I don’t know what it is with nice hotels and mirrors. There have to be mirrors on every surface, including inside elevators. I couldn’t stand seeing my reflection while riding up to my floor, just like the tunnel. All I can see is a broken man, and I don’t want to look at that anymore.
After spending the ride looking at the floor, I felt drained in a way I haven’t before. I’ve been physically drained before, and I’ve been emotionally drained, but this felt different and I couldn’t explain why. It felt like both at once. I had no energy to do anything, even think, and yet I was frantically asking myself, “What is happening to me?”
I avoided eye contact with everyone in the hallway after getting out of the elevator. Once I was in my room I was enveloped in silence, and I didn’t want to be enveloped in silence, because then my thoughts are going to get louder. I didn’t want to hear my thoughts anymore. Not if this is what they were going to be like for the rest of my life.
Athaval had been silent since we left the lab. While I was staring out the window, he made a soft purring sound, prompting me to look at him. “What?” I asked.
Of course, he can’t answer in a way I’m going to understand. He looked out the window then back at me, before running a clawed finger along the parts of my face that had been covered in that foul-smelling pheromone on LV-400. He knew damn well what it was, and his expression was one of curiosity.
Then again, it’s not like we can talk about it. I had Delhoun’s number saved in my phone already and if I was going to learn how to communicate with Annexers, he was the one person I knew I could talk to. It took a while for me to go through the long-distance calling system, but when I finally reached Delhoun, I’ll admit (privately) that I was glad to hear his voice.
“Who the hell is this?” Delhoun asked, sounding like he just woke up.
“It’s Drake,” I said.
“Drake, it’s six in the morning over here.”
“Well, it’s four in the afternoon where I am. Sorry.”
“Whatever. What do you need?”
“I’m stuck with Hornby and his goons at a lab here. They were originally going to keep me in a tiny room there, but I managed to get myself into a hotel instead. They set me up with a Polar Annexer for company. Apparently, he’s a… research assistant.”
“Well, do you know why he’s a ‘research assistant?’”
“No. Why would I know?”
“I would’ve thought someone would tell you. Anyway, Annexers produce a substance in their fur that has been found to aid in clearing silver flower toxins from the body. This substance, combined with others, increases that. It’s not an instant cure, but it hastens the process.”
“So, it’s not an antidote?”
“No. A true antidote hasn’t been developed. That’s what Hornby is doing.” Delhoun let out a sigh. “Is there anything else, Drake, or are you bored? I’m getting the impression that you’re bored.”
“I am. I don’t know if I’m allowed to explore the city or if I’m expected to be at their beck and call. I don’t want to risk getting in trouble with Hornby, or worse, Adril.”
“Adril can stick her finger in a live electrical socket for all I care. That woman has no business being a scientist if she can’t develop any morals in regards to her experiments. She would round up people to use as guinea pigs if it were legal. She gives the rest of us a bad name.”
“Oh, I believe it,” I said. “Plus, I have no idea if I’m being listened to by any of them.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me, but all I can really tell you is to wait and see what happens.”
We talked for another half-hour or so. I noticed Athaval had been staring out the window the whole time, and he hadn’t moved much. I kinda felt bad for ignoring him, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s not like we can have a full-on conversation with each other. Delhoun mentioned that if Athaval was a research assistant he had to have a good grasp of English. Still, it’s going to take me a while to understand him.
It was around eleven that night when I tried going to sleep. I was tired, but not tired enough to sleep. I was afraid to sleep, because I knew what would happen if I went to sleep; I’d be tormented with nightmares. I wouldn’t be getting any sleep, regardless of what I do.
I hadn’t interacted much with Athaval since arriving at the hotel. He hopped up on the bed and sat in front of me when I started feeling like I was going to cry, and made a cooing sound, gently taking my hands.
Why should I be afraid of confiding in an Annexer? It’s not like he can blab to Farlas or anyone else about my problems. He’s not going to look down on me for feeling the way I do. Is he?
