“Null field engaged. All vulnerable areas of the ship have been sealed off. We’re going to start hunting on the level Kohen is on, as well as his quarters, and the level the other rescues are sequestered. I’ve sent three teams, but with the null field, he’ll be aware of that we’ve discovered his presence on board.” Deke’s methodical report reassured me, but I couldn’t relax.
Not until they had him. It. They had no real gender characteristics when they were in their true forms but the bodies it had been using to follow me had been male, so it was probably male. Then again, the crew was mostly made of males, so it made more sense to have that form to avoid standing out. So it could be female.
And none of that mattered at all. It was just a distraction so I wouldn’t have to think about that thing coming near me, and my growing fear this was just an elaborate trap. Could they have created an entire ship, a planet? Fooled me that well?
How could I know different?
“Kohen, you need to breathe.” Lakshou’s quiet voice startled me.
I gasped, and my chest hurt. I let the screen fall to my lap.
“That’s it. Keep breathing.”
“What’s going on? Kohen?” Captain’s voice came from the screen, and Lakshou picked it up.
“He needs a moment, Captain.”
“Did something happen? Deke, send someone to guard Lakshou’s quarters.”
“Not as far as I can tell.” Lakshou watched me, his horns glowing, but nothing could ease the doubts that swarmed and overwhelmed me, just like those flame wasps had covered Holldu’s body in stinging welts, leaving behind a poison that killed him.
“I already sent someone, Captain, but they’re trying to be subtle. Relax, no one is knocking down the door to hurt your boy.”
Their voices faded out, and I just let go. Since I’d let Captain take me out of that tiny cell, a lot had changed. No more suit. I now knew that I was different, and why, if not exactly how I was different or what I was capable of. The things I thought were tests were memories, which I sort of thought I’d always known but couldn’t handle. I had a job, friends, and I’d touched and hugged a man—who’d hugged me back—just because I wanted to.
But all I thought I knew balanced on a single thing… could I trust my own mind to know what was true? Was this a fantasy? A nightmare?
I’d been afraid that I’d hurt someone, that the scientists and people would use me against the ship’s crew. Then we learned that there were people on the ship working with the same people who tortured and abused other races for power.
How could I help find out who was behind all that, if I couldn’t even trust that the walls around me and the people I saw were real or not?
I curled on my side, hugging my knees to my chest. A light covering fell over me, but I didn’t move. Sleep would have been a blessing, but the vise around my chest only grew tighter. It was hard to breathe, so I had to focus on each breathe, pulling one in and pushing the next out.
A whole shift could’ve passed for all I knew. Lakshou kept the screen on, the vid link active between him and Captain and Deke. The reports meant next to nothing until I caught a note of triumph.
“Got him!” Captain said. “He was trying to hide, but a crew member sniffed him out thanks to Kohen’s description of his scent. Thank you, Kohen.”
Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t talk. I could barely breathe. Lakshou had been giving me space, but he brought the screen over so Captain could tell me thank you, since he thought I hadn’t heard him. I had, I just… I couldn’t….
“Kohen? Kohen!” Lakhou’s voice rose, and he shook my shoulder. It only made it harder to focus on the in and out. I was getting tired; maybe I’d just stop. Just for a little while. “Captain, he’s barely breathing.”
“Overriding remaining lockdown protocols. I’m sending Aparoe and a medical team now.” Captain’s voice shook. Was he having trouble breathing too? Maybe it was something to do with the air.
Surely they’d think of that, if we were being attacked again. Lakshou stayed by my side until the door to his meditation quarters slid open. He started to protest, but stopped and sank to his knees when Aparoe came inside. Almost immediately after, Captain entered.
He was breathing in great gasps, and I grew worried. As worried as I could be, as tired as I was in that moment, I couldn’t say or do anything to show it. But they needed to check Captain out, then run a diagnostic on the ship, not bother with me.
Something must have been done to the environmental controls. I’d just been in the system, so I knew it hadn’t been properly maintained before this flight. Aparoe began running tests, just like they always did. I’d grown used to them, enough not to flinch away.
Nothing Aparoe did gave any answers. The screen waved over my body remained stubbornly silent. I couldn’t tell Aparoe what was wrong, not matter how carefully I was cajoled. My lungs stayed tight, my chest screamed, and the room grew darker.
And then a warm hand touched his shoulder, and peace and ease radiated from that gentle touch. I gasped in a loud breath, air scraping by my strangled throat.
Lakshou’s gasp drowned out even that harsh sound. “By all that’s holy, you’ve bonded!”
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