Posted by Darth Krzysztof
Agent X72037N found the makeshift shelter where the medics had established their triage. Only three had survived the crash, and one, Guzmán, was here as a patient, not a doctor. Pain came off the wounded in waves; the ghost found it as tangible as the walls of this makeshift shelter. She took a deep breath and built a psionic wall around herself. As long as she maintained her concentration, the only thoughts in her head would be hers.
I’ll give myself a headache doing this, she thought. I need my inhibitor repaired, and now.
But the medics had their hands full with more pressing matters. The ghost surveyed the room until she spotted a familiar face – the scientist (no, the xenobiologist) she’d helped earlier in the morning. “Dr. Zhang?” she called.
“That’s me,” Dr. Zhang said, walking toward her with the hint of a limp. Hardly an inch shorter than Angel, she still seemed much smaller. “Though I don’t remember introducing myself earlier. Did you get my name from reading my thoughts?”
“No, ma’am. From your ID badge.”
< ma’am! How very soldiery > A sudden flash of Dr. Zhang’s < too soon for ‘call me Moira’ > thoughts pierced the ghost’s mind, and she swiftly moved to mend the hole in the wall.
“Oh. Well, I certainly remember you, even if I didn’t get your name, either, Miss…” She held up a pair of reading glasses to peer at the label on Agent X72037N’s chestplate. “Is there something I can call you that isn’t, you know, that?”
“Most civilians call me Angel. I’m told Silas Voss started calling me that after I saved his life on Nova Artesia. I suppose it stuck.”
“You’re told?” Dr. Zhang’s eyebrows knitted for a second. “Of course. Memory wipes. All right, Angel it is, saver of lives. What can I do for you, Angel?”
She didn’t normally care for being called ‘Angel,’ but there was something about the way Dr. Zhang said it that pleased her. It was certainly better than ‘Number’… “I was looking for Dr. Forêt, but I think he’s dead.”
Dr. Moira Zhang nodded. “I’m afraid so, yes. He was in the psionics lab when the Liberty went down. He was – there was nothing left. If you’re having a psychic problem, I can help. I do have a doctorate in psionic studies… and I studied human biology before moving on to the exotic stuff.”
She’s your best chance to get this fixed. “My neural inhibitor has failed.”
“I see. Well, come with me; we’ll put you in the scanner and take a look.” Angel followed the doctor into a corner of the shelter, where someone had patchworked a full-sized diagnostic bed to the generator. Dr. Zhang wheeled a small tray of tools alongside her. “We were damned lucky to salvage this thing. Hamilton’s going to be furious that I had to run it, but not to worry. I can handle her.” The meaning of the follow-up wink was lost on the ghost, which clearly disappointed the doctor. “Anyway, I’m glad you came by; I wanted to thank you for saving my ass this morning. I suppose we’ve both been busy.”
“It was nothing.”
“Nothing? I can’t move that fast on my best day, let alone carrying someone else.” She paused to look Angel right in the eye. “I would be dead if it weren’t for you. Thank you.”
Angel fought off the urge to peek in Dr. Zhang’s mind to see what reply she was fishing for, here. “You are welcome” seemed like a safe bet, though, so she chose to say that.
“Okay. Let me switch this thing on; we’ll do a blood draw and routine physical while it’s warming up.” Glancing around the room, Dr. Zhang pulled a curtain (actually a bedsheet secured to the overhead runner with loops of duct tape) closed around the corner. “If you’ll please remove your HE suit? The scanner can’t penetrate it.”
Angel nodded and released the clasps holding her chestplate in place, gently setting it on the floor. She set her goggles on top of that, then removed her boots and gloves. Every time she glanced up at Dr. Zhang, the scientist looked away at something else, as if she felt guilty that she’d been caught looking.
She’s a civilian, Angel told herself. She’s uncomfortable around soldiers, especially ghosts.
With the hostile environment suit itself removed, Angel started to pull her T-shirt off before Dr. Zhang noticed. “That’s, um, that’ll be fine,” she said, crossing the tiny room with a hypodermic needle. “The scanner can see through underthings. < lucky > Let me see your arm, please.”
Angel complied with the blood draw, the questions, and the instruments; cooperating with study and experimentation was part of her training. She also held still while Dr. Zhang shone a light into one eye, then the other.
“Well, I’ll be. No ocular implants for you?”
“Just as well, really. Nothing beats a pretty pair of eyes.” Dr. Zhang grinned again.
“But implants would increase my range of sight and my sensitivity to the full light spectrum. I’d rather not be caught in a nuclear airstrike I called down.”
“Oh.” The doctor’s smile faded. “So why don’t you have implants?”
“I don’t know. That information’s classified.”
“Even from you?”
Angel shrugged, looking down at the tiny hole in her arm. Pain was like anything else, easily ignored with the application of discipline. “It’s not my place to ask questions.”
“Wow. You… really believe that, don’t you?” Even behind her wall, Angel could feel Dr. Zhang’s disbelief.
