Posted by Darth Krzysztof
Angel clawed her way back up into consciousness, her mind a calm island in a sea of pain. Her side still screamed from the hydralisk’s attack, and Med Officer Lindy’s… determined removal of its spine and barbs. The operation had been an ordeal without anesthetic; the ghost took icy comfort in her certainty that any dosage strong enough to negate this much pain would be fatal.
She called up a psychic wall – not to keep the thoughts of others out, but to keep herself from harming anyone else in the med bay. I hope I didn’t give anyone a headache while I was passed out, she thought. Or worse.
The sheet gently lifted over her wounded side. Angel realized that she was still in the hospital bed – and naked, aside from the dressing on her wound. She also knew that she was in the presence of Dr. Moira Zhang. “Hello, Doctor,” she said.
“Hello, Angel. Hold still, please. I’m just checking up on you.”
Angel opened her eyes, realized she’d been moved to the little alcove with the scanner, the flimsy duct-taped “curtain” drawn closed to give them the illusion of privacy. The xenobiologist seemed unusually focused on her work. She seems tense, Angel thought. This is where a normal person would make a joke. Wait, a normal person? What did that mean?
Dr. Zhang ended that train of thought with a joke of her own. “Well, I think you’ll play the piano again. There’s no sign of infection, thank God, and it’s already starting to mend. I don’t know what was in that cocktail Lindy gave you, but it seems to be doing the job.”
“Glad to hear it. Thank you, Doctor.”
She carefully laid the sheet back down. “You’re welcome. Get some rest, Angel. I’ll be back to check on you later.”
“Wait,” Angel said before she realized she’d said it.
“Stay.” I don’t know why this is important. But I know that it is. “Please.”
Dr. Zhang’s sudden smile was hard to read, but her tone was coy: “Why should I?”
“Because I’ll just get up and go back to work if you don’t.” And she nearly had, earlier, but Dr. Zhang’s insistence, and an odd sense of Revenant’s presence, had convinced her to stay put.
The xenobiologist’s smile faltered. “I believe you. Will you sit still long enough for me to grab some food first? I can’t remember the last time I ate.”
Angel nodded. “Be right back,” Dr. Zhang said as she slipped around the curtain and out of sight, leaving the ghost to stare at the ceiling. Why are you doing this, Agent?
I’m not sure. I think she needs to tell me something.
And it can’t wait because…?
She wasn’t sure how to answer herself. They would need everyone at their best to survive here, to have any chance of escaping this planet; that, she was sure of. And if Moira wanted, needed to share her problems with somebody in order to be at her best, and she was most comfortable sharing them with Agent X72037N, then Agent X72037N was obligated to listen, for the good of the mission.
Dr. Zhang reappeared with a plastic cup of steaming noodles clenched in her teeth, shoving a supply crate before her. She pushed it into a corner of the room and took a moment to slide the curtain back into place before taking a seat on the crate. Seizing the chopsticks sticking out of the cup, she held a clump of noodle out in Angel’s direction. “Are you hungry?” she asked.
“No.” That’s not enough. Keep going. “No, thank you. I’m not hungry yet.”
Dr. Zhang nodded and slurped the noodles down. “Might be a while before your insides go back to normal, but that’s, you know, normal. I don’t have to tell you how lucky you are to be alive after a Dolorous Stroke like that.”
“A Dolorous Stroke.” Zhang smirked at Angel. “What, does your training in badassery not include knowledge of Arthurian legend?”
Who’s Arthur? Someone who died in the crash? “I suppose not.”
Dr. Zhang leaned back, gesturing with her chopsticks as she spoke. “You see, the story goes that the Holy Grail was guarded by the Fisher King. He suffered a grievous wound from Sir Balin and the Spear of Destiny, his punishment for a sinful life. That’s the Dolorous Stroke.”
Angel nodded. I have no idea what she’s talking about, but I like the way she says it.
“He and his kingdom fell into waste until Arthur’s knights completed the Grail Quest. Sirs Percival, Bors, and Galahad, according to Malory and… and his faithful.” She set her cup down for a moment. “Of course, the Fisher King was wounded in the thigh. Or the genitals. But it’s still what your wound reminds me of.” She glanced down into her cup, lingering there for a moment.
Angel searched for something to say. “This is a story you know?”
“Yeah.” The doctor smiled again. “I know all kinds of stories. Myths, legends, fables, kaidan, folktales, fairy tales… from Old Earth and just about everywhere else. A little bit of actual history, too, but not very much.”
“That seems like a strange thing for a xenobiologist to know.”
Dr. Zhang shrugged. “I grew up with it. I’ve always loved stories about heroes, Angel. Hua Mulan was always my favorite, of course… I guess I’m a sucker for people who make anything seem possible.” She ate her last pinch of food, set the cup on the ground. “Like when a woman can kill a hydralisk with one shot.”
“You heard about that?”
