Mark Venture relaxed in bed, waiting for his sedative to take effect. He looked out at the night sky and thought about Carina Clark. He had been awkward around girls when he was growing up, and at the academy, although he had dated occasionally, he had quickly discovered the hard truth that the young women who hung around the cadets’ club were more interested in fast-flying fighter pilots than in students of navigation, with their calculations and star maps. Not that he minded terribly. He had never wanted to be with someone who only liked him because he was a “hero,” and one-night stands were not an option for him.
Nova had been the first woman his own age he had ever really been friends with, but still it had taken time for him to be completely comfortable with her. He’d also had to get past the idea that she might be “the one” for him. But Carina… He’d been able to talk freely with her from the beginning. She was kind, funny and awkward in a way he found touching, and he felt completely at ease with her.
It’s kind of like having a sister, I guess, he speculated drowsily as he watched the stars emerge from the clouds. It was obvious when she talked about him that she still loved her late fiancée very much, and she had told him she was content to be alone. And his own heart was raw and bleeding from Trelaina. He didn’t care to risk feeling this way ever again. There couldn’t be anything more than friendship between them – that must be what made it easy and relaxed.
Not that she wasn’t attractive. He was a man, and he wasn’t blind – she had a lovely face, her eyes were amazing, and of course he had noticed her curvaceous figure and the shapely legs that emerged from the too-short skirt of her nurse’s uniform, but his appreciation would go no further. The brief spark that had passed between them tonight didn’t change that. She’d felt it, too, he was sure of it, but the fact was that he wasn’t her Daniel, and she wasn’t Trelaina.
Trelaina. He sighed. He was all right as long as he didn’t think about her, but he couldn’t seem to help himself. He’d thought she was dead after she’d destroyed Telezart– she hadn’t seen fit to let him know otherwise. But not only was she alive, she saved his life. He reached into his mind and tried to remember more about the time he’d spent with her after he’d been wounded. He could come up with only vague impressions – senses, rather than details. It didn’t make sense. She’d told Derek and Nova that she loved him, but then she’d left him again. It was no good to pretend she hadn’t. He tried to sort through it all, but he was so tired. Maybe he’d try again tomorrow.
Although he slept more soundly that night, Mark continued to dream. His nightmares were even worse, now that he knew what to expect from them. He was miserable from the time the dreams began, knowing that Trelaina was about to reject and leave him. Still, he woke only once or twice, and in the morning felt slightly better, having finally rested.
The physical therapists drove him until he was completely exhausted again. Now that he had regained some feeling in his legs, they pushed him harder and harder to get those muscles to cooperate. He managed to bend his ankle and knee, an advance which everyone found promising. In addition, the therapists kept working his arm muscles, to give him increased mobility until he could walk again. He returned to the ICU tired but satisfied.
On the floor, he asked the robot that was returning him to his room to stop in front of Homer’s door. He hadn’t spoken to the communication officer since they’d been back on Earth. The two of them had argued quite a bit during the trip to Telezart, and Mark felt badly about it. Homer could have a hard time dealing with stress, as they had discovered when his father died while they were traveling to Iscandar. He had resented it when Mark began commandeering the radio to get a fix on Trelaina’s location, and had become more and more agitated as Mark and Trelaina had become close. Mark knew he should have ignored Homer’s comments, but he had allowed himself to become aggravated and they had snapped at each other frequently. Now that they were both in the hospital, it seemed so petty and unimportant.
He knocked on the door frame and wheeled his chair in. “Homer?”
“Venture!” The head of Homer’s bed was inclined. “How are you feeling? I’ve been hearing about your miraculous recovery.” Mark rolled over to him and shook his hand. He didn’t look too healthy, Mark thought – he was pale and his grip was weak, but he had a smile on his face.
“I’m doing all right. How are you? Forgive me, but you don’t look that great, Homer.”
Homer nodded. “It’s been slow going, but they tell me I’m on the road to recovery now. I can’t wait to get out of this bed.” He eyed the wheelchair enviously. “At least you get to move around. You officers, always one step ahead of the rest of us.”
