David was—understandably—a little leery of any mission that got described to him as a "milk run", after what had happened with the Valen and the Hand. And after what had happened with the Valen and the Hand, the first thing anyone seemed to want to say to him was that he didn't need to worry, that they understood what the Liandra had been through and this mission would be a milk run.
Made it kind of hard not to grimace.
The first couple of times, though, it turned out to be true. Sure, things went a little sideways, but he'd learned to expect that. He'd learned to handle sideways. Sideways was fine, sideways was manageable; nothing blew up in their faces and nobody died.
The first couple of times—but the third time was the charm, right?
The third time was Tzaltlan Prime. More specifically, an archaeological expedition to Tzaltlan Prime, officially sponsored by the Llort government for a purpose that amounted to, as best David could tell, looking for stuff to have.
Llort, as a rule, liked stuff. They liked finding it, having it, and taking it; and they seemed to have learned that the ISA wouldn't mind too much as long as they performed the courtesy of calling it "archaeology".
But since they were technically part of the ISA, that made it the ISA's problem when things went wrong. Which apparently they had.
"Exactly how wrong are we talking, here?" David said.
"Reports are unclear," Sech Midarr said apologetically on the viewscreen. "It is possible that you will be called upon to provide anything from additional security for the dig site to evacuation of the team and their equipment—"
David raised an eyebrow. "And you're sure they didn't give you any space requirements?" Fitting a whole bunch of people and all the stuff they wanted to carry onto the Liandra hadn't exactly been so much fun last time that David was raring to try it again.
But Sech Midarr didn't look fazed. "We are told it is a small team," she said. "Fourteen. They are concerned by disappearances of equipment, materials, certain artifacts—the Llort government has not indicated urgent concern for their safety, but it is possible that the situation may have changed by the time you arrive."
Milk run with a chance of going sideways. Perfect.
But of course it was important, in its own way. It was still early days for the ISA, in the larger scheme of things, and if they couldn't prove they were able to address their members' concerns—even concerns as small as government-sponsored archaeological digs—then early days might be all the ISA would get. Especially with the Hand out there somewhere, waiting; there couldn't be doubts, couldn't be weaknesses. In its own way, even this mission was going to matter. All of them did.
"All right," David said, and inclined his head to Midarr. "We should be at the nearest jumpgate in a few hours."
"In Valen's name," said Sech Midarr, and nodded back before she cut the link.
Part of the reason there was anything on Tzaltlan Prime to be excavated was because it was pretty out-of-the-way. The nearest jumpgate had been built inside a year ago, and it was several days away. Especially at the Liandra's top speed, when their jump drive still hadn't been repaired.
But it was a nice enough planet. Pretty from above—mostly land, green-gold and varied, with what looked like a lot of pale blue inland seas. Kit found them somewhere to come down that wasn't too far from the excavation site, and when the hatch opened, it was to a remarkably nice day: the dig was in the middle of a big rocky expanse, but it was breezy, not too hot, and David thought he could see the glimmer of a couple of those inland seas in the distance. Probably helped moderate the temperature a lot.
"What a lovely world," Dulann observed.
"Oh, yeah," Sarah said, squinting out at the horizon. "This is going to be a really nice place to die."
"Nobody's going to die," David said, and walked down off the ramp before either one of them could argue with him.
The expedition's team leader was a tall Llort who introduced herself as Arllin. It was a little hard to be sure—Llort were so scaly, their faces didn't move in ways that were easy for Humans to interpret—but David thought she looked relieved to see them.
"It has been very strange," she said, "and we do not know what to do."
"Of course," David said, trying for soothing. "It must be unsettling, knowing there could be a thief sneaking around—"
Arllin blinked at him, round dark eyes bewildered, and then tilted her head. "A—? Ah, yes," she said, "Humans. I was told you had strong feelings about this thing you call 'theft'?"
"Uh, yes," David said.
"Llort are not like this," Arllin explained. "To want to have things—this is understandable! To have the same things for too long shows a lack of imagination; collections change, things are given or taken. This is not unusual, for Llort."
"Right," David said.
"But the things we have lost, they—they are not interesting things," Arllin said. "They are not the sort of things that make a good collection. Some of them were very heavy!" She made a helpless motion of incomprehension. "Still, things are given or taken. This is not a surprise. What we do not like is the rest of it—the sound, the light.
"We do not know what causes it. The complex is large, it goes deep underground, and we have uncovered devices we do not understand—we have let them alone because they cannot be moved." She waved a hand, dismissive; because things that couldn't be taken, David thought, were evidently pointless. "But this has not stopped the sound. The light—" She grimaced, and yeah, okay: Llort were burrowers, David knew that much, and looking at her huge black eyes, it was easy to guess bright light would be uncomfortable for her. "We do not know where it comes from, we cannot see; it is like fire. The sound is—it reaches into the bones."
"How often?" David said.
"Not often, at first," Arllin said. "We thought that it was atmospheric, plasma discharges of some kind—but it keeps happening, and we have started to suspect that it is something in the complex instead. We do not know what, we have never been inside when it happens; but it comes more often now. If it is something unstable, we are—we have found many interesting things that our government will like, Ranger. But we do not want to die."
She said this last with a wryness that instantly endeared her to David, and it didn't feel weird anymore to reach out and touch her shoulder, so he did. "You won't," he told her gently, and she looked at him for a moment and then crinkled up those round eyes in something that felt like a smile.
Weird lights. Strange noises. Missing stuff. Didn't sound so terrible, David thought. Compared to some of the stuff they'd gone up against, this should be easy enough to handle.
And for the first couple days, it was.
Tzaltlan Prime really was a nice planet. David could almost see why Arllin had been thinking plasma discharges at first; the weather was so pleasant, there had to be something wrong with this place, and unpredictable plasma discharges from an atmosphere with ionization issues would balance the scales, so to speak.
The rocky landscape around the underground complex was bare and a little forbidding, but in a very artful way; it would have made a great holoprint, or the perfect backdrop for a dramatic vid scene about somebody railing against the uncaring universe. The breeze came up or eased back, but never went away entirely—Sarah didn't have to do anything but stand around to look soulful, theatrical, the way it blew her hair back, and David couldn't help snickering every time she swore and had to spit some out of her mouth.
