by Kaerutobi Ike (蛙跳び池)
Xander glared at his backpack as the shirt he had been trying to stuff in one-handed caught on the zipper and unfolded itself. Again. With an annoyed humpf, Xander gave up on any semblance of neatness and just shoved the damn thing in the bag. He stared at the rest of the items laid out on his bed and, after a moment of consideration, did the same with the rest of them.
The red lighting in the room was so dim that he almost missed his techbook. In fact, he had only remembered it as he felt the sharp corners dig into his spine, when he sprawled across the bed after mistakenly thinking he was finally done packing.
The techbook was on his right side, where his arm was strapped to his torso by a shoulder brace, so Xander had to roll on his belly to retrieve it. He went to stuff it in the bag with the rest of his things, but paused at the last moment, fingers grazing over the scratches and the dents that marred its surface. Xander didn’t remember its being in such bad shape. Dropping it back at his side, he reached in his dresser for the techbook he normally used, the one that was made to work in the red-tinted darkness that allowed Tarim to take off his armour without burning his skin. Speaking of Tarim, the other man should be back soon.
Placed side by side, the two techbooks didn’t differ all that much. Xander’s techbook was slimmer and lighter; possibly making it a more recent model. The idea that he might own something more advanced than military-issued equipment made Xander snort.
He pushed himself onto his knees to reach his bag and felt his right shoulder protest. His left wrist was acting up too. With the whole shoulder incident a mere week after the cast was removed from it, Xander hadn’t been able to do any of his physio to build back the strength in his wrist yet.
Xander had another moment of hesitation as he held his own techbook above the opening of his bag. Was it worth the weight? It wasn’t very heavy but….
Xander smiled bitterly. What did he think he was doing? All he was going to do was carry his bag from his room to the shuttle that would bring them to Gaia, and then from the shuttle to the room he would occupy with Tarim. Both trips would take about five minutes respectively. Then there would be nothing else to do but wait.
This was his first mission in four months, and Xander might as well be part of the luggage. He was surprised by how much he missed being a real soldier. Going days without a decent meal or a shower, being ordered around every second of the day: all the things he had complained about in the past all came rushing back to him through a haze of nostalgia. True, some times had been tough. but he had had few worries beyond the next pit stop or what he would be eating that day. He had been a part of a whole team of people that had endured the same things he did. What they did had counted for something. They achieved things that had direct results and could be pointed at to say, “I did that.” Sometimes there was even reasons to feel proud.
Now? Now he wasn’t even welcome in his own squad.
The door opened and the fabric of the curtains rustled. Xander dropped the techbook in his bag and turned to face the door and welcome Tarim.
The black combat suit never stopped being creepy. Even after having four months to get used to it, Xander still had trouble thinking of the looming figure as Tarim. It was like they were two entirely different people. The black armour was just the Berserker: a dangerous, unpredictable being who could become violent any second. Then there was Tarim, the guy with the albino-white skin and the soul of a bunny rabbit.
The armour walked to the section of wall that hid the automated machinery used to remove the suit. It was nearly pitch-black in there, just a few red glints from where the light caught on a shiny surface from time to time. Once it started moving, it looked like a swarm of beetles. Xander could feel the ghosts of tiny legs skittering over on his skin just thinking about it.
The Berserker walked in there, the swarm did its job, and out walked Tarim. This soon after coming out, his system was still full of the mood-dampener that the suit injected in his bloodstream. Usually, it would take him about twenty minutes to become human again. But lately….
There. Whereas Tarim would have usually gone straight for the shower not so long ago, now he stopped next to Xander. The first time, Xander had expected this to be the prelude for a Berserker incident. He had braced for a strike, prepared to go limp because, even out of the armour, Tarim was stronger than Xander could ever hope to be. The best strategy was to let him do anything he wanted and hope it ended quickly.
But Tarim hadn’t hit him then and he wasn’t hitting him now.
Instead, there was touching. Nothing big, just a hand on Xander’s cheek, or giving a brief squeeze to his good shoulder. Little gestures of affection that were just weird considering the relationship they had, and weirder for being offered at a time when Tarim’s body should still be filled with heavyweight mood-suppressors.
Once Tarim was satisfied with his greeting, he disappeared into the shower for the rest of his evening ritual. Xander watched the door close, the lingering warmth where Tarim’s hand had caressed the back of his neck heating his skin. He could get used to this, he thought not for the first time.
Xander had five minutes before Tarim finished. He turned back to the bed, to his bag, and to the bitter flavour this trip was acquiring — not because he would be waiting for Tarim to return for most of his stay, he decided, but because of the company he would be waiting with. His squad.
Xander noticed he was gripping his bag so hard that his knuckles had turned white. He took a deep breath and relaxed his grip as he exhaled. There was nothing he could do about it now.
He zipped the bag shut and did up the clasps. He knew now that they were all homophobic assholes first and foremost, and that would always come before being his supposed companions. He just had to remember it and not expect too much from them.
He rested the bag next to the door. Straightening up, he inspected the room for anything he might have forgotten. He just wished—even though there was nothing he could do about it—that he wasn’t wearing the cast for this trip, wished he didn’t look as much like the victim of an abusive relationship—as Nicholas had once put it— wished he wasn’t going as the Special Unit’s Grounder. After that, there would be no chance of things ever going back to normal. This would forever mark him as the Grounder.
Xander was so caught up with his pity party, that he didn’t notice the bathroom door had opened and that Tarim was back in the main room with him. He only took notice of the Special Unit when two strong arms hugged him from behind and Tarim’s lean form pressed into his back.
Xander rested his head on Tarim’s shoulder and twisted his neck to look at Tarim’s face. Tarim’s red eyes stared back.
“Hi,” Xander said. The arms around him tightened, Tarim’s mouth got that phantom tilt at the corners that didn’t quite look like a smile, though it really was one. Xander smiled back. “How was your day?”
Tarim’s reply was burying his face in the crook of Xander’s neck to rub his nose in the hollow of Xander’s clavicle. White hair tickled Xander’s nose, and he scratched absently at it with the back of his hand. “Long day then.”
Sometimes, Tarim was open to talking straight out of the shower. When he was more tired—if Xander’s observations could be trusted—words were slower to come back to him.
Tarim pushed Xander toward the bed and Xander complied. Tarim helped him to lie down, not once letting him go, and spooned up against him, hugging him closer, as if it was possible.
