Our little standoff was interrupted by Delhoun calling from behind the alien, “Drake! Aran!”
I looked past the alien to him. “Uh, you know him?”
Delhoun gave me an apologetic smile as he walked quickly down the hallway towards us. “I remembered I didn’t tell you Aran was going to be here today and you might run into him. I didn’t want him to startle you, but I guess I’m too late for that. Aran is an old friend of mine.”
The alien nodded, but still said nothing as he looked back and forth between us. Delhoun continued, “He was bonded to Dakota years ago, before she was taken. That’s how we met. I… encountered him when we broke up a different fighting ring. He was hoping Dakota would be there, but she wasn’t.”
My nerves gradually relaxed now that I knew… Aran was harmless. I turned back to him, and offered my own hand as an apology. Maybe it was the snow-white color of his skin, but I expected his touch to be cold, and was surprised to find my hand grasped in a warm, firm grip as Aran met my eyes politely.
“I was looking for you too, Aran,” Delhoun said. “Can you come back to the office with me?”
Aran nodded, and the two retreated down the hall together, leaving me still a bit startled at the unexpected encounter.
When I got back to the base that night, everything involving Annexers and Delhoun and Aran just faded away. While I was glad for that, I also wished the same would go for my nightmares and the silver flower. I had to change my bandage again that night, and sure enough more silver fluid flowed from the cut. It was less than yesterday, so I’m guessing (and hoping) that means the wound is healing. I put a new bandage on and just tried not to think about it.
I decided to join the rest of my unit in the lounge after my shower. Everyone was there except Dietrich and Viano. Dietrich being Dietrich, that first wasn’t surprising, but it was a bit unusual to not see Viano there. Even though she usually kept to herself with a book, magazine, or other distraction, she was at least present.
I sat on the couch after grabbing a couple of chocolate bars from the vending machine and figured I’d just watch everyone. I wasn’t expecting anyone to notice me. Vasquez was sitting on the edge of the couch and watching a baseball game with Ferro, Spunkmeyer, and Frost, and I didn’t think it would exactly be in the spirit of subtlety to shove myself in between her and Frost. Hudson was eating. Apone and Hicks were playing cards with Wierzbowski and Crowe, so that left me alone.
My alone time only lasted for a few minutes, though. Ferro glanced at me twice over the course of several minutes and finally got up to walk over to me. “Drake,” she said, smiling a little.
“What?” I replied.
“Mind if I sit with you?”
I shrugged. “I don’t care. Sit wherever you want.”
I don’t necessarily want that dance a couple nights ago to mean anything, because I’m not interested in Ferro, but it’s not like I don’t want us to be friends. The same can be said for everyone here.
I think. I’m honestly not sure what I want. Do I even want friends? I want people to understand me, that’s for sure. I just don’t know if I’d get that with this group of people.
She sat next to me, and her smile began to fade. “So…” She looked around the room, then back at me. “How are you?”
“Fine.” I glanced at her. “What do you want?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why’d you decide to sit with me?”
I shrugged again.
Her smile faded more. “Drake? There’s nothing wrong with just letting someone sit with you. Come on, you’ve been here how many months now? And you’ve barely talked to anyone.”
All my defenses went back up. “Is that a problem to you?”
I can’t fault Ferro for not understanding. After all, I didn’t tell her why I’m usually so distant. Then again, she does know I was in prison. How is she comfortable being around me just knowing that?
“No, it’s not a problem… but… I know you probably had a rough past, but… this is a new place and a fresh start. Wouldn’t hurt to open up just a little.”
I was quiet for a moment. “I’ll open up when I want to. Not now, though.”
Giving an annoyed sigh, Ferro stood up and went back to the other couch. I noticed Vasquez was looking at me before she stood up to sit next to me. She looked like she wanted to put me in a headlock but instead hissed at me low enough to not be heard over the sound of the TV, “Ferro is actually a nice person. You don’t need to be such an ass.”
“I’m not trying to be an ass,” I said. “I don’t like people telling me to ‘open up’ when I’m not ready.”
“Okay, that I understand, but you could be just a tad nicer. These are your teammates and we’re stuck with them for over four more years.” Vasquez pointed to Hudson. “Including that one.”
Hudson had snuck up behind the TV couch and reached over to grab Spunkmeyer’s shoulders, prompting the dropship co-pilot to whirl around and throw a pillow at Hudson. “Don’t do that! Asshole!”
“Knock it off,” Apone said, not looking up from his cards. “Don’t make me put you all to bed early.”
