I don’t know how long I stayed there, next to Mearr, while Cap examined Sys, nor do I know how much longer there was to go in the delivery process, due to what happened next. But at some point, long after I had lost feeling in my lower arm from the pressure and blood loss and had started repeating myself in the words and gestures of affection and encouragement I was offering to Mearr, Cap scuttled over to my side and pulled my attention away.
“What is it?” I said, somewhat blearily, as though waking from a trance — which, in a way, I was.
“Sys,” he said bluntly. “She’s in bad shape.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“Hard to say for sure, but it’s something she can pull through, if she has enough strength.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Whatever is ailing Sys has her extremely drained of vitality. What you saw in the lower decks was just the peak of its effects on her. And from what you’ve told me, she could barely stand even then. Now she’s deteriorated to a near-catatonic state.”
“So, what, you’re saying she’s not going to make it?”
Cap steepled his fingers, closed his eyes, and then spoke. “I’m saying she needs help, hatchling.”
I studied his face, looking for a hint of what he was implying. His bulbous eyes drifted open again and in them I could see nothing. No indication of purpose or plan.
“What do you mean?” I said finally.
Cap’s gaze drifted over toward Sys. “Her species is a hive-based one. Do you know how a hive survives, hatchling?”
I shook my head.
“Each member of the hive understands that it’s a piece of something greater than itself. There is no selfishness in a hive. All its members simply give and take what is needed to survive. It leaves them as an unambitious species, but it makes them a resilient one as well.”
“How does this mean anything to us right now?”
“In the hive, when one of their number would get sick, the rest of the members would give a little of their strength to speed along the recovery process. If an important member were extremely sick — say, their queen — then the hive would give more strength. It was never enough to wipe out the hive, seeing as the sacrifice was spread out over hundreds of thousands of members. But there are also documented cases of individuals giving up their lives in a strength sacrifice when a higher-caste member is found by a lone worker.”
“Again, Cap. What does this mean for me?”
Cap took a deep breath and then sighed, closing his eyes again before turning to look at me. “As I said. Sys needs strength if she’s to pull through.”
My throat went dry. “And I’m a worker drone. Is that it?”
Cap looked away and did not speak.
“Are you saying I can do this strength transfer thing that you’re talking about?” I said, leaning toward him so he couldn’t avoid looking at me.
“If you think of it like a blood transfusion,” said Cap. “It really makes sense. Don’t you think?”
“Except for the part where I die.”
“That is unlikely,” said Cap. “She needs just enough strength to get her own immune systems back on track. A boost. Nothing more. You needn’t be so dramatic.”
“Unlikely,” I repeated, drawing Cap’s attention back to the first thing he said. “But still possible?”
“Of course it is,” muttered the captain. I had caught him in his deception. “But I wouldn’t ask this of you if it were a certainty. Nor would I ask you if I didn’t think it was the only way to save Sys.”
“Would you?” I said. “You’ve been upset with me for months, Cap. Ever since you learned I knocked up Mearr. As far as you’re concerned, I’ve nothing more than a nuisance waiting to get off your ship. Who’s to say if this isn’t the way you’ve figured out to do that?”
“Hatchling,” said Cap, very slowly. “Whatever you may think, you need to understand one very important thing. I do not kill my crewmembers. It would be unconscionable, both for me as a captain and for me as a doctor.” Then he leaned himself up and held his tiny body level with my head so he could look me directly in the eye. “Nothing is more important to us than our identity, hatchling. We will make otherwise incomprehensibly foolish decisions to preserve our perception of our own identity, even if no one else is around to see it.”
“Alright…” I said as Cap lowered himself back down to his crab-like orientation. “So…what do I have to do then? To save Sys, I mean.”
Cap nodded and motioned for me to follow as he scuttled over to Sys’s bedside.
“Interspecies procedures are always a bit of an art,” he said. “We can make predictions about what will work based on past results and the implications of our understanding of the two species’ respective biologies. But there’s always something we’re unable to take into account about the way the two relate to each other. Especially for such rare species as yours and Sys’s.”
I stood beside the bed, waiting for Cap to work his way around to instructions of some kind. My hands were at my side and I was staring down at Sys, but every now and then my eyes would drift up to Mearr, stretched out on the bed beside Sys. She had calmed down a bit. Perhaps the contractions had become bearable. I don’t know much about these things, so I’m not even sure if that was a possibility. But regardless, the medical bay was still. For the moment.
“You’re bleeding already, so we’ll use that as a point of contact,” said Cap. “It’s not necessary for fluids to be exchanged, but documentation suggests that it can help in this case.”
I wondered briefly if “this case” in the captain’s speech was meant to contrast with Mearr’s pregnancy, and the fluids exchanged to cause it.
“Just give me your bleeding hand, please,” he said, holding up a mechanical appendage.
I held out my arm, and Cap manipulated it with his claw to bring it near Sys’s head. Then he extended another small claw and gently twisted Sys’s antennae to align parallel to my wrist.
“This will feel strange,” he said, and then he slid the antennae delicately up my wrist.
I twitched and spasmed, but Cap held my arm firmly in place. His strength was surprising. No matter how much I tried to wrench myself away from the knobby, chitinous tendrils penetrating my body, Cap was able to keep my arm fixed in place and prevent me from snapping Sys’s antennae into pieces.
Soon, though, I was no longer concerned with their presence in my body. The strange sensation of a foreign object settling beneath my skin was replaced by a hollowness in my stomach. Waves of something like nausea passed outward from the pit of my abdomen, sending crippling spasms of a numbing sensation to the surface of my skin. After the fifth wave, I could no longer feel the temperature of the room, or smell the antiseptic. After the ninth wave, spots began to swim in front of my vision and darkness began to creep in around the edges. I had a headache now, which I soon realized was steadily growing in intensity.
After the twelfth wave of nausea passed over me, Sys stirred. The first movement she’d made since we set her on the makeshift examination table. She blinked once or twice as I fell to the floor, knees buckling.
In that moment, Cap wasted no time in gently removing Sys’s antennae from my bloodstream. Then he scuttled over to Sys’s bedside to examine her.
The regular, overwhelming waves of nausea that had been sweeping over my body were gone, and in their place was an all-pervading weariness. I felt cold in my bones. There was no sensation on the surface of my skin, yet I felt cold. My muscles were trembling, I knew. And the headache had shifted from a dull pounding to a constant pressure, as though my skull had shrunk too small for the size of my brain.
I was dimly aware of what was going on above me, as I lay on the floor. But my observations were growing more and more distant as the seconds passed. It was as if I were falling down a long tunnel. Further and further away from the surface. In fact, I felt a literal falling sensation, complete with vertigo, even though I knew for a fact that I was lying still on the ground.
I could see Cap prodding Sys with various instruments. And I could see Sys steadily regaining her strength, looking around, and realizing where she was.
I could see Mearr, watching the whole thing. She looked at me, I think, and then looked at Sys. Then she reached out her hand and clasped it around one of Sys’s.
That was the last thing I saw before I threw up and blacked out.