It was no surprise when Tarim undid Xander’s brace and dropped it over the side of the bed. The doctor had started to complain that Xander took too long to heal, so Xander had tried to convince Tarim that the brace needed to stay on. Tarim had nodded gravely through all the speech, which Xander took to mean that he understood and would comply with the doctor’s wishes, and yet, the very next day he was reaching for it just the same. Xander might have believed Tarim wasn’t fully aware of what he was doing—that it was just muscle-memory, another part of his habitual routine—but Tarim was too careful to not jar Xander’s shoulder for him to not be conscious of his actions.
Xander’s t-shirt followed the brace, and then Tarim’s towel got discarded too. Tarim repositioned Xander so that he could hold him to his chest while he got rid of Xander’s trousers and underwear, making sure that their skin never stopped making contact in some way. Once they were fully naked, his lips pressed against Xander’s neck. Once in a while, he would breathe out small puffs of hair that made Xander squirm as it tickled against his skin.
They used to rush into this. Usually, by the time Xander was naked, they were already kissing each other, teasing each other into mindless pleasure. Lately—always lately, always stuff they didn’t used to do that now they suddenly did—Tarim had started to take his time. Xander has always thought he knew that he was dealing with a cuddler, but Tarim had taken to cuddling like it was an ends in and of itself. Xander wouldn’t have minded so much, if it hadn’t given him time to think.
People like Xander shouldn’t have been allowed to think. If they were allowed to drive instead of just going along for the ride…. well, they swerved straight for the ravine.
They were facing each other now. One of Tarim’s legs sandwiched between Xander’s while the other’s foot hooked behind Xander’s calves. Xander’s head was pillowed on Tarim’s arm, the hand attached to it playing in his hair. The other hand was resting on Xander’s bad shoulder, supporting it gently. The warmth was nice. Tarim was always warm. His skin, his not-quite-smiles, his whole personality, all of it left Xander feeling warm. Mainly because Xander was always cold, which was fitting, because he had a cold mind and a heart like a shard of ice. Or so someone had once told him.
And this was the kind of thought that too much thinking led to.
Xander looked up. Tarim was smiling now. The corners of his lips were tilted up for real, his eyes crinkled at the corners.
Xander smiled. “Hi, I’m glad to have you back.” He stretched to kiss Tarim’s lips, a languorous kiss that promised pleasure and sex. Sex was nice. It didn’t allow for much thinking.
Tarim answered in kind: small, open-mouthed kissing for a while, bringing teeth and tongue in play teasingly before they got to full-on tongue action. Tarim grimaced when a little drool ran along his chin and Xander laughed. He swiped it away with his thumb and then kept his hand on Tarim’s jaw to better control the angle. Tarim was ticklish under his ribs and Xander always forgot about it, so they had to break the kiss for that too.
When he was done catching his breath, Tarim pinned Xander to the bed and settled over him. Xander took a second to enjoy the feel of Tarim’s skin, his weight. More warmth, and that was his cue to pull Tarim back down to him and kiss some more. But then, an idea struck him and he pushed back. “Hey, you want me to suck you?”
Tarim tried to catch Xander’s mouth again, groaned in disappointment when Xander’s arms didn’t allow him close enough. Xander laughed and repeated his question.
“I like your mouth where it is,” Tarim answered while he attempted once more to initiate a kiss.
Xander gave him a short one. Well, not so short. He forgot to push Tarim away again and didn’t remember his proposition until he was forced to break their lips anyway, because it was either breathe or faint from lack of oxygen. God, they behaved like teenagers.
Once his brain was properly oxygenated again, he pushed against Tarim to roll him on his back. Tarim moved an inch and then registered that he wasn’t going in the direction he wanted.
“Come on,” Xander said, “you’ll like this. I give great head.”
Tarim frowned. “Don’t want to get head,” he protested.
Xander chuckled. “Stop whinging; you’re acting like a kid.”
Tarim stuck his tongue out. Xander laughed and gave him a lick on his nose for his trouble, which sent them both into peals of laughter. Tarim eventually rolled on his back. “Fine, if you want to so much.”
“Don’t sound so resigned. I feel like I suggested to have you tortured.”
Tarim didn’t answer and Xander couldn’t see if anything was playing out over his face, because his gaze was focused decidedly lower. Tarim had very little hair aside from the white strands on his head and his almost-translucent eyebrows and eyelashes. He had some under his arms, and Xander took notice for the first time that he actually had a trail of snow-white hair under his navel, going down to a patch above his cock. Xander grazed along it with his knuckles. He gave a playful tug and Tarim jerked a little.
“I thought you were going to give me head?” he grumpily asked.
Tarim looked up and was surprised to see a faint blush spreading from Tarim’s cheek to his neck and down to his torso. The black of his pupil had almost swallowed the red of his iris and his breath was shallow.
“In a hurry now?” Xander asked with a smirk.
“You’re a tease.” The seriousness with which Tarim said this shocked another laugh out of Xander. He moved back to get closer to the foot of the bed, forgetting his bad shoulder until he had tried to put weight on his arms and failed. Tarim oofed when Xander’s upper body suddenly collapsed on top of him. Tarim’s “ouch!” was muffled by Tarim’s skin.
Tarim rose up to his elbows, gently shifting Xander so he wasn’t resting on his injured arm any longer. Xander felt stupid. His shoulder was throbbing in warning and his nose was tender. He said as much when Tarim asked if he was okay. “And my ego is in pieces,” he added just to see the smile come back to Tarim’s lips.
“Bad idea. I told you.”
“That’s not what you told me.”
Tarim huffed. Before Xander could protest that he still wanted to try that blowjob, Tarim hugged him from behind again, pulled Xander’s back flush against his chest, and snaked a hand over his hip to wrap around Xander’s cock.
“Blowjobs another time. Tomorrow’s going to be busy and we need to sleep.” His hands moved to pleasure Xander.
Xander’s protest died in his throat and was reborn as moan. His attempt at getting away made his shoulder throb some more and it was that that finally convinced him to stop struggling and enjoy Tarim’s taking care of him.
The angle was too awkward to reciprocate. Too awkward to kiss too, and that was maybe more annoying.