< what they must have done to you > “Okay, then. Let’s get you into the scanner. We ran it earlier to get a look at Guzmán’s concussion, so we know it’s working, or was.” Dr. Zhang offered her hand and boosted Angel into the machine. “Now just lie flat on your back, and keep your eyes closed. When I close the lid, you’re going to feel very cramped. Is that a problem?”
“No.” Again, this sort of thing was programmed into her subconscious mind.
“Okay. It’s also going to shake like an off-balance washing machine. Here we go.”
The lid came down, and the diagnostic bed rumbled as the scanners slowly swept up and down Angel’s body. The effect wasn’t too disconcerting, but it wasn’t pleasant, either.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Dr. Zhang called from outside the scanner, “but you don’t spend a lot of time around civilians, do you?”
“No. Ghosts are discouraged from forming distracting attachments.”
“Hence the memory wipes?”
“Yes. After Kerrigan’s defection, memory wipes became mandatory.”
“I’ve always been interested in the Ghost Program. I feel like you’re the most secret thing the Dominion is still willing to admit it has. But they cultivate a certain reputation for your kind, which makes it hard to know what’s true and what isn’t. Would you mind clearing up some of my misconceptions?”
“Within my ability, and within your security clearance.” What does Dr. Zhang want from me?
“I can work with that. If Angel isn’t your real name, then what is?”
“That’s… you don’t have a birth name? You know, a < human > Terran name?”
“No. I was brought into the Ghost Program in my infancy.”
“Yes. It’s hardly unusual. I’m told that it’s my head start that’s allowed me to reach my current Psi Index.”
“Which is? Or is that classified?”
“It isn’t. Eight point one.”
“That’s pretty high, all right.” The whirring of the scanner turned o a repetitive grind. “Damn thing’s stuck again!” Dr. Zhang said. A dull thump echoed in the scanner as Dr. Zhang’s fist banged against it, and the machine resumed its sweep. “Frontier medicine at its finest.”
Once the cycle ended, Dr. Zhang opened the scanner and helped Angel out of it. The ghost noted both the softness of the doctor’s hand and the strength that’d be there when needed. “You can get dressed,” Dr. Zhang said. “We just need to give the machine a few minutes to compile the image.”
Angel nodded and slid into the familiar skin-tight embrace of her suit. “Eight point one,” Dr. Zhang said as Angel pulled one boot back on. “Now I know how you formed that telekinetic wave this morning.”
“I’m still learning TK. I was also distressed from my inhibitor’s failure, and… that fire shouldn’t have gotten away from me.” Revenant’s disapproving eye had more than a little to do with it.
“You shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. Those people got out all right, and you’ll learn to control your power, with time.”
“You’re trying to make me feel better.” Angel moved on to her gloves.
“Yep. I admit, my bedside manner’s pretty rusty after a few years in the lab, but… wait. Are you in my mind right now?”
“No. I pick up a stray thought here and there, but I don’t go where I’m not invited. It isn’t allowed. Also, I know it’s rude, and I know it’s why people are so uncomfortable around ghosts.”
“Oh. Well, I appreciate it.”
“It takes effort to block it out without the inhibitor; fortunately, I have some training to fall back on. I had a harder time blocking out emotions today.”
The scanner made a ping sound. Dr. Zhang switched on a holographic projector and began a data transfer. “It can be hard to manage your own feelings, let alone those of forty other people.” Once the holo was ready, she shut the scanner down; as long as the camp was on generators, every spare bit of power had to be saved.
“My emotions are under control, Dr. Zhang.”
< it’s Moira >“Take it easy; I didn’t mean anything by it.” She switched the projector on, zooming in on the base of the ghost’s skull, peering at the tiny chip there. “Just as I thought, Angel; your neural inhibitor is fried.”
Oh, damn it…! “How did it happen?”
“Probably shorted out by the psychic trauma of the crash. Think of it like this: if your implant is – was – a dam, the crash created a tidal wave that washed it away.”
“No hope of repair or replacement?”
“No, that was all in Dr. Forêt’s lab. We wouldn’t be able to rig a psi-screen for you, either. And there’s no way for us to wipe your memory.”
“None of this sounds like good news.” Angel held her hair back and put her goggles back on, the lenses swiveled up and away from her eyes.
Dr. Zhang turned off the projector. “Who can say? Maybe you’ll find that forming attachments isn’t as distracting as the Dominion would have you believe.”
“That seems unlikely.” Keeping everyone alive long enough to find a way off this planet was all that mattered now, and Angel could work with these people without getting close.
“The other ghost, Revenant. He isn’t one for forming attachments, is he?” She asked with quiet seriousness.
“It isn’t my place to speak ill of a superior officer.” No matter how he might treat me. Or whether I deserve it or not.
“Then I hope you don’t mind if I do. I don’t think you like him, and I’m damn sure he doesn’t like you.”