My dreams were vivid that night. I was walking down a dark corridor lit only by primitive torches. It was very warm and stuffy, but I wasn’t sweating. I heard screeching reminiscent of an Annexer. Rounding a corner, I saw Dakota sitting in the middle of the hall looking at me. Her claws were out and she started growling at me. Before I could react, she lunged at me and jumped to scratch my face. Blood sprayed on the floor and the walls, but there was no pain. I didn’t even feel scared. I felt powerless. A heavy feeling started in my chest and stomach. I just looked at her and sighed, feeling defeated. “Fine. I’ll leave you alone. I thought we were making some progress.”
She dug her claws into my abdomen, raking them diagonally from the base of my ribs to where my appendix is, screeching at me. Blood soaked my shirt, and I felt a thick, wet layer coating my stomach. Dakota put her bloody paws over her eyes. She was crying. She hunched over, trying to cover her face.
I stayed where I was. The blood on my face was running down my neck and my chest. The blood on my stomach was beginning to run into my pants. What could I say to her? Why did this feel so real? At the same time, why wasn’t I in pain from the scratches? Why was I feeling emotional pain, but not physical pain?
It must’ve been around four in the morning when I woke up feeling like my entire lower abdomen was on fire, and I could not get comfortable, no matter what position I lay in. Sitting up, a sharp jabbing sensation erupted around my sides. It hurt just to move. I thought I was having the worst gas imaginable. The food here can be bad, but never this bad.
Forcing myself to get up and go to the restroom was excruciating, and I also had a hard time just standing up. Everything felt . . . weak. I had to hold onto the wall and dresser as I dragged myself into the bathroom, groping around for the light switch. I struggled to comprehend my own surroundings. My head was heavy and throbbing. I looked into a mirror to find my pupils had shrunk to the size of pinheads, but, then again, my vision wasn’t in clear focus.
Something was telling me this wasn’t gas, but I sat on the toilet anyway to see if any relief would come. The only thing I managed to do was piss, and that was so painful I don’t even know how to describe it. What really sent me over the edge was the fact that it didn’t look . . . normal. It was almost all silver.
This had to be a nightmare. This just had to be another fucking nightmare. The pain suggested otherwise, and it was getting harder and harder to stand. The heavy feeling in my head suddenly turned into a splitting migraine. It gripped my head like a vice, and I let out a less-than-impressive whimper. Following that whimper was a childish cry. Following that cry was a grunt, and then another cry. I gritted my teeth and sobbed. What was happening? Why was I feeling this?
Gradually, I started to feel numb. Part of me felt like that alone was relief, but another part of me was outright terrified. I was living a nightmare, and I had no idea how it would end. I kept begging myself to just wake up, but instead of waking up, I fell unconscious on the floor.
The next thing I knew I was lying in a hospital bed with needles and tubes running through my arms, and two in my sides. I was still mostly numb. My vision cleared and I saw a man standing over me. For a moment I thought it was Delhoun, but I looked closer and saw he had green eyes instead of red. He smiled and said, “Good to see you’re up, Drake. You gave us a bit of a fright a few hours ago.”
I groaned. “Don’t tell me I almost died again.”
“Not quite. You would have if you hadn’t been found in your bathroom when you didn’t show for breakfast. How are you feeling right now?”
“I’m very uncomfortable. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
The doctor nodded. “You will be for some time. Thankfully, your age and unique physiology have kept this from being much worse.”
“What exactly are you talking about?”
“Your case on Gateway. The poison of the Agphyte was never fully removed from your system.”
“Agphyte?” I questioned the term.
“It’s the name we’ve given what you call the silver flower. Your body’s natural filters, the kidneys, were full of the toxin, and struggled to filter it out. This led to what we’re calling argemia, or ‘silver blood.’ Without assistance, you would’ve suffered complete kidney failure and possibly death.”
I sighed. “This is honestly the most incredible bullshit I’ve ever heard.”
“It’s not, though. Your case on Gateway has pushed for more research on this plant in order to find an antidote.”
“That’s all fine and dandy for you, but what about me? Have you made an antidote?”
The doctor shook his head. “Not yet. That is a work in progress. Right now, you’re on dialysis, but we’re trying to create something that will render the toxin inert and easier to filter so it can be flushed from the body like any other substance. Try to get some rest. You should be out by the end of the day.”