As if reading his mind, Tarim pressed his lips to Xander’s cheek, insisting until Xander got the hint and turned his head. Their mouths met, Tarim’s tongue lapping at his lips until he opened them to allow it in.
Tarim snuggled closer, hips rolling against the back of Xander’s thighs. He also moved his hand faster and that propelled Xander to do something about Tarim’s pleasure before he was too far gone. He licked his hand, getting it slick, and reached between his legs, taking Tarim’s dick into his hand, guiding Tarim’s cock between his thighs. Tarim grunted in thanks and it was then that Xander finally allowed his mind to go blank.
Xander distantly registered Tarim’s muscles clenching and releasing; the arms around him became limp and Tarim stopped moving.
Xander burrowed further into Tarim’s embrace, trying to convince himself he didn’t need to get them clean. With regret, Xander untangled himself and shivered as he crossed the room to the bathroom. There was a washcloth on the counter that he wet down and used to clean himself. He rinsed it and brought it to Tarim, who didn’t react when Xander called his name, but let out a tired grunt when the wet fabric touched his skin. He did grab Xander’s leg when he was done to keep him from leaving.
Tarim’s order to “stay” was so garbled Xander hardly recognized it. Chances were Tarim was already more than half-asleep when he said it. Xander shook his head in disbelief, but he also dropped the cloth to the ground and did as he was told, joining Tarim on the bed. Tarim immediately plastered himself to Xander’s back, an arm sneaking around Xander’s waist before he drifted off for good.
The only noise in the shuttle—besides the humming of the engine—was the hushed conversation between Stephen and Kartha. Everyone else was either watching Xander and Tarim—fully decked out in his armour—or pretending very hard that they weren’t there.
And then there was Nicholas.
The last time Xander had seen him was when he had been forced to tell Nicholas to back the fuck off after he had tried to provoke Tarim while he was in armour. Which coincided with the time Xander broke his wrist and bruised his ribs.
Nicholas had been behaving strangely since Xander had been named as Grounder, which was surprising, because it was Nicholas’ accusation that had decided the whole thing. If Nicholas hadn’t pointed his finger and said “gay”, then they would have had to draw straws to decide which of them would become the Grounder. Who knew what might have happened then?
Annie was situated on Nicholas’s other side, smiling at Nicholas, ignoring Xander’s existence completely, and keeping a wary eye on Tarim. It wasn’t really her fault that she was under the delusion that Nicholas was a good guy. Worst, she thought he batted for her team, which he just might. Nicholas was engaged to a girl back on his home planet, even if he liked to act like he wasn’t. That, and he had been more than okay with Xander’s gayness, until it had become something he could use to prove that Xander was more qualified to be the Berserker’s Boy Toy.
Xander burrowed himself closer against Tarim’s armour, hiding himself in his side. It wasn’t much of a comfort to be allowed this close by the Berserker. Since he had put it on that morning, Tarim had reverted to his Berserker personality. He didn’t talk, didn’t move unless he had to. Xander might as well have been seeking comfort from a rock. His only consolation was that his cuddling the big black armour made the others uncomfortable. Every time he touched the armour they fidgeted in their seat. He pointed towards the planet they were headed to through the window and told Tarim that it looked nothing like his did and everyone had glared at him as if he had committed some grand crime. Xander had smiled even though Tarim hadn’t acknowledged his comment.
It was hard to tell how much of Tarim was still present when he wore the armour. He kept his memories of his time in it; Xander had had proof of that much. Regardless, he behaved like an entirely different person when he was suited up.
When the sergeant came back from the cockpit, Xander was stretched over a bench, back propped against the armour in the most relaxed pose he could muster with a hard corner digging between his shoulder blades. The horror that overtook everyone’s face when he had first assumed the position was worth the minor discomfort.
“Xander! Put your fucking feet on the fucking floor!” shouted the sergeant. He was glaring at Xander, but he still flinched when he saw Tarim move out of the corner of his eye. Xander looked back just in time to see the helmet turn to face the wall again. Apparently Tarim was still somewhat curious about his surroundings.
Xander did as he was told. There was no reason to alienate the sergeant, so sat proper with his spine held straight. Because he was a good little soldier like that.
Gaia, their destination, was four hours away by shuttle. They were headed to a small research centre, deep in a very hostile jungle that covered sixty percent of the planet’s surface. All the information was on Xander’s techbook. Three hundred pages about man-eating predators, man-heating plants, and man-eating mud. Xander had stared at the pictures with awe and a good dose of bewilderment. Why did they insist on keeping people there? It was like asking for someone to get killed.
After two of those four hours, Nicholas rose to his feet and walked toward Xander. Annie trailed after him like a shadow. Xander watched her move closer with a raised eyebrow. She had made no secret of her fear of the Berserker, the very thing that was just behind Xander. It seemed that Annie, not an open-minded woman, was a courageous one.
Xander couldn’t feel Tarim tense through the armour, obviously, but it still felt like he did when the armour’s helmet moved once again and followed Nicholas’ progression. The berserker didn’t like Nicholas and Nicholas was too pig-headed to take that into consideration before he did something stupid like walking to Xander and sitting next to him. So it was up to Xander to be the reasonable one. “Nicholas, don’t do that.”
Annie was already furrowing her eyebrows in anticipation of what he would say next. Xander sighed. “Whatever you think you’re doing right now. Just stay away from me, will you? I don’t want to be beat up again.”
Nicholas stopped at once, eyes jerking to the looming figure of the Berserker. He must have noticed then, that it was him the armour was watching, when he looked down at Xander, Nicholas looked hesitant.
“He doesn’t like you very much,” Xander said, though it didn’t properly get across just how Tarim felt about Nicholas. But what was he supposed to say? That Tarim was jealous of the relationship Nicholas and Xander had shared? Yeah, that would go over really well in the present company.
The rest of the squad had been following the exchange, but when Xander looked at them, they all looked away. Only the sergeant held his gaze.
Xander wondered on which side the man stood. Did he regret the way things had turned out? Surely the guy would have preferred a solution that didn’t destroy the unity of the squad under his charge? A bitter smile was stretching Xander’s lips when he looked away from his sergeant. The man might have wanted things to go differently but he hadn’t stepped forward to stop Xander’s mockery of a nomination.
Nicholas stared at him silently for a few more moments before shaking his head and returning to his seat, Annie hot on his heels.
