Chapter Four



Michelle Pichette



* * *

     Harper had been in the machine shop seventeen, feeling sorry for himself and trying to think of some way of making everyone forget that he’d just almost died.  Again.  He sighed at the thought of it.  When was Dylan going to get tired of it and give him the old heave ho?  Commonwealth engineers didn’t spend a week in Medical with something that didn’t even give the sniffles to the rest of the crew.  Okay, Dylan knew his immune system was messed up and cut him some slack, but he couldn’t count on that lasting forever.  More and more worlds were signing the Commonwealth Charter and before long things would start getting back to how they had been in Dylan’s good old days, before the universe had gone to hell.  Where would he be then?  Harper didn’t like to think about that, not at all.

     Beka was the best pilot ever.  Besides, she still had her ship, the Eureka Maru.  She’d be fine.  Trance was... well, Trance.  She always seemed to land on her feet when she’d been purple and sparkly.  The new version seemed more serious and would probably do even better.  Tyr was a walking machine of death and everyone knew it, so no one would be trying to get rid of him.  Dylan would always look after the Andromeda, take care of her.  Dylan himself, well, he lead a charmed life, didn’t he?  The whole being caught in the event horizon of a Black Hole rather than being sucked into it pretty much spoke volumes on that subject.

     Harper looked down at the booster he was building.  The others would be all right, no matter what the new Commonwealth brought with it, so he didn’t need to worry about them.  As for himself, he was smart, right?  He was good at building things and fixing things and inventing things and...  He sighed heavily again as he acknowledged the fact that there were lots of people lots smarter than he was and lots better at just about anything he could do.  People that had gone to school to learn things, not making do with whatever came their way education wise.  People that had lauded achievements, that had kept the crumbling universe together with their brilliance.  What he had done that could compare?  Nothing, that’s what, so every time he got sick or hurt and took twice or three times as long to get better as anyone else would have, he got depressed, like he was now.

     That was when he remembered that the Andromeda’s internal sensors were probably watching him right now, that Dylan or Beka might look in on him remotely and see him brooding.  He put on a happy face immediately and started to sing something that he hoped would sound perky.  Broody Harper, bad.  That Harper might be sick and hiding it or might have something else going on with him that would disrupt life on the Andromeda.  No, Broody Harper had to go.  Perky Harper, however, got ignored, which was better, but worse, all at once.  Perky Harper got told to shut up a lot.  Perky Harper got eyes rolled at him and long suffering sighs constantly.  He didn’t know what to do anymore.  He didn’t know how to find ground between those two Harpers, which is what he seemed to need to do.  He wished he could just be himself, but it was getting so even he didn’t know who that person was anymore.  With a mental sigh that in no way showed to the outside world, Harper wished sincerely that he could feel like he belonged somewhere.  He never did and it hurt worse than any injury or illness ever could.

     That was about when the strange alien thing came in and started beating the snot out of him.  It called him names and hit him and he couldn’t fight back.  Harper was almost happy when the big, ugly guy decided to throw him across the room again.  Hitting the wall or the floor or even an equipment rack would probably be less painful than being hammered on by his attacker’s armored fists.  He honestly didn’t know how he was still conscious after having his head smashed against the worktable.  He couldn’t see anything after that with all the blood in his eyes, but when he was thrown, something seemed to grab him in mid flight and press in on him from every angle, he knew that he was in even worse trouble.  Then pressure released him and he dropped through open air right into some very cold, very deep, dark water.  He went under and had to kick for all he was worth to reach the surface.  The shock he got from the coldness of the water brought him back to full awareness, and though the salt water stung his eyes, it had washed the blood out of them.

     “Shit!” he exclaimed as he broke the surface, then sucked in deep breath.  Where was he?  A wave washed over him, dragging him along with it as he struggled for the surface again.  Harper gasped in some more air, then sputtered, “An ocean!  I get it!  I’m in an ocean!” as if doing so would somehow get him out of the water.  Hadn’t that big creep asked if he could swim?  Well, ha ha on him, Harper thought, the water didn’t scare him.  He might not be big and tough, but he was a surfer and he could swim with the best of them.  Heck, he could float on his back for hours if he needed to.