And the team was great. Sech Midarr had been precise, there were indeed fourteen of them including Arllin, and most of them had clearly been working together for a long time—they had that kind of comfort with each other, the sort of ease that came from being sweaty and tired in front of other people a whole bunch of times. The crew of the Liandra didn't quite have it, not yet; but they would, David thought, and seeing the Llort team with it in front of him felt good, like something to reach for.
The Liandra's sensors weren't picking up much of anything, and even Arllin seemed surprised after the first forty-eight hours passed with none of the light, the noise. Maybe whatever it was that had turned on in the complex had turned itself off again, or had run out of juice, or one of the archaeologists had accidentally deactivated it. It wasn't like it was hard, hanging around the Llort in a place that had sunsets like this. David was willing to stick around for a few more days, even if whatever had been making the Llort nervous really had stopped.
But he'd started to feel kind of relaxed about the whole thing, which was probably why that was when it happened. That was how these things seemed to work.
There wasn't any warning or anything.
It happened just the way Arllin had said it would, like lightning out of a clear sky—except it was like fire, not white or bluish but yellow. Out of nowhere, in the middle of the afternoon, and David ducked and shielded his face, felt the accompanying sound more than heard it, and then somebody grabbed his arm and shouted, "Arllin!"
David looked up, squinting—it was one of the other Llort, Morill, and he had his eyes shut almost entirely but was stabbing a hand out in the direction of the complex. And—right, of course, Arllin had left a piece of equipment in there; she'd walked away from the camp not ten minutes ago intending to retrieve it. David groped around through the light until he found Morill's shoulder, and then he drew Morill around and gave him a gentle push in the direction of the Liandra. "Go," he said, "quick—I'll go get her," and then he turned his face back into the light and shouted, "Sarah?"
He was adjusting, to the barest degree—the light was flat and hard and seemed to be everywhere, but David could almost pick out shapes through it, figures, if he tried.
Couldn't tell which one of the figures had said that, but it sure sounded like Sarah. "Get them out of here," he shouted, over that strange reverberating sound. "To the ship—just in case."
"Understood," Sarah shouted back, and then David turned and started stumbling his way into the light.
He'd been in the complex once, a quick tour from Arllin, and it wasn't like the main chamber was hard to find—the corridor the Llort had cleared nearest the camp led straight into it. David kept his eyes shut and just felt his way along the wall, and he was about halfway there when someone said, "David?"
"Dulann," David said, and belatedly reached for the back of his hand—they usually didn't need them with the Liandra's intercom, but with everybody going back and forth between the ship and the camp, they'd decided to dig out some comm links.
"David," Dulann said again, with that even, placid tone that meant he was pretty sure they were in deep shit. "Something has been activated within the complex—"
"Yeah, we know."
"The Liandra's sensors are picking up a power source more than substantial enough to blow the entire complex into rubble," Dulann said. "And it appears to be building up a charge of some kind."
"Great," David said, "that's exactly what I was hoping you would say," and then he stumbled his way down the last few meters of corridor and blinked.
It was—there was still plenty of light, but it wasn't a wall like it had been. Which meant it was somehow coming from the space around the main chamber—some sort of projected field? Arllin was indeed in the main chamber, at one side: the side where there were deep strange carvings, and David had thought it was just some sort of abstract decoration the first time around, but there was light pouring out of the lines of it, blazing from deep in the stone. And that had to be the device, or power source, or both—maybe the whole complex was, David thought.
"David!" she said, turning halfway, one hand still pressed to the strange wall. Her eyes were nearly closed—even here, where David could finally see what he was doing, it was much too bright for her. "I do not know what happened—I did not touch it, but it came on. There must be some way to shut it down—"
And sure, okay: why bother with all the weird carving, except if this was some kind of control panel? Or maybe a display, and David just couldn't read it, but if that was the case then the control panel shouldn't be too far away, right? What use would that be?
Maybe it was just going to turn itself back off—but after what Dulann had said about the power source, could he afford to stand around hoping? The Liandra hadn't set down all that far from the camp; anything that could blow up the complex might take out the ship, too, if Kit couldn't get it off the ground in time.
David thought about it for the half-second it took to decide, and then grabbed Arllin by the arm and guided her toward the way out. "Just shut your eyes," he said, and took her by the wrist so he could set her hand against the wall. "Follow the wall, it's a straight shot—Dulann?"
"Arllin's coming out," David said. "Send whoever's closest to the camp back to help her get to the ship."
"Very well," Dulann said calmly. "And, if I may ask, what will you be doing?"
"Saving the day, of course," David said, and turned back toward the wall.
It was hard to guess where to even start. There weren't buttons or keys, or even pictographs; just a whole lot of deep swirling grooves in the stone, crossing and combining and curling around each other, and the light shining out through them. David slid a hand hesitantly into one of them—all those inland seas; had the Tzaltlanians maybe had tentacles? If he had to guess, that seemed like the sort of limb arrangement you'd need to get anywhere with a setup like this—
The sound changed—plunged deeper, vibrating through David's bones; and suddenly his field of view was yellow again, yellow-orange, flecked. Had the field around the chamber somehow reversed itself? He reached out with his other hand in what he thought was still the direction of the wall, but he couldn't see anything—he felt suddenly and disorientingly as though he were moving, falling, even though he hadn't taken a step, and then all at once there was nothing.
David woke up on the floor of the chamber, and for a second wasn't sure which way was up—he'd been standing, hadn't he? He stayed where he was and took inventory; but he didn't seem to be bleeding from anywhere and he didn't feel dizzy or nauseated, so he took a chance and eased himself up onto one elbow.
Everything still felt okay. That was a good sign.
And he was still in front of the wall, even if he'd fallen down. It had gone dark again, just rock—the light was gone, and so was whatever field or projection had been in place around the chamber, and the sound had stopped too.
"That was weird," David told the wall, and worked his way to his knees. Still okay—he didn't even feel lightheaded. A little stiff, maybe; there was a faint ache across his shoulders, down his back. But that might just have been from falling over, if he really had passed out.
He'd made it to his feet when Sarah rushed in, with Arllin at her shoulder. "Everything's fine," David said, "it's off," but they didn't seem to want to take his word for it—they went past him, gazes fixed on the wall.
"It was all lit up," Arllin said.
