Chapter 4


Venture lay back, feeling a little less gloomy.  Lt. Clark had obviously come to him to make the point that Trelaina’s sacrifice had saved the human race (and it was a valid point, he admitted,) but she hadn’t pressured him to talk about it.  And when he had changed the subject, she had let it go and talked to him about unimportant things.  It had been nice.  Since she had no expectations of him, it had been easier with her to take his mind off what had happened than it had been with Wildstar, or even with his family.  He wondered whether they would have become friends if she had served on the Star Force.


She stopped in again Wednesday night, bringing him the last of her ice cream (which was again the most he had eaten all day) but able to stay only about half an hour.  Her visit made him feel a little better, and since he had taken his sedative, he hoped he would sleep peacefully.  It had been another bad night, however; he was haunted by the dreams that had plagued him every time he closed his eyes since he had first awakened in the hospital.


First thing in the morning had come to be the worst time for him, when the memories of the dreams were fresh in his mind.  He didn’t want to talk to Wildstar or Nova about it, either.  They didn’t understand, and anyway, Lt. Clark had told him in confidence that Nova felt responsible for what had happened to him and had asked him to be extra kind to her, and he had resolved to be more positive with them.


So when Nova came in to see him on her rounds Thursday morning, he put on a stoic face and assured her that he was fine.  She seemed unconvinced, but gave him his antibiotic and pain medication and drew a vial of blood.  Again.  They had drawn blood every day so far, and he was beginning to think there was something wrong.  He asked Nova about it, but she brushed off his question.


“We need to make sure your cell counts are OK, Mark.  Nothing to worry about.”


He noticed that she didn’t look at him as she spoke, though.  “Nova –“


“Mark, it’s nothing to worry about.  I promise.”  This time she looked him in the eye.  After a moment, her expression became sad, and she sat beside him on the bed.  “Are you sure you don’t want to talk about what happened?  It might make you feel better.  I hate to see you so unhappy.”


“Nova.”  He took her hand.  “Thank you, but I’ll be all right.  I just need time.”


She looked like she wanted to press the issue, but instead she nodded.  “All right, if you say so.  But I wish you would talk to someone, if not to me.”


“I’ll think about it.  I promise.”


She nodded again and checked his temperature.  “Your fever is down this morning, anyway.  The antibiotics are finally taking effect.  I’ve got to move on, but I’ll be back to check on you later.”


A few minutes after she left the room, IQ-9 appeared with breakfast.  He knew how much IQ hated menial hospital tasks and wondered whether they had told the robot to keep an eye on him.  When IQ didn’t leave after delivering his food, he questioned him.  “IQ-9, did Nova and Doctor Sane send you in here to watch me?”


“The doctor is concerned that you are not eating enough, Mark Venture.  I am here to make sure you clean your plate.  Then I am to take you downstairs to physical therapy.”


Venture sighed, resigned.  “All right, IQ, I’ll eat as much as I can.”  The hot cereal was bland and gummy, but he managed to choke most of it down.


Physical therapy made for a change of pace, at least.  He was getting tired of looking at the same four walls.  And Doctor Sane insisted that it was only a matter of time before he got the feeling back in his legs.  The nurses and aides had been in twice a day to do range-of-motion exercises, but he had hopes that physical therapy would help the feeling return sooner.  IQ-9 transferred him from the bed to a transport chair, the robot’s metal arms an odd sensation under his back.


He was pleasantly surprised when he was joined in the elevator by Sandor, whose chair was also being pushed by a robot.  His friend smiled broadly at him.  “Venture!  Looks like we’re in this together today.  It’s good to see you.  How are you feeling?”


Sandor.”  The men shook hands.  “You look well.  How much longer do you think you’ll be in the hospital?”


“It’s hard to say.  Doctor Sane says he doesn’t want to take any chances with the three of us – you and me and Homer – and I think he may hold us against our will for a while.”


Sounded like the Doc.  “Have you seen Homer?  I hear he had a rough time of it.”


“I haven’t seen him, but Nova told me this morning that he’s holding his own.  She said he must be feeling better, because the night nurse reported that he was flirting with her.”  He chuckled.  “Hey, I understand you had a visit from my friend the other night.”


“She gave me the ice cream she brought over for you.  She said you weren’t feeling well.”  Did that sound defensive?  He hoped not, but for some reason his hackles had just gone up.