All I know is that a long time passed between taking to the doctor and waking up. Waking up became a bitch as I struggled to open my eyes and regain feeling in my extremities. When I was fully awake, I felt someone holding my hand and turned my head to see Vasquez sitting next to the bed with my left hand gripped tightly in hers.
I couldn’t seem to find the strength to smile.
There was silence for a few long minutes until Vasquez sighed in relief and squeezed my hand more tightly. I forced myself to return the gesture and wrapped my fingers around her hand. Only then did I manage to grin at her. “Hi.”
“Hi,” she replied. “Are you-”
“Okay? Not in the slightest.” I wanted to laugh but I was in pain just from thinking about it. “I have no idea what happened.”
“You didn’t show up for morning chow and Viano found you passed out in your bathroom.”
“I know that. I’m talking about the doctor who saw me. It wasn’t Dietrich.”
“Oh, Doctor Hornby? Apparently, he’s only one of a handful of people who know about these stupid silver flowers. The base doctors called for him right away when they saw you were… leaking silver. He had you put on a dialysis machine.” Vasquez shrugged. “That’s all I know. Frankly, I don’t care. I… I…”
“Almost lost me again? I know. Hornby said I would be fine. Don’t know if I trust him, though. How long have I been here?”
“Eight hours. Maybe longer.”
“And how long were you sitting here?”
“Ten minutes. I made sure everyone was in the lounge beforehand.”
I gave her a lopsided grin. “Were you scared?”
“Yes! How can you act like-”
“Honey, relax. I’m gonna be okay. Don’t get worked up over it. Do you think a stupid plant is gonna keep me down? I’m pretty sure we’ve been through worse shit than this.”
I could tell Vasquez wanted to argue with me, but she let out her breath, deciding against it. “You’re a dumbass, Drake.” She probably would’ve slapped me if I wasn’t incapacitated on a hospital bed. “But you’re my favorite dumbass.”
“Hey, slap me if you want. Maybe it’ll make my senses come back faster.”
“Well, maybe it won’t and maybe I’ll get in trouble for hurting a sick man.”
“Hopefully, this’ll be the last time I have to be laid up in a damn hospital for a long time,” I said, “I’m getting sick of this.”
“Do you know how long it’ll be before they let me out?”
“I heard you’ll be let out tonight.”
“You’ll be let out tonight” came with a massive price tag. My kidneys were functioning properly again, but I was sore and it still hurt to piss a little. Hornby said that would be normal for a bit, and since he didn’t want me developing a UTI, I was put on an antibiotic, and told to drink the cranberry juice at mealtimes.
I would happily drink the cranberry juice if it wasn’t the most bitter shit you’ve ever tasted.
Worse yet, this Doctor Hornby guy gave Viano strict orders that I wasn’t to be put in cryosleep for a month. That meant, if my squad got called for a mission within that amount of time, I had to stay behind.
Deep down, I knew this was all my fault. If I didn’t run like a maniac into the lab with the flowers, I wouldn’t have fallen ill in the first place. No, if I hadn’t gotten pissed at Redding, I wouldn’t have even been on that station in the first place.
Although, if I had been a bit smarter several years ago, none of this crap would’ve ever happened.
The only person who knows what I did to get myself landed in juvenile prison is Vasquez, and she swore she’d never tell anyone. Honestly, I’ve been afraid to tell my tale in a journal because I’m worried someone’ll see it, but I think I need to get it off my chest. And if I can bring up the truth about Vasquez, I can talk about this.
I stole a car. I stole a car because I needed to escape. It didn’t help that I shot someone to get it. I had to, or else I would’ve been shot first.
The place I grew up in wasn’t necessarily the best, nor was it the worst. A group of kids in my graduating class decided it would be funny to make a “gang pledge.” They weren’t all that bright, and none of them could get hired for part-time jobs, so they thought they could make a living by robbing people and trading hard drugs for cash or illegal weapons. They decided, one day, that I would be a perfect victim.
I can remember a bright blue car being parked across the street from where I was walking. Four guys got out and approached me, looking friendly at first, but then grabbed me and dragged me over to the hood of the car. What they didn’t know was that I was armed myself-I had taken my dad’s handgun before running. I managed to squirm out of their grips and yanked the gun out of my belt. I probably would’ve been in less trouble if I had shot the one kid in the leg instead of the head, but what the hell are you supposed to do when you’re running on pure adrenaline?
The car was wide open, so I threw myself into the driver’s seat, slammed shut the doors, and pressed my foot on the gas as hard as I could. I remember the car smelled like a mix of cigarette smoke and strong perfume. I also remember the pained screams, the sickening crunches, and the bam of the car smacking into two of the guys who attacked me. I thought this was going to be the perfect chance to run away and start my own life.