"It deactivated again," Sarah muttered, and then started to turn in a slow circle.
"Yeah, that's what I said," David told her, and then, a little grumpily, "And I'm fine, by the way. Thanks for asking."
But she didn't reply. She didn't even glare at him. She kept turning, and she just—she looked over him, through him. Her eyes reached him and went by without pausing or even refocusing, not so much as the tiniest physical reaction to show she had seen him at all.
"And David was here when you left," Sarah said to Arllin, voice tense.
David stared at her, and felt his heart start to pound unhelpfully. "Yeah, and I'm still here," he said, raising his voice, but neither one of them twitched.
"He was," Arllin said. "He told me to go and helped me to the corridor. He wanted to try to figure out how to shut it down. He did not come out after I did?"
"No," Sarah said. "Would he have gone deeper into the complex?"
"I—perhaps?" Arllin tilted her head uncertainly, like a little Llort shrug. "If the light grew too bright and he were confused, he might have gone the wrong way—"
"But he should have figured that out by now," Sarah muttered, and then went for the link on the back of her hand. "No sign of him. Anything on the sensors?"
"No," Dulann said, very crisp. "His link does not appear to be functioning."
Damn. David tried it anyway, but when he said, "Sarah? Dulann? Kit?" nothing happened—Sarah didn't seem to have heard it, didn't move, and no one else replied.
"All right," Sarah was saying. "We'll keep looking. He has to be around here somewhere."
Sarah was wary, of course, seeing as David had apparently disappeared; but whatever the device was, it did seem to have shut itself down again, so eventually she gave Dulann a reluctant all-clear. Half the bridge crew and most of the Llort came to the complex to help search for David—who stood there helplessly and watched them, and hadn't managed to find any way to let them know he was right here.
He'd tried shouting, throwing things, but they couldn't hear him and he didn't seem to be able to move anything anymore. He couldn't touch any of them, either—couldn't even feel them pass him, and Sarah's hair said there was a breeze coming down the corridor from outside but David couldn't feel that either. It wasn't—he didn't think they were passing through him so much as he just wasn't occupying space in a way that mattered to them. There was no sensation, on his part or on theirs; they just walked from one side of him to the other, and didn't touch him in between.
Sarah commed back to the Liandra at regular intervals, and every time she managed to make herself say they still hadn't found anything, Dulann's voice got cooler and more even, his diction more precise, in response. After a couple hours, the Liandra's sensors refusing to cough up anything helpful, he must have lost patience, as only Dulann could lose patience: David heard even, regular steps coming along the corridor, and looked up just in time to see Dulann move into the doorway: back straight, shoulders steady, hands calmly folded, and—
And his gaze falling directly on David.
For a moment, just a moment, David would have sworn—on anything and everything, in front of the entire Council—that Dulann was looking at him. Dulann's focus didn't seem to be in front of David or behind him, but precisely on his face; and there was something in Dulann's expression, in the way he paused there in the doorway—
But then he looked away, measured, to the left and then to the right. He didn't scream or jump up and down or yell, Sarah, he's right there, he's right in front of you! He scanned the rest of the chamber calmly and then found Sarah, and if his path toward her didn't go near or through David, that was probably just coincidence. There were a lot of people, a lot of equipment, in the chamber, and Dulann couldn't walk through it all like David could. It didn't mean anything; he must not have been able to perceive David any better than anyone else.
So David sat there in the middle of a crowd of people who were busy turning the complex upside down looking for him, and tried to think it through.
They were going to stop searching eventually. They would have to, even if nobody wanted to—after a certain point, it just wouldn't make sense to keep going. Sarah and Dulann were clearly already thinking it, judging by the grim looks they kept shooting each other over everybody else's shoulders.
And probably some less pleasant possibilities were occurring to them—that David had been vaporized, maybe, or somehow consumed, in some way that hadn't left so much as a smear on the floor.
But whatever the device had done to him, that wasn't it. Was it? He didn't feel vaporized. And if he was ever going to work out what had happened instead or get it undone, surely staying near the device was his best bet.
Except he couldn't bear to let the Liandra leave the planet without him.
He tried to tell himself to be reasonable about it, that he had to look at this from all the angles, but he just kept running up against that wall: he couldn't imagine standing around on the ground watching the Liandra lift off and leave him behind. He couldn't.
Luckily, Sarah and Dulann solved that problem for him. If nothing else, being thoroughly undetectable made it really easy to eavesdrop.
"Don't," Sarah said tightly, but it was Dulann; that wasn't going to work, and she had to know it just as well as David did.
"Sarah," Dulann said again, and touched her elbow. "Whatever has happened, it could happen again at any moment—we do not know what this device is or how it has been activated. We need to get these people off this planet safely. That is our mission."
"Yeah," Sarah snapped, "and don't tell me: David would want us to, right?"
"Hell yes," David said, even though she wouldn't hear it.
Dulann's mouth twitched a little and then went flat, and he said, "Sarah, we have to go. It is our duty as anla'shok."
For a second, Sarah looked at him like she wanted to hit him; and then her eyes narrowed, and she said, "And?"
"And we do not have the equipment to evaluate this device ourselves," Dulann added placidly. "Whatever it may or may not have done to David—we cannot figure that out right now. We have to go; but that doesn't mean we cannot come back."
Which was actually a pretty good point. Even if David did stay, what were the odds he could get this sorted out himself? Without any way to assess the device, sensors or anything, or any way to guess what it had done or how? Probably not great. Especially if he couldn't touch anything. Which meant this problem wouldn't get solved until the Liandra came back, whether David stayed here or not.
So when his crew and the Llort finally left the chamber, David went with them. They'd pulled together some supplies in a secondary chamber, for the hypothetically very lost David wandering around somewhere below them in the complex; watching Firell and Malcolm consult over what to leave behind and in what quantities, low-voiced and somber, made David's chest ache.
He followed them back across the rocks to the Liandra. It was weird: it occurred to him partway there that he wasn't quite walking. His steps seemed to go further than they should have, and he discovered that he wasn't entirely touching the ground—he could take one step and sort of slide, and be in front of Sarah; and then another step, a little sideways from the first, and be off to the side next to Na'Feel.
