"Peter..." the – Chel – the person that looks like Chel says and Peter feels his insides turn to ice water, a turbulent flood that leaves him cold all the way through. She's – right there, in the mouth of the tunnels leading down into the dark and the caves. She looks terrible. Her helmet is gone. Her suit is torn and dirty, sand and gravel and the unnameable viscous liquid and her own blood, her leg – oh, God, how can she walk on that leg. Her face sheens. Her eyes are too bright, feverish. She's smiling, vaguely, like she doesn't know how to any more.
"Hi," she says, in the same vague-relieved voice.
Peter's mouth is saying things. Her name. A negation. "You're –" but what is he going to say? You're dead?
"Peter," she says again, tiny and pained. She staggers forward. Peter catches her, instinctive like breathing. He could never not.
He did, though, didn't he. Back in the caves. He didn't catch her. He let go and that killed her, as sure as the gorgon did. He –
"Chel," he says. It's the only thing he can say anymore, apparently, like a heartbeat, like a ping to a faraway server. Her name. Chel.
"Just hold me."
He does, trying to be mindful of her probable injuries in addition to the leg – how can she walk? She's going limp in his arms, inch by inch and second by second and he's probably supporting at least half her weight now. It isn't hard, she's so much smaller than him, but the fact remains, a black hole that is slowly tearing his orbiting mind to shreds – how could she walk on that broken and twisted and bloody leg, all the way up from the pyramid?
"Okay," he says, and then: "I've got you." That's what you say in a situation like this, right?
A situation like this. As if there are more situations like this.
God forbid there were.
"Don't let go," Chel says, like she might start crying (again? again) any moment now.
But he doesn't let go. Slowly, she leans on him, ceasing any attempt of staying upright under her own power. Her wounded leg bends and she makes a sound, a terrible small broken cry. He can't leave her here. She needs medical attention, urgently.
"Don't let go, Peter," she says when he moves his arms around her.
"I'm not letting go," he says. "I'll take you back to the Adamant. Come on."
"I don't think I can." Again that tiny voice, too close to breaking and yet too calm. It's like a mask over her features, clear like crystal and this makes Peter think of the crystal shards down in the caves and the things that come out of the statues and a horrible possibility he doesn't want to face – what if this isn't Chel after all.
"Here," he says. "I'll carry you. It's going to be okay." He bows, slides an arm around her knees and lifts. She gasps when the knee of her wounded leg bends, but he doesn't know what else to do. Carrying her on his back would be worse. Leaving her is unthinkable – "It's going to be okay," he repeats.
She buries her face in the front of his suit.
"How?" he asks some interminable amount of time later, when he's just past the things Chel called trees, a few days and an eternity ago. It's still raining and his arms are starting to hurt, because he's only a xenoanthropologist, not an action hero, much-lower gravity or not.
He's dreamed about this, about having her in his arms like this, but it's wrong, it's wrong, it's all wrong and all his fault.
"I kicked it in the face," Chel says, dreamily. "You should have seen the other guy. I kicked it in the face until it died and then I… crawled. It was so dark down there and so narrow and my leg..." She sniffles. "I didn't want to die."
Peter cannot imagine Chel kicking a gorgon in the face.
But then, he can't imagine himself letting go either.
"I got up, I think," she says. "It hurt so much. But I didn't want to die like that, in the dark."
She falls asleep after that. Peter keeps trudging towards the Adamant. The rain is incessant, the world darker than it was when they walked this path in the other direction. He's cold and she's soaked in his arms, water dripping down each and every one of her braids like so many rivers to an unseen sea. He thinks this is washing all the dirt and the, the other things off her suit, but he's not certain. He cannot fucking see. If not for the reassuring blink of the nav system he would believe he's lost and will forever keep walking, forever trying to reach the light and warmth that just don't exist in this world.
How can there be light if Chel died?
Did she die?
Does he wish that she died because otherwise he has to face her and with her the truth, that he's a sorry little worm who could not even save the woman he loves? And what kind of a maggot does that make him?
The kind that –
He cannot think it. Cannot even think it.
He stops and stands there in the rain and the dark. Wishes that it were the other way around. That the gorgon had caught him and Chel had been the one who was holding him, because she never would have –
Suddenly, the voice of one of his old professors hits him, as clear as if she were standing beside him and etching Anthropology 101 into the numb skulls of hungover freshmen. "Never think 'it cannot be like this'. It constrains you. Maybe it's not like this where you come from, but you must look at the facts and the facts only. What are facts? What happened?"
Chel weighs about forty pounds less than he. She's panicked, in this scenario, because he's panicked, because a gorgon is doing its utmost to drag him off who-knows-where. They don't have reason on their side, nor physics, so Chel – the hypothetical Chel in his little simulacrum – she lets go.
She lets go. He dies. She lets go. He fights and is wounded and in the distant dark depths of the caves he – She lets go. She comes to rescue him. She lets go and she carries him back to the Adamant, because in this gravity she could, for a while, because she never fucking gives up, she's wrangled him to this trip and onto this planet and into the caves, everywhere he never would want to go except she asks and he can't say no, she's a gravitational slingshot, a star taking him by the shoulders and swinging and letting go…
She lets go. She might have.
What a terrible thing it is, to be a fragile and fallible human.