This time, when Xander gathered his knees to his chest and burrowed in the armour’s side, the sergeant didn’t say anything about his feet being on the bench.
Xander imagined he was back in his bed, with Tarim’s arms around him.
Another hour passed and they were entering Gaia’s atmosphere when the shuttle shook. It wasn’t unheard of. Everyone who wasn’t already seated went back to his or her seat. Xander straightened and fastened a safety belt around his waist.
Five minutes passed without any other turbulence, more than enough time for everyone to be willing to forget there had been any in the first place. All of a sudden, another, more powerful jolt ran through the shuttle, a red signal lit on the ceiling and a siren blared through the small ship.
What little gravity the shuttle could maintain inside was suddenly increased tenfold, crushing everyone down into their seats. As suddenly as it had happened, the effect was reversed and everyone not strapped down was sent crashing against the ceiling. Xander stared as two of his teammates were projected into the air, slamming into the ceiling. From the sickening crack that echoed in the small space, one of them broke something.
There was a moment during which everything floated. In those few seconds, Xander saw that Stephen had gone green, that Nicholas and Annie were trying to help the man who was plastered on the ceiling by the force of their fall, and that the sergeant was twisted in his seat, trying to get the attention of the pilots and asking repeatedly to know what was going on.
Movement on his other side caught his eye. The Berserker was moving. For some reason, he wasn’t affected by the wacky gravity—magnetic soles, his brain supplied. There was a big red lever on a wall, one that was tied with a chain to make sure it couldn’t be moved. The berserker tugged on the chain, breaking it like a piece of string, and he pulled the lever down.
It was a good thing for Annie and Nicholas that they had managed to get the guy they were reaching for on the bench, because whatever the Berserker did caused another jolt to go through the shuttle. Gravity crushed them against their seats once again with a force and a suddenness that left Xander breathless. Another bang went through the shuttle, signalling that someone else had hit a wall.
A very, very pale pilot joined them, looking as white as Tarim. He stumbled, caught himself against a wall, and opened his mouth as if to tell them something but all that got out was a disgusting retching sound as he emptied his stomach. Kartha, the squad medic, gave a tired “Shit!” and got up to help him.
Xander couldn’t agree more.
No one seemed in a hurry to find out what had happened. Either the pilot had come with good news or it was going to be every man for himself in a few moments. There was enough chaos left that everyone could find something to tidy or someone to help. The only exception was Drake’s body, strewn across the floor. It must have been his skull breaking against the ceiling when the shuttle had been freefalling. Xander saw Nicholas take his vitals. From the frown and the minute shake of his head, nothing could be done to help him anymore. Xander thanked his lucky stars that his belt had been buckled and left it at that. There was a pile of boxes near the back of the shuttle that would keep him away from the others. He busied himself with that.
The Berserker kept watch over him, which kept the others away. Someone tried to get closer to him at some point—Xander had a feeling it had been Nicholas—but the giant armour had stepped more obviously between Xander and the intruder and they had left without saying a word.
Once the shuttle had regained some semblance of order, the sergeant called them in the corner most removed from where they had moved Drake’s body.
The sergeant started his explanation with a curt, “The engines are dead.”
Every head turned to the pilot, who gave a weak shrug of his shoulders and added, “We got hit by a meteorite,” as if that explained everything.
“How come we aren’t falling then?” asked a suspicious Annie. “Because right now it sure doesn’t feel like we’re falling.”
Xander looked back at the Berserker, who was still standing a few feet behind them. The armour didn’t give any sign that he was conscious of the attention.
“Your friend there,” the pilot pointed the Berserker and everyone joined Xander in staring at him, “engaged an emergency protocol. Right now, we’re hung under a gigantic parachute.” It looked as if it pained the man to admit that part.
“What now, sir?” Nicholas asked the sergeant.
The expression on the sergeant’s face had been sour since he talked to the pilot, but that was nothing compared to the bitterness in his voice when he said, “I’d like to tell you we warn the Galatea and wait for help, but we can’t.” Once again everyone turned to the pilot.
“Communications are off too. We only get static.”
“So it’s broken after all,” Nicholas said.
Xander would have liked to object. They still had light, they still had air and heating, they should be able to communicate. It didn’t make sense at all. Happily for him, he wasn’t the only one gaping like a fish. Stephen was too and he was the first to break and asked the question he was willing to bet they all had been dying to ask: “What broke?”
Nicholas waved in the air as if pointing to something far away. “You know, the communication relay.” Seeing as Stephen was still looking lost so he continued, “The one that allows communication through the magnetic field around Gaia?”
Stephen made a noise of understanding—so as to not look stupid, though Xander was ready to bet he still didn’t understand. As for Xander, he couldn’t believe he had forgotten about the magnetic field. But if the relay had finally broken—it had been on its last leg when the research centre had sent a distress message to ask for Tarim to repair it—then everything made sense. There was only one thing he needed to know now. “What do we do once we reach the ground then? Walk?”
The sergeant nodded. “You said it.”
“How are we going to know in which direction to go?” someone, Billy or Samuel maybe, asked.
The sergeant shrugged. “Good old-fashioned way, I guess.”
“I can do that,” the pilot interrupted. “I can calculate an itinerary.”
The sergeant nodded to him in thanks and turned toward Billy—he had been the one talking, then. “There you go.”
For all he had been wishing for a walk in the mud the night before, Xander had a bad feeling about this one.
Xander had decided he shouldn’t wait for them to be traipsing through the woods to take some pain meds. He preferred to be as close to high for the oncoming trip as the pills would let him. If he was going to be eaten, he didn’t want to feel it happen.
The pills were with his toiletry. With his luck, it would be at the bottom of the bag. The first thing he took out on was his techbook—which reminded him, so much for not caring for weight—he dropped the thing without any care, getting everyone’s attention when it clattered loudly on the floor. Xander ignored them and lifted a shirt. If he remembered correctly, his toiletry bag was somewhere near the socks. Or was it the spare trousers?
Someone walked to him and asked, “What are you doing?” It was Kartha.
“My meds are in there.” The medic gave a wary look to where the Berserker was sitting a few feet away, but the armour gave no sign of moving. Kartha crouched next to Xander and held the bag for him.
“Thanks.” Xander pulled another ball of fabric out of the bag. What was that? Oh, underwear.