“You’ll get there. Be patient,” Mark said. “Listen, Homer… I want to apologize to you for the way I acted on the Argo. I should have talked to you about finding Trelaina’s location, instead of ordering you around. You were right – I was trying to impress her, and I stepped on your toes to do it. Thinking of all the friends we lost makes me realize how childish I was acting. I’m sorry.”
Homer put his hand on Mark’s shoulder. “I was no better, Venture. I thought I would never forgive myself when we thought you were… gone. It made me look at things very differently. I’m sorry, too.”
The two men nodded at each other, putting the past behind them, and Mark changed the subject. “Did Wildstar tell you about our new mission? We’ll all be able to work together without worrying about flying into battle.” They chatted until the nursing cadets came in, ready to fuss over Homer until lunch time. Not in the mood to listen to their giggling, Mark shook Homer’s hand again and retreated to his room.
Carina drank a cup of tea and scanned the newsfeeds before dressing for work. The media almost always portrayed the government and the Defense Council in a positive light; in return, they were given access to documents which would otherwise have been classified. But at least the Star Force was being treated as heroes again. When they had taken off in the fall, it had been a very different story. Much of the lower echelons of Earth Defense had trusted Wildstar and the rest of the Star Force; Carina had known that Stephen Sandor would never have taken off without good reason, but the media had reported that the Argo’s crew had flipped their lids.
She read the latest reports on the reconstruction projects and rolled her eyes. She knew they were exaggerated Not only had the Earth Defense Forces been essentially wiped out in the battle at Saturn, but the damage from Zordar’s attack was worse than reported, and the deadlands from the Gamilon War still covered more ground than any official would admit. Outside of Earth Defense Headquarters, however, no one knew the truth. The civilians were happy to accept the government’s propaganda without question, since it made them feel safe.
The misinformation on the reconstruction didn’t really hurt anyone, but in addition to underplaying the damages of the war, the government was turning a blind eye to situations that needed to be rectified. The colonel had sent Carina the minutes from the Council’s debriefing session, and she could hardly believe what she saw. No one wanted to deal with the main causes of the high casualties in the battle at Saturn: the need for stronger armor on the bodies of the ships; the short firing range of the Earth Defense ships, which had been about half that of the enemies’; and the maddening fact that all other weapons were essentially useless for several long minutes before a wave motion gun was fired, since as much energy as possible had to be routed into the powerful weapon. In addition, Earth’s battle satellites had proven woefully ineffective after the enemy had broken through the line at Saturn.
Instead of working on these issues, the Council wanted the design team to focus on developing computerized modules that would eliminate the manpower needed to run a ship. It was true the number of recruits was down, but removing the human element was not the solution to their problems. The Argo was the least computerized ship in the fleet, and also the only ship that had survived the battle at Saturn. There was something to be said for that.
She and the colonel had discussed these points, and he agreed with her. However, he told her, the Council consisted of a bunch of “middle-aged fat cats” who only had their own interests at heart. They and their families were the first to be evacuated to safety during an emergency, and they would never see combat. They didn’t worry too much about how many soldiers were killed as long as they were able to get reelected.
Those same fat cats were being portrayed as great leaders by the press. What was worse, the newsfeeds were reporting the defeat at Saturn as though it had been the fault of the dead. If the fleet had followed proper protocol, they claimed, going through General Stone and the council instead of following the orders of the rogue Captain Gideon, it would have been properly prepared for battle. Nothing for the citizens to fear – the president and the council had things under control. There would be no more threats to Earth from outer space.
Disgusted, Carina made a decision. She logged onto her classified EDF account and printed the report from the debriefing. Stephen should see this, she thought. He was the most brilliant man she had ever met, and if he could ruminate on it while he was in the hospital, she felt sure that he would come up with a way to set the council on the right course, even if it meant sneaking changes in under the radar, so to speak.
She got to the hospital a few minutes early for her shift and headed straight for Stephen’s room. “Carina! I wasn’t expecting to see you this early. The other nurse was just here.”
“My shift is about to start, but I wanted to talk to you first.” She dropped the bulky envelope on his bed. “You didn’t get this from me, but listen, Stephen. The government is burying its head in the sand. The council has no intention of improving the radar and weaponry of the fleet – their great plan is to automate our defense, to remove humans from the decision making process altogether. I want you to take a look at this report, and think about solutions that will actually solve the problems we have.”
