The fingers were feather-light and seductively warm, sliding down his body in caressing circles, like a gentle cascade of irresistible sensations. His traitorous body arched and stiffened under the attention; his lips bit back a moan, and his face flushed deep red - desire…
"No!" Adrian's eyes snapped open, a hoarse, angry denial on his lips as every muscle in his body tensed.
"You're safe, lieutenant," said the comforting tenor voice of medical assistant Yuen. "You're no longer in Security Section. It's all right."
Adrian looked around. The institutional glare of the overhead lights made him blink, and blurry vision sharpened to reveal bio-instrument panels and medical unit beds. Paranoia gave way to fact as he forced himself to relax.
His face was impassive, but a dark cloud of uncertainty seemed to hang over his head; threatening rains lurked, waiting to pounce on anything he had left.
Adrian flinched and pulled away as Yuen's hand unexpectedly rested on his arm. His teeth bared in a snarl; an instinctive flash of fear wrestled into anger.
Yuen lifted his hand, his eyes apologetic, filled with a swirl of sadness and other emotions that caused a still-traumatized man to say in a voice as cold as the void of space, "Leave me alone."
"I'm sorry, lieutenant. I didn't mean to alarm you."
Adrian hated this man, hated the eyes filled with pity whenever they looked in his direction, hated the sympathetic whispers just outside the range of his hearing.
His greatest desire had always been to go where there were no human beings.
Now it was a desperate need.
He could not live with people anymore. He wanted to finish the neutron wave project, be the calculating computer the Empire always needed him to be, and then he wanted it to end. Human beings could destroy themselves as much as they wanted to; it didn't concern him any longer.
Walls thickened, trying to find impenetrable perfection in anger. The turrets went higher, loaded with the weapons of cynicism and superior intelligence, past the point where they failed him before.
He buried pain and shame in a mountain of logic, and he shut out the one voice that always found a way to slip past his guard.
"Oh, you're luuucky," Bryce said with an envious gleam in his eyes when he found out Kali was going over to the C.S.S. Trykor with Adrian. "What I wouldn't give, and then some."
He sighed wistfully, imagining the beautiful women - he couldn't imagine a flagship being without lots of them - and all the mouth-watering foods just waiting for a discerning palate like his. He took a whiff of imaginary odours as he thought of fresh, sweet strawberries, like his mother used to tell him stories about, and the taste of fresh meat, the delicious juices squishing out as he took a bite.
"That's not why I'm going," snapped Kali.
Bryce eyed his partner-in-line as they waited their turn at the food dispensers. "You're in a cheerful mood." He didn’t understand why she should be in such a foul temper. She was going to a place of his dreams, and Adrian was fine, if a little worse for wear. What was her problem? So what if the foolish man didn't want to go. Adrian would find heaven irritable. That wasn't anything new.
"You wouldn't understand." Kali stepped up to the complicated-looking dispenser and punched in her ident-code.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm just a lower rank, what would I know?"
"Yes, what would you know?" Kali's voice was harsh as she typed in the numbers for a plain multi-protein sandwich and a steaming cup of hot coffee.
Bryce's nose twitched in distaste when he saw the unappetizing items sliding from the food conveyor. "That's disgusting. Do people really eat that? Oh, I forgot, you're an alien. Probably don't have taste buds."
Kali gave him a slicing glare but it glanced off Bryce's thick skin. He grinned impudently. It took someone higher up the food chain and much more intimidating than Ensign Kali to faze him.
"I may be alien," her voice was taut with anger, "but at least I try to be human."
Bryce shrugged. "Never said I was human."
Kali didn't hear his words as she filled her tray.
Captain Tarn still refused to allow her to see Adrian, but she suspected it was at Adrian's request. This man, who was giving up his freedom to keep her safe, had cut himself off from her.
But that wasn't what was making her angry.
"You planning to drink that coffee or strangle it until it begs for mercy?" asked Bryce.