But if he concentrated just a little, he could keep himself above the ramp, and then inside the ship. It felt like he was—like he was holding himself in position relative to the ship, more than he was standing inside it. But he was in it, and he was pretty sure he could stay there without falling through the hull when it took off, which was what mattered.
It felt almost normal to be walking onto the bridge with everyone else, but at the last moment David caught himself before he could actually sit down in his chair. He couldn't exactly give orders anymore, after all. That was—
That was Dulann's job.
David swallowed—was it actual swallowing? Was he just imagining himself swallowing or something?—and turned around, and there was Dulann. He'd been calm, imperturbable, through all the rest of it; the searching, and the arguing with Sarah, and everything. But here, on the bridge, he seemed strange—quiet, vaguely distracted. He stepped toward the command chair and then paused, and everyone else on the bridge seemed to feel that pause and echo it back: they all went still at their posts and looked around, faces sober.
And Dulann had to know they were doing it, had to be able to feel the pressure of all those eyes. But he didn't look like he did—he didn't put a brave face on it for them, or smile at them reassuringly, or even give them a captainly nod. He just stood there, staring at David's empty chair, until David couldn't stand it anymore.
"Hey," he said, because it broke that awful silence for him even if it couldn't for anybody else. "Hey, come on, it's okay. You're just keeping it warm for me."
And even if Dulann couldn't see David, maybe he could still sense him a little bit—maybe some part of that telepath's brain could feel David's mind nearby. Because he closed his eyes after David said this, just for a moment. He closed his eyes and swallowed and then set his hand on the arm of the chair, and stepped around to sit down in it.
"There you go," David murmured, fighting a tightness that wanted to rise up in his throat. If he could only put a hand on Dulann's shoulder, his arm—but he couldn't.
Which was okay. He just had to be patient. His crew would come back and get this thing figured out, and then he'd be able to pat Dulann on the back all he wanted.
Everything he'd learned about his current state on Tzaltlan Prime seemed to hold true on the Liandra. He didn't go through the hull; he was able to hold himself in place just fine by thinking about it, by wanting to be there. He couldn't pick anything up or move anything around, and he couldn't use consoles or type anything. He could still travel further than a step with a step, if he wanted to, but he couldn't be sure exactly how far he was going to go when he did that, and he didn't want to end up outside the ship.
He might have been okay even if he had. As best he could tell, he was still breathing, except it might just have been habit; he could still hold his breath, still felt all the attendant sensations of running out of it, but whether that was real or just his mind remembering how it was supposed to feel was—he couldn't be sure. He didn't feel particularly hungry or thirsty, but then again he hadn't done much of anything today except float around.
The weirdest thing about it wasn't anything about him, but rather everybody else. It was unsettling as all hell, nobody knowing he was there—unsettling, and starkly, undeniably lonely. He was still mostly sure he hadn't been vaporized, but—
But hell, what did he know about it? He did seem kind of dead, didn't he? It certainly checked off a lot of ghost-adjacent boxes, drifting around like this with no one seeing him, intangible, unmoored. He took some comfort from the lingering ache in his back, but maybe he'd died with a tweaked vertebra—maybe he got to keep that for eternity. What did he know about it? He'd never been dead before.
It was hard to keep the thought away. And—well, it could still happen, after all. Even if he wasn't dead yet, there was no way to guarantee something wouldn't go wrong with the device once they went back to Tzaltlan Prime, or—or who knew what else.
So even though it felt silly, silly and a little ridiculous but also profoundly depressing, he figured he shouldn't waste his shot. If this might be his only chance to say goodbye, then he'd better not let it pass him over.
He started with Sarah.
She was easy to find—she'd told Dulann the weapons systems had been a little sluggish, that she wanted to run diagnostics on a few circuits. Which Dulann had to realize was mostly an excuse for her to slam her hands into things and swear without making it about David, but he just nodded and asked that she let him know when she was finished.
"Hey," David said.
Sarah tossed a screwdriver through his head and muttered something uncomplimentary, and then scooted a little further into the access tube.
"So, uh, this is pretty self-indulgent, because after all it's not like you can hear me. But for the record—if there even is a record when I'm stuck like this—I just wanted to say how glad I am to have known you."
David had thought about it, and he hadn't been able to come up with a better way to say it. He was glad, with a fierce bright warmth; he couldn't even begin to guess where he'd have ended up without Sarah at his back, calling him names when he did stupid things and always, always looking out for him.
"It just—it hits me sometimes," he added, impulsive, "how lucky I am. You know? How easy it would have been for us never to meet at all. There are billions, trillions, of lifeforms in this galaxy who have no idea who you are, whose paths have never crossed yours—and what are the odds that I'd manage not to be one of them?" He laughed and shook his head. "You know I wasn't ever all that good at math, but I'm guessing they're not on my side. So I just wanted to let you know that I get it. I get how lucky that makes me, and I'm glad."
His voice did something funny with the last couple words, and Sarah—Sarah would have, should have made fun of him for it; except she couldn't, because she couldn't hear him, didn't even know he was there.
And he'd known that going into this, but it still left him suddenly off-balance, eyes stinging. Sarah swore and smacked something that clanged in metallic protest, and David laughed and wiped at his face at the same time, and told himself to get a grip.
He swung by the engine room next, for Na'Feel—who turned out to be in the middle of explaining something about the engines to Kit, presumably related to the reason why she kept threatening to kill him when he performed a particular maneuver without warning her.
And the two of them were—it should have been easier, because there wasn't as much weight behind it all. He didn't know them that well, not really. But looking at them crouched there together in the engine room, Na'Feel brisk and businesslike and Kit careful, curious, that only made it feel worse. It was half of what he ended up saying: how much he'd been looking forward to getting to know them, and how much he hated the idea that he might not be able to. That he should have been able to learn how to be their friends, that there were universes where he did—but that this one might not be one of them. If he really had died in that stone room on Tzaltlan Prime, then dying itself hadn't been half bad; it was this part that sucked, having to face up to everything he was going to miss out on because of it.
He should have gone to the bridge next. That was where Malcolm and Dulann and Tafeek would be, probably, and maybe even Tirk, if David got lucky.
But he found himself wandering away from it instead. It was just—he just wanted to take a break. It was hard, doing this. Harder than David had expected. And he had plenty of time before they even made it to the jumpgate, so—so it was okay if he didn't do it all at once.