Other than Vasquez and Delhoun, I have no one else I can talk to, and I haven’t been honest with both of them, which goes to show how much I trust them. I fucking married Vasquez, and I can’t even tell her how scared I am of my own mind? How much of a coward am I that I’m scared of my own brain? I’m terrified of going to sleep because of a few bad dreams. Maybe they won’t happen tonight, but maybe they will, and I don’t want to see them. I shouldn’t be scared of my own mind, and yet I am. That’s why I can’t talk to anyone, because I’m the biggest fucking coward there is. I’m afraid of thoughts and dreams. I’m afraid of the most basic things about being human.
It’s not that I’m afraid of being made fun of for being afraid. It’s that I know this is weak, and if I get picked on for this, I deserve it. I really deserve it. I’m afraid of my own thoughts. I’m afraid of bad dreams. Just like a child is afraid of a monster under the bed. Except the monster under my bed looks exactly like me. Every memory of my past is about my faults and flaws. I’m my own worst enemy. On one hand, it goes to show how much of a piece of crap I am, and on the other, it’s shows just how selfish I am.
Every negative thought I have is about me. Sure, I make fun of Hudson and some of the other guys, but at the end of the day, my main concern is me and my problems. I never take time to worry about someone else, aside from Vasquez, and even she’s been placed on the backburner of my brain ever since I came back from Gateway.
Athaval’s paw gently wiping the tears from my face pulled me from my self-loathing. He looked at me with big blue eyes and tried to smile at me.
Somehow, I got the impression that he was trying to tell me everything was going to be okay. Most people would accept that and tell themselves, yes, everything is going to be okay. Not me.
“It’s not gonna be okay,” I said, feeling tears choke me again. “I’m fucking myself over! I can’t even handle a bad dream! How do you expect me to handle life? How do you expect me to handle being married, or my job, or whatever else is thrown at me? How do you expect me to handle being tossed back in prison when the Marines find out I’m a lunatic? I’m not going to be okay!”
I guess Athaval did understand me a little bit, or at least understood my tone, because he shook his head at what I was saying. I can’t fault him for that. He had no idea what I had gone through. He had no idea what was going on in my head. I don’t know what’s going on in my head. Even if he spoke perfect English, I would have no idea how to describe what I was thinking and feeling. Sighing, I said, “I want to try and sleep.” I didn’t want to think or feel anymore, even though I knew I was going to be plunged into a river of nightmares and have my head forced to stay under the water.
And, yeah, that was exactly what happened. I saw that Gateway lab clear as day. Every single shiny silver petal. I was frantically trying to get away from them, but the door was locked. The air was becoming heavy with the sickly-sweet smell, and my throat and lungs were closing rapidly.
I’ve never wanted to scream so badly before. I couldn’t get any sound out aside from choking and gasping. The worst part was that I could feel it all like it was actually happening.
Then I saw myself in a tunnel similar to the one that connects the hotel lobby to the underground mall. It was completely dark, aside from a single light above one of the mirrors. I still couldn’t breathe. I could still smell the fucking flowers as I crawled over to the light. The dream kept getting stranger when I didn’t see my reflection, but Hudson’s. He had the same shocked and horrified expression he had when he was dragged out of the lab. Silver foam was coming out of his mouth, and he was grabbing his throat and trying to beg for help.
I abruptly sat upright, clutching my chest and gasping for breath. Thankfully, I was getting cool, refreshing air. Even though I knew I was back in reality, I was shaking, and my pale skin was covered in goosebumps.
Athaval was curled up on the other bed in the room, fast asleep. His rhythmic snores were the only sounds I could hear. Aside from that, there was dead silence. Everyone else in the rooms around me was probably fast asleep, and I envied them.
The dreams feel so real. Why do they feel so real? Why does it feel like they’re actually happening? Why can I still feel everything that happened to me when I got stuck in that lab? I don’t want that. Is this punishment for my actions? Am I condemned to suffer like this for the rest of my life? If so…
No. No, I can’t do that. I’ve got Vasquez.
No, she’s not going to want to put up with this, either.
Taking myself out of the picture would be selfish. Well, what else is new? Seems like the most appropriate way for me to go.
Am I actually thinking about this? As these thoughts kept coming and hammering down on me, I continued to shiver. Tears blurred my vision, and I quickly reached for the phone, dialing Delhoun’s number and anxiously whispering the numbers aloud to myself.