“I’m not worthy in his eyes, no. I think he decided that on the mission where I got this.” Angel engaged the psi-blade mounted to her right forearm, bathing the exam room in brilliant blue-white energy and a low, quiet hum.
Dr. Zhang looked at the weapon with unmasked fascination. “I would love to ask you about that mission, but I imagine you don’t remember it.”
“No. I believe it was my Ghost Academy graduation exercise. I was permitted to keep the weapon, but I don’t recall why.”
“And you have no access to your own file.”
“No.” As Angel dismissed the psionic blade, the room seemed darker and quieter than before.
After a pause, Dr. Zhang said, “I just don’t want to see you end up like him.”
“That is what he wants, to remake me in his image.”
“I won’t lie, Angel. He frightens me.”
That’s because he’s very frightening. “He is… normally it’s easy for ghosts to read each other, but to me, he’s an empty void.” And Angel was an open book to Revenant, as most ghosts were to each other… without that equal footing, she always felt vulnerable in his presence, as a civilian must feel when naked.
“That’s unusual. Is he wearing a psi-screen?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Huh.” Dr. Zhang placed a hand on the ghost’s shoulder. “Be careful around him, Angel.”
“The zerg are here. I could feel them, around the Sol. We’ll need him if – when they come.”
< not the zerg > “We’ll need everyone we can get our hands on < no not them > when that happens.” Dr. Zhang forced a smile. “Thanks to you, that includes me, and I know a thing or two about < bastard > zerg. < always the same! > I heard you saved Officer Decker, too.”
Angel took a moment to rebuild her mental wall. “Yes. He’s on suicide watch now. It’s my hope that he can at least tell us where we are, when he’s ready.” The ghost’s chronometer made a faint chime, which Angel dismissed with a swipe.
“What’s that?” Dr. Zhang asked.
“Time for me to sleep. Or try to.”
Dr. Zhang looked at her own watch. “Damn, it is late. Did they assign you a bunk?”
“They did, yes. Near the colonists. I think our proximity is meant as a peacekeeping move.”
“Probably. Do you think you can sleep without your inhibitor?”
“I hope so. While everyone else sleeps, the noise is… diminished. Dreams are more like whispers, or white noise static.”
“Still. If you find that you can’t sleep, come find me, and I’ll give you something to help.” The doctor smiled.
Angel nodded. “Are you not sleeping any time soon?”
“Miles to go, first. Good night, Angel.”
Dr. Zhang stared at the holo in disbelief. Angel’s neural inhibitor was only the tip of the iceberg – the chip’s daughterboard (also destroyed) included an aggression subroutine, designed to keep ghosts from attacking their superior officers. The whole assembly could easily be tracked by someone who knew how to pinpoint it. The ghost’s blood screening showed more than a dozen chemical compounds designed to increase suggestibility, diminish psionic potential, and even suppress hormones.
She wouldn’t be receiving those compounds any more. And the Dominion was done treating her like an Etch-a-Sketch they could just shake whenever they were done using it.
Born to kill, Agent X72037N’s entire life had been a middle finger thrust in the face of humanity. Perhaps crashing on this planet would be the best thing that had ever happened to the ghost. Dr. Zhang’s scientific curiosity yearned to know if Angel could be rehabilitated into something more than the Dominion’s mindless assassin… whether her loyalty could be swayed to the scientists or not.
It’s more than just that, Moira confessed. Angel’s hard body (which was right here in military grade underpants a couple of hours ago) and sweet, pretty face… not a girl any more, not THAT much younger than herself, but a child in so many ways…
She scrolled the hologram out. This is an experiment, Moira thought. You’re a scientist. You have to remain objective about the subject. The specimen. The alien specimen.
Unable to help herself, she zoomed in on the image once more, adjusted the transparency.
The virgin specimen. Well, of course she is.
She’s a bengalaas, Moira. A bengalaas is a pretty kitty that’ll still devour you when she’s done playing with you.
But what fun playing with her would be…!
She deleted the scan data – wouldn’t do to be caught looking at classified information, after all – and was asleep as soon as she climbed into the cot.
Sleeping Angel wandered through many a dream that night. Sometimes she fled, and sometimes she tarried.
She glimpsed families back home, parents and children lost.
She saw enough memories of the crash to piece together a kind of tapestry of the entire disaster.
Officer John Decker relived his Sophie’s death over and over, finally pushing Angel out as he woke, surely in tears.
Little Martin Ashe held his old brown teddy bear tightly, declaring, “You’re my best friend!”
Sr. Sgt. Yulia Hart stood in the home she’d left behind, cats twining around her bare legs, wearing the face of a lonely, frightened woman who knew she no longer belonged here.
Dr. Moira Zhang watched another Angel in a little black dress dance to music she herself couldn’t hear. The doctor’s left hand held a ridiculous feather quill which she used to take careful, logical notes in a big black book, while her right hand slipped under her lab coat to cover her heart.
And somewhere down in the darkness she sensed the reptilian, mechanical slithering of a cold black hole where Revenant’s dream should have been.