he’s not on Gateway was a former high school that was vacated after the district decided to move it to another part of the city, and Weyland-Yutani bought it to use as a research building. I walked into the main entrance and the receptionist asked who I was looking for. When I told him, he paged Delhoun to the entrance, and a few minutes later, Delhoun appeared, carrying a blanketed bundle in his arms. “Drake, good to see you. How are you?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. I was in town and decided to check your place out.”
Delhoun shifted the bundle and I saw a little black nose sticking out of it. “Ah, so, would you like a tour, then?”
Another shrug. “If you’re offering.” Truth be told, I was only slightly interested, but I was hoping to get a chance to just talk to Delhoun in private about my dreams from last night. “So, who’s that?” I pointed to the blanket.
“This is Pumpkin. He’s only a week old.”
Nestled within the blanket was a baby Annexer. He looked just like Winnie except there was no white on his forehead or ears. His eyes were wide and he appeared to be shaking.
“You’re not gonna put me on diaper duty, are you?” I asked.
“No,” Delhoun replied. “I’ve been honored with getting to handle some of the young.” He offered the bundle to me.
I took the blanket, and watched as Pumpkin lifted his head, jaws slightly parted. He had a nice set of sharp, white teeth, and he was sniffling and grunting at me. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.
There were a few people walking around the building, probably other scientists. We went down a few hallways before coming to a section that seemed to only be populated by Annexers. Some were interacting with the few humans in the room but when we entered the hall, all the Annexers stopped to look at me. Every single one of them.
Delhoun smirked. “They’ve taken an interest in you. That’s a good sign.”
“Am I going to have to go through that weird pheromone ritual again?” I asked.
“Doubtful. Most people only have that done once.” Delhoun didn’t make eye contact with me as we walked down another hallway. The doors were covered in signs for authorized personnel only. “These rooms are for the Annexers we recently rescued from space smugglers. I would strongly advise you not to interact them without my supervision. They are anxious, uncomfortable, and they can be violent.”
I took that as Annexers experience trauma the same way we do, though the way they express it is different. They can’t communicate it to us, and I can imagine that frustrates them, driving them deeper into whatever dark place they’re already in.
Delhoun swiped his card to enter one of the rooms. It was comfortably furnished, and the sun was spilling in through the window. There was a low bed with unmade sheets against one wall, and I saw a long snout poking out from under a desk on the other side of the room. After a moment, a female Annexer appeared, looking terrified.
“This is Dakota,” Delhoun said. “She was rescued a few months ago, and we’re still trying to learn how to communicate with her, in order to help her. So far, progress has been minimal. Sometimes she’ll respond positively. Other times she’ll snap. I’m curious if she’ll respond to you. You’ve suffered something traumatic, just as she has.”
I gave him a look. “How the fuck would she be able to figure that out?”
“They’re very intelligent, and they can read our faces fairly well.” Delhoun gestured to Dakota. “Go ahead. Try to interact with her.”
I wasn’t sure this was a good idea. I felt tense as I knelt in front of Dakota. She backed away slightly, then cautiously took a few steps forward. I held out my hand. “I’m not gonna hurt you,” I whispered.
Dakota moved closer to me, sniffing my hand, then my arm, and finally my face. She lingered there, and I could see in her eyes that she was really confused. That confusion seemed to grow until her ears and whiskers flattened and she swiped her claws at my face.
Involuntarily, I fell backward to cover my face and move away from her. Wetness formed on the left side of my face and pain was searing around my eye. Dakota disappeared under the desk, hissing at us.
“It’s alright, Drake, it’s alright,” Delhoun said, helping me stand up. He pulled my hands from my face. “Let me see. Mmm, that’s a nasty one. Follow me.” He quickly led me down the hall and into a white room that I assumed was for medical purposes. “Sit,” Delhoun said, opening a cabinet and taking out a kit.
I couldn’t force myself to open my left eye, and I was really afraid Dakota had cut it or something.