     Harper body surfed with the next couple of waves, looking around as best he could when he got a little height.  It was night here, wherever here was, and there were lights visible in the distance in one direction, thankfully the direction the tide was pushing him.  Unfortunately, Harper was starting to shiver as the water bled off his body heat at an alarming rate.  He knew he was going to be frozen to the bone by the time he made shore.  He should lose his clothes and especially his boots because the weight of them was slowing him down as he swam, but he didn’t like the idea of pulling himself up on the beach all but naked in a strange, hostile place.  He had no illusions of this world being anything other than hostile toward him.  He thanked the powers that be that Trance had hidden his tool belt because he would’ve hated to have had to toss it.  He wished briefly that he had his nice, thermal wetsuit and his gauss gun, but shrugged the thought away.  He had to keep going, take advantage of the waves as much as he could, get to shore, then find somewhere warm and dry.

     As he made for the beach, Harper tried to remember what big, ugly, and violent had said when he’d been pounding on him.  Aside from hurling insults at him, the creep had told Harper he was going to die in the hands of doctors, sadistic doctors that were going to enjoy carving him up for some reason.  Harper could only assume the medical personal in question were somewhere on shore.  All right, avoiding doctors at all cost would be Harper’s number one priority.  That was too bad, because there were a few things that felt like they could use a doctor’s attention.  Even worse was that he was already starting to get tired.  He hadn’t wanted to admit it to Dylan, or even to himself really, but he wasn’t as back to normal as he’d pretended.  He hated being sick.  He hated the thought of being the weak link in the Andromeda’s crew because he wasn’t the healthiest guy around.  He stopped himself from thinking about being weak.  It wasn’t helping him.  He had to be strong right now or he was going to drown or freeze to death, that’s all there was to it.

     The cold water, his recent illness, and the beating he had taken were making him ache through and through and he had begun to feel sick to his stomach.  As the next wave lifted him up, he vomited and ended up floundering underwater again.  He felt like cursing, but didn’t want to waste the energy.  He never got motion sickness, yet here he was, nauseous and dizzy from the ocean of this world tossing him around.  Or was it from getting his skull bashed earlier?  It was impossible to say.  Harper stopped thinking about it, stopped thinking about anything but pushing for shore with every ounce of speed that he could squeeze out of his abused body.

     When a wave finally, unceremoniously dumped him on the beach, Harper could barely move.  His arms and legs were stiff and barely responsive from cold, and he couldn’t stop shivering, his teeth chattering hard.  Another wave washed over him, driving him into the sand, pebbles, and shells, leaving him shivering harder in the cool night air.  He was so bone weary that it took all his resolve to crawl out of reach of the waves, then he collapsed, not wanting to move.  His whole body hurt.  He just wanted to sleep.  Then he heard something bark.  It sounded big and mean and surprisingly like a dog.  Harper didn’t know if it was or not, but he figured that he didn’t need to get chewed on by anything, so he forced himself to his feet and he began to stumble up the beach.

     Dark shapes loomed over the beach on the edge of Harper’s blurred vision.  They were some sort of structures, Harper’s barely functioning mind told him.  Some had lights on in them.  Most didn’t.  None of the lights reached down to where he was dragging himself forward in the dark.  Harper couldn’t go near the structures either, as inviting as somewhere out of the wind sounded.  It probably wasn’t safe.  He had to find a cave or something to shelter in, somewhere away from people that most likely only meant him harm.  He just wished he could stop shivering.  Maybe that would keep the world from tipping dangerously every so often, causing him to fall over.  It was getting harder and harder to get back up.  Harper clung to himself, somehow managing to keep moving up the shore line despite his body wanting to quit on him.

