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Delirium

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In febris veritas

-

It’s the clink of the glass hitting the bedside table that wakes him up.

With one drowsy eye, he spies his wife’s silhouette against the darkness of the room, tossing off her bedcovers before she lies back down. He hears her exhale.

John turns on his side and instinctively slides an arm across her waist, across the soft silk of her negligee.

Maureen groans and pushes off his arm. “Too hot.”

He frowns.

It’s not like her to brush off his touch. Her body’s always been drawn to his, as much as he’s drawn to hers – he’s used to hands that run through his hair, lips that dust unexpected kisses on his skin, limbs that entwine with his under the bedcovers. His wife might not be sentimental but she’s always shown him how much she loves him without the least bit of reservation. She’s as much of a physical creature as he is and it’s one of the things he’s always loved most about her.

But tonight, she’s not having it.

It’s okay.

He’s on the verge of falling back asleep anyway, burrowing his face into his pillow, his arm barely brushing the side of hers.

The unexpected warmth, more than warmth actually; the heat, coming from her skin snaps his eyes back open and yanks him into full wakefulness. Makes him run his hand along her entire arm.

“C’mon, John...stop it. Too hot.” It’s a whiny plea. One she utters just before turning away from him. Her arm recoiling from his touch a second time.

That’s not like her either. Maureen’s a lot of things, but whiny isn’t one of them. He knows battle- hardened soldiers that are whinier than his wife.

His hand moves to her shoulder. “You’re warm.”

“It’s so hot in here.”

“No, it’s not. You’re hot.”

She turns around to face him and now there’s a smile lifting her lips. “Oh yeah?”

It gives him the chance to put a hand on her forehead. “That too. But right now I kinda mean it literally.”

“Maybe the cooling system’s backed up again.”

“It’s not,” he counters, wide awake now. “Put on your comm for me, so I can check your vitals.”

“Oh come on, John” She turns onto her back again with a sigh.

“It’s either that or I hook you up to a monitor.”

“Babe, I’m tired…I want to sleep…”

He’s already jumped out of bed, not just wide awake but fully focused now. His military training always automatically kicks when his senses go on alert. And they’re on alert now. “I’ll get it.”

He grabs the wrist unit from her bedside table and puts it on her arm before she can protest. Feels his heart rate quicken when he sees the temperature reading. 103.9F.

“Christ, Maureen…you’re burning up.”

Her eyes widen after seeing the reading as well. But it doesn’t seem to quite register. “What?”

There’s not a lot that scares John Robinson. He’s seen horrors on battlefields that most people couldn’t even fathom, but the thought of his family, that small handful of people her loves more than life itself, hurt or ill? That always terrifies the living daylights out of him.

“I’m gonna get Judy.”

John makes a beeline for his daughter’s room and knocks on the door. When that doesn’t elicit an immediate response, he calls her name and opens the door to step inside only to find her asleep. He squeezes her shoulder and wakes her up, gently but urgently. “Jude…wake up. I need you to check on your Mom.”

“Dad?” Her eyes struggle to focus but when he explains what’s wrong, she’s alert and awake almost as quickly as he was.

“I’m gonna grab some stuff from the med bay, okay?” she says once she’s upright and out of bed.

“Do you need my help?”

“No,” Judy shakes her head. “I’ll see you in your quarters.”

When John’s back in their room, he notices that the temperature on Maureen’s comm has gone up. 104.1F. In response to it, his heart pounds ferociously in his chest. Leaving him a little breathless.

Helplessness is not a feeling he’s used to. Even out on a battlefield, and even when the odds are stacked against him, he rarely feels helpless because he knows he has the skills to get him out of most jams.

But this is different and it takes all his willpower and training to shove his fears into a box.

“How you feeling?”

“Warm….weird.”

“I bet.”

“Mom…” Judy’s already back from the med bay.. “I need you to ask you some questions, okay? To help me figure out what’s going on with you.”

John listens as Judy asks her about symptoms. Trying to get her to recap what she did and ate the day before. But it doesn’t seem to help. Maureen’s struggling to remember and her responses are slow and sluggish.

Judy glances at her mother’s comm, looking as frightened as he feels. It’s holding steady at 104.1F.

“Mom might be delirious soon,” Judy whispers to him. “We have to get her temperature down.”

“Can’t you give her something?”

“I will but I also need to know what’s causing the fever. So we know what we’re fighting.”