Delhoun pressed a gauze pad against the scratch, and held it for several seconds before pulling it away. “Alright, Drake,” he sighed, “You got lucky. She didn’t get your eye.” He took a cotton ball, put a drop of rubbing alcohol on it, and put that on the wound. I flinched at the cold stinging of the alcohol. “That’ll leave a good scar,” Delhoun said. “It’ll heal nicely, though.” He took my head in his hands, slowly forcing open my left eye. “No blood, just tears.”
The entire left side of my face felt like it was throbbing as Delhoun applied a bandage to the cut. I still wanted to keep my eye shut, but Delhoun said I was overreacting and anxious.
“I’ve had worse,” he added.
“From other Annexers?” I asked.
“Oh, no. From Dakota.” He lifted the right sleeve of his robe, showing me a network of scars running up and down his arm.
“Why’s she like this?”
Delhoun leaned against the wall. “Well, she was taken by a group of pirates from LV-112, somewhere near the equator. I’ve estimated she was fairly young, maybe three years old or a little older. She was used as a fighter in an illegal dogfighting ring down in Sydney and her monetary value kept going up the more she fought and won. Naturally, other rings wanted to get ahold of her. Some gang broke into the kennels, took her, and brought her back to their lair. She fought dogs, other Annexers, and then turned on her handlers. Truly bloody mess that was.” He shook his head. “Someone tipped us off about what was going on. We rescued every Annexer in there, but Dakota was having none of it. I was the one who suggested tranquilizer darts. Probably wasn’t the best for her. She woke up and the first thing she did was try to break out of the building. You can imagine how scared she was, being in such an unfamiliar place. She probably thought this was just another fighting ring.”
“And… you think I can help her?”
Delhoun nodded. “I think you can make some kind of connection with Dakota. You’ve both had a bit of a tumultuous past and I think you can show her that things can change for the better.”
I snorted. “How the fuck is she gonna know that?”
“Like I said before, you’d be surprised at how far developed an Annexer’s brain is. They can get to know you by watching you and listening to you and smelling you. Try it; stand near her cage later today and see what she does.”
It was best to just leave Dakota alone for a few hours. In the meantime, Delhoun was going to let me play with some baby Annexers that a couple of his furry residents needed watching. He took me down to the old gym and had me sit in a large playpen. You can imagine how undignified this made me look.
“Let them come to you,” he said while setting each of them into the pen. There were four of them, and I wasn’t even sure if I could handle one. Their parents were watching from the doorway.
The four little guys watched Delhoun and the parents Annexers until they left the room and then they looked at me. No, they stared at me with their huge blue eyes, probably wondering who this new human was.
I shrugged. “Hey, I’m not gonna care if you hate me.”
One of them started crawling over to me. He sniffed me excitedly and then pulled himself onto my lap. He sat there for a few seconds before cautiously reaching up towards my torso.
The others followed his lead, and began examining me at their own pace. One was crawling up my back with his tiny claws digging into my shirt. Another was hugging my right arm and the third was chewing the laces of my boots.
I figured I had to give them names, because writing “that one” over and over again in my journal would get boring. The one chewing my boots was named Dopey. The one on my back was named Alfalfa because there was a tuft of fur on his head sticking up that reminded me of the plant, the one hugging my arm was named Teddy, and the one perched on my leg was named Nutjob.
Alfalfa had managed to climb on my shoulder, sniffed my ear, and then jumped onto my head. I tried staying as still as possible as he lay in my hair, but I drew the line at him chewing it. Quickly, I grabbed him and set him on the floor, giving him a stern “No.”
After twenty minutes of just sitting with them, Delhoun returned holding two cups of coffee and trailed by the Annexer parents.
“Getting along?” he asked.
“Well I haven’t had my fingers bitten off, so I guess we are,” I replied.
“Good.” Delhoun entered the playpen and handed me one of the cups. “I haven’t taken the time to nickname the little ones, but-”
“Dopey, Nutjob, Alfalfa, Teddy.”