     He didn’t know how long he walked, but just as his legs gave out on him for the who knew what number of times, a voice called from one of the buildings above him, “Are you all right?”  Harper turned toward the voice, which spoke in Earth Common, his eyes going round in terror.  He had only ever heard Earth Common used on Earth, usually by the humans, but sometimes by the slave master Nietzcheans.  The woman didn’t sound afraid, so she was probably a Nietzschean, which meant Drago-Kazov Pride, which meant he was in deep shit if he didn’t get away.  Even though she hadn’t said anything in the slightest bit threatening, Harper knew plenty of chicks, especially Nietzschean ones, that could kick his butt on a good day and would do it with very little excuse.  This was definitely not a good day and the only excuse that a Drago-Jerkoff needed to hurt anyone was the person in question drawing breath in their general vicinity.  Harper tried to get to his feet so that he could run and hide somewhere, but he barely managed to rise onto one hand and his knees.  His other arm clung to his aching stomach, seemingly frozen there.

     “Hello?” came the voice again, a little closer this time.  A thin beam of light shown down from where the voice was coming from and Harper tried to scramble out of its path.  He only managed to trip and fall face first back into the sand.

     “Are you sick or...” the woman was asking as she drew close.  Harper looked up, only to be blinded by the flashlight because he looked directly into it.  He lurched back, which made everything spin violently and he nearly blacked out.  “Oh my goodness!  What happened?  Were you in an accident?  Here, let me help you,” the woman said.  Harper felt hands steadying him, helping him to rise onto his shaking legs.  He was spent.  He didn’t know how he was standing at all, even with help.  All that registered in his muzzy head were gentle words, no forearm spikes, and warm hands.  If nothing else, she was human.  “You’re soaked!  Come on.  Let’s get you up out of the wind.  You must be frozen,” concerned words drifted to Harper as he leaned, shivering violently, against the warm person helping him up a short rise.  He wanted to soak in that warmth, his chattering teeth not letting him speak.

     “Just a few steps up to the house.  Can you make it?”  Harper didn’t know if he could but he nodded.  This person didn’t sound like a homicidal maniac.  If the large dots from looking into the flashlight would just go away, he might even get a look at her.  She sounded concerned, seemed to want to help him, and he really had no choice but to go along where she took him or fall down on the ground.  Maybe he wasn’t on Earth.  Maybe it was an isolated colony somewhere that the Nietzscheans had missed, someplace that didn’t speak Galactic as a first language.  Everything got very dark for a moment.  Maybe he was going to pass out before he got into whatever shelter this woman was bringing him to.

     The darkness threatening to swallow him let him go as his boots creaked down on wooden steps.  He somehow managed to scale them and cross a short distance to a door lit from the inside.  He didn’t fight being brought in or when he was settled down on a chair.  He didn’t know how he wasn’t sliding off the chair and onto the floor.  Before he could, he had something soft was wrapped around him and a cup of something warm pressed into his hand.

     “It’s tea.  Drink it slowly.  It’s very hot,” the woman encouraged him.  Gentle hands guided the cup to his mouth.  He drank down the tea as quickly as he could, not caring if his mouth got scalded, the warmth of it almost like a siren’s song.

     “Thank you,” Harper murmured, his teeth still chattering, which slurred the words.  He was still shivering, the hot tea barely putting a dent in the cold that had consumed him.  He looked up at his rescuer.  The room and everything in it was blurry and seemed to rock from side to side, but his blue eyes met big, brown eyes and focused there and refused to take in any other details.  A gentle hand brushed his face and he winced as even that soft touch set the bruises there to throbbing with pain.

     “I’ll call an ambulance.  We’ll get you to a hospital and a doctor.”