Sandor didn’t seem to notice.  “Yes, I had a bad reaction to a pain pill.  I’m sorry I missed dessert.  She’s a good friend.  Did she stay long?”


Venture nodded.  “We had a nice talk.”  A thought occurred to him.  Sandor, you sent her to see me, didn’t you?”


Sandor looked away.  “I’ll admit I did.  She didn’t really want to – you scared her off when you snapped at her that first night.  But she’s a good person for you to talk to.  I thought you two would enjoy each other’s company.”


“We did.”  He couldn’t say why, but he decided not to tell Sandor that Lt. Clark had visited him again last night.  They had arrived at the physical therapy offices, and the therapists were on their way over.  Before they were separated, Mark extended his hand again and said, “Sandor, thank you.”  He meant it not just for encouraging Lt. Clark to befriend him.  Sandor was the only one who hadn’t tried to get him to talk about Trelaina.  It had been good to have a normal conversation.


The physical therapists worked with him until late morning, after which he was exhausted.  It was a good, clean exhaustion, though, not the miserable lack of energy he had been living with for the past few days.  He was returned to his room for lunch, which he picked at listlessly, and slept heavily and dreamlessly for a few hours.  When he woke, he felt rested for the first time since he’d been back on Earth.


“Welcome back, sleepy head,” Nova smiled as she and Doctor Sane entered his room.  He tried to smile back at her, but he didn’t feel it and he suspected he failed miserably.


Doctor Sane looked at his eyes while Nova checked his pulse.  “Looks like our physical therapists did quite a number on you.  I’ll have to remember to thank them for forcing you to move.”


Venture nodded.  “They did.  It felt good to work my muscles, but it really knocked me out.  I was surprised by how much strength I’ve lost.”


“You’ve been through a lot, Mark,” Nova reminded him.  “It’s going to take time for you to get well.  The three of you – you, Sandor and Homer – will probably be here for several more weeks.  Sandor is already starting to get restless, although Homer seems contented enough.”


The doctor muttered as he tested Venture’s flexibility and tapped on his deadened legs and feet.  Sandor wants to go back to work, but nobody leaves here until I’m satisfied that he’s healthy.  And Homer likes the nurses.”  He spoke more normally.  “You’re doing fine, Mark.  Still no feeling here, huh?” he ran a pencil up Mark’s foot.


“No, Doc.”


“Well, I’m going to give it a couple more days before I worry about it.  We know there wasn’t any permanent damage.  My guess is you’ll have feeling back by the end of the week.  Now I’m off to chase the girls out of Homer’s room.”


“Thanks, Doc.”  Venture watched the tiny man exit the room, and turned to Nova, who had his medication ready.


“Your fever’s down, but you need to finish your course of antibiotics.  You slept so well this afternoon.  Do you think you’ll need the sedative tonight?”


“I don’t know.  Maybe I should try to go without it tonight?”


She seemed to think that was a hopeful sign.  “Great.  If you feel like you need it, ring the night nurse.”  She hesitated.  “Mark, you know we’re here for you.  All of us.”


He sighed heavily.  Why couldn’t she let him be?  “I know, Nova,” he said irritably.


She looked at him as if expecting him to say more.  “All right.” She brightened and changed the subject.  “Would you like anything?  I can bring you the newspaper.”


“That would be nice.”  He tried again to force a smile.  When she returned a moment later with the day’s news, she told him that his mother and brother had called and were on their way to visit him, and gave him a kiss on the forehead.


“Nova.”  He felt badly about the way he had spoken to her.  She turned around to look at him.  “Thanks.”


She nodded and left him to read the news.


The stories in the papers were slanted, of course, to make the military brass and the government look as good as possible.  Mark wasn’t sure he bought the line the media was being fed about the state of Earth Defense – realistically, it was far too soon after their devastating losses to be prepared to face another enemy – but during his physical therapy he had seen through the window of the offices that there was real progress being made in rebuilding the city.  The president deserved credit for that.


When his mother and Jordy arrived a few minutes later, he put the papers aside and did his best to smile at them.  He was pleased to see them, especially Jordy, who immediately began telling him about his day.  The schools had been closed due to damage from the attacks, and had just reopened today.  Jordy was full of stories about his classmates and how they had made it through the deluge.


Jordy has something for you, Mark.  Don’t you, Jordy?” their mother prodded the boy.