I could tell Delhoun wasn’t impressed, but he should’ve expected complete stupidity considering I once named an Annexer “Little Shit.” The adult Annexers were definitely not impressed. One of them slapped me across the face and squeaked what I’ll assume is a curse at me.
My pass had only been for three hours and was almost up, but given that I trusted Delhoun more than anyone in my unit other than Vasquez, I decided to stay a few more minutes to talk to him about something that had been bugging me all day. “Mind if I talk to you for a moment?”
“Sure,” Delhoun replied.
I sighed. “Well, remember how last night, when you asked how I was after… all that happened on Gateway? I had a nightmare last night. It was… very vivid. Like I was reliving what had happened. I remember everything. The sounds, the feelings in my chest, the doctors hovering over me, trying to revive me. Everything.”
“That is normal after such an event,” Delhoun said. “Most of the time, dreams like that fade after a while. It’s when they don’t that they signify a problem.”
I nodded a little. “So, it’s… completely normal that I had a nightmare. A very vivid and terrifying nightmare.”
“Yes. I’m no expert, but I do know that bad dreams like that can go away. My suggestion for you is to distract, turn your thoughts to something else, something more positive.”
“That sounds like you’re telling me to ignore my problems.”
“I’m not. If these nightmares don’t go away, then you should seek help.”
I didn’t respond to that. Help? I can’t get help. If I seek help I could get thrown out of the Marines.
I returned to base shortly before noon chow time and found everyone going about their daily routines. Privately I was hoping no one asked about the bandage next to my eye, but it wasn’t exactly easy to conceal. It was inevitable that people were going to ask.
Apone herded us into the mess hall for lunch and that’s when Hudson asked, “Hey, Drake, what happened to your face, man?”
I bit my lip. “I… got into a tangle with an Annexer.”
“If you think having a scar is going to improve how your face looks, you’re wrong,” Dietrich said.
“That was uncalled for, Dietrich,” Viano pointed out gently.
Dietrich didn’t add anything and just kept scowling while picking at her tray. I figured it was best not to say anything either. The last thing I want to do is make Dietrich more unpleasant than she already is.
As the day went on, everyone wanted to know the story behind what happened to my face. I don’t know if it’s because they’re all bored or it’s just something you do in the military-you know, talk about your battle scars. It wasn’t until later in the day that I could actually remove the bandage, but I did it in the privacy of my bathroom. The wound was still open but the bleeding had stopped. I figured it was best to put a new one on after my shower, because I don’t want to run the risk of it getting infected.
After throwing away the bandage, I went and got clean clothing. As I came back into the bathroom, something wet began running down my cheek and I cursed, thinking it was blood. I grabbed a tissue and pressed it against the wound, but when I pulled the tissue away, I didn’t see blood-well, there was blood, but it was mixed with something else. Something silver.
I looked in the mirror. Sure enough, there was more blood and silver fluid welling from the wound by my eye. I wasn’t in pain, though. What did this mean? I swallowed hard and a part of me was screaming for me to just forget it. Cover the wound back up and don’t touch it until I’m certain there’s just a scar there.
So that’s what I did. After getting a shower, I put a new bandage on. No silver and no blood seeped through.
I know Delhoun doesn’t deal with plants, but he’s the only one who knew what happened. I could have contacted him through an audio or video call, but the next day was Sunday, so I could ask for another pass and visit him again to ask in person. That meant I could also hang out with the four babies, which was good, but it also meant I also had to deal with Dakota.
I feel bad for Dakota, to be honest. She doesn’t deserve to live like this. I kept thinking about what Delhoun said about me being able to connect with Dakota because we’ve both had a rocky past, but there’s a part of me that thinks it’s going to take a lot for us to be able to get along.
I tried to put on a brave face as I left my room, going to Vasquez’s, and knocking on the door. Out of everyone here, I know I can trust her with what’s going on. We’re partners. It’s kind of an unwritten rule that we trust each other with stuff like this. I heard her get out of the shower, and a moment later she opened the door, covering herself with a towel. “What?”