According to Maureen, she has no other symptoms. “I was tired and felt a bit off when I went to bed…that’s all.”

John watches his daughter take a syringe from a medical bag and prepare it. “Mom…I’m gonna give you something to lower your temperature, okay? Can you make a fist for me?”

Maureen nods as Judy injects the syringe but then winces as she uncurls her fingers.

“Mom? What is it?”

“Hurts.”

“What hurts? The needle?”

“No…my hand.”

“Show me,” Judy examines her mother’s hand as she uncurls her fingers and notices an angry, dark red-coloured swelling on her palm. There’s a small but visible puncture wound in the middle.

“How’d you get this?”

“Get what?”

“Looks like something stung you. Do you remember that happening today?”

Maureen stares at her, as if needing a moment to understand the question and that scares John too. She’s the smarted, sharpest person he knows.

“No…”

“Did you bring anything into the Jupiter from outside? Any samples from the sand or the sea?”

“I, uh…” She breathing harder now. “I brought…one of those translucent sea creatures into the lab. It had this odd colouring…different…. different than the other ones.”

“Is it still there?”

“Uh….yeah. Should be.”

“Okay, I’m ,gonna put something on the swelling, Mom, okay?” Judy fishes for an ointment in that bag of hers and applies it to her mother’s palm before she steps away from the bed, motioning for her father to do the same. “I wanna have a look at what’s in the lab…”

“Be damn careful if you do, okay?”

“I will,” Judy promises. But John’s not convinced. She has a reckless streak that she got from her mother (or at least that what he tells himself). “Dad…we really need to get her temperature down.”

“I know.”

“Can you give her some cold compresses to help the meds along?”

“Yeah, of course.”

He finds a bedsheet and rips it apart and then grabs four hand towels. He does it quickly and methodically even if his hands are a little shaky. He’s treated all sorts of injuries and illness out on the field. He knows enough First Aid to calmly keep someone alive in a desolate war zone, where there are no medics anywhere close by. But there’s a world of difference between treating an injured solider and treating the woman you love. The mother of your children.

He pours ice cold water into a bucket and brings everything back into the bedroom. Soaks the torn bits of the bedsheet in it, wrings out the water and then wraps it around her leg, before wrapping a dry towel around it.

Maureen shirks back at the sudden cold, tries to shake it off. “John…what are you doing? It’s freezing….” Goosebumps suddenly run along her arm.

He hangs on to her leg. Stops her from moving it back. “Don’t fight me on this, ‘kay?”

“John…” she groans.

“I know….it’s gonna be okay.” He steals a glance at her comm. 104.3F.

Shit. No.

Not okay.

He tears his eyes away from the comm and that damn number that keeps climbing. Focuses on the task at hand instead. First her other leg, then both her arms, and lastly, he puts one on her forehead, after he dusts a kiss in her temple.

Maureen’s skin is on fire, emanating heat.

“Don’t move around, okay? Stay still, if you can.”

She stares up at him with glazed eyes. Teeth chattering. “Cold….”

“Too cold?”

“No…” she whispers. “Feels good.”

He exhales. “Good.”

Her breathing’s erratic now. As though it’s a struggle. “You always make me feel good.”

“Gonna try and make you feel better tonight too, love.”

“Dad…”

John turns around when he sees Judy come into the room. His daughter’s holding a container with some pills in it.

“Nice compresses,” she observes but the pleased look on her face fades when she sees the temperature reading on her mother’s comm. “Dad…let me know right away if it goes over 105, ‘kay? We can’t let it get that high.”

“But you gave her something for the fever…”

“It doesn’t work instantly.” Judy bites her lip. Paces. His daughter has always been a ball of energy, in constant motion once she’s awake. “I had a look at that thing that Mom was examining from the sea. I’m pretty sure it stung her and caused the infection on her hand. But I don’t know why she’s having such a severe reaction to it, whether it injected any toxins…the sting might have felt like a pin prick and that’s why Mom didn’t notice it…”

“What can we do?”

“Fight the infection,” Judy tells him. “We only have oral antibiotics on the ship. They’ll have to do.” She sits down on the rim of the bed. “Mom…can you sit up a little and swallow one of these for me?”

John doesn’t wait for Maureen to answer. He bends down and slides an arm behind her back to help her sit up. The face towel on her forehead falls off and when he bunches it in his palm, it’s no longer cold but lukewarm. Her skin is burning against his.

He holds the glass of water to her lips, because he’s not sure she can do it herself. Watches as her eyes close after swallowing the pills.