This felt childish. Crying over my own thoughts. Fearing my own thoughts. I know I wrote all that before, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. I need to toughen up. I need to stop thinking like this. Stop crying and stop being so afraid of myself.
I don’t know how. That’s the problem.
I had to wait a little bit for someone to actually pick up the phone. Delhoun sounded much more awake than a few hours ago. “Drake? Is everything okay?”
I drew in a breath. “Delhoun… I want to die. I-I can’t… I don’t know what to—”
“Drake. Stop, and take a deep breath. Did you just tell me that you… want to die?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I did.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“The nightmares… just, the nightmares won’t stop. They won’t stop, and I can’t stop thinking about them. I can’t stop thinking about what happened. I can’t go near Hudson without… without feeling like I can’t breathe.”
“You feel like you can’t live with the nightmares.”
“No, I can’t.” Terror and dread had me in a vice-like grip. I couldn’t focus on anything except my own fear. It refused to let go.
“You have people who care about you. This is something that will pass, but you can’t do it on your own.”
“Then you help me! I can’t get help! I’ll get kicked out of the Marines and sent back to prison!” I was a sobbing mess, and completely unaware of the fact that my yelling woke up Athaval. “I can’t go back. I don’t wanna go back.”
“I can’t help you because I don’t know how. You need actual help, especially if you’re thinking about hurting yourself. All I can do is try and talk you out of it. Stay on the phone. That’s all I ask.”
The window was only a few feet from the bed. My room was several stories above the road. That had to be enough. If not, maybe I’d get hit, and hopefully that would be the end of it.
I thought about it, but I couldn’t actually bring myself to do it. I have no idea what held me back.
Athaval hopped over to my bed, and placed a paw on my shoulder, making a chattering noise. I glanced at him from the corner of my eye. Why the fuck do you even care? I hardly know you. You hardly know me, I thought. Then again, it didn’t take long for Delhoun to care about me when I was stuck with him on Gateway. It didn’t take long for Vasquez to admit she could tolerate me—and trust me when I say that having her say that to anyone is reserved for very few people.
Vasquez isn’t an emotional person. She’s never faced loss before, aside from her freedom. I always worry about what would happen if one of us lost the other on an assignment. The one thing that’s kept me going is the fact that we’re working for a civilian life we can have together. If we lose each other, we lose that purpose.
For once, the fear retreated, and all I could see was Vasquez. What would happen to her if she found out I was gone? Worse yet, gone by my own hand? Then what does she have to live for?
I have to live. I have to live for her. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to hold her, be intimate with her, let her know I was okay and that nothing was going to come between us, let her know that even though we weren’t legally married yet, I would always think of her as my wife.
“Drake? Are you still there?” Delhoun sounded anxious.
“Yeah… I’m here,” I breathed. I could still feel a weight on my shoulders. I didn’t know how to get rid of it, but for the time being, I felt like I could ignore its presence. “I… I’m not gonna do it. I’m not gonna jump out the window.”
“I’m being serious when I say you need to seek help. Trauma isn’t something you or anyone else should fight alone.”
I swallowed hard, squeezing my eyes shut. “I don’t have a choice. I have to fight it alone.”
I woke up the next morning wondering if what had happened last night was a bad dream. I really did contemplate ending my life, didn’t I? Knowing that Delhoun was in a completely different timezone, I decided not to call to ask if what happened was real, so I asked Athaval instead.
“Did I really call Delhoun, telling him I wanted to die?” I asked.
Unsurprisingly, Athaval nodded, even though I wished he hadn’t. Now someone knew that I was going further and further off the deep end. At least I can trust Delhoun. However, me saying that I wanted to die is grounds for him trying to contact someone within the Marines and let them know I needed help.
I suddenly felt nauseated as I left the hotel room. If he contacted them, my time with the Marines was now very limited. Cold shudders shot up and down my spine as I left the room. Even after thinking about what had happened last night, I couldn’t believe it was real. Was I in control of myself? Was that just a way of me expressing my frustration and I didn’t actually want to hurt myself?