He told himself this and kept not-quite-walking, and ended up standing in front of his own door. Which of course didn't open for him, since it couldn't tell he was there any better than anybody else. He took a deep breath and strode through it and into his quarters decisively, and all told if he'd been corporeal he would probably have kneed Dulann in the face.
"Aagh!" David yelped, lurching backward; but of course Dulann didn't startle at all. He probably wouldn't have even if he'd been able to tell David was there, David thought resentfully. Dulann was like that.
He was just sitting there, legs folded—David hated sitting like that, it always made his feet fall asleep, but Dulann made it look almost comfortable. He'd set up a bunch of candles in a half-circle, and judging by how far they'd burned down, he'd been in here for a while.
"Hey," he said quietly.
Dulann stared at the candles a moment longer, and then closed his eyes. Praying, David thought, with a squirming feeling of something that was almost discomfort; this was—he shouldn't be looking at this, at what it was Dulann intended to do when David died. David wasn't very religious, and for somebody who saw ghosts sometimes Dulann had never seemed particularly fervent about that kind of thing either. But apparently he was willing to take some of it pretty seriously, for David, and that was—
David cleared his throat, and sat down. On the opposite side of the candles, so he could look Dulann in the face. Even if Dulann would never know it.
"Hey," he said again, and then snorted at his own eloquence. "Sorry, that was—I'm repeating myself. Not that it matters, I guess. You can't hear me anyway, so if this all comes out sounding stupid, it's okay.
"It's weird, but I—I guess I don't really know what to say to you. It was hard with Sarah," he clarified, "but I had an idea what to tell her, and Na'Feel and Kit too. There was something specific I realized I hadn't had the chance to get across to them, and I wanted to. But you—I don't know what to say to you.
"I've thought about it before, you know. Dying. I'm a Ranger, and even before I ever met you, I still knew what that meant. I knew there was a pretty good chance something would happen to me. That mission to Rigelion, when we were trainees—they told us right up front that we might not come back. You remember that? And I wrote letters to Sarah and Malcolm, and even to some of the sechs. But I didn't write one for you.
"Not because I didn't want to," David added hurriedly. "Just because—I don't know. I didn't even think of it. You were assigned to that run, too, and I guess some part of me just assumed, you know? Either we were both going to make it back, or we both weren't. Nothing in between. Or maybe just with your whole ghost thing, that I wouldn't need a letter to say—"
David caught himself, and stopped so short he almost bit his tongue. He hadn't actually thought about that before. But Dulann could see ghosts, couldn't he?
"Which means I guess I can't be dead," he said slowly. "Because if I were dead, then you—you would be able to see me. Right?"
Dulann drew in a deep breath through his nose and opened his mouth, just then, and David was expecting some kind of Minbari chant so completely that he almost didn't understand what Dulann actually said.
"Ah, but I can."
David looked at him uncertainly, and then at the candles, and then at his own quarters. Had he talked over something else that made that make sense? "That can't possibly be part of whatever ritual you're doing, can it? I know Minbari rituals are weird—"
"Not any 'weirder' than your idea of a suitable posthumous farewell," Dulann said calmly, and then opened his eyes and looked straight at David.
Not past him, not through him; not just in his general direction. At him, exactly, with perfect unwavering precision.
"You—? Wait, Dulann—you really—"
"Yes," Dulann said.
"I can't believe you!" David said, but he only half-meant it—or, well, he didn't literally mean it at all, and he was mostly just relieved. God, but it had been unpleasant, being so thoroughly alone; it had been hard to shake a creeping feeling that if he couldn't get someone to hear him or see him, perceive him even a little, he was going to vanish entirely somehow. "You could—the whole time? Why didn't you say something?"
"I wasn't sure what might be happening," Dulann said, gentle, with a note of soft apology underneath. "You know my abilities can be—a little unpredictable. I do not always know what I am seeing, or why."
"Sure, sure, of course," David said, because to be honest he didn't care all that much—he was still too glad that Dulann could see him at all to worry about it. He scrubbed his hands over his face and laughed, and it came out a little hysterical, and Dulann could tell, because when David looked at him again his brow was furrowing in concern. Dulann could tell, because Dulann could hear him—how awesome was that? He laughed again, less ragged, and swiped just a little at the corners of his eyes, and then cleared his throat and said, "It does raise a question, though, huh?"
"The fact that I can see you is not necessarily promising," Dulann agreed, very low.
"But it doesn't have to be bad, does it?" David said, leaning in. "I mean—okay, I wouldn't be your first ghost. But couldn't this also mean that I'm—that my mind, my self, really is right here, and it's just—" He waved a hand at himself. "—the rest of me that's undetectable?"
"It is—not impossible," Dulann allowed.
"Thank you," David said. "You're the one who was taking sensor readings of the power source, right? You said it was big."
"Extremely," Dulann said. "And the device itself was quite complex. I admit," he added slowly, "it does seem—excessive, for the only function of such a thing to be vaporizing a Human-sized collection of matter."
"Exactly!" David snapped his fingers, punctuational. "Was any of the stuff you left behind for recording data?"
And that made Dulann frown at him for real—all himself again, not the too-composed statue David had found when he first stumbled in here. "Stuff we left behind," he repeated, measured.
"Yeah. The equipment in the main chamber."
Dulann's face cleared, and his gaze turned suddenly intent on David's face. "David," he said slowly, "we did not leave anything behind in that chamber."
"What? Yes, you—" and then David figured it out too, and almost whooped. "The equipment that went missing! That has to be it. Dulann—"
"Tell me everything you remember," Dulann said, and David laughed delightedly and then tried to figure out where to start.
He told Dulann about the light, that strange flecked yellow-orange that had blotted everything out. About the sound, the reverberating rising wave of it and the way it had crescendoed; and that feeling of falling without moving. He showed Dulann how he didn't have to touch the floor, and the way he could step through so much space at such weird angles, unpredictable.
And Dulann absorbed it all with his usual equanimity, asked a few more probing questions about particular aspects of it, and then blew out all the candles and made David come with him to the bridge.
He paused outside David's door and commed ahead, so the whole bridge crew was there when they arrived, waiting for them around the projector table.
"What is it?" Sarah said immediately, leaning forward.