The toiletry bag finally appeared, somehow having settled way down at the bottom of the bag. Xander stuck one end of it under his foot and opened the zipper with his good hand. Kartha watched him do it with a frown. “Do you need help?”
Xander shook his head. “I’ve got it.” He found the bottle where his pills were and took a few out.
“Should you be taking that many?” Kartha asked when Xander popped three pills in his mouth. The medic’s meddling instincts must have finally kicked in. He gave a contemplative look at Xander’s brace and started reaching for it. “How long have you had that anyway?”
Xander jerked back instinctively. Then he felt foolish when that sent some pills rolling on the ground and just made Kartha raise his hands in alarm.
“Sorry.” Xander looked at the armour, noticed it was still sitting, and decided maybe he should relax too. “Really, sorry. I’m okay though. I can do it.” He collected the pills and put them back in the little bottle, giving a pointed look at Kartha when he managed to close it one-handed. He wanted to say ‘see, I can do it’ but that would have been overkill.
Kartha shrugged and went back to his seat. Xander followed his progression and noticed that Nicholas was watching him attentively. Xander jerked his head back to the mess he had made. He put the toiletry bag back in the bag and decided the shirt and techbook could stay where they were. Now it was looking like he would have to actually carry the damn thing so he might as well pack it light this time.
As expected, they landed without any grace. The shuttle rested on top of some trees until its weight became too much and they broke. By then, the parachute was already falling to the side and they got another dose of free-falling. This time, everyone was wearing their safety belts and the worst they had to suffer was the sickening lurch when the shuttle finally made impact with the solid ground.
Once they were sure they had landed for real, everyone got to their feet and gathered his or her bag. The pilot and the sergeant conferred with each other over a satellite view of Gaia. There were two marks on it and a line that Xander was sorry to see made a V shape. Anything other than a straight line meant that the journey would be longer. Anything other than a line also hinted that there was something on the way that they couldn’t walk through.
“Okay people,” the sergeant said after the pilot finished mumbling something to him. “We are going to do this camping trip all together and I don’t want to have to send anyone back to their mummy.” Which was sergeant’s way of telling them ‘please, people, don’t make me send you back home in a box’. “Everyone has a bag, make sure you pack rations in case we are separated.” He turned to address Billy and Stephen specifically: “You two are pack mules until I say otherwise. Go with Nicholas to the emergency store and take whatever he tells you to. Annie, you stay with our pilot friend here. By tomorrow, I want you to be able to lead us to the research centre with your eyes closed. Kartha–”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll check my first aid kit. See if anything appeared in there while I had my back to it. …What?” he asked, feigning innocence in front of the sergeant’s glare. Xander lost interest. He already knew how that show ended.
Annie and the pilot were hunched over the map, talking to each other in low tones — not low enough that Xander couldn’t make their words out despite the sergeant’s loudly lecturing Kartha on proper respect due to superiors.
“And here, there’s a marsh,” said the pilot, his finger right in the middle of the two points marked on the plan.
“We’ve walked in mud before….”
“Not on Gaia. You don’t want to go anywhere near mud on Gaia. Trust me, the additional day is a far better option.”
Annie took in the serious expression if the pilot and said, “I believe you.”
Xander believed him too. Man-eating mud. They were stranded on a planet that had man-eating mud.
Xander jerked around to face the sergeant. “Sir, yes sir.”
The man gestured him closer, until they were barely a breath away from each other.
Xander barely refrained of rolling his eyes. “Yes, sir?” he asked again, lowering his voice, too low to be understood by—fuck it, no one could talk low enough to not attract everyone else’s attention in this tin can. Xander hoped the sergeant didn’t want to be discreet because they were most definitely anything but.
“I need to know how we are going to deal with him.” The sergeant gave a nod of his head toward the back of the room.
“Him?” Was he talking about Nicholas?
“The Berserker, Xander!” Everyone turned to stare at them and now the sergeant was glaring at Xander like it was his fault everyone had heard his outburst. He leaned closer to the sergeant to better try to mask their conversation, even though there was no doubt in his mind that everyone already knew what had been and would be said.
“What, you don’t just order him around like one of us?”
The sergeant looked genuinely surprised by that idea. He looked above Xander’s shoulder to where the Berserker was still passively sitting on a chair. “Hey, you…”
“Tarim,” Xander supplied. The sergeant paused, as if the concept of an armour possessing a name demanded consideration or something. Which, said like that, did sound weird. Xander huffed in annoyance and turned to face the armour too.
“Tarim!” The helmet pivoted to look at him. Xander made a ‘come here’ gesture. “Could you come here a minute?” he tacked on, just in case Tarim didn’t get the motion while in his suited-up state. He had almost tried ‘move your ass back here’, but what if the Berserker took offense to that? Plus his mum had always said that politeness could get you anything. It was proven true, kind of, when the giant armour stood up and joined them in the corner. At once, the sergeant looked less intimidating and a lot more intimidated. Still, he squared his shoulders and his voice came out without any hint of his earlier hesitation.
“Soldier, you are going to come with us. I want you to help my men to the best of your ability. Understood?”
There was a long silence. And then, coming from the helmet, a heavily distorted version of Tarim’s voice answered, “Sir, yes sir.” Everyone in the room gaped like a fish, even Xander. Tarim, at his most grumpy, when he was still giving Xander the cold shoulder, had never sounded as bad as he had just now. A shiver travelled down his spine at the simple memory of that dead and toneless voice.
No one else noticed anything—but no one else had any experience with Tarim, the real Tarim. The sergeant gave an approving nod and said, “Good.” The others went back to what they were doing. Xander established that the sergeant was done with him and walked away. Just in case the horrible voice should come out of the helmet again. Stephen, who was straightening just as he walked near him, gave him an understanding look and commented, “Guess you get just as freaked out as the rest of us after all.”
Xander wanted to hit him. He didn’t.
Eventually, everyone was ready to go. Even Xander, who found a way to tie his backpack across his torso, so that he could carry it without it resting on his bad shoulder. It had the benefit of leaving him with a free hand to wield his gun. But, if it came to that, he might as well aim for his own head, because he couldn’t aim for shit with his left hand and the right was currently strapped to his chest.
The jungle was… green. Full of roots to trip on, of green things that left green ichor on their clothes, of strange-looking—were those insects? Could they be called insects? They had wings and no feathers; surely they were some kind of insects?
