My mind raced, though it knew not where it was going. I felt a dozen different things, all of them crashing into each other and vying for attention such that I couldn’t keep track of any of them. There was fear, there was rage, there was a heady, floating feeling as if I had consumed too much alcohol.
Everything was super-sharpened, as though my senses were enhanced, yet I saw it all as if once removed from reality. Looking at myself looking at the world. It was baffling.
“An hour ago?” I said, repeating what Sys had said. It was my first step back to immediacy from the rush of emotion that had filled me, and a rather feeble on at that.
She nodded, then shuddered again. This time, it was clearly involuntary.
“What happened to you?” I said, my attention snapping back into focus on Sys. The emergency training I’d received was beginning to seep back into my present conscious again. Though my mind wanted to drift to Mearr and her plight, the danger presented by whatever was ailing Sys kept me effectively focused.
Sys shuddered again. I realized this time that that was supposed to be her approximation of a cough. “You don’t care about me,” she said. “Go be with Mearr. That’s what you want and you’ve got it now. I can’t raise a child. I’m just a drone.”
She slid to the side, head lolling to the right.
“Sys!” I practically shouted in her face as I grabbed her shoulders. “What. Happened?”
“Don’t want to talk about it,” she said, wagging her head back and forth.
I rapped my knuckles on her shoulder carapace. I would’ve pinched her or even slapped her lightly, but I didn’t know anything about her anatomy. I didn’t want to harm her excessively. Just wake her up a bit. A light rapping of my knuckles seemed like it shouldn’t do too much harm.
Nothing. No response.
I hoisted Sys onto my shoulders. She was heavier and bulkier than she appeared. Then I realized that that was because of her many appendages. I was used to carrying bipedal humanoids. Sys was an insectoid species with six arms or legs, depending on how she chose to use them.
There was no way to make her sit comfortably on my shoulders. And so I made only gradual progress toward the lift that would take us up to the captain’s medical bay.
As I shuffled across the deck, Sys would sometimes stir and shift her weight, threatening the stability of both of us. I managed to hold us up each time, but there was more than one instance where we could have both come crashing down on top of each other. Each time we wobbled, I got a vision of falling on my back, landing on Sys, and squishing her like a bug on a windshield. Then I’d remember her weight and the image would flip to have her falling on top of me and crushing my lungs.
It was motivation enough to keep my feet under me, that’s for sure.
When we finally made it to the lift, I set Sys down on one side and jammed the button up to Cap’s level four or five times. When the lift finally started moving, I settled myself down opposite Sys.
“Are you okay?” I said. “Seriously. I need to know what I can do to help.”
She just shook her head, if she did anything at all. It was difficult to tell if the movement had been deliberate or just a lolling of the head with the motion of the lift.
When the lift slowed and the display read “Captain’s Quarters,” I scooted over to Sys, hoisted her onto my shoulders again, and staggered out into the hall.
“Cap!” I called. “Cap, I need help.”
Then I heard a yell. Some sort of feral howl, really. And after that, the crashing of metal instruments falling onto the metal floor.
“Damn it, hatchling,” I heard Cap shout before he scuttled into view. “What could you possibly-”
He blinked, mouth open, as he saw me carrying Sys. Then his nostrils flared, his mouth set in a grim line, and his eyes flashed in anger.
“What. Did. You. Do?”
“Nothing,” I said, trying to abase myself even while I held Sys up. “I found her on one of the lower decks. She came to tell me about Mearr, but something was wrong. I don’t know. She wouldn’t tell me.”
Cap glanced back at the medical bay, where I could now see Mearr lying on the bed, strapped into a harness elevating her legs. Then Cap turned back to me and motioned me forward.
“Alright, come on,” he said. “Set Sys down in here and then run to my quarters to grab a table. Bring it in here and set up a bed with the extra pillows and linens. I’ll do what I can for her.”
I followed his instructions, setting Sys gingerly down and glancing once at Mearr before racing back across the hall to Cap’s living quarters. They were, predictably, more spacious than any of ours, but it seemed to double as an office space — at which point I wondered if Cap ever did sleep, and if so whether he needed to actually leave his floating pod to do so. I found a suitable table quickly enough, and, after deducing that it was far too heavy, abandoned it just as quickly.
In the corner, however, was another table, much lighter. I thought for a moment about whether it would hold Sys’s weight, but after that brief distraction I decided it didn’t much matter that it wouldn’t be ideal. Sys needed Cap’s attention right now. So I cleared off the table — which had been covered primarily with little trinkets of some kind or another floating in glass bowls — and carried it into the medical bay.
“Finally,” said Cap, though he didn’t turn his attention from Mearr to see whether I had been successful or not. “You’ll find extra linens in the closet over there.” An appendage of his walker lifted to point at a corner door that I had long ago noted in my mental map of the room — I had had more than enough time to cover every inch of this room with my visual inspection while I’d been recovering.
I threw open the door, yanked out some bedding, and wrapped it around the table. Then, hoisting Sys up in my arms — ungainly though she was — I set her gingerly on the table and bedding. Then I stood back, and waited for Cap’s next instructions.