"I believe I have a working hypothesis as to what may have happened to David," Dulann said, and then waited calmly through the resulting shouts.
He started the whole description again, because David couldn't—and of course he was more succinct about it. He was almost through it when Malcolm, frowning, raised a hand and said, "Hey—uh, sorry to interrupt and all, but I have to ask: how the hell do you know all this?"
"Because David told me," Dulann said.
Everybody who had eyebrows raised them. "Excuse me?" Sarah said. "He's—is he here?"
"Yes," Dulann said, and turned to indicate the space beside him—which was what made David realize that he was crowding so close to Dulann he'd be pressed up against the right side of Dulann's back from shoulder to hip if he were tangible.
But he wasn't. He couldn't—he couldn't even feel any warmth, and thinking that just made him want to move closer.
Bad idea, he told himself firmly, and drifted ever so slightly away instead.
"He is here," Dulann was repeating, "and he is fine. Based on what he has told me, I believe he is partially or entirely in hyperspace."
"In hyperspace," Na'Feel said, dubious.
"The Vorlons long ago developed the technology to envelope objects in pockets of hyperspace," Dulann said, turning to the projector table and calling up what looked like a description of some Vorlon gadget, a three-dimensional model rotating alongside. "The complex on Tzaltlan Prime is much older, and if it was in fact designed to do the same thing, it stands to reason that it would be distinctly less efficient at accomplishing its task. It was perhaps a first attempt, rather than a final refinement of such technology."
"Okay," Kit said, "sounds reasonable enough. So—is there anything we can do about it? Because I don't know about you, but I'm not thrilled about the prospect of trying to track down some Vorlons to wherever the hell they went just to ask if they wouldn't mind unpocketing David for us."
"I suspect that in fact we must do something about it," Dulann said, "or we will lose David the moment we go through the jumpgate."
"Wait, what?" David said.
Dulann laid it all out as best he could, and it was three-quarters conjecture but David had to admit it was pretty convincing.
Dulann had meant it when he'd said David might just partially be in hyperspace—because he was still perceiving realspace and all, and hadn't just slid away into red-and-black endlessness. Which meant that once the Liandra made the jump all the way into hyperspace, David, half-anchored, wouldn't be able to keep up; if it moved too far, it would leave David behind entirely. The ship would have to jump there and then immediately back, and hopefully doing that with David inside, through a gate, would be enough to drag the rest of David back into realspace too.
"So it's actually really, really good that we haven't had time to get the jump drive repaired," Sarah said slowly, when Dulann was finished. "Or we might have dumped him in orbit over Tzaltlan Prime without even knowing it."
Dulann looked away. "It is entirely possible," he said. "As it stands, however, it will still be two more days before we reach the gate. That is when we will know, one way or another."
It was actually going to be a little more than two days. And David felt kind of sheepish about it, but he basically couldn't bring himself to spend any of it anywhere Dulann wasn't.
He couldn't—everyone knew he was around, but nobody knew where except Dulann. Dulann was the only one he could talk to who could talk to him right back, the only one he wasn't spying on just by standing around. It was better for everybody else, if Dulann was always there to point David out for them so they didn't have to wonder. And it was—
It was better for David, too. It was the best way he could think of to spend fifty-three hours, to be perfectly honest. It should have been weird or awkward, it should have gotten boring; but hanging around Dulann was basically what David did with all his free time anyway, even when he wasn't incorporeal.
He tried to bring it up somewhere during the second day. When he was like this, along with not needing to eat or drink, David also apparently didn't need to sleep—and Dulann had always needed less sleep than David did, David had resented him for it all through their training, but he still needed some. So David offered to leave for a while, to give Dulann a break. But all that did was make Dulann stare at him.
"And do what?" Dulann inquired, with a conversational sort of air.
David lifted a hand to scratch awkwardly at the back of his neck. "Well—uh. Hang around in the cargo bay for a while, I guess?" It was hard to come up with places on the ship where nobody would be—
"I hadn't thought my company a burden to you," Dulann murmured, "but if you prefer the cargo bay—"
"Of course I don't prefer it," David said, and then realized that was pretty much the opposite of what he should have told Dulann if he wanted to be convincing.
But Dulann just smiled, the barest little motion at the corners of his mouth, and then said blandly, "In that case I see no reason for you to subject yourself to it," and David huffed and gave up. The only thing that was actually frustrating about it all was that he couldn't punch Dulann in the shoulder.
At least he wasn't hitting his head on any panels, this way.
The second night—ship's night, of course—Dulann did get tired. David could tell not because he looked it, but because when David suggested they go to his quarters, he actually went along.
He knew what David was doing, judging by the steady flat stare he gave when David made an offhand comment about how comfortable that slanted Minbari bed of his looked. But he also lay down.
"Have I ever told you how thoroughly your standing in our strategy and tactics course baffled me?" he murmured.
"You're lying down," David said. "I win."
"Ah, but not through your use of strategies or tactics," Dulann said.
"Oh? Then how'd I do it?"
Dulann looked at him for a long moment. It was dim—he'd lit a few more of his candles, but that was all, and yet lying there with his face half shadowed, his eyes dark, it suddenly felt counterintuitively as though David could see too much of him.
And then he looked away, and said in a perfectly normal tone, "By being utterly impossible to refuse, of course. That is how you always do it."
"If it ain't broke," David murmured, and watched Dulann's mouth twitch again.
It always did something strange to him, when Dulann got like this—soft, easy, warm and willing to smile, and something in his tone so profoundly, undeniably fond. It was—it made something in David's chest soften, too; it made it more difficult than usual to not touch Dulann too much, or tell him things he really didn't need to hear.
Except David couldn't touch Dulann at all, right now. Which maybe overbalanced the scales in favor of talking, because David sat there looking at him and found himself blurting, "So, the whole time, you could—you could hear me."
"In my quarters," David said. "When I said all those things. You could—you heard it."
Dulann was silent for a single perfect beat, and then said, "Yes."
"Is that weird? That I couldn't figure out what to say? I feel like I ought to know, is the thing," David explained, and shook his head. "I feel like it should be obvious. You're—I never have trouble talking to you. I never have trouble talking to anybody—"
"Evidently," Dulann murmured, closing his eyes.
