Did I hear you right? Crane demanded, then swallowed hard. You’re pregnant? Krilore repeated what she had told Doctor Jamieson. He groaned. When?
<Soon is all I know, Lee> She sounded distracted, or rather, unfocused, but then after a short pause, she continued. <I didn’t want to put you through this. You have to know that it will be very dangerous going back to my people at this time, but we have to>
Crane had been gazing down, his eyes not really seeing the deck, while trying to focus on Krilore’s words . . . trying to assimilate what she had said. That he was a human incubator was beyond belief. Everything that he, the crew, the boat had been through these past years didn’t prepare him for this. And oh, yes, he would never be allowed to live this one down.
<Lee, you may not live at all, much less be the object of strange human humor> Krilore said somberly.
There was more to it than physical pain, then he remembered the meeting on the **vreestrich space ship. I believe there’s more to this than the physical impossibility of a human hosting two **vreestrich at the same time, Lee said, catching her mood. Could it have something to do with Trinish?
There was slight humor, slight admiration, though it was almost superceded with irony and bitterness. <Yes, Lee. Let me explain, while we have time. A **vreestrich is most vulnerable during the time of replication and bonding>
<Yes, when one of my people replicates, all of the genetic material are within the new member. However, the memories of the . . . parents and of the ancestors has to be passed along—a bonding. I will need to leave my host—you—and link with the new member, what you would call my offspring, who has also left its host, long enough to pass along his or her heritage>
And you think that Trinish would take advantage of that and have his host kill you and your child? Lee asked, incredulous. Why don’t we just wait and do it here when the replication is complete? There couldn’t be a safer place than right here on the boat.
She answered his last question first. <Lee, our culture is complex. If I were only a subordinate member of the **vreestrich, that would be all right. But I am not. It has to be witnessed that I passed along not only the memories of lineage, but the right of succession. Hosts are not considered viable witnesses, no matter how intelligent or independent they are> She paused for a moment, then answered his other question. <And yes, while I don’t like to think that of any of my people, I believe that the years we have spent wandering, trying to avoid annihilation has . . . unsettled Trinish. I think he believes that I have been ineffective as Supreme Commander. However, he has not gathered enough support to legally oust me. I have those who have told me of his veiled attempts to sway other commanders from supporting me>
Lee looked up and saw Chip anxiously studying him. Apparently he at least partially understood the seriousness of the situation. <Krilore, could you talk to Chip and Doc about this? Tell them what you’ve told me? I am afraid that I won’t be able to protect you when we reach Vinson Massif and they may be your only hope of surviving this.
<Lee> she began and Crane could tell that she was near the end of her strength. <No, I . . . I do not think so. I need to gather what strength I can to complete the replication of the new member. Not long; not long>
Lee was feeling strung out himself. He only wanted to lie down and sleep, so he knew Krilore was instinctively taking what she needed or could to…. He cringed. ….give birth. All right, Krilore. Hang in there. I have to pass along the information. Crane looked up at Doc. “I think this is going to happen soon. Can you give me something to boost my energy; at least in the short haul?”
Doc shook his head and then sighed, checking on the IV. “Captain, I am pumping you with as much glucose as I can. The only thing I haven’t given you is epinephrine. I hesitate to do so….”
“Do it!” Lee commanded.
“Lee, before you two decided on anything, you need to know that the Flying Sub has docked,” Chip said, still studying his commander. “If you need to go soon, it can be ready to fly by the time we get to the control room.”
“That’s not the entire issue, Chip.” Lee paused a moment in thought. “There was a list that I made out in Admiral Nelson’s cabin. Get those components and load them up in the Flying Sub. I want you to pilot and Doc to come along, when the cargo is ready.” He felt a sweep of dizziness and a rush of pain throughout his body. He found himself leaning against Jamieson who was keeping a close eye on him, but had not moved to administer anything. “Apparently there’s a very distinct possibility of some kind of coup on the part of one or more of Krilore’s subordinates when she gets back to her people at the Vinson Massif site.” Crane felt his words rush out. “I don’t know how much help I’ll be there, so I need some back-up.”
