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Hours later, he let instinct guide him to her. She sat by the Iridanus lagoon, staring at nothing. Her pain and anxiety called to him and he was pulled to her side. He expected the bitterness she'd left him with, or anger, or sarcasm, but when he knelt down beside her, she silently leaned against him. He felt the wall in her mind, but there was still enough room for her to bring him inside the quiet. He sighed in grateful relief, then noticed the unshed tears shining in her eyes.
"News, babe?" he asked softly.
"I'm on probation pending further psychological evaluation," she recited tonelessly.
He put his arms around her. "Why?"
"Fire. They've discovered I'm afraid of fire." She tilted her head up to look at him. "Is that any reason for putting a person on probation?"
Del stared at the artificial moonlight on the artificial lake for a while before saying, "It mean that much to you, cher?"
Bitterness returned, but this time it wasn't aimed at him. "I've never been happy anywhere but on a ship," she whispered. "When I was young, Paul and I - " Del got an image of a boy about fifteen years old, and an old-style explorer ship. "- planned to get a ship of our own and just bum around the galaxy. My father - " Another image, of a strong man with dark brown hair, a full beard and large, kind brown eyes, and the feeling of total love and burning loss. "- and Paul's thought we'd do better in Starfleet. They'd both been in Fleet before taking command of the Blakely. Like most kids, we wanted to do the exact opposite." She swallowed a renewal of some old pain. "A couple of years after my parents, and Paul and Paul's parents died -" Fire burned in Del's mind, twisted metal and bodies burned beyond recognition and Ruth's voice screaming 'Ara, Daddy...DADDY!' "- I discovered Fleet was what I'd wanted all along." She sighed, disguising a sob. "Now the chances are pretty good I'm not going to get it."
"Not'ing you can do?" Del asked softly.
She shrugged. "I've got two weeks. If therapy proves ineffective, I'm out." Damn it, I was never afraid of fire before!
The words in his head hurt, and they were accompanied by more pictures of the crash of the AUS Blakely. The fire had started in the bay. Sparks from broken circuitry had ignited some highly flammable specimens that were being stored there. Ruth and Paul and her mother were caught in it before it spread to the rest of the ship.
The fire you afraid of not flames, Del thought. It jus' guilt 'cause you live an' they die.
That's what the shrinks tell me, babe, came the sarcastic reply.
You always feel so sorry fo' yourself?
The shrinks tell me that, too.
So believe 'em.
Her incredulous indignation was palpable. What? Why?
To stay in Fleet.
Confusion. Del, I...
You help me, let me help you.
How!? She wanted it to be caustic, but there was too much hope screaming for life.
I feel th' tears in your mind, babe. Cry fo' them.
Fear replaced the hope. Don't be trite.
Honest grief not trite, cher.
It's been over three years - and what's grief anyway but the ultimate in self-pity? That's something I'm supposed to be getting over.
You never cry fo' no one?
More images flooded him; a racer he'd known by the name of Basset and the explosion that took his life. The Hunter had phasered him out of space, out of her life. And the ever-present, silver-skinned, half-Indiian-half-barracuda Terry.
Once, Ruth's mind-voice lied. I saw the Hunter blast Missionary out of space. Can you imagine a more wasteful death?
The crash o' th' Blakely pretty damn wasteful, non? How many die?
Thirty-three. The number rolled around in her head, repeated like a chant from an angry mob. There were thirty-four in the ships' complement, and I'm the only one left to remember the rest of them.
You love 'em all, Ruth?
She suddenly pulled away, the pain overwhelming her, but he caught her answer.
Tell me 'bout 'em, he coaxed. Go to that place that hurt so bad. Cry fo' 'em, babe, an' cry out th' fear that gonna take you away from th' one t'ing you want. I take th' tears, I swear.