"Oh." Kali looked down in surprise. Her fingers wrapped around the dirt brown coffee mug, squeezing it ever tighter until the bones stood out on her knuckles. "It's all yours." She dropped the mug haphazardly on the tray, hot black liquid spilling from the sides, and stepped back from the dispenser to let Bryce have his turn.
She couldn't get the disturbing rumours out of her mind. The ones about what had been done to Adrian. Barker was still in the brig, to the cheers of the entire crew, but it didn't undo the damage.
"Hey, Kali, you want to sit with me?" Bryce's question 'woke' her up to the fact she was standing and staring blankly in the distance.
She looked down at her tray. The thin, grey spread of protein between two lifeless slabs off-white bread made her stomach turn. "You're right. This is disgusting. I…don't know what I was thinking."
Bryce looked back at the busy and fast-growing line. Where did all of these people come from all of a sudden? No one was about to let Kali slip in to get another order.
"S'alright. Lucky I took extra then." A tall stack of blueberry-looking pancakes, smothered in butter and syrup, was leaning dangerously on his plate. "You can have some of mine."
Kali followed him reluctantly as he led the way to a quiet corner and slid a few pancakes onto her plate after they sat down.
"Sorry about before." She poked listlessly at a pancake, stabbing it mercilessly with her fork.
"I deserved it," Bryce mumbled as he chewed a mouthful. "I know you're worried about him."
Kali put down her fork and stared glumly at the butter melting into a pool of golden yellow. "Do you think the rumours are true?"
Bryce eyed her nervously and stuffed another forkful in his mouth, chewing slowly this time. "What rumours?" he asked innocently.
"You know which ones. They've been all over the ship. You must have had the gossip from below ranks."
"Maybe I have."
Her voice was like reinforced bulk plating, extra hard. "I want to know, Bryce."
"You'd better ask him."
"You know he won't say anything."
"Yeah." A long sigh passed his lips. He suddenly found words very hard to say. "It wasn't pretty from what…well…it wasn't uh...they did things to him. Cruel things. Even more than the usual." His eyes looked down at his neglected pancakes and mumbled, "It's better if you don't know the details."
"So it's true."
"Yeah." He looked up and sought her eyes. "I'm sorry, Kali. I don't know what you're going to find when you see him again."
Kali nodded slowly. She already knew.
Adrian slid shaky legs over the side of the bed, pausing as he caught his breath and his eyes glanced up to make sure MA (medical assistant) Yuen wasn't making any motions to help. Yuen's face was carefully schooled to express only mild interest. Adrian suspected there was far more sympathy hidden away behind those almond eyes, but the man was smart and knew what his patient needed. Adrian noted this fact and concentrated on his next move as his legs dangled from the edge of the bed.
He'd rehearsed this attempt in his head, knew every step required and the probabilities of success. He touched the tip of his foot to the floor, registering the cold surface as a mere but expected fact. Leg and foot muscles tensed as he angled to put more weight forward.
Weak, and a twinge of pain, but it was manageable. So far, so good.
Adrian reached for a support bar nearby, took a quick breath in and let it out as he slowly put all of his weight on his legs. More pain. His jaw tightened as he concentrated and willed his legs, and the rest of his body, to cooperate.
He was standing, and panting like a man who had run a marathon, but he was upright. And most important of all to him, he did it alone.
"It's amazing how much muscle tone can be lost when you're immobile for any length of time. People don't realize," said Yuen, as if he was a commentator at a boring sports event. "Do you want to try a few steps?"
Adrian looked down at his wobbly and tired legs. Standing took more out of him than he had anticipated. He could already feel them about to dump him unceremoniously, and embarrassingly, on the ground. "Perhaps not today."
"You're right," said Yuen. "Would you mind if I help, sir?" He looked over at Dr. Greenwell who was speaking to another MA nearby. "Not because you need it, you understand. I have to look like I'm doing my job."