If she has the gravitational pull to bring him here, maybe she had the adrenaline to kill the gorgon and crawl up and come back. Occam's razor. Could be she's the real thing. Could be she didn't die. Perhaps he didn't –
He's been standing here in the frigid rain for ten minutes. He starts walking again, his arms almost numb and Chel a leaden weight in them.
She comes to, when he cycles the airlock of the Adamant, slowly stirring in his arms. "Where?" she says, half-asleep. Then: "oh."
"Let's try to get this suit off," he says and lowers her to the floor. There are no benches in the airlock, but he doesn't want to wear the suits any longer than he has to. They must be contaminated. Her undersuit is probably contaminated too, ripped and bloody around her poor leg, but he is not going to strip that in the fucking airlock. He takes their weapons, leaves the suits and lifts her again. "Alright. Let's go."
They make it to the sick bay without any further incident. She's shivering now and for a moment Peter doesn't know where to start, whether to deal with the leg or just try to warm her up or something altogether another. Her breath hitches when he sets her down on the bench and that decides it. Leg, first. He finds the shears and cuts the remnants of the undersuit away from around her leg. The thing can't be salvaged, anyway.
It isn't pretty. Lacerations from the gorgon's teeth, an ankle more shattered than broken, the red beginning of what Peter fears is infection. He cleans her leg and bandages it and puts a cast on it, as well as he knows how to, but he's not a medic and he's so afraid, sick with fear and bile because it's months to the closest outpost, let alone Earth and there is no help but what he can give, no humans here but he and Chel.
She's looking at him, blankly, her eyes like obsidian. He thinks: crystal. He hates himself for it.
The silence is heavier than this entire planet. He's kneeling in front of the bench, in front of her, and she's looking down at him with this flat un-Chel-like expression. He wants out. He will never get out. Not from this.
"I'm so sorry," he says.
"You let me go," Chel says, small and fractured, a shard of glass in the dark.
Peter nods. He wants to say something. An explanation. A justification. An apology. But there's nothing that could make this right and there's nothing he could say. "Yes."
"You let me go, Peter," Chel repeats.
He remembers it, like it was someone else acting with his body and mind, but he cannot explain it. How could he have thought 'it will drag us both down there if I keep holding on to her'? How could he have let go?
"Yes," he says again. "I did. I thought I, I – oh God, Chel, I thought I..."
She regards him. "Say it."
"I killed you," he says and breaks, crumpling into a small pathetic heap at her feet. "I was so afraid, I – I let it take you and I didn't come after you, I left you there." He's crying. Like a damned man. Like a condemned man.
He hates himself for that, too. She does not need him to shatter like this. As if she hasn't been through enough yet.
Something crashes nearby.
He flinches. Above him, Chel is looking towards the lab, horrified. He doesn't even have the time to react before she's on her feet again, holding his gun and going, sobbing with every step she takes with her wounded leg and running anyway.
That. That explains. A lot.
He takes off after her and reaches the lab just in time to see her shooting at something long and snakelike. She's crying, but her hands are steady. The thing shrieks like the gorgon that took her, rears above her and then it –
Just like that.
She's looking at it, her face blank, expressionless except for her harsh breathing and the tears down her cheeks. Peter realizes he's never actually seen her this afraid before. There's a difference between fear of falling and fear of something wanting to kill you this very instant. Some people become useless. Chel becomes… determined.
"We have to get rid of it," she says, small and distant. "And then we have to go. I don't care it's still raining, if the Adamant can take the clouds at all, we must go."
"Let me," Peter says. He really doesn't want to. But she shot it and she got out of the caves. He has to be useful for something.
"Yes," Chel agrees and faints.
Peter takes her back to the sick bay, lays her down on the gurney, draws a blanket over her. Then he goes back to the lab and finds a bit of plastic sheeting in which to wrap the… gorgon?
It's boneless and utterly disgusting. He is on the verge of retching the entire time he's packing it up, carrying it through the corridors, throwing it out of the airlock with the suits. He mops the floor and throws the water out, mops it again and again and throws the mop out, too. Considers disassembling the disinfectant chamber to just UV the entire lab, to be done with it. Leaves it for later when he realizes he's laughing, a barbed little sound in the back of his throat. He's hysterical. That's what hysterical feels like.
"Peter?" Chel calls out. She sounds weak, like it all just caught up with her, like even she can't keep going forever.
"Chel," he says. Her name again. A heartbeat.
"Can we go?"
He considers it. The rain isn't letting up, but he's not going to doubt her. A small chance of dying from lightning, an unknown chance of dying from… this planet. "I think so." He enters the sick bay, stops three steps from the gurney, afraid again. I killed you.
Chel looks at him, tired to the bone, and says: "Help me to the bridge. We have to go now and we can talk… later. Maybe."
He lifts her up again, in the bridal carry that is starting to become familiar. "I'm so sorry," he says again.
"I know," she answers. "Let's go."
They do. In another hour the planet is behind them, a rapidly diminishing circle as they fall towards the bigger of the twin stars to get a gravitational assist, to make it out and away and home. Chel falls asleep in the co-pilot's chair. Peter looks at her and thinks that in the end, she's the most terrifying being in this star system, more determined and more ruthless than the gorgons themselves. So small and so unguarded and underneath all that, completely terrifying.
He wouldn't have it any other way.