He waited silently, patiently, his head pounding, as open and receptive as she was withdrawn. The pictures she had never meant him to see thundered within him, needing him to release her from them. All the horror and terror she kept locked inside was leaking through to him, a feeling that was as familiar to him as it was painful. Still, he waited, and eventually, she began talking.
Ruth woke in her own bed from an uneasy sleep, knowing that Del was in trouble or very soon going to be - and she knew why. "Damn you!" she snarled, and checked the time as she threw on a uniform. She had stumbled into her room three hours earlier after spending most of the night in the park, talking endlessly about the friends and family she had lost to the crash of the Blakely. Del had tried to get her to cry and had eventually succeeded. She still didn't know if she was grateful to him or not. All she knew that was right now he needed her.
She raced through the corridors of the Academy, reaching the Midshipman level and Del's quarters. It was sapphire, she knew it even before seeing the vacant stare that confirmed it. He sat on his bed, unmoving, barely breathing, totally unaware of her or anything else. The silence in his mind was horrific, dead yet pulsing. And the most horrific thing about it was she knew he was happy that way - or would be if the sapphire left anything of him that could feel at all. She sat beside him, reaching out physically and telepathically.
Del? No response. Daffy said he could function on it. How much did he have to take to get like this? And what am I going to do about it?
Yes, but how do I take the sapphire and give him shielding enough to recover at the same time? What will happen to me when I take it? There's only forty minutes till classes start. If we miss one class, we'll both be out - and I'm already on probation. Maybe if he reports to the shrinks... and what good are they gonna do him? They'd kick him out, Fleet can't have grounders for officers.
So it's just you and your empathy. And your love.
What if there's nothing I can do?
You're stalling. You have to try. You won't know until you do.
"I do not need this aggravation," she said aloud. Then she closed her eyes, dropped her shielding, and reached for his mind.
He screamed inside when she touched him. It reverberated in the dull, artificial emptiness. He begged to be left in peace, the pain and fear howling for release. The throbbing lethargy began draining away as her empathy pulled at it, leaving him raw and unprotected. Pictures that made no sense crowded her awareness, and though they burned and tore at him, she let them pass by her. She had to clear the synthetic chemical block before she could put real shielding in place. He hated her for it, all his rage and terror beating at her, damning her. His strength was incredible, the power of his gift tormentingly vivid. Goddess, how has he survived this long!?
A part of her mentally ticked off the minutes as she struggled, forcing the chemical out of his system. At last, when the last vestiges were cleansed, she had to regain some strength for the shielding she had yet to create. His anguish cried at her, tears of life's blood falling through her mind. He was lost, the despair filling him as sapphire had done. The noise in his mind thundered and pulsed, a cacophony of distortion and turmoil. The thoughts and emotions were sharp, from the smallest irritation to the most extreme passion - all of them crowding, uncategorized, within him. With the skill and determination that had been her survival at the sh'nall, she reached for him, wrapping his skinlessness in layer after layer of gauze-like protection. She bandaged his empathic wounds with gentle healing, soothing the fear and pain She used a part of herself to keep the world out and his essence within. She knew and loved all he was, and found, when the last layer was in place, that he knew and loved her in return. Damn you!
Del heard Ruth's voice swear at him as it faded out of his mind. He opened his eyes to find her slumped against his chest, her eyes wide open and sapphire-empty. He realized what had happened, and swore at himself. How many had he taken? He couldn't remember. He had been worn raw by Ruth's need, and had downed a handful of glowing, blue capsules without thinking. He had only wanted relief, an end to the pain. Consequences hadn't even been on the sensors.
An' now she pay for it, he snarled in self-disgust.
Why should she not? the foul-tempered son-of-a-bitch countered. You did it 'cause o' her, non? She s'pposed to be th' priestess, she s'pposed to help you. It her fault...
Your life not her fault. You need t' take vengeance on her?
He glanced at the chronometer. There was less than twenty minutes before classes started. He thought about calling Medical, then realized what would happen if he reported a sapphire overdose. He thought of calling Alana. She was a doctor - but was there was anything Terran medicine could do that a keheil couldn't do for herself?
