Helping Hand

It’s a day. It’s already been a day. And a week. A month. A year. I know several folks who are definitely nonplussed by 2020. In another week or so, I fully expect most of my circles to be downright vexed. It’s proving to be … fraught. Most fraught. Of course, when things are fraught, people want to escape from the chaotic fraughtitude. Which is where we come in. What we’re doing here is explicitly working to increase those opportunities. So here’s a bit more…

Chapter 20: Helping Hand

A wave of cold swept me head to toe as I fell through the dark of my own mind. It felt like the induction showers at Assault Corps basic training, where the drill instructors had lined us all up naked as we were born, and sprayed us with water all just warmer than freezing. As a “wake-up.” Unfortunately, the momentary chill of falling through the portal didn’t wake me up.

Plowing face-first into a wall woke me up. Somewhat. My eyes opened, seemingly of their own accord. I didn’t want to open them. I wanted to be asleep. I’d settle for unconscious, but I wanted something approximating genuine rest.

I saw duraplast. Duraplast recently swabbed with some kind of disinfectant. So, either the morgue, which I wasn’t sure actually existed, or more likely, the infirmary. Medbay. Arguably a hospital if the doctor was in. The doctor might even be in.

“Godsdammit, Dare, you aren’t making any damn sense,” Chief Ferrer’s voice floated down from somewhere above me. I cranked my head around as much as I could and looked upward. His face, what I could see of it, showed weary resignation. “And last I heard, you were supposed to be dead. Rumor is some sort of cave-in. The serious gouge says you were buried with an unbelievable find.”

I tried to say something, but it just came out in a kind of wheezing, garbled murmur. Ferrer sighed, and crouched down until I could see his eyes. The main lights in the medbay were off, and the emergency lighting was on. The dim, red light shadowed his eyes, leaving the dark pits in his face.

“You’re putting me in a position, Dare, and I don’t really appreciate it.” He slipped a hand under my head, and the other under my shoulder and turned me over onto my back with a gentleness that surprised me, under the circumstances. I appreciated it, as I couldn’t seem to do more than make my fingers and toes twitch, which was a bit embarrassing.

“By all rights, and by the letter of my oaths, I should call the man at the top of this little heap, and his mad dog, and let them deal with you.” Ferrer pushed my feet toward my backside so my knees bent and pointed toward the ceiling. He pulled me into a sitting position and then slipped under me, settling my torso across his shoulders. With a focused exhalation, he stood, lifting me into the air. “But you saved my life once, and then saved my Empress. Even beyond that, Doc Corama would have my nuts if I abandoned a patient to the likes of those scum floating at the top of our little pond.”

As Ferrer spoke, he walked through the medbay. He came to a medical couch like the one I’d occupied when I first arrived at Tartarus, paused, and then swore.
“I can’t plug you into any of these,” he explained. “Your bio-codes are in the system, and they’ll trip the alerts I expect our betters have planted.”

He was right. I knew Jaems had the system rigged to announce my presence, and I didn’t expect that would change even if I was presumed dead. The man was too careful.

I tried to say as much, and ended up just drooling onto the floor from where I hung over the Chief’s shoulders. Which he saw, and sighed.

“Try to keep your mouth shut until I figure out if you’re dying. I mean, I’m going to have to have Torgsen decontam the floor, anyway, as much as you leaked on it over there, but I’d like to keep it to a minimum level of nasty.” He sounded so weary that I wanted to laugh. I mean, I couldn’t, but I wanted to.

It was strange. I felt lucid, but as though I was merely an observer in my own body. I experienced all the usual physical sensations, though they were muted. Ferrer had mentioned me leaking on the floor. However, until he said something, I hadn’t noticed my head hurt, nor that one eye seemed to be obscured by the blood dripping onto the duraplast. His comment about decontamination made more sense.

I took an intentional catalog of myself, and came to what should have been a disturbing conclusion. Ferrer was right: I might well be dying. My heartbeat was slow. Seriously slow. I had muted physical sensation, to include pain. I didn’t have conscious control of my body. Finally, I drifted in a kind of lassitude that left me profoundly disconnected from everything.

Ferrer walked me down the long arm of the medbay. I’d been in enough times to know the layout by now. He walked to a door in the wall between two of the couches. I’d seen it before, but there was no sign on it to indicate what it was, and I’d never seen it open. There was only the keypad, now out of my line of sight, mounted to the wall at chest height on the right of the door.