     “No!” Harper cried, terror getting him back onto his feet, but he only tripped over the blanket he’d been wrapped in and fell to the floor with the chair he’d been sitting on.  “No, please, no,” he all but sobbed as he scrambled free of the chair and blanket then cowered to the wall and into the first corner he encountered, then he drew himself into a ball.  “They’ll cut me up if you... Please... I’ll do anything...  Please...”  He didn’t know fully what he was saying, hysteria was doing all his talking for him and he was too exhausted to fight it down right away.

     A hand gently stroked his hair and he tried to cower from it as he shivered in fear as well as cold.  “Shh.  It’s all right.  No one is going to hurt you anymore.  They’ll help you at the hospital,” came soft reassurances, but they did nothing but fuel Harper’s terror.

     “No,” Harper whimpered, shaking his head and trying to draw himself more tightly into the corner that he’d wedged himself into.  It hurt to do it, but he didn’t care.  He couldn’t let her send him to a place full of doctors.  He had to tell her what would happen if she did, had to convince her not to.  He tried to calm himself enough to sound rational and convincing, but failed miserably.  “He said... they’ll tie me down and carve me up... That... that they’d torture me to death...  Please don’t send me there... Please...”

     “Who told you that?” the woman asked, her voice still soft and compassionate as she stroked his head again.  She was trying to calm him, to be kind.  “The person that hurt you?”  Harper could only nod.  He was so cold and so tired.  If they came for him, he couldn’t fight back and he’d be as good as dead.  He was sure of it.  “He was lying to you.  Doctors don’t hurt people, they heal them.  It’ll be all right.  Really.”

     Harper shook his head again, looking up and finding the big, brown eyes looking right back at him.  “Please... they’ll torture me... They’ll kill me... Don’t send me there... Please.”

     There was a moment of silence and Harper was about to plead for his life again, when the woman finally said,  “All right, but...”

     “Thank you... thank you...” Harper sobbed in relief.  His body loosened but he still rested against the wall because it was the only thing keeping him even partially upright at the moment.  “Just wanna get warm...  Just wanna rest a little...”  His voice gave out, but he had only been babbling incoherently anyway.  He almost blacked out, then the woman said something that gave him a small second wind.                        

     “We’d better get you into a hot shower, then.  That’s the best way I know of to warm you up again quickly.”  She helped Harper to his feet and carefully aided him up some more stairs.  He barely made it to the top, but he kept reminding himself that a hot shower was waiting for him there.  She brought him through one door, then another, sat him down, then left him for a moment.  The sound of water falling filled the room.  “Here.  Let me help you with these.”  He felt a gentle tug at his foot and he felt his boots being untied and pulled off.  He numbly started to pull off his jersey, realizing dimly that the water he was hearing was the longed for shower calling to him.

     “A friend left some clothes here the other day.  Will you be all right to shower yourself while I go get them?”  Harper nodded again, not trusting himself to speak.  After what had happened downstairs, this woman probably already thought he was insane and he didn’t want to make matters worse.  He could only hope that she was going to get some dry clothes and not call out the local law to come take him away.  “Okay, then.  I’ll be right back with some towels and the clothes.”  There was the sound of a door softly shutting a moment later and Harper knew he was alone despite his not being able to see anything clearly.

     He managed to get out of his clothes and into the shower without falling down, which was a minor miracle, because his legs were like rubber and the room swayed dangerously when he stood up.  The hot water felt so good when it hit him that he never wanted to move again.  He stood under the spray, one hand pressed against the wall, supporting him, as the heat sank in and he slowly stopped shivering and revived a little.  This was heaven.  There was a knock and the woman called from outside the room, “Are you still okay?”

     “Uh huh,” Harper responded as loudly as he could.

     He heard the door to the room open, but he was too spent to worry about being modest, not that he was a terribly modest person in any sense of the word.  He was behind a curtain anyway.  “I’m putting the towels and clothes right here.  You take all the time you need.  I’ll wait in the next room.”

     “Okay,” Harper murmured, then added, “Thank you,” for good measure.  Never be impolite to someone keeping you out of the hands of torturers.