How you cure a keheil?
"The trouble with being a keheil is it doesn't come with an instruction manual. You're pretty much on your own, learning what you can or can't do until something kills you."
"Come on, babe," he murmured desperately, out loud and in her mind, "wake up!"
"I am," she replied in a hoarse, annoyed whisper. "Shut up and let me get rid of the headache."
He held his breath, trying to block his mind.
You're trying too hard and that's louder than your thoughts, she instructed with a touch of the annoyance that had been in her voice. Just relax and let a picture of something soothing fill you.
All right, then. Water. Th' Gulf. Shrimpin' an' all th' li'l shrimp minds....
Hush up an' get rid o' th' headache.
Within minutes, she opened her eyes and glared at him. "You're an idiot, you know."
He grabbed her, kissing her. "You needed rest, cher."
"And you needed me, not five hits of sapphire!"
"Have we got time for breakfast?" she asked as she pulled gently away from his embrace.
"Great. A Spock lecture on an empty stomach. You're going to pay for this, Christmas."
"Wit' interest, babe," he promised.
"How you cure a keheil?" Del wondered, repeating aloud the question he had asked himself in his quarters the morning before.
Ruth looked up from staring bleakly into a half-empty coffee cup.
"You hear me, cher."
She was already wearing a frown, and it deepened. Del had asked the same question, out loud and in her mind, nearly a hundred times in the past 24 hours. She had done everything she could think of to distract, then ignore him, and it.
Why don't you want to tell him?
How can I admit I don't know?
Because you don't?
How can I help him, how will he have confidence in me...
Are you keheil?
Isn't that enough?
Not if Ara can die...
Your mama keheil, non? came Del's mind voice.
Damn! All right, give in. Maybe if I answer that question, he'll shut up!
She opened her shielding just enough to converse with him. Yes, my mother was keheil.
How she die then? If you could survive th' fire...
The image of a beautiful woman writhing in agony as her flesh burnt away seared itself into Del's mind. He gasped, and Ruth hurriedly blocked the image. He felt him take a deep, shuddering breath. I meant why she die, Ruth.
Leave it, she snapped and her thoughts were closed. He continued out loud.
"If she was keheil..."
"I said leave it, DelMonde," Ruth snarled aloud.
"There were somet'ing wrong wit' her already?" he guessed. "She not strong enough?
"Was there not'ing you could do?"
"Why she dead, cher?"
Why don't you take some sapphire when I really need you to? She realized the words had leaked when his eyes went hard. "Del... I'm sorry..." she started, but he was already striding out of the room.
He avoided her for a week. It was easy enough when she was suspended from classes to undergo extensive therapy with Dr. Braily. He survived as he had before she came into his life; grueling meditation exercises with Dr. Salme, and sapphire. Each stopped the pain in his head temporarily, in its own fashion, but neither brought him peace. Music was his only solace. While the strings of his guitar were singing, he could fill his head with their simple vibration, as simple as the minds of the shrimp out in the Gulf.
He was sitting in a corner of the main rec area. Pavel had begged him for a few hours silence. DelMonde had told him in furious, elaborate detail just how the young Russian could go fuck himself, then left his quarters anyway. He was playing, and that usually drew a crowd, but he had set the ‘foul-tempered son-of-a-bitch' look on his features, and most people didn't stop for long. He felt someone looming over him, felt, too, the sudden silence in his sapphire-numbed mind.
Let's go somewhere, Ruth said.
He stared up at her. Why? You not really need me t' ground today?
No, she said. Today, I really need you.
Once they were alone, she pulled the sapphire out of him. When her headache cleared, she started seriously examining just what was wrong with his shielding.
Salme say I born wit'out, he told her.