“How about bringing Sharkey along, too,” Chip suggested.
Lee nodded. He felt darkness closing in. No! He had to finish. “Doc, please, something—anything to help me finish . . . explaining.”
With a sigh, Doc pulled out a vial from his medicine cabinet and filled a syringe. “Lee, this could backfire.”
Crane ignored Doc’s comment. “After the . . . replication.” Chip looked confused. “After Krilore’s offspring splits from her, it will need a host. I can’t support . . . uh, support….” It was getting so hard to focus. He felt a prick of a needle. “A host can’t handle two Vreestrich. New one needs a . . . a, uh, host.”
<No, Lee. I need a new host. If you think you can do it…. Want you to host the new . . . member> There was a pause and then a coursing of pain from her to him.
He felt as though he was being torn limb from limb. Suddenly, two strong hands were keeping him from falling off the table, then they gently forced him to lay down on the exam table. He curled up, knees to chest as the pain clawed at him, tore at his mind as well as his body. “Krilore needs host.” He gasped for breath. For a moment he couldn’t breathe. Then he was able to suck in enough air to talk. “I . . . take . . . new….” Hell-spawned blackness overcame him, complete and yet not total. His mind couldn’t comprehend what was going on. It seemed to retreat into a corner of his skull, afraid of what was overtaking him. Finally there was only the struggle to continue living as Krilore struggled to split from the new entity she had been creating. Fire and ice hissed through his veins, eons of struggle burned in his mind. His hands grabbed something—Lee didn’t know what, but they were his lifeline to reality; to life and being—his being, himself, Lee Benjamin Crane, Commander, United States Navy, Captain of the Seaview, human being. He tried to keep that bit of identity even as he felt beings remote and eons old whispering in his mind, sliding through his limbs.
Then suddenly the agony ended, the sibilant murmuring receded to the dusty corners of the past from which they had come, the pain faded and he could breathe. He heard something—voices maybe, or something, rustling near his ear. Maybe his mother was right. Maybe there really were angels. Maybe that was what was whispering nearby, the breath caressing his face. Then there was nothing, only dark, blessed deliverance.
Chip’s eyes were large in his fear for the man struggling on the examination table. Lee seemed almost to be going into convulsions, struggling, crying out with pain that appeared to be tearing him apart. The skipper grabbed onto him, even as Doc held the stricken man by the shoulders, trying to keep him from falling off the table. It seemed to go on forever. The fingers were steel hard causing him to gasp in pain. Morton glanced up at Jamieson and saw fear in the doctor’s eyes as well. Then, after what had seemed an eternity, the struggles eased, the breathing slowed. With a final moan, Lee seemed to slide into the respite of unconsciousness.
“Is he going to be okay?” Chip whispered.
“I don’t know, well, yes, I think so,” came the uncertain answer. “But like he said, he cannot support two of these creatures. And I think that is what he’s doing now.” Doc unbuttoned Crane’s shirt and began to pull it off. To Chip’s horror, two small, pancake like creatures seemed to be straddling Lee’s back right above the backbone, below his neck. They were touching, slowly undulating, almost like they were breathing. He reached out to touch one, but Doc stopped him with a hand to the wrist.
“No, I told Krilore I would take her offspring when this replication was finished,” Jamieson said.
Chip remembered Lee’s last instructions—to take Krilore. “Doc, I think I should. You should be totally free to do what you need to do for Lee or anyone else. Sharkey can pilot the Flying Sub. We can bring Kowalski or Riley for back-up.” The two men seemed locked in each other’s gaze for several heartbeats, then Doc released the exec’s wrist. Morton gently touched the alien and then gasped. One of the entities dislodged and flowed up Chip’s hand, under his shirt and across his back. Chip gasped, cried out in the pain of contact and doubled over. It was liked he was laying on ice so cold it burned, then the pain drew inward from his limbs to the spot between his shoulder blades where the creature seemed to have attached to him. Finally the pain subsided; he slowly straightened up and gazed at Doc. So far, so good, the expression of the man opposite him seemed to convey.