But the most important part was that, so far, there were still no signs of any man-eating anything.
Xander found out very quickly that his best wouldn’t do for the trip. Between the drugs, the injuries of the last few months, and the lack of proper exercise due to said injuries, he was winded and tired hours before any of the others showed any sign of fatigue. In addition to that, the constant onslaught of pain made him grumpy. When Kartha approached him to ask if he was all right, he was shot down in flames.
When he didn’t think his mood could sour any further, he looked to the side and saw Tarim. What truly pulled Xander down was the way he never seemed to look in Xander’s direction.
They made a pit stop around mid-afternoon. Xander was half-relieved, because he didn’t think he could have made another step, and half-annoyed, because now that they had stopped, he knew he couldn’t get back up and make another step.
That was when Kartha struck again. He crouched at Xander’s side with a plastic thingy in his hand that he shoved at him. “Put this in your mouth and take a deep breath, then blow slowly,” he ordered. Someone snickered in the background.
Xander hesitated but the sergeant was looking at him–hell, everybody was looking at him–and he had already hit his drama queen quota for the day.
He did as told. Inhaling was like breathing in smoke and exhaling provoked a raspy sound in his lunges that wouldn’t have sounded any different coming from a eighty-year-old chain-smoker. It made Xander cough. Once his coughing had abated, though, he felt much better. Kartha noticed. “There,” he said, “that wasn’t so bad, now was it?”
Xander rubbed his face to hide the blush he felt coming. “Thanks. Sorry.” God, he was so pathetic. When he looked up the only eyes still on him were Nicholas’. All the others were already back to their sandwiches and, in Stephen and Kartha’s case, a silent game of rock-paper-scissors.
“What’s the matter with you?” Xander snapped.
Nicholas looked toward a row of trees and Xander suddenly noticed that the armour was nowhere in sight. Nicholas tentatively got to his feet. Xander tried to glare him away, but that didn’t work. Nicholas next to Xander’s boots and crouched there.
“Don’t you dare,” hissed Xander. “Go away before he comes back.”
“Xander, I just…. Can we just talk? I’ve been thinking and….” Before Xander could say something nasty about Nicholas and thinking, there were branches breaking in the nearest thicket. The Berserker was back.
Xander half-expected to see him lunge for Nicholas and felt a twinge of disappointment when it didn’t. But then Nicholas was already backing away and Tarim must not have thought he posed a threat. Or maybe the Berserker didn’t care at all.
The armour’s return marked the end of their rest.
Thanks to the thing Kartha had made him inhale, Xander was able to follow the group, though he didn’t break any record and stuck with the end of the column where the green and the mud was already trampled and thus easier to walk on. For some reason, the Berserker stopped doing his back-and-forth inspection and stuck to the head of the line.
At the end of the day, the score was ten for the humans (squad of eight minus Drake, plus pilot, plus sergeant, plus Tarim) to zero for the man-eating creatures.
There was even good news, according to Annie and the pilot. Apparently, they had covered more ground than anticipated. She added, “If we keep up this pace then we’ll be there in three days instead of four.”
That garnered a round of half-hearted cheers around the fire. Xander refrained entirely because he was well-behaved and not at all because he felt like crumbling on the ground and die. Also, he was saving his energy to do his part of the work. Because everyone on the squad had a job. It wasn’t always official, but that was the way they did things. Nicholas was their quartermaster, Annie was their map specialist, Kartha was the medic, Stephen was plain old muscle, Billy was…well everyone was glad if Billy didn’t get them in trouble (also, he was very good at finding good spots to establish camp), Drake had been their communication officer, Samuel had a pair of eyes like a hawk and could shoot anything with a rifle, and Xander cooked—and good cooking was at the root of a troop’s spirit, as any person with two brain cells would tell you.
Xander was ready to make his most famous dish: we-don’t-have-much-so-be-thankful it’s-at-least-warm. Which wasn’t as bad as the title would lead one to think. It wasn’t as good as fresh ingredients would have made it either, but the advantage of traveling rations was that they didn’t need any cutting or peeling. They did need opening, though, and that was just awkward with only one hand, especially when he was so tired he couldn’t walk straight, much less open rations packs.
Everyone must have seen him look at the rations with tears of frustration in his eyes. No one moved. He didn’t know if it was due to Tarim’s presence, or just payback for his treating them like they were jerks who thought his homosexual ass deserved to get offered to a Berserker. He didn’t need them anyway.
The first pack went mostly in the pot, save a few pieces of dried vegetable that ended on his lap. The second pack was more half in, half out. Hands ripped the third pack from him and opened it with an efficiency that… was just nice. Annie opened the rest of the pack without saying a word and that was nice too, until Billy ruined it by commenting about women in the kitchen. Nicholas told him to shut up. Tarim—well, Tarim didn’t talk and that was nice because no one wanted to hear the voice of the dead coming out of the armour. No one.
The score changed at around one in the morning. The humans were still at ten (everyone who had survived the original landing was still standing), but the man-eating team got four new players in, mangy cat-like things about the size of a tiger, if tigers came in green with spikes on their back.
There was much flailing about and running—Xander mostly. And the creatures seemed set on getting at least one of them for their dinner—Xander, by the looks of it—as they kept throwing people to the ground to try and bite off their throats—Xander’s especially. In fact, he spent most of the fifteen minutes following the beginning of the attack thinking he had drawn his last breath.
And, no, it wasn’t funny. It was just that the fourth time one of the creatures managed to trip him and put a sharply clawed paw on his chest to keep him there while it ate his windpipe — well, that fourth time? He just lost it and started laughing like a crazy person. Which was a good thing really, because it startled the creature and gave Samuel that extra second that he needed to kill it.
Tarim missed most of that, seeing as he was playing bulldozer with another creature in the bushes.
Someone—the sergeant?—slapped Xander. The sting brought him out of his hysteria instantly. “I’m done. Don’t hit, I’m done!”
The sergeant considered him for a second longer and Xander thought he might get hit again anyway. Instead, he lowered his hand and shouted, “The fuck did you think you were doing, flailing around like that, soldier!? When the enemy attack, you pull out your weapon and you shoot!”
Xander knew the moment he pointed his holster and opened his mouth to say, “It’s stuck,” that it wasn’t the right thing to say. Not the right thing at all.