"—but somehow I just can't come up with anything. And it's not like I haven't thought about it. For other people, I mean. What I should say to them if I have the chance to leave some last words. But you—it's—I don't know. Nothing seems right."
"That's because you are being ridiculous," Dulann said, low, a certain sleep-thick fuzziness beginning to creep into his tone. "I will die first."
David stared at him. That was—was that supposed to help? "You—"
"My life for the shok-na," Dulann said.
It was—he sounded comfortable, placid and contented, as if he hadn't just said the worst thing anyone had ever said to David. David had heard him speak his truth, obviously, when they'd had their ceremony on the Liandra, but he'd figured it was a little more abstract for Dulann than I have no intention of outliving you, heads up. As if that weren't basically the most horrible thing David could imagine, as if it could somehow be a good outcome: David alive, without Dulann.
David swallowed and looked over at him. Either he was asleep or he was doing the best impression of it that David had ever seen; and looking at his slack, soft-edged face in the candlelight, an armslength away, after he'd said such a thing so easily, it was—the thing David should have said to him, it was like it was right on the tip of David's tongue, like he almost understood at last what it should be.
They reached the jumpgate right on time.
Standing there on the bridge looking at it, David couldn't decide whether he was glad to see it or not. He could admit he was a little apprehensive about the possibility of being stranded in space; but at the same time, it was a relief to think that maybe this was about to get fixed. The longer he was like this—awake all the time, not hungry, not thirsty—the less real he felt. Being able to talk to Dulann had helped a lot, but he hadn't entirely lost that eerie sensation of getting somehow less substantial over time, sliding gradually away.
David stared at the jumpgate a moment longer, and then looked at Dulann and nodded. "Yeah," he said. "Let's do it."
When the jumpgate engaged, David understood all at once why Dulann had listened so intently to his description of the light—it wasn't quite the same, but close enough: yellowish, flecked, redshifted unevenly as it was drawn away from them and into hyperspace. The Liandra eased through, Kit's face set in concentration over the navigation controls, and the instant they were in hyperspace for real, David could feel it.
Not in a good way.
He sucked in a breath, feeling suddenly, weirdly disoriented. "Dulann—" he managed, and he caught a split second of Dulann's face turning toward him, wide eyes and a startled slash of half-open mouth, and then suddenly he wasn't on the bridge anymore.
It was—he couldn't hold on to it. The ship, that sense he'd had of being able to hold himself in place relative to it, was gone, and it couldn't be moving far but then again it didn't have to. David wasn't moving at all; the Liandra was, and he just couldn't keep up anymore. It was going through him, walls and wires and corridors flashing past while he held still, and he knew that somewhere back there was the hull, and once it passed him by—
It might have been his imagination, but he thought maybe he heard something like a shout, Dulann's voice. There was a sound almost like Tzaltlan, reverberating; the jumpgate, David thought, it was the jumpgate re-engaging, and for a moment he couldn't see anything but blue, deep and vibrant and endless.
And then all at once he was falling—for real, this time. He was falling and he landed, with a solid audible thud, on the bridge at Dulann's feet; and it was audible to everyone this time, he could hear the cries of surprise and gladness, but he didn't quite trust it until Dulann's hands settled against his back, his shoulder, whole and real and warm.
Once everybody had assured themselves that David was definitely there again, they went back through the jumpgate for real. They still had to get the Llort home safely, after all.
David went and dutifully got himself checked properly by Firell, and once she had declared him officially corporeal again, he went and drank about a liter of water and ate a pile of nutrient packets the size of his head. Normally he hated the damn things, but he was so hungry they actually tasted good to him.
When he was finished, he left the Liandra's tiny little mess hall and automatically walked about halfway to Dulann's quarters before he realized what he was doing and redirected himself.
He reached his own door and almost tried to walk through it—luckily the sensor was responsive enough to save him from himself and open it before he could. He laughed at himself and took a half-step in and then went still.
Dulann's candles were still there, set up in their little semicircle on the floor.
David didn't know how long he stood there looking down at them. After a while, he realized dimly that he was getting sort of stiff—having a body was kind of a pain—and sat down; sat down where Dulann had sat, and reached out to run careful fingers up the pale smooth side of the tallest candle.
However long it was, that was how Dulann found him later: sitting there on the floor next to the candles. David only barely registered the sound of the door, and then Dulann stepped inside and went still, and David belatedly looked up.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey," Dulann intoned, a precise, deliberate echo, and David couldn't help smiling at the way that uncharacteristic word sounded coming out of Dulann's mouth. "Forgive me if I am interrupting—"
"No, no," David said quickly, drawing his hand away from the candles, briefly self-conscious. "No, it was—I was just thinking. It's fine."
"I have come to apologize," Dulann murmured, and the words were so unexpected that it took David a second to parse them.
"What? What for? You were great, Dulann, you're the one who figured it all out—"
"I lied to you."
David blinked. Dulann was throwing nothing but curveballs lately. "You, uh," David fumbled, and then decided it was best to try to keep things light until Dulann explained himself. "And here I thought Minbari didn't lie," he tried, deliberately gentle.
"Minbari standards for what constitutes a lie are simplistic and unimaginative," Dulann said. "I have spoken no falsehoods. But I did deliberately choose not to speak a greater truth, and it is my understanding that Humans consider this, too, to be a variety of lie."
"Yeah," David allowed. "And you want to fess up?"
"Yes," Dulann said gravely.
"Okay," David said, and spread his hands, inviting. "I'm listening." He couldn't imagine it would matter all that much; he trusted Dulann, which meant anything Dulann had kept from him had probably been kept from him for a reason. Not necessarily a good reason, Dulann wasn't perfect, but a reason that David was at least going to be able to understand. There was no way it was going to be anything bad enough to cause an actual problem.
But he was curious now, dammit. And if Dulann wanted to tell him, then he wanted to listen.
Dulann didn't start talking right away, though. He stayed where he was by the door for a moment; and then he took another step in, two, and then sank gracefully to the floor—where David had sat before, David couldn't help thinking, their positions perfectly reversed.
He kept his eyes lowered, clearly thinking. And then he must have decided where he wanted to start, because he lifted his gaze to David's face and said, without preamble, "The moment I stepped into the main chamber on Tzaltlan, I could see you. I could see you, and hear you. But I chose not to make you aware of it, because I was afraid."