“Oh, yeah.”  He slapped his forehead and picked up a box he had brought in.  “We made this for you in school today.  My teacher knew you were in the hospital.”


The box overflowed with papers – drawings, homemade cards and notes from the children in Jordy’s class, bearing get-well-soon and thank you messages.


“You’re my hero.  I hope you feel better.”

“Thank you for saving us.”

“I want to be a soldier like you someday.”


Tears stung Mark’s eyes as Jordy told him about each child in his class.  Some had lost family members during the attack; others had lost their homes, but they had bounced back with the resilience of the very young.  It seemed the children of Great Island were the Star Force’s most staunch supporters.  “I kept telling them that you were taking care of things, Mark.  Everyone knew we didn’t have anything to worry about.”


“That’s great, Jordy.  Thanks.”  Mark put his hand on his brother’s shoulder.


There was a knock at the door.  Lt. Clark stepped in, smiling warmly, and Mark felt his heart lift slightly.  When she saw his mother and brother, she straightened.  “Oh, hello Mrs. Venture, Jordy.  I’m sorry – I won’t interrupt your visit.  I hope you’re well?”


Mark wasn’t sure what to do.  He loved having Jordy here and didn’t want to ask the family to leave, but he would like to visit with the lieutenant again.


Mrs. Venture looked from Carina to her son and back, and stood up.  “No, no – we were just leaving.  I want to get supper ready before my husband gets home from work.”


“But Mom,” Jordy protested, “I was going to show Mark what I learned in soccer today.”


“You can show him next time, honey.  Pick up your school bag.  We’ll get some dessert on the way home, okay?”


“Okay.  Goodnight, Mark.”  He looked at Lt. Clark in her Earth Defense uniform shyly.  “Goodnight, ma’am.”


“Goodnight, Mr. Venture.”  She saluted him with mock seriousness, and he smiled broadly and saluted back sharply.  “Mrs. Venture.  Nice to see you again.”


“You too, Lieutenant.”  She bowed.  “Goodnight.  Goodnight, Mark.”


After they left, Lt. Clark turned to Mark, her greenish-grey eyes twinkling.  “I love your little brother.  And he obviously idolizes you.”


“Yes, Jordy’s really something.”  Thinking about his brother put a ghost of a smile on his face.  “You’re very good with him.”


She nodded and perched on the end of his bed as she had the first night she had come.  He supposed it was more comfortable than the stiff-looking chair his mother had used.  “I have a little sister who’s about the same age.  I’m pretty good at thinking like a nine-year-old.”


A sister?  “You should bring her by to meet Jordy.  It has to be dull for him, waiting around here while I talk to my parents.”


She shook her head.  “She’s in the US with my father and brothers.  She’s coming out for a while next summer, but I doubt even Dr. Sane will hold you in the hospital that long.”


“Oh.”  He paused for a moment.  “Well, maybe we can find a time for them to play together when she’s here.”  Was that too forward?  He felt like they had made a personal connection, but she probably saw him as just another patient.  There was no reason for them to be in touch after he was released from the hospital.  She gave him a smile that seemed genuine, however.  It registered in the back of his mind that she had a nice smile.


“That will be great, as long as you’re not off saving the world again.”


Mmm.  Let’s hope the need for that is over for a long time.”  A robot entered with his supper, another unappetizing-looking bowl of soup, with a soft piece of bread and more pudding.  He thanked the robot but sighed as “she” set the food on his bed tray.  His stomach was fine.  If they wanted him to eat more, why did they continue to give him this awful food?  As Lt. Clark adjusted her posture to make room for dinner, he noticed for the first time that she had brought a bulky book with her.  “What’s this?”


She blushed and looked at her hands as though she were embarrassed.  “Oh.  We were chatting the other night about the places we remembered back home, and I dug this book out.  It’s just old photos of trips we took when I was a kid, but I thought you might like to see some of them.  I sneaked the book from my parents’ house when I came to the academy, and had almost forgotten I had it.  You don’t have to look if you don’t want to.”