The Sergeant grabbed him by the brace and jerked it open. “Then don’t put it back on until we get to the centre and use your damn hand for something good for once. Wanking days are over, soldier.”
And maybe the next bit was the sergeant’s fault. But Xander was of the opinion that the man had been very worried he would have to explain one more death and was just taking his fear out on the easiest target. So really it was Xander’s fault for yelping like he did.
Anyway, one moment Tarim was standing at the edge of the camp, waiting for his orders like a good robot; the next he was at the sergeant’s throat, threatening to do with his hand what the creatures had been trying with a mouthful of teeth. Now, if he had done that to the creatures, Xander would have gladly stood aside and cheered. But since it was happening to his immediate superior, he had to do something. Since he couldn’t think of anything better he did the exact same thing he had done the last time this situation had occurred. He threw himself at the armour and wedged himself between the Berserker and his sergeant.
By some miracle, this second incident ended with only minor bruising all around. Added with the scratches from the feline creatures, it was very annoying, but it didn’t make walking harder, so he counted it as a win. Xander also followed the sergeant’s advice and stored the brace away. His shoulder hurt more, but he could reach for his gun. His balance was better too. It was worth feeling a bit achier if it gave him a better chance of not getting eaten.
The second day got off to a good start, if an early one, because no one really felt like sleeping after the feline ninja attack. But of course, it could only last so long.
It started very unspectacularly with a question from Annie that went along the lines of: “Does anyone else hear that?”
Everyone stopped to listen but no one heard anything.
Which was why everyone ignored her the second time she stopped to look wonderingly at the surrounding greenery.
Everyone heard the next weird sound though: a loud rustling in the bushes. Lots of loud rustling, actually. Coming from all around them.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Stephen said, because he had a talent for stating the obvious.
Then the rustling got louder and closer, until it was coming straight from the other side of a bush that had seemed enormous when they had had to cross through—but wasn’t that wide when Xander really thought about it—and, suddenly, there was a gigantic… thing, coming straight at them. Xander saw a lot of grey skin—scales?—and at least four tusks.
The animal disappeared before anyone could make sense of it, leaving only crushed vegetation behind. And the rustling hadn’t stopped yet.
“We don’t want to see whatever it was fleeing from do we?” Samuel’s voice was half-drowned in the ambient noise but everyone heard him.
They also all heard Annie when she said, “I told you there was a weird noise.” For once, Xander wasn’t the only one who looked like he wanted to strangle her.
Their chances of outrunning whatever was behind them were pretty slim, so they upped their pace and hoped the danger wasn’t advancing in their direction. It worked for the rest of the day. Mainly.
A little before sunset, Nicholas had the unfortunate idea to look behind his shoulder. Xander was bringing up the rear and had no trouble to follow the play of emotion on his face. It was quite simple: curiosity, surprise, understanding, and finally worry and just a tinge of horror.
“Guys.” His voice broke at the end and it sounded like a question but really it wasn’t. Everyone turned around to see what warranted the call for attention and a similar suite of expressions crossed their faces. Xander didn’t want to look back, but he couldn’t kid himself that Nicholas was hallucinating. When he turned around, he could have sworn there were trees following them. Then he realised they weren’t following so much as falling forward, broken by some invisible creature advancing in the forest. Xander right knew then that they were screwed.
Their packs were nearly abandoned, only kept because the sergeant screamed at them that if he saw anyone leave something behind he would make sure they got court-martialled to death. And since they could just abandon them later if they needed to, everyone kept their stuff and started running.
The first person had started running straight ahead, but then Annie shouted, “Not this way, we’re headed for the marsh!” and she steered them further on the left. Xander was glad to have her. If things ever went back to normal it wouldn’t last, but right now he was so glad to have her.
Despite Annie’s warning, they still ended wading ankle-deep in swamp water. It made running more tiring. They kept moving for another kilometre, after which Xander stumbled and got a faceful of stale water. That marked the end of the running.
“Xander,” asked Samuel after half an hour, ” is it still following us?”
“Look for yourself!” Xander answered.
“No way. Nicholas?”
“I’m afraid to end up like Xander.”
“A wet uniform isn’t the worst that can happen to you,” interrupted Annie. “If you’re so worried, Samuel, just turn your head and look.”
“You’re heartless Annie.”
“And you’re a poltroon. ‘sides something that massive would certainly make enough noise to warn us.”
“Shut up, Annie; no one says ‘poltroon’.”
Billy jerked a thumb toward Xander. “Yes, know-it-all women. He said it too once.”
“Shut up, Billy, or the know-it-all women are going to kick your homophobic ass,” Annie spat.
She would have said more but Xander intervened. “Talk for yourself, Annie. I’m not going near Billy’s ass.”
“Aww, Xander, I thought your delicate homo sensibilities would have more respect for my ass,” Billy teased.
“I don’t know about the other homos, but I know how often you shower that ass and that’s just repulsive. No offense, dirt-bag.”
“Shut up everyone!” interrupted the sergeant. “I think it’s getting closer.”
They looked around, the trees were definitively closer, but not close enough to warrant running yet.
“What the fuck is that?”
“I don’t know. Drop your packs and run!”
It was finally happening. They were being chased by a man-eating pile of mud. A hill, really—a shrubbery was growing on top of it for God’s sake!—with a wide hole at the front that looked like a mouth, if stared at cross-eyed. There were also two black holes that looked like eyes but that might have been burrows. For all Xander knew, the hill thing had bunny parasites and that was their home. But it did look like eyes. And shit, but that shrubbery thing looked like a mohawk, making this the most ridiculous monster Xander had ever seen in his entire life. He was going to have nightmares about it, he just knew it!
Everything went as well as a desperate chase between humans and a man-eating hill could go, right until the ground started to shake under their feet.
As it happened, giant, moving hills also had their predators. It was just a matter of finding a big enough stampede of elephants. Yes, elephants. They were grey, and had big ears, a long nose, and tusks, so no one cared if they had six legs and prehensile thumbs, or if Annie disagreed, they were elephants and that was that.
The hill didn’t have enough sense to recognize when it was outmatched and started fighting. The elephants were going to win anyway, so they fought back.