“I had all day to line up my shot, and it was tangled up.” Something about Dr. Zhang’s interest in this topic eluded Angel, but she let it go. She thought about peeking into the doctor’s mind, but pushed that notion aside. Keep the wall up, Angel told herself. Safest for everybody. “I doubt I could be that lucky a second time.”
“Still. I have to say… with you and the other knights to defend us, I think we might have a chance.” The doctor leaned forward, hands folded in her lap. “Even if it’s only a small chance. Knights of old never had to face anything like the zerg.” < no >
Her thoughts get through my shields every time the zerg come up. Angel sat up with some effort. “Last time we talked, you said you knew a thing or two about the zerg. But you weren’t just talking about your professional knowledge.” When Dr. Zhang didn’t reply, Angel added: “Were you?”
“No,” Dr Zhang said, staring at the floor. “No, I wasn’t.”
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
“No.” A note of sharpness underscored the flatness of her reply. “It’s… it’s not something I care to talk about.”
“All right. But I think you’ll feel better if you tell me.”
< what do you know about feelings > Moira’s voice rose, the heat of her anger tickling the edges of Angel’s psionic senses: “Then why not reach into my brain and pull it out for yourself? That’s – that’s what you do, isn’t it?” She dropped back to a more private tone, saying, “That’s what ghosts do.”
“Doctor, right now I have a psychic wall up so I don’t give you a nosebleed with the pain I’m in. And, even if I didn’t, I would never do that to you.”
“I… you wouldn’t?”
“Why not?” One of the doctor’s eyebrows came down as the other rose up.“Because it’s important that you trust me.” Though I’m not sure which of us it’s more important to.
Dr. Zhang’s quizzical expression finally relaxed. She got up and dragged her supply crate across the floor until it touched the side of Angel’s bed, where she quickly sat back down. “My parents,” she said quietly, “were both scientists. Father was an archaeologist, Mother a linguist.” She smiled. “This is why I’m full of useless stories.”
“I don’t think they’re useless.” Angel didn’t quite see the point of the stories, but she knew they were important to Moira. Moira.
Dr. Zhang didn’t seem convinced, but didn’t stop to argue the point. “I don’t even remember what the planet was called, or why the xel’naga ruin was so important. But I can’t forget the name of the camp where the scientists stayed, where I grew up, because it was Winchester.” She must have seen Angel’s lack of recognition. “It’s where Malory placed Camelot… it’s more King Arthur stuff.”
“Did your parents give it the name?”
“Yep. We had a little mercenary contingent protecting the place – nothing like a full-on Terran military presence – in case of raiders or hostile indigenous life. But it was safe… happy, even. Until the zerg came.” She took a deep breath. “I think the scientists triggered something in the ruin, some kind of beacon that called them. It was a smaller swarm than what we’ve seen here; still, we never stood a chance.”
Angel let silence reign for a bit. “How old were you?”
“I was eight.” Her voice had dropped to a near-whisper. “My parents gave their lives – I mean literally gave their lives – so I could escape the initial attack. After that, it was just me, surviving on what I knew about the planet, and the ruin, until the Confederacy finally showed up to investigate.”
“How much time had passed?” This was the longest Angel had ever gone without a memory wipe (at least, as far as she could remember); if the thought of enduring that kind of dangerous solitude for any length of time discomforted her, it must have been traumatic for a civilian like Moira.
“Five years. It was my parent’s anniversary, or would have been.” The doctor kept her sorrow in check, but Angel could sense it all the same.
“Did they evac you while they eradicated the infestation?”
“Oh, no.” Dr. Zhang locked eyes with her. “By the time the Terrans arrived, the zerg had left.”
“Left?” Angel knew enough about the zerg to find this unusual, at minimum.
“Weird, isn’t it? I mean, even if they found what they came for, normally they would have assimilated the planet, like they always do. But they didn’t.”
“Do you know why not?”
“Nope. But trying to figure it out is what led me into xenobiology. If it was something that could be replicated…! The zerg are too widespread, too pernicious, to ever be exterminated completely. I accept that. But if my research helps even one colony from suffering the same fate as Winchester, then it’ll all be worth it.”
“It’s been a while since you’ve studied the zerg this closely, though.”
“Yeah. Still, field work is always valuable.” Sadness ebbed from her smile. “You know, I haven’t told anybody my story since… well, not for a long time, anyway. And it’s weird that you’re the one I felt like telling… well, maybe not that weird.”
“I don’t follow.”
“It bothers me that the future of humanity is in the hands of people who don’t know what it means to be human.” She suddenly took Angel’s hands in her own. “I want you to know what you’re missing out on. I want you to learn what you’re fighting for.”
“Dr. Zhang, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but…”
“You aren’t like me. I know. But I want you to think of the civilians < of me > as more than a mission objective.”
Angel felt the warmth of Moira’s hands, the weight of her gaze, the light in her eyes. “I will try,” she said.