Pictures from home?  Sounded like fun.  He was touched that she’d thought to bring them.  “I’d love to see them.  Ours were all lost when the Gamilons bombed our area.  We weren’t able to get all of our belongings underground before we were hit.”  She moved to sit on the edge of the bed beside him.  As he ate, she began to turn the pages in the photo album, telling him stories about the pictures, and he responded in kind, talking about his own childhood.  They’d had similar upbringings, it seemed.  She showed him pictures of the Atlantic Ocean, blue-grey behind a line of yellowish sand; the lakes of Maine; the White Mountains in the fall, with the leaves brilliant gold and red; his own New York State; and the rolling hills and old-fashioned farmhouses of Pennsylvania.  Throughout were images of a young family: a smiling, red-haired mother and balding, dark father, with two dark-haired, dark-eyed boys mugging for the camera while their redheaded baby sister looked on adoringly; later, the girl trying to imitate what the boys were doing, flexing her tiny arm muscles as the boys posed as strongmen, a black dog with a white ruff at their heels.  When the girl in the pictures was about 12 years old, the photo album came to an end.  There were no more family vacations after the Gamilons started bombing Earth.  Her sister had been a bit of a surprise when she was 14 years old, she told him.  The two sat quietly for a few moments, and he realized with surprise that he had eaten his entire supper while they talked.


“I guess we were lucky to experience Earth’s beauty before it was gone,” she said quietly.  “I’m glad Dad is still around to see the plants and animals make their comeback.  He was always a nature lover.”


“And your mother?”  Venture asked gently.  He suspected he already knew the answer.


Lieutenant Clark stared out the window.  “She got the radiation sickness when Katie was three years old.  She died a couple of months before I came to the academy.  That was what really finalized my decision to join Earth Defense.”  She looked down at the floor.  “I worry about Katie, living there with all those men and no mother.  Not physically,” she added when she saw his startled look.  “But Dad’s getting older, and the boys don’t always know how to deal with her.  A girl needs to have a woman she can talk to.  That’s why I have her spend most of the summer with me.  Not that I’m the girliest girl, by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it’s good for her to get some female influence.”


“I’m sure you do her a world of good,” Mark said.  It made him feel selfish, seeing how she handled herself despite her losses.  “Lieutenant,” he asked, “how do you do it?”  At her questioning look, he went on.  “How did you stay so cheerful through all your loss?  I feel like I’ll never be happy again.”


She put her hand on his arm in a comforting way, her sympathetic eyes warming his heart.  “I’ve been where you are, Cdr. Venture, believe me.  You’ve just suffered a terrible loss, not to mention that you’re in the hospital without use of your legs.  You have the right to be unhappy.  I couldn’t function for weeks after Daniel died.  Honestly Commander, there are still days when I can barely get out of bed, and sometimes I feel like I’m sleepwalking through the day.  That’s why I love working with the boys in Analysis – they make me laugh and I don’t dwell on myself so much when I’m with them.  And working in the hospital forces you outside of yourself.  But even though it’s gotten easier, when I go home at night I’m alone, and it’s rough.”


He was looking at her intently, and she chuckled at herself.  “Sorry.  I babble when I get uncomfortable.  I guess what I’m trying to say is: I think the best thing you can do for yourself is get better and get back to work.”


He hadn’t meant to make her uncomfortable, and put his hand on hers in an attempt to make her feel better.  “No – that helps a lot, really.  It’s good to know that you understand how I feel.  I didn’t mean to make you feel awkward.”


He was relieved when she smiled at him again, albeit sadly this time.  She patted his leg and said something about visiting hours ending soon, which he didn’t quite catch because he had felt… something… when she touched his leg.  He looked at her, shocked.


“What’s wrong?”


“Could you do that again?  …Tap on my leg.”


She did, and there it was again.  Not a normal sensation, but a slight tingling or prickling, as though his leg had been asleep and was just beginning to wake up.  It must have been written on his face, because she looked startled and asked, “Did you feel that?”


When he nodded, she stood quickly.  “I’ll get the nurse,” she said, and left the room.


As she exited, Mark poked at his other leg.  It was there, too – pins and needles.


Lt. Clark came back in the room, followed closely by Nova.  “Mark!  Your legs?”


He gulped and nodded at her.  ”I’m not sure what it is, Nova.  But I feel like they’re waking up.”


Nova turned to Lt. Clark.  “Carina, I’m pretty sure Dr. Sane is still in the building.  Could you go and find him?”


“Of course, Nova,” the lieutenant answered, and ran from the room again.


“Mark, can you wiggle your toes?”


He tried, but couldn’t move any part of his legs or feet.  Nova told him that was nothing to worry about.  She was glad she was still here tonight, she said excitedly – she was waiting for Wildstar to meet her when he was done for the day at Earth Defense.  Good luck that she was here for his recovery.