"Afraid," David repeated. He felt like he was waiting for a punchline. Afraid? Dulann? Maybe when he'd been half-dead, bleeding everywhere, surrounded by ghosts—but on Tzaltlan? Of David?
Dulann paused and glanced at the blown-out candles, and then at David. "You remember the ghosts," he said. "On this ship. How they came to me—their warnings."
"Yeah, I remember."
"Then you remember that they lingered here for a reason. Because there was something they needed to say, something that needed to be dealt with."
"Right," David agreed. "And we dealt with it."
"Yes," Dulann said, and then, more quietly, "And once we had, they—quieted."
It felt all at once like an exercise, a Ranger thought problem; it had the same feeling to it, that indirect circling Minbari way of generating a gestalt whole through a series of tangents, instead of just drawing a line. But David was Human, not Minbari, and drawing lines through stuff where Minbari preferred circles was something he'd gotten pretty good at over the years. And he was starting to get a sense for where this particular line pointed. "Dulann," he said carefully.
"I thought you had died," Dulann said, and he said it so calmly and steadily that David could instantly tell how profoundly he'd hated thinking it. "I thought you had died, and lingered; and that you lingered meant there was something that needed to be done or said, something left unfinished. Something that perhaps only I could help you with, as only I could perceive those older ghosts. And once I had—"
"—then I'd—go quiet," David said for him, carefully.
Dulann closed his eyes, and sat there unmoving; and then he opened them again but wouldn't look at David. "It was, of course, desperately selfish," he observed, in a distant sort of tone. "If our jump drive had been operational, we would have lost you and would not even have known why. I was arrogant to assume that I understood what must have happened—"
"I get it," David said quickly, but Dulann was shaking his head, opening his mouth—about to say something else very sensible and very wrong about how David was generous but could not possibly understand, and David reached over the candles to grab for his hands, his wrists, and say again, "Dulann—seriously. I get it."
Dulann's gaze jerked up to David's face. He drew in a quick breath, and David realized all at once how tightly he was gripping Dulann's hands, but he couldn't quite convince himself to ease up. It was—it had been days, he hadn't been able to touch Dulann at all, but now he could, he was and he could and it was really hard to talk himself into stopping.
"If it had been you—hell, it almost was you, that time with the Hand, and I'd—I would have done anything," David said, much too quickly, words tripping and tangling. "To keep you alive just a little bit longer. Even if it was just part of you, even if it was only for a while. I would—I'd have—"
He ground to a halt, suddenly and uncomfortably aware that there didn't seem to be any words that would convey the real extent of it, just how much he'd have done or given up or thrown away to keep Dulann breathing until they could get back to the temple. It would have been a strange, painful price to pay, if somehow the only way to keep Dulann around were to ignore him, to pretend he wasn't there. It would be almost impossible—but if David had a reason to think it would work, he'd try it. He'd try anything.
He glanced up to find Dulann looking at him. With a funny sort of intensity, at first, eyes narrowed and brow drawing down; and then all at once Dulann kind of startled in place, mouth going round with surprise. Like he'd seen something, though David couldn't imagine what—or, David thought, with a sudden uneasy clench, like he'd seen something, the way he did sometimes. David had always tried to avoid talking to him about what exactly he could get out of looking at David—at David's self like that, because he wasn't sure whether he wanted to know the answer.
David shifted his weight uncertainly and said, "What?" and then realized he was still holding Dulann's hands and belatedly made himself let go.
But Dulann—of course—didn't falter. He stared at David like that for a moment longer, that look of comprehension dawning across his face. And then he said slowly, thoughtfully, "It was good, then, to think that even if you were gone, for a time I would still be able to see you, to hear your voice. But—" and he reached out and snagged David's hands again, where they were drifting uncertainly over David's knees— "this is better."
"Yeah?" David heard himself say.
"Yes. I find there is great merit," Dulann added blandly, "in the knowledge that it is once again possible to touch you."
"Uh," David said, face suddenly hot.
Dulann tilted his head. "You seem uncharacteristically wordless."
"Well," David said, feeling vaguely breathless. "You know. First time for everything."
"Indeed. For example," and David didn't even have time to twitch away and ruin anything before Dulann moved one hand to settle it steadily against David's face, "this will be the first time I have touched you here. When you are not bleeding, that is," Dulann amended.
"You remember that, huh," David murmured. Different training mission—Xari IV, he'd almost gotten shot in the head. He'd been fine, mostly, but the superficial wound he had gotten had left blood sheeting down his forehead. Dulann had touched him the same way then, he thought, hands warm and infinitely careful. But surely Dulann hadn't already—not all the way back then—
Dulann was gazing at him, and the warmth had gone and had left his face temporarily grave. "Yes, I remember," he said softly. "That was the first time I thought you were dead."
And that was—David didn't even really mean to kiss him, it was just that it was impossible not to when he was that close, touching David's face and looking at him like that.
It was also, David thought dimly, going to be impossible to stop. It was so perfectly, transcendently satisfying, to palm the back of Dulann's neck, the side of his throat, and hold him still; to lick into that unfairly articulate mouth and feel it open for him; to graze a casual thumb against the arcs and curves of Dulann's crest and know that Dulann wasn't going to push his hand away.
Except if he kept going like this he was going to knock over all the candles. He satisfied himself with the barest tug of Dulann's lower lip as he broke away, and the sound Dulann made when he did it—low and soft and pleased—made his heart pound.
And he'd seen a whole lot of Dulann over the years, but never quite like this: flushed, dark-eyed, intent. "Ah," Dulann said, half a sigh. "Great merit indeed."
"Yeah, I'm feeling the merit over here, too," David said, laughing, and then ruined it with a yawn. "Oh, damn—"
"You have not technically slept since Tzaltlan," Dulann observed.
"No," David admitted. "Not technically."
"Well," Dulann said, and rose easily to his feet. "Perhaps you should."
But Dulann wasn't leaving. He stepped easily around the candles, past David just close enough to brush David's shoulder, warm and solid and there, and toward David's bed. "Come," he murmured, "come and rest. I will still be here when you wake."
"Well, when you put it like that," David said, and yawned again. Because it was okay: he wasn't dead, and he wasn't going quiet anytime soon either. So they had all the time in the world.