I guess that’s all it was; a cry for help, even though I don’t want help. My subconscious wants help. Well, it’s not going to get it. I have to fight it. I have to suppress it myself. Maybe it’ll all go away if I just don’t pay attention to it, and suffer in complete silence and isolation. Yeah, that’s what I can do—just find someplace on base to hide so I can cry or panic or do whatever my trauma wants me to do.
I was alone in the elevator that morning, which I was grateful for, but when the doors opened in the hotel lobby, I had to control my expression. It wasn’t hard. The rest of my unit has always seen a very dismal and blank expression on me anyway. This felt different, though. Before, I wasn’t bothered by a near-death experience. I was bothered by my time in prison, and what I had done to get there, but that had been years before I joined the Marines. The silver flower incident was only a couple of months ago.
All I can do now is hope it fades.
As I entered the tunnel to head into the mall, I tried to avoid looking at the mirrors. If I’m going to force this monster into submission, I can’t look at myself, because then all I see is failure, and that’ll provoke the monster. It’s a relief the tunnel isn’t that long.
In the mall, I was bombarded with the smell of food. I hadn’t eaten last night and despite telling myself I would be wasting time by having breakfast, the hard pangs of hunger won out. I already knew I was going to be in a bad mood at the lab, but an empty stomach would make that worse.
Not wanting to waste time, I got in a line at a fast-food place and tried not to look anxious. No one in line really paid much attention to me, which I was grateful for. They seemed more interested in Athaval, who seemed to really enjoy the attention. Whatever. As long as it wasn’t on me.
I didn’t expect to see anyone from the labs down there. When I turned slightly, I spotted the wild hair of Farlas’s intern, Miranda Harrison, jogging toward the line and dropping several of her papers. She cursed to herself when she knelt down to pick them up, but that only led to more papers and now a couple of her books falling from her arms.
Without much thought, I left the line to help her. “Look like you could use a backpack or something,” I said.
“And deal with the X-ray machine every single time I go into the lab? Nope. Not doing that again. Especially after it broke with my bag still inside and the technicians had to break the machine open just to get it,” Miranda replied. She glanced at me a few times, and gave me a confused look. “You’re the Marine Farlas is working with, right? A-Along with… Hudson, is it?”
“What’s your name?”
“Why does it matter to you?”
“Because unlike most of the staff there, I know you’re human, and you have a name, right?”
I shrugged. “It’s Drake.”
“Is that your first or last name? I know in the Marines, you refer to each other by your last—”
“It’s my last name. Mark is my first.” And no one’s called me “Mark” in years.
“Okay.” Miranda gave me another confused look. “Is… Is it okay I call you Mark?”
“I really don’t care, to be honest.”
Her look sobered. “Ah. okay. Um…” She suddenly looked distant when I handed her the books and papers. “Thanks for the help.”
“Sure. No problem.” I went to return to the line and realized I had to go to the back, with Miranda behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I could see some of her notes sticking out of the papers and books. Most of them were about keeping her schedule. Do this paper by tomorrow night. Do that report by next Thursday. I could tell by her face and demeanor that she was overwhelmed. Hell, she acted like that in the lab.
My curiosity got the better of me, though, because I remembered Farlas had her working with Hudson. “Hey, how’s Hudson doing?” I asked.
“Why do you want to know?” Miranda replied.
“Because we serve together. We’re…” I had to stop myself. Hudson and I aren’t friends, and probably won’t be, but he’s still a teammate. My teammate. Despite everything wrong with me, I still care about him. I just don’t know him that well. “We work closely together. That’s all. And I was the one who saved his life.”
“He’s stable,” Miranda said. “Hornby’s been keeping him conscious for a little bit longer each day since he brought him.”
“Wait, what do you mean, ‘keeping’ him conscious?”
“Hornby sedates him to keep him from feeling the poison. We’re still working on a way to flush enough of it out so he can start recovering. It’ll probably take a few days.” Miranda watched me for a moment. “I know Doctor Farlas mentioned you were poisoned. How long ago?”
I refused to make eye contact with her. “Couple months back. On Gateway.”
By this point, I knew I was going to be stuck with Miranda for the rest of day. After all, we were going to the same place and she works with Farlas, so why try to ditch her? “It wasn’t your fault.”