Doctor Sane flew into the room, dropping his coat on a chair.  “Venture!  What’s this I hear about your legs?”


“Doc, I’m not sure.  I still can’t move them, but I think the feeling is coming back.”


“Hmmm.  Close your eyes,” the doctor told him, and proceeded to tap on his legs and feet, testing whether Mark felt the sensations when he couldn’t see that he was being touched.  Finally, he dragged his pen up Mark’s feet again, and smiled when his toes twitched involuntarily.


“Well,” he said, “I think you’re back in business.  We’ll worry about you moving them on your own later.  For now, I’m satisfied that you’re on the mend.”


Nova was beaming at him.  “That’s wonderful, Mark!”


He nodded, feeling a little stunned.  “Thank you Doc, Nova.  I don’t know what to say.”


“No need to say anything,” Doctor Sane pronounced.  “Just keep getting better.  Get a good night’s sleep, and we’ll see what the physical therapists can do with you in the morning.”  After looking at Mark’s eyes and taking his pulse, he turned and picked up his coat.  “It’s been a long day for me – I was on my way out to feed my cat when Carina came to get me.  I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”  The doctor waved and exited.


“Carina,” Mark said.  “Oh, Lt. Clark.”  He looked around for her, then spotted her hovering outside his door.  He reached his hand out to her and she came in the room.  “Thank you for everything, Lieutenant.  Everything you’ve done means so much to me.”


She grinned at him.  “I don’t think I really did much, Cdr. Venture, but I’m glad you’re on the road to recovery.”  She looked at the clock.  “It’s getting late, and I’m working tomorrow.  I’d better head out as well.  Have a good night, and I’ll see you in the morning.”  She picked up her book, said good night to Nova and left for the night.


Nova was curious.  “What were you two talking about for so long?  Carina was in here with you for quite a while.”


“Just talking,” he replied.  “We grew up not too far from each other, before the planet bombs.  We were talking about life when we were kids, things like that.  She’s been through some hard times, but she handles it well.  She seems very nice.”  It was the most he’d said to her at one time since he’d been awake, a fact which didn’t escape Nova’s attention.  She eyed him shrewdly.


“She is nice.  She and I were close when we were at the academy.  She’s a good person for you to talk to, Mark.  The two of you could help each other.”


He felt his face twist into a half-smile.  “That’s what Sandor thinks.”


“Well, we can’t both be wrong.”


They were interrupted when Derek Wildstar stepped into the room.  “There you are, Nova.  The nurse at the desk didn’t know where you had gone.”  He put his hand on his fiancée’s back.  “How are you feeling, Venture?”


They told Wildstar what had happened.  “Venture, that’s great!”  He said, shaking Mark’s hand.  “Congratulations!  And I’m glad you’re both here, because I have more good news for all of us.  The Council has decided that, in order to test the repairs and upgrades they’ve made to the Argo, she’s going to be used as a training ship for the new graduating class of cadets.  She’ll make a six-week voyage to simulate space battles and wartime conditions.  The good news is that the entire Star Force has been assigned to lead the training.  We’re all going to be together again.”


“Derek, that’s wonderful news!”  Nova’s eyes shone at the thought.  “The bridge crew, together on a peaceful mission.”


“That is good news, Wildstar,” Venture said.  “When does the mission leave?  Is there enough time for Homer, Sandor and me to recover before the ship takes off?”


Wildstar nodded.  “Almost a month from now.  We’ll leave the day after the graduation ceremony.”  Mark had heard that the ceremony, normally held in December, had been pushed back until after the New Year because of the war.


As they discussed how many cadets they’d be taking on, and speculated on whether they knew any of them, the excitement of the day began to catch up with Mark, and he yawned.  Nova noticed and took Wildstar’s hand.  “Come on, Derek.  Mark needs to rest.  You can talk to him tomorrow.”


They said their good nights and left Mark alone.  He really was tired, he realized, and thought that Lt. Clark was right.  He had been distracted tonight and had hardly thought of Trelaina at all.  He fell asleep hoping that he was distracted enough to get through the night peacefully, but once again he was haunted by dreams of Trelaina.  In tonight’s version, they were together on Earth as it had been before the Gamilons attacked, and when she ran away from him she was killed by a planet bomb.  Again it seemed she would rather die than stay with him, and again he woke several times with tears running down his cheeks.