     “You’re welcome,” came the soft reply, then there was the sound of the door closing again.

     After he was warmed through again, Harper washed himself, thinking to get any stubborn sand and salt off himself before it started to itch.  It never hurt to be clean, at least it usually didn’t.  It did hurt when he scrubbed his stomach and chest and there was a dull ache even when he wasn’t.  He knew there were nasty bruises all over him and could only hope he didn’t have any serious internal injuries.  His head ached constantly and his face throbbed, then burned when he washed.  He imagined that his face must look like raw meat after the hammering it had taken.  No wonder the woman had sounded shocked on the beach.  His whole body trembled with exhaustion, but at least he wasn’t cold any longer.  He begrudgingly left the shower and dried himself, then dressed, barely conscious of what he was doing.  He was so tired, he just wanted to fall down and sleep on the floor.  It wouldn’t be the first time he’d ever done that.  However, he pushed himself out of the shower room and into the next, where the woman would be waiting.

     “Feel a little better?” came the woman’s soft, concerned voice.  Harper still couldn’t focus and the room and everything in it was blurry and seemed to be rocking gently from side to side.  Maybe that was him, he thought as he bumped the door frame with one shoulder.

     Harper nodded and murmured, “Warm again, thanks.”

     “Here.  You look dead on your feet,” she said and suddenly she was gently helping him into a soft, warm bed.  If he hadn’t been all but dead, he probably would have been disappointed that she didn’t get in with him, offering to warm him up a little more.  “I have some soup I can make for you.  It’s not much.  Just instant stuff.”

     “Sounds great,” Harper said weakly, smiling at the thought of more warmth being in him.  Why did they portray hell as hot?  Hell was a frozen, barren place in Harper’s mind.  Why was he thinking about hell at all?  That was when Harper realized his eyes were closed.  He forced them open and shook his head as hard as he could to try to rouse himself.  It was a feeble effort at best and he only succeeded in making himself dizzy and nauseous.  He couldn’t fall asleep, he told himself sternly.  Sure, his benefactress seemed nice, but who knew what would happen once he passed out?  She might change her mind and send him to the doctors after all.  Harper lifted a hand at rub at his eyes.  His vision remained blurry and indistinct.  Trying to focus made his head spin.  He was just so tired.

     “I’m back,” came the woman’s soft voice.  Harper hadn’t realized that she’d left.  Reality kept blinking on him and he didn’t know what he was imagining and what he wasn’t anymore.  Maybe he was unconscious down on the beach.  No, that didn’t make sense.  He’d still be cold.  “Let me help you.”

     Harper felt himself being lifted slightly and then settled back again, his head now raised a little higher.  He opened his mouth to say something and got a spoon full of soup emptied into it instead.  He let himself be fed, thanking the Divine for looking out for him and for sending this angel to tend him.  He still didn’t know why that alien guy had been pounding on him, but this almost made up for it.  He’d just rest here a little while, then he’d make some excuse to leave and go hide out somewhere as soon as he could sit up on his own.  He just had to wait for Dylan to find him.  Dylan always succeeded at whatever he attempted, so Harper knew he’d get rescued.  Harper didn’t realize that he’d let his eyes fall shut again, so when he drifted off to sleep, he dreamed about Dylan and the Andromeda speeding to get him.

* * *

     Dom watched the poor soul lying in her guest bedroom drop off to sleep between swallows of soup.  She put the soup off to one side and carefully pulled out a couple of the pillows from behind his head so that he would be more comfortable.  She brought the soup down to the kitchen, then got her first aid supplies and returned to the stranger’s side.