Adrian's eyes narrowed but didn't refuse when Yuen put his arms around his shoulders and helped him back onto the bed.
The Captain entered the medical unit. "Lt. Stannis."
Adrian's heart beat a staccato of increased stress as Tarn approached. This man had witnessed his downfall, had preyed on him like an animal smelling weakness. Adrian's eyes hardened, he was determined to show no reaction.
Yuen stood to attention. "Sir."
"Leave us." Tarn waved his hand in dismissal.
Yuen glanced at Adrian's blank face, nodded and removed himself from the room.
"Captain." Adrian's voice was expressionless as he lay back on the raised bed.
"We'll be arriving at Base 337 tomorrow. How are you feeling?"
"I will be mobile."
"That's good," said Tarn, though he had doubts. Adrian's face was pale and there was a slight tremor in his legs. "You have to behave yourself on the Trykor. There are many more Barkers over there."
Adrian's stare was impossible to escape and his tone was like a flame that burned through Tarn's defences. "It's not the Barkers that concern me."
Tarn kept his wince to himself. He could not show weakness now; he had to play the bad person in all this. "Kali Tranton will being going over as your consort. She is being assigned to your cabin."
"What do you get out of this?" Adrian's voice was harsh and he leaned forward slightly.
"Another year of reprieve. Maybe assignment to a better ship."
"Is that all?" The sarcasm dripped like hot wax, scorching Tarn's ears. "It's disconcerting to discover I'm worth so little."
Tarn's stomach twisted in knots at the accusation. "Adrian, I never meant…" He exhaled loudly, the sound of a man who was tired of everything and couldn't wait for the unpleasantness to end. "You may not believe it, but I'm doing this for your own good. You have to learn to play the game, Adrian. It's the only way to survive."
"You've made that very clear."
The temperature was dropping so quickly, Tarn wished he'd worn something warmer. This man had a way of getting under his skin and making him very uncomfortable. "The Empire is all we have, Adrian. We might as well make the best of it."
"If you have no further orders, Captain, I would like to rest."
"There is one other thing. The matter of your personal attendant. I know you've never wanted one, but as a Firster and an officer, you are entitled to one. The Admiral will most likely assign you one of his own men. Do you understand?"
"You will provide one from the Sedener?"
"I want you to pick your own, Adrian. You might not trust anyone on this ship either, but at least it will be a familiar face. It's the least I can do for you."
Adrian looked off into the distance. Tarn was right, other than for Kali, he didn't trust anyone on this ship. He had trusted the Captain to a limited extent, but that had obviously been a mistake. "Bryce."
"Sorry?" Tarn leaned forward, as if he hadn't heard right. "Did you just say Bryce?"
"Of all the people…why Bryce? The man is a thief and a cheat. He barely escaped a trip to a penal colony because he took the service option. Plus he's lazy and unreliable. I thought you detested those qualities?"
Tarn shook his head. "Then I don't get it. There must be someone better qualified."
"But you want Bryce?"
"That is my choice."
"All right, it's your funeral. I'll tell him to pack his things. I imagine you've just made his day. He'll…" Tarn stared at him for a moment as something occurred to him. "He'll owe you."
Adrian returned his stare but there was no expression on his face.
After the Captain left, Adrian sank back into the pillow and stared at the ceiling. His carefully laid plans were already unravelling. With Kali designated as his consort, it was virtually impossible to ignore her. The symbol of his weakness would be in his room, sharing the same space, breathing the same air, sleeping in...
No. It was no longer a pleasantly diverting thought. It had been turned into something unpleasant. He would have to find a way around this, distance himself, and retain a professional relationship. Even in the same room.
She would insist on doing things for him, but he had Bryce now. The irritating thief and busybody was going to have to earn his keep.
Concentration would have to be maintained in order to keep Kali out of his mind. It was difficult. Even now, he could hear her gentle voice at the edge of his consciousness.
She was his weakness. He could not afford one on the Trykor