He scuttled around Mearr’s bed to set himself squarely between the two of them, switching back and forth in his pod to examine each of the two women and then administering various compounds and testing them with various devices as he carried on his business. He was a blur, like Sys at the controls of the systems panel. Busily scrambling his many appendages — which seemed to multiply as I watched — Cap whirled with motion from one patient to the next, but barely keeping up with them.
All of a sudden, Mearr screamed.
“Hold her hand!” snapped Cap.
I stared at him blankly for an instant before he snapped his command again.
“Hold her hand! She needs encouragement.”
I rushed to Mearr’s side and, before I could reach forward, her hand shot out from the bedside and clutched mine, nails digging into my palm.
I cried out at the sudden pain and felt droplets of blood beginning to form and run in the creases of my palm. Reaching over with my other hand, I both clutched her hand tighter and tried to pry it away from my wounded palm — if only a little bit.
She growled at me. A feral cry that was somewhere between the predator’s roar and the lover’s moan.
“What’re you doing over there, hatchling?” said Cap, currently tending to Sys.
“Nothing,” I said. “She’s hurting me.”
I winced as Mearr’s nails dug even deeper into my palm. She arched her back and writhed on the bed a moment before collapsing into it, breathing in and out with frantic, measured breaths.
“Let her,” said Cap. “It’s the closest thing you’ll get to feeling the pain she’s going through right now. The least you can do is stomach it like a man.”
Like a man. What did Cap know of being a man? He was more machine than anything in how he interacted with the world. He couldn’t possibly understand pain or pleasure as the rest of us did, insulated in his bubble as he was.
But I clenched my teeth and grasped Mearr’s hand and endured, blood dripping down from my palms and mingling with her fur before sliding off onto the floor far below.
She cried again, a long wail that choked itself off at the end as she stiffened up before gasping for air once again.
“Talk to her,” said Cap as he turned back to inspect her. “Let her know you’re here to help. You’d be surprised how emotional a process this can be. It’s not just about her muscles.”
I nodded, then gritted my teeth as she dug her hand into my palm again. It felt as though she were about to pierce my hand all the way through. Either that or crush the bones into powder. Hard to tell what would happen first.
Cap returned his attention to Sys, and I had just an instant to worry about what was wrong with her before Mearr choked out another sob and stiffened with the contractions.
“Hey, hey,” I said awkwardly. Standing stiffly by her bedside, I didn’t really know how to be encouraging. “It’s okay. Um, you’re gonna be fine.”
She relaxed again, gasping in a few mouthfuls of air and managing to choke out a throaty “Fuck you” before convulsing into spasms of labor pains again.
“Damn it, hatchling,” said Cap as he turned his attention back to Mearr. “You made love to this man. Do you think you could muster up a little more tenderness and care in your voice? If only for the next few hours?”
Feeling immensely awkward and self-conscious, especially with Cap standing nearby, I bent over and stroked Mearr’s head. I leaned toward her ear and whispered, “It’s gonna be okay. I’m here. I’m right here. It’s all gonna be okay.”
As I continued murmuring — occasionally cutting myself off to clench my teeth against the pain of Mearr’s grasp — it grew easier. I moved on from meaningless platitudes and began speaking in more concrete terms. I began to lose sight of the rest of the ship — the rest of the room, really — and focused all of my attention, all of my self, on her.
“I’m not gonna leave you. I’m standing right here, through the whole thing. You’ve got me,” I lifted up our clasped hands to make the point clear, “No matter what. I’ll be here when the baby comes out, and you will get it out. I’m right here, and it’s all gonna be okay. I love you.”
I felt a renewed sense of awkward as I came to the end of my ramblings. I realized that I didn’t know if the child was a boy or a girl. And that ignorance left me feeling exposed again, like all my words were lies because I didn’t care enough about the thing coming out of her vagina to even know its gender. To say nothing of its name.
And then there was the admission of love. What did that mean? Was I just saying it to be encouraging? If so, did she even want me to say it? Was I doing more harm than good by saying it? What if I didn’t really mean it? Would that lead to further complications later? My mind drew into itself — and away from Mearr — as it overanalyzed the angles and implications of those three small words.
It didn’t take long, though, for her to pull my attention back to the delivery. A sob and a renewed ferocity in the hold she had on my hand reminded me to think less of myself — less of us even — and more about her. Her and only her.
Cap was turning his full attention to Sys now. He hadn’t checked on Mearr in minutes. Thought it seemed at the time to have been hours. Apparently he figured that, childbirth being a fully natural phenomenon, there wasn’t much he would have to do to bring it about. And he could just let me sit there as the whipping boy for all of Mearr’s frustrations.
Honestly, that probably would have worked. And I grew more and more happy to endure the lashes of those frustrations the longer I sat there. I held her hand, I stroked her face. I held her other hand. I kissed her on the forehead, on the cheek, on the shoulder — anywhere I thought it would encourage and not distract, though I will admit that I kept well clear of her mouth and its collection of sharpened teeth.