Then he waits a few seconds before letting her lie back down and notices that his daughter’s face has taken on a greyish tint.

She’s not used to seeing her mother like this. Maureen’s a force to be reckoned with even on a bad day.

But this suddenly got worse than a bad day.

“Dad…”

He’s not used to seeing his fearless eldest scared. So he musters whatever’s left of his optimism for her too. “It’s gonna be okay, Jude. I’m gonna change the compresses again. Your Mom’s tough. She’ll be fine.”

Except right now she doesn’t look tough. She looks like she’s fighting a losing battle.

“I’m gonna go back into the lab,” Judy tells him softly. “Call me if her temperature doesn’t go down in the next thirty minutes.”

“It will,” he says it with more conviction than he feels.

“John…” Maureen grabs a hold of his t-shirt after Judy leaves. Fists it in her hand.

“What is it?”

“Tell me what to do…”

“What to do?” He looks at her not understanding. “Nothing, love. Just try and relax and let me worry about the rest. I’m gonna change these towels again…hope it’ll make you feel better.”

“John, no….” She winces. “Tell me.”

Looking into her glazed, panicked eyes staring up at him0, he suddenly realizes that this isn’t Maureen talking. It’s the fever. She’s delirious. In fact, it’s a minor miracle it took this long. That she was still lucid only minutes ago.

“John…” She’s still holding on to his shirt with a surprising amount of force. “Please tell me, ‘cause I can’t do it again.”

He’s removing the first batch of compresses from her limbs and steals another glance at her comm. 104.6.

Fuck.

“Just tell me…I need to know…” She’s pleading. Distraught. Upset about something and he has no idea what. Whether it’s real or a figment of her fever-induced imagination.

John has to physically extract himself from her iron grip so he can soak the towels in ice cold water again.

“Tell you what, babe?”

“Tell me what I need to do so you’ll stay.”

Her words make him stop what he’s doing. “Stay?”

“I can’t do it again…” She’s crying now. Crap. It’s the last thing she needs. “Not for years. I can’t, John…I can’t.”

“Hey, hey…Maureen.” He squeezes her hand. Kisses it. “Not going anywhere, okay? I’m here. Right here.”

Her chest is heaving with hard, rasping breaths. “You left for three years and…. I pretended I didn’t care…but I missed you so much.”

He chokes down the acidic guilt that’s rising in his gut.

She might delirious but this isn’t her imagination talking.

They became estranged after he left. After one year became two. And two became three. They were living in a world that was falling apart while his marriage crashed and burned right along with it.

Because he chose his duty over his family. Over her. For three years.

“I love you so much….” Her eyes close again, as if it’s taking too much effort to keep them open. “Tell me, John. Just tell me. So it doesn’t happen again.” Pinpricks of tears are at the edges of her eyes.

She’s breaking his heart and as much as he needs to bring her fever down, he needs to calm her down too. Needs to stop the tears and the panic.

Needs her to know that none of it was her fault.

He helps her up and wraps his arms around her. “It wasn’t anything you did, Maureen. It was me…only me. Okay? There’s nothing you gotta change or do different. Nothing.”

She’s staring into his eyes, her delirious self trying hard to determine whether or not he’s lying.

“I thought I was doing the right thing. That’s all. Wasn’t you. It was me.”

She pulls away from him, her brows narrow and she’s still searching his face, for something. “I’m sorry I was always so angry….but it was…easier…’cause I didn’t wanna let you know how much it hurt.” She’s still crying. “It was easier to be angry, you know?”

Not only can he not bring her temperature down; he can’t seem to calm her either.

John can’t remember the last time he felt this useless. No, not just useless, but a hindrance. Him being here is making things worse. Maybe he should get out of the room and have Judy do this.

And leave her again, while she’s begging you to stay?

Hell no.

“Babe, you had a right to be angry and, sure I was pissed off with you too some days, ‘cause you pushed all my buttons. But it didn’t make me stop loving you. It never made me want to leave you or the kids.” He holds her tight and can feel her heart racing. “I just need you to do one thing for me. I need you to lie back down. Take a deep breath and let me help you. Can you do that?”

She keeps staring at him before she finally nods. Before she lets go of him and lies back down.

One more look at her comm. 104.7.

John forces his panicky brain to focus on his target, as he’s trained himself to do all his life. To fight this battle like the solider that he is. So he soaks the towels as quickly as possible. Presses them against her limbs as she groans in response.