Well, I was wrong. I was very wrong. I lasted maybe three days before getting picked up in the woods. The car was out of gas, and I was dehydrated and malnourished. The evidence that I had seriously hurt people was all over the front of the car. I guess you know what happens from there.
Now that I’ve written this, I don’t know if I feel any better. Maybe it’ll take some time for a weight like that to come off my shoulders. Maybe it did nothing at all, and I’m just wasting ink, paper, and time.
I still felt weak and sluggish the following morning, and I didn’t feel like eating or doing much of anything. Of course, I couldn’t partake in any of our daily exercises and training routines, but I figured that meant I’d just have to lay in bed all day and do almost nothing.
Nope, I was wrong. I got to spend the day with Dr. Hornby.
Now, when I learned this, I thought that meant I’d be stuck in sick bay all fucking day, but, no, he got permission to take me off base to his laboratory in Brisbane. You can probably imagine I wasn’t happy. More accurately, I was pissed that all this attention was on me.
When we got off the ferry, Hornby walked me to an unmarked vehicle. We drove down several streets before coming to a building that I assumed was part of a hospital. It was labeled as a research facility, and there were a ton of “Authorized Personnel Only” signs all over the parking lot, which was shaded by a tree-lined garden. Several white-coated people were walking around. It was hard to miss them.
A bad feeling started slowly turning my stomach. Hornby opened the car door for me and told me to not say anything to anyone. What he didn’t tell me was why.
We entered the building through the ambulance bay, walking down a hallway typically reserved for rushing gurneys down. It was cold, and something deep inside me wanted me to high-tail it out of there.
Finally, we came to a large room full of equipment I couldn’t tell you the purpose of even if I tried. Two other people in labcoats were there. They moved out of the way as Hornby walked me in, having me sit on an examination table.
I tried not to think about the Gateway hospital, but that wasn’t possible.
“Same Marine we treated on Gateway,” one of the doctors said. He looked at Hornby, which gave me the impression that Hornby was the one in charge.
“I wasn’t there,” Hornby replied, “but I read the treatment records. He is suffering from argemia. First confirmed case of it in a human.”
The doctor that supposedly treated me gave me the impression that he was looking to help me. He was gentle and seemed to acknowledge the fact I looked uncomfortable. “Just relax,” he said. “We’ll let you out of here soon.”
While Hornby and the second doctor went to another part of the room, this first doctor began giving me a quick exam after hooking me up to an EKG. I studied his face as he did so, trying to remember him from Gateway. So far, my mind wasn’t letting me go back to that, and I wasn’t about to push it.
The doctor examining me was Garavich. The other doctor with Hornby was Adril. Garavich was calm and reassuring during the exam, explaining to me what he was doing and why, without making me feel stupid in the process.
“I can promise we’re not ‘mad scientists,’ here,” he said. “Just a quick exam, and then we’ll take some samples for study.”
“Can I hold open your eyes for a second, Drake?” Garavich asked.
I figured it was best to cooperate here, so I let him hold my left eye open to shine a light in it.
“Don’t stare right into the light… good. Now the right… Okay, good.” Garavich turned off the light, and wrote something down on his clipboard. “Open your mouth.” He gently held my lower jaw open while shining the light into the back of my throat. “Hmm… slightly red, but nothing to be concerned about…” He paused, then looked at Hornby. “Doctor, come take a look at this.”
“What?” Hornby asked.
“Silver on his tonsils. Probably debris stones.”
“Are they swollen?”
“A little, but nothing of major concern.”
Hornby thought for a moment. “They’re probably toxic, though, especially if they’re a result of argemia. I’d take one out.”
Garavich nodded. “Mild anesthetic?”
“Yes. Just enough so his gag reflex doesn’t kick in.”
“Okay.” Still being as gentle as he could, Garavich injected a local anesthetic in my mouth, waiting a few minutes before taking out a pair of tweezers. “Nice and quick and easy,” he said, softly.
I was beginning to have the impression he was treating me like a dangerous animal. To be honest, I’d be wary around me, too, and I’d rather have him treat me gently than roughly.
I sat still as he slowly reached the tweezers into the back of my throat. The rest of my body wasn’t numb, and it tensed.
“Easy,” Garavich whispered. “Almost got it.”
