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I refuse to let this beat me. "No, Z..Zakhla. I'm okay. Just… don't move too quick, okay?"
I saw my old friend in a haze of sinister double vision; a part of me, the part that was focused on the job of finishing the readjustment of the combat simulation contact generator, recognized the old tilt of the head, the lopsided way Zakh held his second manipulator pair whenever he was worried, the way the light played on the lenses of his eyes. I could see how worried and oddly guilty he felt; the Chakron were social creatures in organization, to the point that they still had clear polymorphism in their species, and for one of his comrades to have trouble working with him triggered a gnawing, instinctual concern that he was somehow at fault. And he wasn't. I was.
The other part of me—the gut-level, instinctual part that was screaming desperately for control of my body—saw a sinuous, nightmare shape with serrated, cutting mandibles and grasping manipulators, that the foolish so-called rational part of me was allowing to get close enough to rip me apart. I should kill it, smash it, before it looked into my mind and made me into a screaming, helpless mass of flesh…
No. Shut up. I will not. I'm not hurting my friends.
I let him lock down the access panel as I held it shut, his inner manipulators actually brushing my arm as he reached gingerly past me to turn the last seal-ring. "All done." He buzzed, and slowly but steadily backed away from me. "How do you evaluate your reactions, Sasham?"
"I haven't assaulted you. That's good."
The nightmare head dipped lower and the eyes lost some of their glitter. "It is not good that you speak only of what you prevent yourself from doing."
I sighed shakily, turning away from him, though the relief at not having to look at Zakhla was counterbalanced by the crawling feeling between my shoulder blades knowing that he was behind me. "No. No, it's not. I had to hold myself together through sheer will. Maybe if I start off in High Center it might help, but I couldn't move into any of the Visions or Centers once I'd started."
"I am sorry. We were of the same nest before. Is this all to be gone?"
I wanted to say no. "I… I don't know, Zakh. I just don't. I have to go, now. Please don't blame yourself. You know it's not to do with you."
He was silent as I left.
As I got farther away, I felt self-loathing rising in me with the way my heart seemed to be lightening with every step, while my uniform clung wetly to me from the sweat of fear. This phobia could turn me into a monster in more ways than one. I'd seen people like that before, a few of them even in Imperial service, who avoided anyone who was different, who thought the alien face hid an alien and dangerous mind. And now with this unthinking, cowardly beast lurking in me, speaking to my fears and pains… it could make me like that, couldn't it? It'd be so easy to just avoid, and in avoiding acknowledge the fear, and the hate, even come to believe them justified, wouldn't it…?
I tried to push those self-doubts back, too. The whole thing was a kind of cycle. Self-hatred wasn't any better than other-hatred. Probably the one led to the other. But Zakh had been one of my closest friends, and now just walking by him without either shrinking into the wall or dropping into a Tor combat pose was an effort. But as I rounded the last corner and approached my cabin, I noticed something that distracted me from moody musings.
My cabin door was open.
The only people who could open that door without me present were the Commandant of the station, and the Monitors. And even Monitor Frankel would have told me they were paying me a visit; I'd known Nissen Frankel since before he made Monitor, and despite a little strain coming from him being one of the Imperial watchdogs we were still friends. We usually shared drinks on Fallday, and you don't do that with just anyone.
Thinking of that brought back in full force the realization that Diorre wouldn't be there for another Fallday. Ever. That and my door being open left me standing still in the corridor, staring almost blankly into nothing with eyes stinging. But crying wasn't any use. I'd done enough of that. It had been weeks since the attack, most of that time spent with the therapists trying to fix my phobia. I couldn't wallow in that past. Time to find out what was going on in my cabin.
I focused and moved more quietly, arms in the shifting parallel stance of Tor as I glided forward, to stop just before the entrance way. Shifting my stance slowly I brought more and more of the room into view. Nothing. No one there, and nothing out of place.
That, of course, left only two possible locations for the intruder who almost had to still be in the room. Whoever—or whatever—they were, they had to be either to the left of the door—immediately to the left or some distance farther back, since that was the side I was on right now—or a bit farther to the right of the door frame than I could manage to see from out here.