“John….”

He squeezes her hand. “You’re gonna be fine. Promise.”

Ten minutes later her temperature finally inches down a couple of notches to 104.5.

Two more compresses later, it’s down to 104.1.

He’s able to take his first deep breath since he woke up and the unbearable knot in his stomach starts to loosen. Victory doesn’t feel improbable anymore.

“Her temps going down,” he tells his daughter who’s been sitting on the bed, watching her mother with the eyes of a hawk the last hour or so.

“Not enough and not fast enough,” Judy observes. “It’s still so high. The drugs I gave her should be working better than this.”

“Can we give her some more?”

“No. Not yet.”

“Then get some sleep, Jude. I’ll wake you if anything changes.”

She biting a nail, her eyes not leaving her mother as she shakes her head. “I won’t be able to sleep..”

“Then go make us a coffee,” John suggests. “You’re hovering. It’s driving me nuts, as your Mom would say.”

His daughter finally musters the tiniest of smiles. “Fine…”

Maureen tosses and turns. It’s a futile effort to get comfortable and aside from an occasional groan, she’s mostly quiet now and John feels guiltily relieved, because he can’t stand the thought of Judy hearing what her mother said earlier. Delirious or not.

Her inability to stay still makes it harder to keep the cold towels on her body and John presses the ice-cold facecloth to her forehead with his hand, holding onto it. Doesn’t matter how challenging she makes it for him. He can handle it.

Maureen’s hand clasps his wrist, but her grip is weak now.

“Thanks…” The word escapes her lips and it’s barely audible. He’d have missed it if wasn’t already watching her face. She’s back. Lucid again.

Three hours later her temperature finally sinks to 103.1 and Judy makes her swallow another two pills.

By then both John and Judy have had two coffees and suddenly Don’s head pops into their quarters.

“Everything okay in here?” He wants to know.

“Not really,” John answers and explains what’s going on.

“Oh…shit.” Don who never really looks serious, even when he’s floating in space in the damaged remains of a Jupiter and running out of oxygen, looks surprisingly serious now. He likes to gripe about Maureen bossing him around, but John knows it’s just for show. Truth is, Don West loves her too. “Whatever you need, you tell me, okay?”

Judy gives him a grateful nod. “Okay. We will.”

It’s early morning when Maureen wakes up soaked after briefly falling asleep.

A thick strand of hair is clinging to her temple. “John…?”

He steals a glance at her wrist unit and it floods him with joy. Makes him want to laugh. 100.4F.

Her fever broke. They won the battle.

“Hey…” He’s grinning. Can’t help himself. “How you feeling?”

She squints, not sure what to make of his giddiness and he suddenly wonders how much she remembers. The way she looks at him, those familiar intelligent eyes, trying to figure everything out, fills him with relief. She’s back. “I’m…okay. But I feel….like I got run over by a chariot.”

He laughs. “I can imagine.” He slides his fingers through hers, relieved that her skin is no longer on fire. “You should sleep now.”

“Hey Mom…” Judy’s head pokes into the room and she’s smiling too after seeing the normal temperature reading. “Heard you guys talking.”

“Hi Judy….hope I didn’t worry you.”

“You did.” Her daughter grins. “It’s okay, you’re allowed. After all the times I worried you. Just stop dragging things into lab from the ocean, ‘kay?”

Maureen’s lips curl into a smile. “’All right, Mom.”

Judy examines her mother’s vitals on the monitor too. “Dad’s right though. You should sleep. I know you’re not big on it…but you need some rest now.”

“Okay.”

“I mean it, Mom.”

Maureen exhales and John catches a rare hint of fear in her eyes. The knowledge that tonight could have been so much worse. That their family came close to losing its anchor.

He’s always loved her fearlessness, but if this makes her slow down and be more careful, that’s fine by him.

“I will,” she assures her daughter and closes her eyes to confirm it.

John slips into bed with her and waits until she falls asleep. Real sleep this time, not the exhausting, fever-induced delirium she drifted in and out of all night.

He’s starting to feel his own exhaustion too, but he doesn’t fall asleep yet.

Not for some time, because he can’t tear his eyes off the screen that’s monitoring her vitals. Doesn’t trust that this is really it. That her temperature won’t spike again the second he lets down his guard.

So, he keeps staring at it. One hour goes by and then another one.

The numbers hold steady and then the screen starts to blur in his vision.

He drifts off against his will.