The Chief growled, lifted his left hand — the one not hooked behind my knee and gripping my left wrist in a firm-but-gentle hold — and punched in a code. After a second, he punched in another, and the door slid open.

“I’m not supposed to have those codes, but, well, what’s a chief for?” He turned sideways and slipped through the open door, then settled me onto a couch in the middle of what turned out to be a small room.

A room that stank of pain and fear, underlaid with the faint tang of old blood. I managed to flop my head over to one side. In the middle stood a medcouch, but an odd one. For one, it was made of metal: shining steel, instead of the usual duraplast. Duraplast, for all its structural strength, was somewhat porous.

A growing thread of dark suspicion in my gut whispered this particular couch, had it been made of the same duraplast as the couches in the medbay proper, would have accumulated the same stink of old death as the walls and the floor. The floor with the drain under that couch. That couch with padded restraints for ankles, wrists, and neck, and the perforated surface.

“I don’t know why this room even exists,” Chief Ferrer muttered. I had a feeling he was lying. I knew why.

He set me down on the couch in a sitting position, then eased me down until I was lying full length on it. He ignored the restraints except to position me so the open neck strap held my head in place. He left the restraint undone, though, for which I was grateful. Not that I could do anything, anyway.

Ferrer leaned over me, reached out of my line of sight, and pulled on something. With a smooth whisper of lubricated metal, a metal-bound medcomp rotated up and into my field of vision. He positioned it over my chest and toggled it on.

“It’s a stand-alone unit: Not tied into the prison network.” Ferrer explained absently. “It’s logging your vitals, and your bio-signature, but it can’t report any of that back to the so-called brass.” He turned his head to look out the still open doorway. The alert lights left his features shadowed one second, and lit with scarlet glare the next.

If I’d been able to do more than hiss, I’d have told him not to be an idiot. It was frustratingly obvious. Or maybe I was just pissed.

A crawling sensation on my chest set my pulse throbbing in my ears. Whatever else Jaem skimped on, putting more money in his own pockets, I’d never seen vermin of any kind inside the prison. So what was going on?

I tried to say something, but was only rewarded with an impotent, just-audible whistle of breath escaping between my teeth. It was enough to grab Ferrer’s attention.

The chief’s head snapped around, tension visibly tightening the skin around his dark eyes and putting just the hint of a furrow between his brows. He stared sharply into my barely open eyes before something on couch monitor pulled his gaze downward. His face went slack, and he cursed once, under his breath.
“Damn thing’s dead.” The chief sighed. “I can’t even trust them to keep an interrogation cell decently supplied. No power, no meds, not even a pair of old-fashioned tongs for pulling out toenails. Back to first principles, then.” The vein throbbing in the chief’s temple gave the lie to his apparent insouciance. He gripped my chin and shined a pen light in one eye, then the other. “Well, your brain seems fine, Dare.”

He shut off the light and stowed it back in the breast pocket from which he’d removed it, and stared off into space for a few seconds.

“Just lie still while I grab a few things.” He patted me on the chest, and strode back through the door of the torture cell.

As soon as his back disappeared through the door, I felt another crawling sensation, this time around my neck. My breath hissed out, but try as I might I still couldn’t do a bloody thing. A sharp pinch at the back of my neck actually drew a wince. A sense of chill followed immediately, and then a veritable wave of energy flowed into me.

My eyes snapped open from the half-mast they’d been at since I awoke on the medbay floor. Nostrils flared as I drew a deep breath into my lungs. With a sense of wonder, I raised a shaking hand to push the medcomp away from my chest. I could see the dead screen as I sat up, but a pulling sensation at the back of my neck distracted me. Slowly, slowly — I felt an incredible weakness, still — I put my hand to my neck.

My suit, the garment I’d made out of what was left of Prometheus, clung to a spot just over my spine. I tried to pull it away, and my hair stood on end as it squirmed out of my grasp.

Before I could think through the implications, I heard a strangled inhalation followed by a thud from beyond the door.

Chapter 21: Uppance Come

If you haven’t, yet, do go check out MGC’s own Amanda Green’s Risen From Ashes!


  1. VERY nice! I love the abrupt opening, in medias res, and just how much of the context is not seen.

    Does Chief Ferrer come back safely? Does Dare recover? What are the bastards at the top of the prison really up to? And who or what was Prometheus, and why does Prometheus matter?

    Sure, it’d be nice to read the rest of the story and have all those answers today, but better would be to read that excerpted scene on the Baen-blue dust jacket of a book that leaves the two most critical questions for the following volume.

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