“Are you all right, Mr. Morton?” Doc asked, still studying him. He seemed shaken that he was dealing with things he had little control over and didn’t totally understand.
Chip nodded, feeling a strange lethargy setting in. “I think so. But now I know why Lee was dragging around like he had just finished a marathon.”
<Mr. Morton?> The voice was in his head.
“Krilore?” Chip asked.
<Yes. Is Lee all right?> she asked.
“We won’t know until he awakens,” Chip replied. Doc continued to gaze at him, although he didn’t show surprise at the supposedly one-sided conversation.
<If you wish, you can think your questions and comments to me, Commander>
All right. By the way, since Lee was on a first name basis, we might as well be, too. My name is Chip.
<Thank you, Chip. I was not totally aware of what was going on during the replication. Did Lee apprise you of the situation at our base?>
Someone doesn’t like you and might try to get rid of you when
we go to Vinson Massif, Morton relayed.
<That is a very crude translation of what I explained to Lee. I . . . was unable to directly explain to you and the doctor as Lee wished me to. I can give you more detail now>
She did and Chip leaned back against another exam table at the enormity of what she was telling him. “Then my idea of bringing a couple more loyal men is probably a good one,” he said aloud for Doc’s benefit.
<Yes, but no more. The doctor’s presence is easily understood. The other man to pilot is also understandable. This Kowalski or Riley is someone who would help take care of his commander. It is the coming armed part that will be difficult>
Are your people armed?
<The hosts are>
And they are prepared to use their firearms upon orders, correct? Chip asked.
<Of course, Commander> Krilore said as though wondering at his obtuseness.
To our way of thinking, your people are holding our people, the Admiral, whom we deeply respect and admire especially, as hostages. Carrying at least small pistols would show our lack of trust in your people. That we would use them for your protection is just a bonus for you and a surprise for this Trinish, who, if I caught everything right, wants us as hosts because of our ‘warlike tendencies,’ Chip reasoned.
<Indeed, Chip, and I am the Supreme Commander so you should come armed as my escort—at least with small pistols. Do you have small weapons that can provide the maximum firepower?>
Chip just smiled. Indeed we do, thinking of the admiral’s innovative laser weaponry.
<This admiral is an even more amazing man than I had perceived when I first met him>
Chip could only totally agree with that assessment.
Doc motioned him to the other exam table. “I want to give you at least a B-12, Mr. Morton. I am also going to start….”
“No time for any of Lee’s liquid nutrish, Doc. I have to get that list Lee was talking about to Sharkey and have the Flying Sub readied to launch as soon as Lee is awake and ready to go.”
Doc motioned for Morton to roll up his sleeve. “Chip, I don’t know how long that will be. I’m going to examine the skipper now, but don’t expect any miracles,” Doc said, giving the injection to the XO.
“Just do the best you can. I think for the Admiral’s sake, we can’t wait too long.”
Doc sighed. “Yes, I know.”
Chip fixed his shirt, redid his tie and then strode out of the sickbay. He quickly made his way to the admiral’s cabin and found the note. Reaching for the mike, he called Sharkey to meet him in the aft storage area. Krilore had been strangely quiet, or maybe not so strange. She was used to Lee and it seemed obvious now that she had come to respect him greatly. As for him, he was an unknown.
<Not exactly, Chip. I have felt Lee’s thoughts for more than a day and a half of your time and his thoughts of you have been those of great respect and friendship. I envy that relationship>
Chip was surprised. You mean you don’t have any one of your commanders that you can confide in? Or trust?
<I had one and he has been gone for a long time> She sounded wistful. <I do have those I respect, but none with whom I am real close as your friendship with Captain Crane or Admiral Nelson> There was a pause. <I have learned much being on this vessel> She said nothing more and Chip didn’t press it. He didn’t really have the opportunity.
“Mister Morton?” It was Chief Sharkey. Chip jumped, not having heard the COB approaching. “Sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“I, uh, was thinking, Chief and didn’t hear you.”