Sandor smiled. “You’re becoming quite the rebel leader. I knew my influence would be good for something.” He glanced at the report and became more serious. “Wildstar told me about this meeting. I understand it was pretty unproductive. I’ll be interested to read the notes.”
“Just don’t let anyone know you have that, all right?”
He nodded. “Don’t worry. I have a secret hiding place.” He looked up at her. “Hey, I hear you and Venture have become quite chummy. I was right, wasn’t I?”
She made a face at him. “”Yes, you were right. Don’t you people have better things to gossip about?”
“No, you’re pretty much it. There’s not a lot of action going on in the ICU.”
“Well, at least try to keep it to a minimum, will you? It’s embarrassing. See you later.” She ruffled his wiry hair and walked out as he laughed.
After reviewing the morning’s developments with the on-duty nurse, Carina checked on Homer Glitchman. She greeted the nursing cadets who were huddled around him and asked him how he was feeling. “Better, thank you, ma’am,” he replied. “Do you think I could have some solid food today? The cadets said they would help me.”
Checking his chart, Carina rolled her eyes and smiled. “It’s too late to change your lunch order. Let me check with the doctor, but I don’t see why you can’t try it for supper tonight. If the cadets are willing to help you.” The girls giggled, and Carina rolled her eyes again as she exited. She stopped at the nurses’ station to confirm that Homer could upgrade his dinner selection and moved on to Mark Venture’s room.
He was engrossed in the book he had been reading last night. Knowing that he would be irritated by the giggling young cadets, she chirped, “Good morning, Cdr. Venture! How are you feeling today?” Venture cringed and looked up, startled, then gave her a dirty look.
She gave him her most charming smile and moved to check his pulse, temperature and blood pressure. “How are you feeling today, Commander? Did you sleep better with the sedative?”
He nodded. “I only woke up a couple of times. It helped, thank you. And look at this,” he added, indicating his legs. There wasn’t a lot of movement, but she could see that he could now move his feet and bend his knees a little bit. She grinned and gave him the thumbs-up.
His seemingly high spirits faltered when he saw her pull out the needle to draw his blood. She remembered he’d had the same reaction yesterday. She asked him, “Are you sure you’re not having a problem with the blood draws, Commander?”
He hesitated, then shook his head. “Not a problem, Lieutenant. I just – I don’t understand why you keep taking so much, and every day. Is there something wrong with my blood? Am I sick? No one will tell me.”
Carina opened her mouth, trying to decide what to tell him. The halls were crowded, and she knew she had to be careful. “You’re fine, Commander. We just have to make sure your blood cell counts are where they should be.”
“But I’m not bleeding,” he protested. “And I don’t have internal injuries, do I? Why –“
“Commander,” she said more forcefully, “there’s nothing wrong with you. I promise.” She raised an eyebrow at him and briefly shifted her eyes to the open door, where the cadets were walking by. Why weren’t men better at silent communication? After a moment, he seemed to resign himself and nodded.
“All right, Lieutenant. I’m not sure how much I have left, but do your best.”
Carina blinked when she saw the bruises on Venture’s arm. “I’ll try to be gentle.”
He flinched when the needle entered his arm, and she sighed. “I have to talk to Dr. Sane anyway,” she said. “I’ll speak to him about maybe cutting back. This is ridiculous.”
“Sure, Lieutenant. Thanks.”
Carina delivered the vial to Dr. Sane’s secure lab locker, then went and rapped on his office door. He looked up from his glass of “spring water” and nodded at her. “Come in, Carina. I was wondering when you were going to stop by.”
“Thanks, Doc. You might know that I talked to Mark Venture last night,” she said, getting straight to the point of her visit.
The doctor nodded. “Yes, he told me you had spoken.” He polished his glasses and tilted his head at her, his tiny pinpoint eyes considering her. “I think it did him some good, Carina. He was more talkative today than I’ve seen him, although he still didn’t tell me what I need to know. Do you have some information for me?”