That's ridiculous, she countered. No empath could survive on Terra without some shields. Yet, as she searched, she could find none, not even a vestigial, pre-natal shield. Think about your mother, she told him
Warm strength, a power that glowed blue, like the sea, in his mind. Large light brown eyes, the tea-colored skin of the Terran Creole people. A bright smile and a fearsome presence, Louisa Duhon DelMonde had a mind like a deuterium trap. And when she was pregnant, and when you were an infant, she could wrap that mind around yours and protect you. Ruth cleared her mind and planted a firmly rooted image just behind Del's awareness. You'll need to strengthen this every day, and meditation will help you do that. Just don't pay any attention to what Salme tells you about shielding. Use your energy to focus on this. It's not perfect, but it should keep you functioning without the sapphire. You'll still need isolation from time to time. Don't let the shrinks give you drugs instead.
She felt the sigh of relief that filled him as she withdrew and only a fraction of his usual pain returned. Merci, cher, he whispered in her head. Je t'aime.
"How you cure a keheil?"
"Are we back to that again?"
"Damn it, Del...!"
"It take another keheil, non?"
"Yes. No. I don't know!" You don't! snapped from her mind to his.
Why your mama die, babe?
Ruth shrieked in her head, carefully keeping it from Del.
Can you not cure burns? That why you 'fraid o' fire?
Noel Christopher DelMonde...
His mind voice was startled and surly. Only my mama call me that.
I know. I thought it might shut you up!
You say, th' trouble wit' bein' keheil is it not come wit' a ‘struction manual. You say you pretty much on your own, learnin' what can or cannot do ‘til somet'ing kill you. But you also tol' me a mama does th' teachin'. So why your mama die? There somet'ing she found she could not do?
In utter frustration, Ruth gave in. Because she was pregnant and all her empathy was concentrated on the baby. She couldn't keep him alive and heal herself. The bitch of it is, that by keeping him alive and not healing herself, he died because she died. Bitter irony welled in her. Something of a flaw in the Antari system.
He was quiet for some time. She could feel him ruminating on something, but didn't intrude. Let him get a feel of his new shielding. Finally, he turned dark, thoughtful eyes on her.
"Tell me somet'ing you cannot do, cher," he said out loud.
She blinked. "How can I know what I can't do?"
"Can you lift a starship wit' your bare hands?"
"Well, no, of course not."
"So tell me somet'ing you cannot do as a keheil."
"I..." She thought about it. "I don't know."
He sat back, leaning against the wall behind the bed in satisfaction. "Now tell yourself."
"Tell yourself you not know what you cannot do."
"What the hell are you talking about? Is this some kind of riddle?"
"You figure it out, non?" he murmured with low confidence.
In the morning she woke to find him out of bed, back in his cadet's uniform, seated at his desk. She checked the time, stretched, and got up. She had time for a quick shower before breakfast, so she left him to his work. Clean, dressed, she went over to him, expecting to see a switched-on reader or a statboard. To her surprise, she found him working with a very old-fashioned looking slab of paper and a real ink pen. There were a few lines written across the top page. She leaned over his shoulder trying to make it out, but the language wasn't Anglo or Hebrew.
You really are a romantic, aren't you? He turned his head, his black eyes snapping in annoyance. That's French, isn't it? Romance language?
Patois my native tongue.
"What are you doing?" she asked out loud.
He gathered up the papers and put then in the desk drawer. "It private," he returned. "Pavel not know patois, so it stay private." He glared meaningfully at her.
Okay, I get it. "But what is it?"
Del sighed. "Poetry."
"You're a poet?" Ruth asked, genuinely curious.
He shrugged. "Th' shrinks say it might help."
She nodded. "There are a lot of poets on Antares."
"I never hear of..."
"We don't usually write them down." She bent down, kissing the top of his head. I have to go.
He stood, turning, taking her in his arms. Why?
I have another session with Dr. Braily.
He helpin', cher?
He's trying aversion therapy and it's working. I'm developing an aversion to Dr. Braily.
Tell him you not know what you cannot do.