     There was a nasty cut and a good sized purple knot just below his hairline on the right side of his forehead.  Dom cleaned the wound with some disinfectant, butterflied the wound closed, then taped a bandage over it.  He didn’t respond to anything that she was doing, he was so deeply asleep.  The poor man, Dom thought as she looked over the other bruises, a nasty one on his left temple, and the minor cuts on his face.  There were more bruises on his throat, but they didn’t seem too severe and didn’t seem to be impeding his breathing, so she left them alone.  Once she’d treated cuts on his face, she carefully turned down the blanket and lifted the loose t-shirt that she’d given him to wear.  Kowalski’s clothes were swimming on him.  The bruises on his body were worse than the ones on his face and he had a lot of scars, but there didn’t look to be any cuts, so Dom gently covered him back up.  Someone had beaten him badly, then, apparently his attacker or attackers had dumped him into the bay.  Why would anyone do such a thing?

     Some of the possible answers to that question were why Dom had relented about calling an ambulance.  Since she’d begun working at the Institute, she’d been told tales of spying missions gone wrong and of people who just plain wished the Admiral and anyone who worked for him ill.  They were not above posing as someone in the medical profession in order to kidnap Seaview personnel.  It also seemed that Nelson’s employees were not the only ones that suffered these problems.  Dom knew that probably wasn’t the case here, but if it was and the young man was right about an ambulance call resulting in his tortured death, well, then Dom wasn’t going to take that chance.  He had been so terrified, she couldn’t bring herself to do it even now that she saw how badly he’d been beaten.  She supposed she could call the Institute and Doctor Jamieson, but she didn’t want to involve others in this yet.  She almost felt as though it would be betraying a trust.  She would let the man rest and regain some strength, then they’d talk all this through and she’d decide how to proceed.

     Dom sat with her guest for a while, watching him sleep.  He had a youthful face, blond hair, and brilliant blue eyes.  He also had a small tattoo of the yin yang symbol on his upper left arm.  She would read the paper to see if anyone fitting that description had gone missing.  He was not a big man, thankfully, because she had all but had to carry him up to the house, then upstairs, and considering her petite stature, it had been no easy task.  He’d also looked a lot thinner than he had first seemed in his baggy clothes, but the little Dom had seen of his naked upper body was quite well muscled.  He wasn’t burly by any stretch of the imagination, but he wasn’t scrawny either.  There was something, a metal disk, behind his right ear.  Dom looked at it, unable to decide what it was.  A piercing, she supposed, but it almost looked like it something was meant to be pushed into the center of it.  That was silly, she told herself, because that would see this inserted thing pushed right into the young man’s brain.  She laughed silently at herself and shook her head.  No, it was probably some Trekkie thing.

     His clothing, which she’d brought straight to her washer, had no tags, but they were pretty standard stuff:  some cargo pants, a long sleeved pullover jersey, plain white t-shirt, boxers, socks, and some water logged but sturdy looking work boots.  Nothing out of the ordinary there, she mused.  He had no wallet, though, and the only thing in his pockets had been some sand.  If he had been the victim of a simple mugging, the empty pockets made sense, but it didn’t explain his unmarked clothing.  If the attack had been something more sinister, it made sense.  His attacker might not have wanted him easily identified and might have removed the tags.  Maybe he was someone important, a scientist or politician or something.  No, not a politician, Dom told herself.  He wasn’t dressed for that role and he didn’t seem old enough.  He looked about her age, but his boyish features made it hard to guess.

     She sat with the stranger for a while, but it grew late and she was tired.  She couldn’t believe that this had happened on her first day back in port.  She got up and gently laid a hand on his forehead to check for fever.  He was warm, but not overly so.  Sleep was the best thing for him at the moment, she knew, and she put an ice pack on his forehead and another on the bruise on his temple, tucked his blanket around him then went to get some sleep herself.  As she closed the door to her room, her hand lingered on the knob.  Should she lock her door?  She had never felt the need to do so in the past, even when she had male guests.  This was different, she told herself.  They had not been strangers.  She locked the door, then went to get ready for bed, wondering what her father or Admiral Nelson would say about the sleeping man just down the hall.  She couldn’t imagine either of them being pleased about her decision to take him in for the night.

* * *



Chapter Five
Belonging, Chapter 1
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