I hadn't intended it to end that way. It hurt. As always. That’s always the worst part, knowing that, whatever happens, it's going to hurt. This was no different. Searing pain. And I couldn't stop myself from screaming. Falling hundreds of feet isn’t much fun, especially when you aren’t wearing a parachute and you know how it’s going to end. The horror shrieks in my mind, the implacable truth that I am going to die, probably swiftly but not swiftly enough. And I’d sufficient experience to know how it was going to end, the shrieks from people watching below rising up to meet me as I plunged to the ground.
It took a long time, and that final moment was almost a blessed relief, the agony of the impact, the sound of my bones shattering, flesh splitting as I hit the ground. Perhaps, because it has happened before, I am more aware of each sensation, the wind against my body, that horrific feeling as I twist and writhe in a futile effort to avoid what I know is inevitable.
Darkness. At last. And I could let go.
Again. I watched it again. How many times do I have to see it happen? And listen. That’s the worst part: the sounds, the screaming, and then silence. Or sometimes the screams don’t stop and I have to hold him until it’s over, until he finally lies there still, not breathing. A small death, every single time.
I hate it. What it does to him and, selfishly, what it does to me as well. I don't sleep afterwards. Not for days, or nights.
This time it ended in silence, and I ran forward to kneel beside the broken ruin, the crushed and distorted body, those eyes staring sightlessly. I touched him with a shaking hand. Nothing.
I can't go through this again.
Cool cotton against my skin, the soft rhythm of beeps and clicks, my eyes twitching. Air in my nostrils. The light so bright that, even had I been able to open my eyes, I would have baulked at the thought. Every part of my body screaming to be noticed: legs, feet, arms. Nerves and tendons and flesh creeping back into place, the unbearable itching as shattered bones regrew and joined together. My tongue thick and stiff and my lips too dry to cry out. Then, a touch of liquid on my parched skin, the delicate moisture disappearing to leave no trace. Someone with me though, the cold tip of a spoon hard against my lips, forcing my teeth apart, and tiny amounts of ice slipping onto my tongue to melt in an instant.
Tasteless, yet as welcome as nectar. He was there with me. I could feel him. Though I couldn’t touch him or hear him or see him, he was there. He wouldn’t touch me either, not until the worst was over. It always took time, more time than people imagine. My consciousness first, disorganised and chaotic, frantic memories slowly settling into rightful places, bringing those unwanted recollections of pain and fear and … horror.
I lay there, paralysed by more than the drugs, feeling shattered bones cracking into place, tendons pulling tight, torn flesh crawling sluggishly across bloody chasms, knowing he was with me.
Over the years it became a routine. Just the two of us. Adam, waiting there in the background and watching until the medics finished, until the feeling started to return to my limbs, until the tingling began, at first slow and almost unnoticeable, then burning through me like electricity. I hated anyone seeing me like that. Screaming and crying, terrified and unable to move until it was all over. But it was different with him.
Just the two of us. Alone. It’s the way I always want it to be. The way it has to be. The only way. I managed to part my lips once more and felt the welcome tingle of ice.
I stood there. The routine perfected over months. I’d be there, gowned and masked even though it was unnecessary, watching while the doctors worked. Just being there, even though he wasn’t aware of me. I was there. That was all that mattered. I even had my own corner; out of the way. Unnoticed. Unobtrusive. Sitting, arms folded, trying not to listen to what they were doing, until they finished putting the jigsaw of his body together as best they could.
I closed my eyes at times, but I didn’t turn away although I wanted to. It hurt me; not as much as it hurt him, but watching this again and again.........
Fawn had looked at me once before he left the room, left us alone. A nod. All done. I moved to stand by the bed, not touching, not yet. Far too soon for that, and anyway he was still...... moving. I had the ice chips ready, and the spoon and so I waited for that first twitch of eyelids.
I stepped forward.
Strange really, how much we had come to rely on each other. His pain was watching me, of being there more often than not, whereas I... well, it was different really for me. I knew he hurt, knew how much it hurt him – the fact that he was helpless, unable to do anything other than watch.
Perhaps it felt worse simply because people had come to expect it. I knew what they said, behind my back. ‘Oh, it’s only Scarlet. He’ll be up in no time.’
And the truth is that I always was. And no-one looked at me; no-one asked how I was feeling. No scars remained, no bruises. I recovered. Every time. Completely. At least on the outside.
Inside it was different.
Every time there was that last split second of fear - or perhaps longing - that this time might be the actual end, that the blackness filling me would not fade away. But I was awake again, sucking ice chips, my nerves tingling, muscles aching, bones creaking softly. I concentrated on his voice, the calm sound even though the words made no sense, yet. But I knew what he was saying.
I used to think it was an incredible thing, this regeneration, this putting together a broken body, but it became a nightmare not a miracle. I bent closer, whispered to him. Meaningless words, random stuff of no importance: the current position of Cloudbase, the weather in London, messages from Destiny and the rest of the girls. It took time but he responded, a squeeze of one hand, and I sat there, talking to him, letting him know I was close and I wouldn’t leave him.
Time passed. We were left alone, in peace. Just the two of us. It was enough. No one else was needed. No one else would understand.