“I need to talk to you about something,” I said.
Vasquez let me in and gestured for me to sit. She disappeared into the bathroom and emerged a few minutes later in a T-shirt and shorts. Sitting on the bed next to me, she turned to face me and reached out to take my hand. “Okay. What’s going on, Drake?”
I took a breath, struggling to put my words together. Knowing Vasquez, it’s best to get right to the point. “Last night, I was having bad dreams about what happened on Gateway.”
“What exactly did happen on Gateway? All we got was that you were poisoned.”
“Yeah. I was poisoned. I got trapped in a room with these silver flowers. They’re pretty much exactly what you’d think of when you hear ‘silver flower.’ Anyway, they’re so toxic that they’ll severely restrict your airways and cause hallucinations. I… Last night, I relived them. All of them. The hallucinations plus the brief moment I was… I guess conscious and I could hear the doctors saying they were losing me.”
“You dreamed about something bad that happened.” Vasquez shrugged. “I dream about what I did to get put in juvie all the time.”
“So, you get what I’m talking about.”
She nodded. “Yeah. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I have bad dreams all the time. Doesn’t… mean much of anything.”
“I’m not losing my mind, then.”
“No, Drake. You lost it a long time ago. Only a crazy person would’ve fallen in love with me.”
I smirked. “So, does that mean you’re crazy, too? I always thought it would take a crazy person to fall in love with me.”
Vasquez playfully punched my arm. “Don’t push it. I refuse to believe I’m the crazy one in this marriage. Besides, you’re the one who talks to his smartgun.”
“Good point, honey.”
I returned to the research station the next day, not really looking forward to interacting with Dakota again. She was at least less aggressive than yesterday, and with Delhoun observing, I sat across from her in her quarters and let her approach at her own pace.
I flinched when she skipped studying me and went right to touching my face. She ran a clawed finger under my new scar and made a sad sound. Regret? Sorrow?
“Yeah. You did that,” I said.
Dakota tilted her head. At first, I thought she didn’t remember scratching me, but a second later, her body language told me she did, and she regretted it. She covered her eyes and looked at me through her fingers.
Nervously, I held out my hand. “If you’re saying ‘sorry’ then I accept it.”
Dakota took my hand in both of hers and squeezed it. I kinda took this as a sign of progress, and I hoped that she wouldn’t turn on me in the next second or two.
Delhoun was impressed, but he didn’t express that to me until after we left Dakota alone for the rest of the day and had gone back to his office. “I didn’t think she’d respond to something so simple. She’s scratched and bitten others in the past but never really showed remorse for it.”
I shrugged. “I just don’t know why she’d show remorse to me of all people. I don’t deserve it.”
Delhoun gave me a sad look. “Do you have remorse for what you did to get yourself in prison?”
“Then there’s no reason why others-human or not-shouldn’t show remorse for hurting you.” Delhoun looked down at his watch. “I have some work to do now. If you want to stay for a while, you’re welcome to play with the babies for a while.”
I decided to take him up on the offer, and my mind was focused on what he had said as I walked down to the gym that served as the Annexer “daycare”. But after what I learned in training, I wasn’t too focused to not notice the footsteps approaching me from behind as I walked down the hall. I heard them but didn’t pay much attention at first, thinking it was just another company employee. But then I noticed that the footsteps sounded just a bit heavier than a normal person. They were also closing on me a bit faster than I would expect a person to, so I turned around to look. I felt the blood drain from my face as I saw who, or what, was following me. It looked human, but it wasn’t. There’s no way it was human. It was way too tall and it was the color of ice. Its eyes, too, weren’t human. They were completely black or dark-blue. And they were looking right at me. It was wearing some kind of otherworldly suit. That was all I needed to know that it wasn’t human, but what the hell was it?
The big alien man kept looking at me, but I couldn’t read any hostility in his face. He approached, holding out one hand to me and I froze, not sure if I needed to be ready to fight or not.