I’m afraid of choking, I thought. I’m afraid, but I can’t express it… Like when I was poisoned… I wanted to scream but couldn’t. My body tensed up more.
“Got it.” Garavich pulled the tweezers out of my mouth. In them was a small, silver-colored object.
I wanted to run. My heart was pounding faster, and I was shivering. I’m trapped here!
Garavich handed the stone off to Hornby before turning back to me. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Hornby was looking at the stone under a microscope. Without looking up, he said, “Garavich, I’d like a blood and saliva sample.”
Nodding, Garavich took a small dish for me to spit in. I didn’t hesitate to do so. After he gave Hornby the sample, he gently took my arm to find a vein, and inserted a needle to draw a vial of blood.
“Good,” Garavich said, taking out the needle. He capped the vial and set it next to Hornby. “Will that be all?”
“For now, yes,” Hornby said. “Looking at how small these debris stones are, they won’t be a problem when they come loose. If any complications should arise, his medtech should contact us immediately.”
I don’t think Dietrich would like you. I don’t know Dietrich all that well, but I don’t think she’d appreciate her patient (no matter how much she hates me) being taken out of her hands. She likes to prove she’s capable of handling anything thrown her way and I think she’d consider Hornby taking me away as an insult to her abilities. Unless, of course, she feels she can’t handle this.
“Keep him on antibiotics for now,” Hornby said. “All this should assist in developing a real antidote.”
Ah, so that’s what they’re doing here. Wish they’d have told me that beforehand. My tension loosened a little.
“Escort him out, Garavich,” Hornby added. “I believe we have all we need.”
Garavich didn’t drive me out to the ferry. Instead, he walked me out of the facility and left me in the street outside the hospital. Oh, well. I could find my way back to base from there.
It took me a little over an hour to get back, and I wasn’t surprised that everyone wanted to know what happened.
“They stick you with needles, man?” Hudson asked when I joined everyone in the lounge.
“They had to draw blood, but that was it,” I said, deciding to humor him.
Given how small the unit is, everyone knew the finer details of what had happened last night, along with what had happened on Gateway. The only things they didn’t know were my hallucinations and nightmares. I wasn’t sure I could tell them. Would they even believe me? Would I be able explain what happened without sounding like I was crazy?
“So you didn’t get cut open and messed with like in the movies, man?” Hudson asked.
“No.” I grabbed a water bottle from the vending machine before sitting on the couch. “They just looking me over to make sure I’m healing alright.”
“Hornby’s an asshole,” Dietrich said from across the room. “He wouldn’t let me take care of you last night, even though he could’ve shown me what to do.” She looked mad enough to throw something across the room.
Everyone was quiet. When Dietrich is angry, nobody wants to say or do anything that would piss her off further.
“Doesn’t Hornby specialize in what poisoned Drake?” Frost asked.
“Yes,” Hicks added. “He’s doing his job. Don’t get in his way. That’s all I ask.” He glanced over at us. “And leave Drake alone.”
As we started to disperse from the lounge, I was approached by Dietrich-which, by the way, she never does. She walked up to me in an almost bold way, like she really wanted something, but she didn’t make eye contact with me. Well, she tried, but I noticed she was struggling. She’d look me in the eye for maybe half-a-second, then quickly looked away, usually down at the floor or her boots.
“I need you to tell me what happened today,” she said.
“What is there to tell?” I asked. “They examined me. They took blood and spit from me. That’s it.”
“But why did they need to take you from base? That makes no sense. Where did Hornby take you?”
“Why does it matter where he took me?”
“Because I want to know what’s going on!”
I sighed. “He’s trying to make an antidote. Trust me, I was suspicious until I heard him say that’s what he was doing. I’m telling the fucking truth. There were no weird experiments. Just a standard exam, aside from when one of the other scientists had to pull a silver stone from my tonsils.”
Dietrich nodded, still not looking me in the eye.
“They didn’t do it to say you’re incompetent. That’s the other thing I know. But, be honest with me, how much do you even know about the silver flower?”
“Not that much.”
“Exactly. Hornby’s been-”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t learn.”
“He has his reasons for not letting you help.”
“Oh? And what are they?”
I froze, realizing I really don’t know why Hornby didn’t say anything to Dietrich. “I… H-He-He didn’t… tell me.”
“Then I’m still going to say this is bullshit and he probably thinks the only thing Marine medtechs are good for is pulling bullets out of your ass!”
I’m not entirely sure where Dietrich’s logic and anger were coming from, but I know she raised a good point. Why did Hornby leave her out of this?