When Harry woke this time, it wasn't with the gentle fade from nightmare to reality, but rather a cessation of emptiness, all-too-quickly replaced by the hard thud of his body landing on a cold, hard, surface.
This was, in turn, followed by a white-hot complaint from his spine, reminding him it wasn’t having a great day, and the soft whoosh of a sealing hatch.
He sucked in a lungful of air and after a moment spent determining there was no new damage, rolled over to press his hands against the deck before pushing himself to his knees, raising his eyes to find he was facing the repair shuttle's closed hatch.
The outside of the hatch he realized, as a quick survey of his surroundings revealed he'd been dumped inside a docking tube.
At least it was the right tube, according to the location designation pulsing a soft green over the airlock's hatch.
There were no other signs of life.
What, once again, the hells?
Then he remembered Siane, apologizing, and then… Sleep.
“Dammit.” With a frustrated curse for every Rasalkan he met treating his brain like their personal playground, Harry launched himself to standing—and almost dropped again, as the world teetered violently around him.
Or more, he realized, within him, as external sensation—the metallic taste of the air, the tinny music of Koz's monkeys, the glowing green letters above the hatch—rushed through his psyche, filling—and then over-filling—an unfamiliar hollow.
"Siane?" Her name was a breath, and the breath, a question.
The voice… her voice… came through the airlock speakers, undercutting the manic singing.
Still leaning on the bulkhead, Harry turned to see her, standing in the airlock, on the shuttle side of the hatch.
“What are you doing in there?” Harry paused, mentally poking at himself, at a space he could not define, but knew to be, then looked up, into her eyes. “What did you do?"
"The best I could.” As she spoke, she looked down, away. “I couldn't remove the false memory. You were right about that. It was dug in deep. Too deep. Too…entangled,” she clarified, “in the rest of your neural network to remove.”
"I wouldn’t want it—“
"But I could take away the pain," she continued over his protest."The images may be hard-wired, but their impact isn’t. Event memory and emotional recall are different,” she explained, before the question Harry felt rising could fully form. “From now on, when you recall my death, you’ll know it for the lie it was."
Harry frowned, poked at what still felt like a blank again and then, for the first time, willingly raised the memory of the fire.
Braced, he could recall the choking smoke, the ash burning the backs of his hands, his face. The sounds of flames and wood, and even the thoughts rushing through his head, the same questions he’d been dreaming for decades.
But it was as she said. He experienced them the same way he’d experienced the game of laser tag back at Koz’s VRcade.
It was immersive, yes, but weightless. There, yet not.
“That’s—thank you,” he said, focusing again on Siane, on the other side of the window. “But, you could have waited until we were on the Moth."
Which was when he remembered, she'd never answered his first question.
“Shit,” he said. “Bullshit.”
“You didn’t wait because you’re not planning to be on the Moth.”
And there he felt it—in the hollow place she’d created, and destroyed, and somehow, by emptying, created all over again—all the hurt she’d removed from the nightmare, he now packed into a single word. "Why?"
“If you think for five minutes,” she said. “Two minutes, even, you’ll know. Harry,” she thumped her hand on the glass, hard, but airlock windows were thick, and he didn’t feel a thing. “Fayla sent you to break me out of prison, yes, and my gratitude,” she added. “But she never meant for you to bring me home, because I have no home.”
“Not on Rasalka—”
“And not anywhere Rasalka can find me,” she cut in. “It’s been hard enough, staying off the Matriarchy’s grid up to this point, but now you’re on their sensors, and Jessyn is with you so they’ll be watching you both. You know how paranoid they are. You know what it's already cost us."
He shook his head, not because he disagreed, but because he wanted to. "It would be too dangerous." He heard the admission, hated it.
“It would be suicide.” Her voice went rough. “And even if I were willing to risk my life, I wont risk Jessyn's... or yours. As far as the Known is concerned, Siane Breeshandra is dead. She has to stay that way.”
“There is another option,” he said, grasping at the thinnest of lines as he held her gaze. “I bet there’s room for two on your ship.”
“Harry.” And now her eyes closed and she leaned her forehead against the glass, as if weary. “It’s too late for that.”
“I don’t believe that,” he said, though as he spoke he could feel that thinnest of lines slipping away.
“You will,” she promised, easing back to study him. “Now the czozprjz andi has been declawed, you’ll grow past it. You’ll—move on.”
“I’ve had to,” she said. “And so do you. Besides,” she continued, leaning close again, so her breath fogged the glass between them, “our daughter needs at least one secret parent in her life.”
That brought a laugh—a short, aching laugh, but a laugh nonetheless—and he eased back from the glass to look at her. Just to look at her… still alive, still part of the Known.
Just not part of him.
“You’ll be free,” she said, no doubt in tune with the outgoing tide of his hope. “You are free,” she amended. “But if you mean to get those ADs off-station, you’d better get moving.” And as she spoke, her hand fell away from where it mirrored his on the window, and she began to turn.
“Harry, we don’t have time—”
“I just want to thank you,” he said.
“For our daughter. For surviving. And for the czozprjz andi.”
“You’re grateful for twenty-five standards of suffering?”
“Not entirely but…” He sighed. Shrugged. “In retrospect, that illusion sort of helped keep our side from losing the war. Long story,” he added. “Maybe, someday, you’ll be able to hear it.”
“Someday,” she said. “But until then, you might consider looking into getting that spine taken care of.”
“I’ll take care of it, when there’s time.”
Her brow arched. “Make the time.”
Again they stood, staring, until the speaker above exploded with the rush of wings, followed by the first, aching notes of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Siane’s smile wavered, but her gaze remained steady. “Stay strong.”
“Stay alive,” he replied.
“That’s the plan.” She dipped her head, stepped away from the hatch.
Harry, with Judy Garland’s voice soaring in his ears, watched until the shuttle’s inner door closed, then watched still as the small craft debarked, dropping out of sight and leaving him staring at a field of stars, far, far from home.
“Hey! What the hells are you doing up here?”
The irritable voice had Harry turning away from the airlock to see a pair of Humans dressed in gray. One was tapping a stun baton against his palm while the other was waving at someone out of Harry’s vision.
“Just checking on chances of an evac, but no go,” Harry said, automatically sliding back into the character of CO Solo as he strode down the passage, one hand on his own stun baton, which Siane had graciously allowed him to keep. “Any idea what’s going on?” he asked as he came even with the other men, noting a smattering of crumbs and what might be the inside of a tart on the baton tapper’s uniform.
“No clue,” the tapper said, his warm brown complexion shading darker. “But since you’re here, you may as well help getting these strays back where they belong.” Here he gestured at a handful of disgruntled civilians of several species being herded by two more, also disgruntled, security types.
“Wow,” Harry said.
“Yeah,” the second security drone grimaced. “A pod of Neocols broke out of the VIP chamber right after all the noise started, and everyone else decided to join them. We’re taking this group back to the hall, now.”
Which was just the direction Harry needed to go. No doubt, having a horde of guards and sapient traders along for the ride would complicate matters.
Then again, he was in the mood for some complications.
“Sounds like fun,” he said, turning his back on the dock. “Shall we?”