Right. Get some sleep, Christmas, you've stopped making sense.
"I think I've figured out your riddle."
Ruth stood in the doorway to Del's quarters, looking haggard, frightened, and very alone. He rushed to her as Pavel said, "Shall I leave, Noel?"
"I didn't mean to do it," Ruth continued, as if she hadn't heard Pavel's question.
"Yeah, T-Paul, go 'way," Del answered. Pavel Chekov sighed and gathered up his boards, leaving the room. Del leaned his forehead gently against Ruth's. "What happen, babe?"
Ruth pulled away, rubbing her arms and pacing. "Those bastards," she said, "put me through a sim of the crash, every detail, exactly the same. As if I haven't dreamt it nearly every night for the last three years."
"An'?" Del asked, coming close to her again.
She whirled on him, eyes blazing. "And?! You're just like them, that couldn't be enough, could it! That was just to get my attention! The next minute they put me on a goddamned starship, staged a goddamned attack on the bridge, and set the goddamned science station on fire! Computers don't catch fire as a rule, but what difference does that make to people fucking with the subconscious!"
"What you do, cher?"
A nasty grin spread across her face. "How do you cure a keheil?"
"Right. Tell me something I can't do."
"You not know."
"Correct again. Give Midshipman DelMonde a gold star."
Ruth plopped down on his bed, rubbing her temples, mentally exhausted. Del came over to her, his fingers soothing, his lips soft against her face. "You pass wit' flyin' colors, non?" he whispered.
"Not quite,"she returned, and there was a trace of giggling hysteria in her mind. That would have been a bit too obvious. She took a deep breath, calming the hysteria. What Keheil ani Ramy did was use her telepathy to manipulate the readings to show that she is not so devastated by the sight of fire that she would allow it to jeopardize other lives. Which happens to be true, she added defensively.
I know, Del soothed
What I'm afraid of has nothing to do with how I function, as a keheil or as an officer. I keep my demons to myself.
Not quite, babe. There was rare amusement in his own mind voice.
You don't count.
Th' shrinks buy it?
She sighed. They're beginning to. And by the time my probation's up, they will.
Within days, Ruth was taken off probation and returned to full Cadet status. Within six months, she was assigned to her first tour of duty on the training ship, Spider. She was elated. DelMonde was devastated. Pavel Chekov was relieved at the respite from the constant intrusions into what were, after all, his quarters as well.
DelMonde was pacing the room, muttering to himself. Pavel looked up from his studying. "Can you stop that, Noel?" he asked politely.
"I miss her," Del growled.
"Who ask you?"
"Go away, Noel."
"No where to go, now she gone."
"Glenna Harris was looking for you."
"Glenna Harris can go to hell."
Pavel stood, clicking off his reader. "Foul-tempered son-of-a..." he mumbled.
"Then leave!" Del thundered.
With a glare, Pavel did just that.
Del pressed his fingers to his head, grimacing. He tried to focus on the image of his mother and the pain dulled a little. There was too much fear, too much sorrow. What if she never come back? How I make it wit'out her?
His gaze fell on the locked drawer of his desk, where he kept both his poetry and his sapphire. He sat down, placing his thumb on the lock. The bottle of blue capsules was over half empty. It would be months before he could get to the Clave to get more.
An' she just love you t'inkin' like that, non?
Her. Mebbe jus' one or two till she get back...
...an' kill you.
He slammed the drawer shut, trying not to scream her name, wishing with all his heart that he could give his demons to her.
No, not give 'em, share 'em.
Mere d'un dieu.
He reopened the drawer, carefully avoiding the sapphire, and took out the paper and pen. He'd write it in Anglo, so she could read it when she got back.
What was it demon-lovers were called?
To read Del's poem, click here
Title Song You Love The Thuder by Jackson Browne
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Title Song You Love The Thuder by Jackson Browne
Return to Part One
To go to the next story in chronological sequence, click here
To go to the next story in chronological sequence, click here
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