I didn’t talk much once I was on my feet again, just dressed and headed out. He followed me. The usual routine, straight to the flight deck to grab the first aircraft that we could find. I sat in the co-pilot’s seat and kept quiet while he took the pilot’s seat and did all the work: the flight request, the navigation, the flying. This time I kept my eyes closed until we landed. I never bothered to ask where we were going, as long as there was somewhere I could get drunk, could forget, or at least try to.
With elbows on the long mahogany surface of the bar, I stared at the glass in front of me. Half-empty, but not for long. It tasted like most vodka tastes. A slight pungency and oiliness, a slow burn down the throat, warmth in my gut. The glasses were lined up in front of me and I counted them. Six. The mere fact I could still count them was enough proof that I wasn’t drunk. Not as drunk as I wanted to be.
He poured me another without me having to ask. We had been here too often for me to say anything. He still had his first drink in front of him, pretty much untouched. Maybe a sip or two, not much more. Me, I’d not had enough. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
We didn’t speak. Just two men at a bar, ignoring the world around them and getting drunk in silence. Trying to forget. It doesn’t work. Not really. It just numbs the horror for a while, enough to let me sleep properly for once.
I was used to this, sitting and waiting as he drank the memories away. I would have joined him, matching drink for drink, but one of us needed to stay sober. It was my job to get him back to Cloudbase when it was all over and technically we were AWOL, and although the Colonel usually turned a blind eye to our unauthorised trips to Earth I didn’t like pushing our luck too much. Spectrum is a military organisation after all and being drunk and disorderly is a court martial offence, regardless of the reasons. But the Colonel doesn’t sit there and listen while my closest friend cries out, blind and helpless and terrified.
I turned to Paul. ‘Enough. That’s one too many,’ as he finished his drink and reached for the bottle. He gave a hollow laugh and defiantly poured another glassful with a shaking hand, the vodka spilling over the edge of the glass and pooling on the polished surface. It looked like blood, glistening and dark and viscous.
I watched him down the contents in one swift gulp, then, as he reached for the bottle again, I moved it out of reach. ‘Time to go.’ No argument this time. I took his elbow and helped him up, tossed enough credits on the bar to satisfy the debt and more, guiding him outside to a waiting taxi. The routine, as always.
Back to the plane although this time he made no pretence of being a co-pilot, just slumped in the seat, eyes half-closed, hands limp on the armrests. A smooth flight back in silence, a gentle touchdown. Even with a drink inside me I am still a damned good pilot.
‘Come on.’ I guided him out, aware of the small crowd of technicians standing around, waiting to check the plane. They didn’t look at us and I guess they had seen it all before, or else Colonel White had forewarned them. I got him inside without too much trouble though, and down to his living quarters without him throwing up.
I could have stayed there all night working my way through the bottle. But no, he had to step in and be the sensible one. Protocol and all that. Rules. Bad enough that we had purloined a passenger jet, but returning drunk would certainly have been frowned upon. There are only so many rules you can break before the Big White Chief has to step in and take action. And it’s Adam’s career I worry about most. Me? They wouldn’t dare do much to me. Loss of rank, loss of privileges, a few weeks in detention? To be honest I wouldn’t mind. I could let someone else go out and face them for a change.
Although the colonel was no fool. Spectrum needs me. A few minor infractions aren’t enough to change that.
Adam got me inside my room and sat me on the bed. I hadn’t made it when I got up earlier, it was a rush to get out and I’d left it messed up as usual. Another infraction of the rules, but who cares? I felt him pull off my boots and then my socks and put them neatly aside then he tugged my sweater up, lifting my arms so that he could ease it over my head.
I wondered why he bothered. I would have been happy to simply lie there, in my clothes, letting the memories fade away, my mind healing itself last of all. Tomorrow it would all be a distant memory, tucked away in the locked room inside my mind with all my other deaths and rebirths. But they’re always there, those dark scars in one corner of my brain, a black clot of nightmares tucked away until next time: a fall, a car crash, a bullet. No one knows what, but it will happen. I know that.
But tonight I am drunk. And the memories are fading.
His room was as messy as usual. I was used to his excuses: he hadn’t had time to make the bed, the emergency call and so on. The usual. But I got him undressed and onto the bed. Baby soft under my hands, no roughness of calloused skin from work, no marks, nothing. Soft skin, soft hair, soft breaths. I sat there.
One drop too many? I let my fingers trace across his ribs feeling his breathing, the ragged breathing of someone not yet drunk enough to forget.
He reached for my hand and held it in his, tight, pulling me closer, his eyes bright with unshed tears. ‘Sorry.’
‘No need.’ I wiped his forehead with a damp towel. ‘Not much longer. Try to sleep. I’ll be here.’
He was close to the end now. I pulled up my usual chair, turned off the lights and sat in the gloom. After a while the door opened. Only one man had the authority to do that. I didn’t move. ‘Colonel?’
‘How is he?’
‘Asleep.’ The truth, his eyes closed, his breathing slow and even although every so often there would be a hitch in the rhythm as if he was about to call out or wake.
‘Tell him…’ The Colonel paused. ‘Tell him I said thank you.’
Paul jerked, a twitch of healed legs, and I leaned over him and stroked his forehead. ‘Shh. It’s over. Sleep.’ The door was closed when I looked up, no one in sight. I stretched out my legs, shifted to get more comfortable in the chair. Three hours to the start of my next duty. I closed my eyes. It would be over soon.
Until the next time.