8/27

    Sound came to me slowly, as from a great distance. Soft voices, the hum of machinery. Footsteps clacking on a hard floor. Movement nearby. My body tensed.

    "You're safe."

    A woman's voice, gentle and kind. Her fingers brushed mine. In a single movement I was on my feet, my hand clamped on her throat. Humanoid, no longer young, long blonde hair touched here and there with silver. Brown eyes wide with alarm. She clutched at my wrist, but didn't claw or kick; she only watched me as I held her life in my hands, waiting to see what I would do. She was my height, a bit heavier, but soft. No steel in her aging body. I eased my grip. She drew a great breath, pink splotches blossoming on her cheeks.

    "I'm not going to hurt you," she croaked.

    "Where am I?"

    "Hospital. You were in an accident. Badly hurt." She glanced down, and I became aware of bare arms and legs, a lightweight shift covering only the essentials of my body. "Better now," she said.

    "Who are you?"

    "My name's Rose Tyler," she said. "We found your ship, brought you here. The doctors didn't think you'd live." The smooth brow furrowed, the eyes crinkled in a smile. "But you've got two hearts."

    My hand tensed on her throat, and she breathed in sharply. This time a touch of fear reached her eyes. I forced myself to relax.

    "Where's my ship?"

    "I'm sorry," she said. "It's in our warehouse, but it doesn't look good. It's not likely to fly again."

    "Take me there."

    "Of course." She smiled. "If you'll let me go, I'll bring you your clothes."

    I dropped my hand, leaving behind an impression of my fingers in her skin. She rubbed her throat, watching me warily, and crossed to a cupboard opposite the bed. My clothes hung there, black trousers, military-issue olive tee, the black leather jacket that was my one indulgence. The duffel bag I kept under my chair rested on the floor. I wondered what else they had taken from the wreckage of my ship.

    "Do you need anything else?" she asked me.

    She seemed to mean it. There was no deception in her face, no threat. The fear had receded. I shook my head.

    "I'll be outside." She pointed to the door. "When you're ready, come out, and I'll take you to your ship."

    With that she slipped out, and I was alone.

    I looked around the room. Compact and efficient: bed, sink, cabinets, assorted medical equipment. A toilet in a concealed alcove. I shed the thin gown and pulled on my clothes, checking myself over. No cuts or bruising remained, only a mild abrasion above my right eye and a slight stiffness in my neck. They must have been severe injuries to leave such traces; no wonder the medics had given me up for dead. Doctors, I remembered. She had used the word 'doctors'. A civilian facility then, no guards, no weapons. I picked up my duffel and opened the door.

    

    The corridor shone white, bright fluorescent bulbs above, flat industrial laminate below. Efficient. Rose Tyler looked up from the hard plastic chair where she sat, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Smiling, she stood.

    "All ready, then?"

    "Yes."

    "What's your name?"

    "Jenny O'Malley." I flung the pseudonym at her automatically, thoughtlessly. She accepted it, offering a smile in exchange: broad and warm and welcoming.

    "Welcome to Earth, Jenny," she said.

    I shuddered.

    

    So this is Earth, I thought. Low clouds hid the yellow sun; the air smelled of damp pavement and new grass. A chill wind tugged at my clothes and hair. I followed Rose Tyler out of the hospital, to a battered military-style jeep parked outside. She wrenched open one door and held it for me. Cautiously I climbed inside. The vehicle smelled of new oil, old battered leather, cold steel. Rose climbed into the driver's seat and started the engine with a key. It rumbled unsteadily to life. Well maintained, my ears told me, but nevertheless ancient. She strapped herself in. Impressed, I copied her; perhaps there was more to this machine than met the eye. But we simply backed out of the parking space and pulled sedately onto the main road.

    I expected questions. I got none. Rose drove silently, her eyes on the road and the scenery before us. The quiet soothed me. I longed to relax, but every instinct screamed against it. I did not know yet where I was or how to get away. I had to see my ship. I had to stay focused, vigilant, prepared.

    Rose did not observe my unease. There was nothing of the soldier about her, but neither was she ordinary. She was something else. My strangeness didn't frighten her. She had, I realized, seen my like before.

    My hearts began to race.

    

    The road led us into the heart of a city. Steel, concrete and glass towered overhead. The streets swarmed with people, dodging buses, ringing bicycle bells, towing small children and animals in their wake. Vehicle horns blared. Lights flashed green and yellow and red. Dirigibles of every size drifted through the sky above, hidden by the buildings and a faint brownish haze that rose up from the streets. I tasted dust, smoke, assorted oxides. It looked corrosive, but people went with their faces uncovered and looked no worse for the habit. I opened my mouth to ask, then quickly shut it again. I was not a tourist.

    Rose turned the vehicle into a narrow drive which plunged sharply underneath one of the great concrete behemoths. She stopped the jeep at the end of a row of similar vehicles and unfastened her belt.

    "We're here," she said. "Come on."

    "My ship is here?"

    "Upstairs. It's safe."

    We crossed the rubber-streaked pavement to a sturdy lift, and were swept upwards in silence. The gears and pulleys moved with such smoothness, it felt as though we hardly moved at all. At the building's very peak the lift glided to a gentle stop, and the doors slid open with the softest of whispers.

    The room beyond was filled with people. I peered out through the lift door, into a space so vast its walls and ceiling lay beyond vision, hidden among the structures, the machines, the milling crowd moving about within. Voices called, motors roared, tools whined and rattled as they went about their work. A soft touch brushed my elbow; I whirled about, and Rose stepped back deftly with her hand at her throat.

    "I'm not going to hurt you," she said.

    "Nor I," I answered. "Not unless I need to."

    She looked discomfited. I stepped out of the lift, content with the new boundary between us. I was still healing, and I did not want to be touched.

    "This way," she said, gesturing. I followed her through the madness and noise, a winding path across the immense space. Beyond the worst of the chaos we came to a heavy plastic curtain separating the room in two. Rose pushed aside a panel and held it. "Through here," she said.

    I felt suddenly wary. "You first," I said.

    "Suit yourself," she shrugged, and ducked beyond the curtain. I caught the panel before it could fall, and peered through after her.

    On the other side, the noise level dropped nearly to nothing. The crowd fell away too, reduced to a small group of suited technicians gathered around a low dais set in the middle of the floor. I let the panel fall shut behind me and followed Rose toward them. One looked up, then another, and they stepped aside to make way.

    On the dais lay my ship. She was shattered, twisted, burned; her engines melted into slag, her nose warped, her cockpit smashed to bits. My neck ached in sudden sympathy as I approached the wreck. The technicians fell silent, moving respectfully aside. Rose stood with them. I pieced over the wreck, turning bits of glass and metal over in my hands, and my hearts sank deep in my chest. My shoulders sagged. Exhaustion settled over me, heavy as fate, as the air of the world now sealed over my head.

    I was trapped.

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