Of course, I could always just ping an alert to Security. But there was no way I was going to look like this had broken my nerve. If someone had broken into my room, I was by the Seven going to catch them at it myself, and find out why. And that meant that the best way…
I placed myself into High Center, feeling the air around me, sensing the exact position of my arms, hands, body, the microscopic adjustments the body makes to stay standing. At the very edge of hearing I thought I could make out a faint sound of breathing from somewhere ahead. It sounded human, or at least humanoid—not the subdued, faint whistling noise of a Chakron, or the riffling fan-like murmur of a Rittatak's air-gills, or other exotic means of extracting oxygen from air, or the mechanical hum of a respirator for someone from a more unusual atmosphere. Coming through the open doorway as it was, I couldn't be sure, but my guess—gut instinct, really—was that it was on the left-hand side, just out of sight.
I chose my angle carefully, gathered myself, and dove hard through the door, flipping in midair to come down facing my unknown intruder, arms already in guard pose.
But the intruder was fast, already on the way from the doorway, and shouting.
It wasn't the shout, which I didn't quite interpret until a second or two later, but the sight of a face that I hadn't seen for five years that managed what almost nothing ever had; I dropped completely out of High Center as the intruder caught me and gave me a hug that made my ribs scream—a scream I vocalized. Weakly.
"Oh, demons… I'm sorry, I didn't think about that at all," my intruder apologized, pushing back long, golden-blond hair from a delicate face with a guilty look in huge blue eyes.
I dragged breath back into me and tried to glare, but I couldn't manage it. I found myself laughing, though that hurt too. "Taelin Mel'Tasne." I should have known. The Five Families have the override codes. "Only you would be sneaky enough to do this." I lunged and hugged him back, trying to do unto him as he'd done unto me. This didn't work, as his ribs weren't still under fastheal and because, well, despite the fact that Taelin looked delicate enough to break in a strong gale he was at least as tough as I was.
I stared at him, trying to take it in. There was no one I'd rather have visiting me now than Taelin, but usually it took weeks to months of long-range messaging back and forth to arrange even a short visit. The Five Families—currently Khardan, Dor'Kane, Mel'Tasne, Dellitama, and Rishak—were the heart of the Empire; according to history which was probably half-true, half-legend, they had managed to unify Oro—capital and origin world of the Empire—and guided their expansion outwards. Legally, they formed a balance to each other and the Emperor, and even their junior members wielded political—and actual—power hard for anyone at my level to understand. Competition was fierce within the families; part of the system they had founded was meritocratic, and it was theoretically possible for one of the families to fail to live up to the standards and lose its place to one of the Great Families that formed the next level of nobility. That hadn't happened in a long time, but it was often the case that one of the Five would have some child that failed to meet the standards; that was a pretty terrible thing for the Family involved, a case of kattasi, terrible humiliation or embarrassment, and the poor tzil would probably end up with assignments out in the remote regions of Empire and might not get to keep the Family name when they married. They'd have to start off as a new Great Family, and hope they could keep THAT honor and not drop farther. Those who made the grade, though, were serious forces within the Empire, even though some of them might not even take any official positions for years.
All that slowly re-penetrated my skull as I stood there goggling at him, and as it did I realized something. "What in the Towers are you doing here?"
"If you think for even a second that I wouldn't have come out to see you after hearing what happened, I'm disappointed."
"And if you think for even a second I'll believe you dropped everything, including Treyuusei, just to take the fastest-possible route out here and rain sympathy on me, you must think I'm stupider than I look."
He tried to look offended, then shrugged and grinned. "Okay, that's why you ranked up there with me in the Talanda. Sasham, believe me, I'd have come out somehow even if they didn't send me. So let's pretend that the only reason I'm here is to see my school friend who just made himself a hero and lost another friend in the same day, and we'll talk about the other reasons later, hey?"
I could live with that. I didn't feel like listening to serious talk anyway. Not after today. Not with him bringing back memories of the Navy induction training at the Talanda, the Imperial Service Academy. I wanted to forget for a while, to think about happier times, and that was one of the things Taelin was best at.
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