Miranda didn’t respond. She held her books tightly as we moved up in the line, looking around anxiously. She ran her fingers through her hair and was fixated on me for a bit. When we got closer to the counter, she said, “Does Hudson have a family? People who care about him?”
“Not that I know of. We… We serve together, but we don’t know each other very well.”
“How’s that possible? I mean, especially if you live in such close quarters.”
“Well, I don’t know anyone in my unit very well. I’ve… I’ve chosen not to.”
“Why? That seems sad.”
I am sad, I thought. I’m sad a lot. It’s not something I feel like I can control, and I feel like it’s only gotten worse since the incident on Gateway. “It’s not something I want to go into with anyone,” I said.
“Oh, come on, it’s not like I’m gonna tell anyone what’s bothering me. Plus, I’m in training to be a medical doctor, not a psychologist. I can listen, but I can’t, you know, diagnose.”
I felt a tiny knot in my stomach start to form. “It’s still nobody’s business. I’m fine.”
Farlas was alternating between taking sips of coffee and checking my vitals after I was seated on an examination bed in the laboratory. I grunted and flinched when he tried holding open my eyes to shine a light in them. He didn’t say anything, simply continuing to do his work while I glared at him, then he lowered the light. “You didn’t get much sleep last night, did you?” he said.
I didn’t respond.
“Your eyes are bloodshot. You’re not showing any signs of a hangover or drug use. Only thing I can think of is you didn’t sleep very well.”
“So? I’m in a new place. Every morning, for the foreseeable future, I have to get up and come be tortured by you,” I muttered.
“Actually, you won’t be doing this every day,” Farlas explained. “Once we have the samples we need, you’re free to go. Hornby decided that shortly before you arrived.”
“He figured you staying here wasn’t necessary if we have what we need.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Did you have something to do with this?”
“No. He brought it up quite spontaneously, without much reason other than what I just provided you. We’ll take samples of some of your bodily fluids and you can be on your way.”
“What about Hudson?”
“Hudson will be in good hands; I can promise you that.”
“Yeah? So, how long is his treatment going to take?”
“That’s not something I can be certain of, unfortunately. Hornby took blood from Hudson yesterday and is working on it at the moment.”
“Is there any other reason you’re not giving me all the details?” I thought about what Viano and Apone had told me. I know I’m not close to Hudson, but if Hornby and his gang think they can take advantage of Hudson and use him for their research, they’ve got another thing coming to them.
Farlas sighed. “I’m telling you all I know, Drake. I’ve been generous with you even though I could have easily ignored you and treated you the way Adril wants to treat everyone around her. Frankly, I shouldn’t even be telling you some of these things.”
“And why’s that, Doc?”
Farlas didn’t respond right away. Athaval glanced at him from on top of one of the desks, then looked at me. “Much of it is medical jargon most people wouldn’t understand,” Farlas said. “We’re looking at various options at the moment with Hudson, and we’re trying to settle on the least risky but most successful means of flushing his system completely. In the process, we hope to help you as well.”
“Why not just put him on dialysis like I was?”
“We don’t want the poison to reach a point where it halts kidney function. That is typically a sign that it was never fully removed from your system, and we want to develop something that eliminates it faster. That’s why we froze Hudson, to keep him from dying on the flight here. The silver flower is still considered a new discovery. We only found it on LV-347 about fifteen years ago.”
“Fifteen years and you still don’t know anything about it?”
“The database of extraterrestrial plants and animals is enormous, and expands nearly every day. The plant database especially. The silver flower, or XP-756, as it’s known in the database, was deemed unimportant until a couple of xenobotanists actually took a closer look at it and found out about its properties. After that its importance was increased. It’s not like the mistletoe, where you can avoid its harm easily. Granted, in the wild, it only grows in small clusters, but that’s still enough to make someone feel sick. An adult might be able to shake off the effects in a few hours, but children and small animals…” Farlas shook his head. “That’s why I took an interest in the flower. I want to make an antidote. Others… have thought about designing a chemical weapon based on it.”
“And I thought that was illegal.”
