"Hey, Eric, how you doing?"
Eric looked up from his meal, feeling his heart leap briefly into overdrive. As he saw that it was Drake, he felt the fear become replaced by guilt. He shrugged and looked back down at his meal: meat and cheese enchiladas.
"I'm okay," he replied.
Drake sat down across from him. For a moment, they simply sat there in the mess hall in awkward silence. It had been two weeks since Ash. His stomach was still sore.
"I just came back from checking on Jennifer," Drake said, trying to start up the conversation again. "She's doing fine. Her new leg is good."
"How's your arm?" Eric asked.
"Pretty much back to one hundred percent," Drake said, holding his right arm up. He clenched and released his fist. Eric did have to marvel at that. It looked like the real thing, not like they'd grown a cloned arm and sewed it back on.
Another moment of silence passed. Eric picked at his meal, then suddenly felt resolution come down on him. He had to face this.
"About what happened on Ash..." he began.
"It's all right," Drake replied. "It was a very trying experience."
"I don't remember much after that psychic assault. I know now, based on what you told me, that I failed whatever test was there, failed to defend myself. But I do remember trying to stop you...in bits and pieces. And I remember shooting you. And I'm sorry."
"It's fine, Eric. I forgive you. You weren't yourself."
"I was weak," Eric replied, sighing heavily. "I remember thinking...that I was being punished. That I deserve it. I don't know why but it made sense at the time, it made perfect sense."
"It's understandable," Drake said quietly. "Based on what you've told me...well, when you get hammered on enough by life, it's easy to feel like it must be for a reason. That you must have done something to deserve it."
"I know it's not true...that the universe doesn't care and shit just happens. But there's always that part of me, probably a part of a lot of us, that finds it easier to believe in something bigger than they are. Even if it means damnation. I guess damnation feels better to some people than shit just happening," Eric replied.
"So...what about Greg?"
"He's still recovering in the infirmary. He'll make it."
"Good...I still can't believe they managed to get his head back on."
"Medical science has come a long, long way..."
Again, they descended into silence. Eric found himself feeling better now that he had actually faced Drake. Most of him felt at least somewhat sure that the man wouldn't bear any bad feelings for what happened on Ash, but then, there was always that part that asked What if on worst case scenarios. He remembered what Sierra had said when he'd asked about how he should handle how to ask Drake out. Her logical response.
He remembered Sierra talking to him after he'd woken up in the infirmary aboard the Dauntless, and he remembered crying when Drake had brought Luna to visit him in the infirmary. It had been a rare moment when she had actually laid down on him, since she was normally so against cuddling. She'd gone to sleep purring. It had been like coming home.
Fuck it, he thought.
"I've been meaning to go on a vacation after all this crap...you want to come with me?"
Drake smiled. "Yeah, definitely."
* * *
Greg slowly opened his eyes.
Everything felt sluggish and distant. Wherever he was, it was dark, but it was deeply comfortable. Where was he?
"I don't want him awake for very long."
"I know. Just give me ten minutes with him."
"Fine. Ten minutes. No longer."
Slowly, the world slid into focus. Eve. He saw Eve standing over him, smiling gently. She reached down and carefully took his hand.
"Eve?" he asked. His voice sounded ragged. "Where-"
"Don't try to talk," Eve said. "You're onboard the Dauntless, Greg."
Suddenly, he remembered Ash. He remembered the Deathless. He remembered...his head coming off. He jerked at the memory.
"Greg, no! Don't move." She put her hands on his shoulders, firmly but carefully. He felt his body relax at her touch and some of his logic came back. Obviously the plan had worked...but how long had it been? Who had survived?
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have had them wake you yet...I'll keep this brief, Greg. Your plan worked, but I'm afraid that Parker died in the process. I read the report and talked with the others. Parker managed to keep the field going for nearly three days. Hawkins arrived on the scene with several emergency medical teams within ten hours of receiving the call. Drake, Eric, Jennifer, and Keron are all alive and well. They've already recovered for the most part. It's been two weeks since we recovered you from Ash.
"The crews managed to save about sixty percent of the local population. The others were either too damaged to be repaired or died when Parker's body finally gave out and the field dropped. It was a near thing, but the medics managed to reattach your head. It took almost an entire day of continuous surgery and you've been put into a chemically induced coma ever since. They're saying that you should make a full recovery. They're using some high-tech gear to accelerate the healing. They're going to wake you back up in a few days to begin some physical therapy."
"Ash?" he asked softly.
"They took the device and threw it into the local star. It's gone forever now. They're in the process of cleaning up the planet, salvaging what there is left to be salvaged."
Somewhere else, a door opened.
"Your ten minutes are up." He realized he recognized the other voice now. Another familiar face appeared next to Eve. It was Mertz. He grinned down at Greg. "Hello, Greg. Sorry to cut it short, but I really have to put you back under. It's dangerous having you awake like this."
"Okay," he rasped.
Eve leaned down and kissed him gently. "I'll be here when you wake up again. I'll be watching over you."
He felt a horrible twinge of guilt at that because, as Mertz administered the drugs to put him back under, his last thought was that he wasn't sure if he could ever face another mission again. And then all was dark and silent.
YOU ARE READING
The thirteenth novel in The Shadow Wars. At the edge of explored space sits a desert world known only as Ash. It supports a minuscule population of miserable soldiers, technicians, and scientists. Why are they here? A year ago, a deep space governme...