She nodded and relayed their brief conversation to him, including as much pertinent detail as she could remember. She did not tell him how emotional Mark had been – that was private. Dr. Sane listened intently, thinking. “Hmmm. She gave him a transfusion.” He nodded. “That makes sense.” He said this to himself, then turned to her. “Trelaina was… Luminescent? That’s probably the best word to describe her. She glowed. I mean, actually physically glowed,” he added when he saw Carina’s blank expression. “She gave off her own light. If she gave Venture a blood transfusion, that explains those strange cells in his blood.”
“But they’re fusing to his red cells. The count hasn’t gone down at all. I’d have thought their number would be reduced as he recovered.” Carina thought about this. “She found a way to give him a part of herself, permanently?” She realized the details about Trelaina that had gotten out were sketchy, and wondered what else she didn’t know about her. The more she learned, the more astounded she was.
“I guess she did.” Doctor Sane was silent for a moment. “I’ll have to keep monitoring it.”
“But Doc,” Carina said, “he really needs a break. Have you seen his arm? The bruising is too much.”
“I’ll admit I haven’t asked him how he’s been handling the daily needles. You could be right,” he agreed. “I guess I could monitor it once a week. It’s not as though testing every day is giving me particular information.”
“Doc, listen,” she pressed, “he’s also concerned about why his blood is being drawn every day. Do you think I could tell him what we talked about?”
The doctor considered this. “I guess so. He should know why I’m keeping such a close eye on him.” He paused again. “Thank you, Carina. It’s good for him to have someone looking out for him.”
“Thank you, Doctor.” She blushed as she headed back to the nurses’ station to write up her reports, deciding she would visit Cdr. Venture again after work and talk to him about Trelaina.
At the end of the day, Carina headed straight for Venture’s room. He was reading his book again, but when she knocked softly, he responded right away. “Hey, Mark,” she said. “Talk for a few minutes?”
For the first time, she saw a genuine smile on his face, one that reached his eyes. It made her heart skip a beat. “You’re becoming a regular visitor, Lieutenant. I’m beginning to look forward to the end of the day.”
Is he flirting? Amused, she decided a grimace with an eye roll would be the best response. Closing the door, she tugged her skirt down and took her favorite spot on the side of his bed, a little nervous about the conversation they were about to have. “I wanted to talk to you about your blood work. I’m sorry I couldn’t say anything this afternoon – it’s sort of classified, and the walls have ears. But Doctor Sane gave me the OK to discuss it with you.”
He leaned forward and nodded. “You – you or Nova – have drawn blood every day, even though I keep hearing how much better I am. Nova won’t tell me anything, and Doctor Sane keeps putting me off. Is there something wrong with my blood?”
She wanted to be straightforward with him. “Not wrong, exactly, but different. Remember you told me you thought Trelaina had given you an IV of some kind?” She took his hand. “There’s an element to your blood we can’t identify. We suspect she gave you a transfusion. Doctor Sane has been analyzing your blood every day. Your red and white blood cells have returned to basically normal levels, but these ‘X’ cells have remained at a steady level by blending or fusing with your red blood cells. And these cells, they seem to have a vitality, and they’re… luminous.” She could see understanding dawning in his eyes, and she spoke as gently as she could. “We can’t be sure, since we don’t really know what happened. But Mark, it looks like Trelaina gave you some part of herself. A piece of her will be with you forever. It was her gift to you.”
As she spoke, she watched him try to control his emotions. He spoke softly, his voice betraying his feelings. “I wish she hadn’t given me a ‘gift.’ All I wanted – all I ever wanted from her – was for us to be together. She told Wildstar and Nova that she loved me.” He turned to her. “If she loved me, why wouldn’t she stay with me? We could have had a fine life together on Earth.”
Carina had actually thought this question through and decided to answer him honestly, despite the fact that he probably wasn’t looking for an answer. She spoke slowly, carefully, not wanting to say the wrong thing. “I think, Mark, that maybe you aren’t considering the larger picture as Trelaina saw it. She understood things differently than you did. She probably sensed that if she had come to Earth, she would never have had any peace. You know Earth Defense as well as I do, and you know she would have been poked and prodded and analyzed over and over again. What kind of life would that have been for her?”