“It is. The idea stemmed from a paper on using the silver flower to create a pesticide. Many colonists on LV-347 noted that insects going after crops would die shortly after eating the petals of a silver flower. The idea was never carried for several reasons. One is that it would be too risky for humans and livestock, and two was that people were concerned terrorists would utilize it as a chemical weapon. Instead of just dropping the idea entirely, some scientists continued to speculate on the possibility of an Agphyte weapon, and after what happened in Australia not even a week ago, some have suspected that’s exactly what certain non-state parties are planning. That’s why we’re in a race to create an antidote.”
I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond. Honestly, none of this was a huge surprise to me, and it made me wonder if Farlas was being completely honest with me, or if he was just trying to find a way to satisfy my curiosity without giving anything away about their own operations if there was anything illegal going on. Not wanting Farlas to be able to read my face, I looked down and tried thinking about something else. He began getting the stuff to collect fluid samples and gave me a glass of water so I could piss in a cup later, but all I could think about was the fact that my unit could have to deal with a silver flower weapon in the field. No one should have to deal with the nightmares and hallucinations, the sensation of your throat and lungs closing up, feeling like some large object has been lodged into the back of your throat and you can’t get it out.
The scarier part was that even though part of me was telling me to trust Farlas, another part of me was saying that I shouldn’t and that he was in on the idea of creating a weapon rather than an antidote.
After being poked and prodded for not even an hour I was allowed to leave, and I was told that I would be contacted if I was needed again for anything. I didn’t leave right away, because I was mulling over whether or not I should try to see Hudson again.
Farlas didn’t seem to mind me hanging around. He had one of my blood samples under a microscope while I looked around the lab. The dangling tubes and bulky machinery was off-putting, and I kept having flashes of memories back on Gateway if I thought too hard about it.
“Everything alright, Drake?” Farlas asked, not looking up from his work.
“Fine,” I said. “Why?”
“You do have permission to leave. Is there something you need?”
I didn’t respond at first. I looked back at the bed I had laid on and a chill shot down my spine. Looking away, I replied, “Can I visit Hudson?”
“I’ll have to ask Hornby. He and Miss Harrison are with Hudson right now, actually.” Farlas jotted something down on a notepad before leaving the room. A minute later, he stuck his head back in the room. “Drake? You can visit Hudson if you wish.”
If I’m going to stay in the Marines, I can’t be scared of just approaching Hudson. I have to push past it. Somehow. Keeping my head, I walked out into the hallway with Farlas, who led me down to a room similar to the one I was just in, full of big, bulky machinery and tubes of all widths. Except all that machinery was being used.
Hudson was sitting upright in bed, with Miranda talking quietly to him. He looked a little more alert than last time, but he still looked tired enough to sleep for weeks. Amazingly, he perked up when he saw me. “Hey, Drake,” he said. “What’re you doing here, man?”
“You don’t remember I was here yesterday?” I asked.
“Not really… Everything’s been kinda fuzzy.”
“Do you know where you are?” I don’t remember being this confused when I came out of my encounters with the silver flower.
“I got a rough idea, man. I’m… in the States. In DC, and… that’s it.”
From the corner of my eye, I could see Hornby working at a desk, hunched over a laptop. “What the fuck have you been doing with him?”
At first, Hornby didn’t look like he was sure I was talking to him, but before I could yank him away from his work, Farlas held me back. “We didn’t let you in here so you could be confrontational,” he said.
“Fuck off. What have you been doing to Hudson?” I growled.
“He’s been put on an anesthetic to slow the poison’s effects while we work,” Hornby explained. “It does work, but it’s not exactly healthy for him to be on it for an extended period of time. If you could… not interrupt us, we can handle this sooner.”
I gave him a dirty look. Farlas stepped between me and Hornby and gestured for me to go back to Hudson. Miranda watched as I sat next to Hudson’s bed. She tried giving me a sympathetic look, but I didn’t feel it.
“If it helps, we haven’t done anything that could hurt him,” Miranda whispered.
My expression didn’t change. “Give me one good reason why I should trust you. Any of you.”
Miranda held out her hand to me. “I know Hornby doesn’t convey his intentions very well, but Farlas and I really are trying to help. Just… give us a chance.” I thought about it for a moment, but didn’t take Miranda’s hand. “I’ll give you a chance, but the second I hear he’s not getting the best of care, things won’t be pretty.”