The Berserker reached the end of its tether while everyone else was fighting for their lives and they didn’t notice straight away that he was acting weird. Until it became obvious that the Berserker wasn’t discriminating his opponent as much as he could and just attacked whatever was closest to him. The ran out of creatures and there was no more stepping away and hoping he turned on the nearest elephant.
“Oh God, he’s going to kill us! Do something, Xander, he’s going to kill us!”
And wouldn’t that be a good thing, if it stopped everyone screaming insanities left and right? Regardless, there was nothing Xander could do. Two or three pairs of hands had him in a death-grip and held him between the knot of his companion and the raging Berserker.
The armour was covered in gore and bits of elephants that were elephants even with prehensile thumbs and now was really not the moment to get distracted, Xander!
So, gory armour looking his way, terrified companions keeping him at the front. But that was his job, wasn’t it? The other side of his job, the one that managed to be even less pleasant than being paid to be the Berserker’s friend-slash-fuck-buddy. And Xander was brilliant at this fuck-buddy job, wasn’t he? So he was going to be brilliant at the stop-the-berserker-from-going-friendly-f
The armour’s chant of war was just an endless litany of get me out, get me out, get me out in that dead voice Xander hated more every time he heard it. To tell the truth, this fucked-up chant filled him with a revulsion that almost overwhelmed his terror.
“Tarim,” Xander called. He didn’t know if it would work but he was pretty sure running wouldn’t, and by now he would have said anything just to drown the words coming from the armour. “Tarim, it’s alight, the monsters are gone now you can stop.” The armour didn’t react. “Tarim, come on, Tarim, we’re on your side. We’re your friends.”
“Get me out, get me out, get me….”
“Please, Tarim! Please, we’re your friends, I’m your friend. Remember me? Please don’t do…. No! What are you….”
They had shoved him forward. As he smacked against the armour, the only thing that registered in Xander’s mind was that they had shoved him forward. Not all of them, Nicholas was insulting someone and asking to be let go of. But at least one pair of hands had shoved him at the Berserker.
The Berserker who was now looking down at him, silent for a second—but what did it matter what happened for only a second? In the next second, the chant of “let me go” had been replaced by a cry full of hurt and fear. It went straight through Xander’s chest, right to where the shard of ice was, and melted it right off.
Xander realised what had happened, but he couldn’t think about it. He didn’t have time. Things in his body were hurting that called for his immediate attention. Some of those things he didn’t even know he had until they started to hurt. Like whatever was on the right side of his abdomen. That hurt a lot. Or the part between his neck and his feet, that hurt so much he had difficulties telling where the pain started and where it ended. Whatever didn’t hurt, he just wasn’t feeling right now. Any moment now he was going to black out anyway.
Kartha didn’t make any remark about pills this time. As soon as Xander woke up, he just crushed five into powder, mixed that powder in a plastic bag full of water, and then worked to drown Xander with his mixture. Amongst all these things, the only one that struck Xander as out of place was the water. It looked clean.
It was dark and Xander thought he was having a nightmare, because someone was screaming in fear and pain. But it wasn’t Tarim. The voice sounded like Billy. Then there were torches moving around, cries, roars, gunshots. Silence. More bitter water to swallow or drown.
He was followed by a hill. No, a man with a gaping mouth, two black pits for eyes and a mohawk. The man was wearing a big black armour. The armour turned white. Why was Xander running from Tarim?
“Shush, we’re nearly there.”
“Making sure we all die of a heart attack.”
“Over there. Don’t worry Xander, your precious Tarim is over there.”
“He’s not going to make it, is he?”
At the end of the tunnel the light was a wrong colour. Xander knew if he went there, then he had to leave someone behind, because the light was the wrong fucking colour. So he didn’t go. He just wished he could remember who and why.
Xander glared at his backpack when the shirt he had been trying to put inside it one-handed caught on the zipper and unfolded. Again.
“Are you sure you don’t need any help?”
Xander glared at Nicholas. “Yes, I can do it.”
“Obviously you can’t,” commented Annie from the other side of Xander’s bed. But she didn’t touch the shirt.
“The doctors said you should stay. They said two weeks, Xander.”
No one understood, Nicholas least of all. Annie didn’t get it either, but at least she recognized it.
She had been there with Nicholas, spending every spare minute of their time at his bedside, telling him about the journey to get him, and all the rest of them, away from the dangerous, the deathly and the downright monstrous. They had glossed over the details of the terrible accident that had befallen Billy on the second night.
“Such a shame that Samuel wasn’t able to shoot sooner,” Nicholas said at the end, sounding anything but sorry.
When Xander said he’d had enough of the hospital bed and wanted to return to his room, though, Nicholas had listed all the reasons why Xander couldn’t, shouldn’t and mustn’t. Xander knew Annie wasn’t against him when she didn’t add any.
They didn’t get it, but it didn’t matter in the end. They were back on the Galatea, and the Captain and his attendant treated Tarim like a favoured pet. On the captain’s next visit, he conversed with the doctor until the man agreed that a bed was a bed and Xander could be taken receive his treatment just as efficiently in his own room.
The condition was that Xander should pack his own bag and get to his room on his own. He wasn’t all that sure that his body was up for the walk back to his room, but still, he was packing his own bag, and nearly done too. He would figure out how to get himself to his room when the time came. One thing at a time.
Grant, the captain’s attendant, wheeled Xander to his room himself.
They passed the curtains, and there was the red-hued darkness. A soft song was playing, its words in a language Xander didn’t understand despite the fact that he could recite them by heart by now. On the bed, a white figure was laying in a foetal position.
Even the armour hadn’t been able to ward off the creature’s attack entirely, and the beautiful white skin of Tarim was still marred with bruises. Xander had learnt later that Tarim had made the last part of the journey on a broken leg. No one had suspected anything until they took him out of the armour. With the cocktail of drugs, pain, and stress, it had been a miracle he hadn’t been Berserking out at anything that moved. Yet, Xander’s squad had affirmed that he had behaved like a mouse after Xander’s blackout had made him regain his senses.
His meds must have been messing with his head, because Xander felt tears come to his eyes
“Thanks Grant,” he said softly.
“Anytime. Tell him to eat properly.”
The figure on the bed unfurled slowly.
“Hi,” Xander said when the two red eyes landed on him.
“Hi,” answered Tarim hoarsely; his eyes were very wet and he started to sob, but a smile spread across his face despite it. “I’m glad to have you back.”
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