“I could have protected her from that.” He realized right away that wasn’t true. “Or I could have gone to live with her. You told me that you turned down a commission on the Argo to stay with your fiancée. Don’t you believe that love is the most important thing we have? The most important thing in the universe?”
He didn’t know how her decision to stay on Earth had torn her apart. “I do believe that. And I did stay behind, but I’m not saying it was the right thing to do. I was young, and I couldn’t imagine being without Daniel for a week, never mind for a year. I’m not proud of that decision – it was the easy way out for me. Trelaina made the difficult choice so that you wouldn’t have to. Could you have left your family, your brother, to live in isolation? Could you have left your position with EDF, really?”
He considered this, and hung his head. “No, I know I couldn’t have done that – but if she had loved me, we would have found a way. If she had loved me –“
If she had loved him? What was he talking about? She moved closer, reached under his chin and tilted his head up until he was looking her in the eye. “Mark,” she said very softly, “Trelaina loved you. Everything she did was out of love for you. She fought for Earth to survive because she saw the best of Earth in you, and she saved you so you could continue to share her message, her love, with the world. Commander Venture, I am absolutely certain that Trelaina loved you with all her heart.”
She watched as his eyes filled with tears and finally overflowed. Her heart ached for him, and she blinked back tears of her own. She reached out gently to brush a tear off his cheek, but when she extended her arm, he leaned in until his forehead rested on her shoulder. Surprised, she put her arms around him and began stroking his back to comfort him. He was warm and had a clean, masculine scent; without thinking she closed her eyes and buried her face in his shoulder, inhaling deeply. She felt his arms snake around her and grip her tightly, and he began sobbing. “Shhhh.” She murmured comforting sounds in his ear and rubbed his back, letting him cry himself out. Hearing the door open, she looked to see Nova standing there, concerned. Carina gave her a small nod and mouthed to her, “It’s OK.” Nova hesitated for a moment, looking torn, then nodded and backed out, closing the door behind her. Carina would stop on the way out and tell her what had happened.
Mark cried for what seemed like a very long time, finally letting out all the feelings he had been holding inside. When his tears subsided, he pulled back. She handed him some tissues from the box on his bedside table, waited a moment for him to say something, and finally asked, “Are you all right?” She kicked herself for the ridiculous question, but didn’t know what else to say.
He nodded and wiped his face. “I am all right, thank you. I feel a little foolish, to be honest,” he said, looking down. His voice was steady, though still thick with tears. “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable, Lieutenant.”
He looked her in the eye, and the pain on his face tore at her heart. “No, of course not – not at all,” she replied, wiping the hair from his damp forehead. She forced herself to lighten her tone, although she still spoke gently. “But could you for crying out loud call me by my first name, please? I’m pretty sure the etiquette books say that once you’ve wiped your nose on someone’s shoulder, it’s OK to dispense with the formalities.”
He made a choked sound that might have been a laugh. “Thank you… Carina.” He shrugged. “I’m sorry – I’d offer to wash your uniform for you, but I’m having a little trouble getting to the laundry.”
He made a joke! “I think I can manage, but thanks for the offer, Mark.” She tilted her head and considered him more seriously. “Really, are you going to be all right tonight? Visiting hours are almost over. I’d hate to leave you alone if you’re upset.”
“I’m all right.” He put his hand on hers. “I promise. Mostly I’m tired. Weary.”
“Okay, if you’re sure. Nova’s on duty tonight. I’ll make sure she looks in on you.” She sat with him, holding his hand, until Nova herself poked her head in, indicating that it was time for Carina to go. “I guess I’d better head out.” She stood up. “Good night, Mark.”
“Good night, Carina.” She gave him a kiss on the forehead and turned to leave, not seeing his eyes follow her out of the room.
Nova was absent from the nurses’ station. Carina left her a note asking her to check on Mark a few extra times that night, then walked home. She was beginning to see real progress on the reconstruction of the buildings that had been damaged in Zordar’s attack. If there’s one thing we are as a race, it’s resilient, she thought. Mark Venture would be all right, eventually. She offered up a quick prayer for his recovery as she replayed the night’s events in her mind. She felt protective toward him and wished she could have stayed with him to make sure he was all right. She also knew that it was a very bad idea to become emotionally involved with a patient. It was all very confusing.