Tori slowly pried her eyes open; the pain had finally stopped. Thank Gaia.
Something told her she’d been down a while and she felt disoriented as she looked about the room, noting the soft sounds of medical equipment nearby. This wasn’t the same one she remembered. It was bigger, with a full-length glass wall, sealed alloy doors and soft lighting. She frowned, trying to push herself up, surprised by how weak she was. Why had they moved her?
Then Tori remembered and gasped, reaching up to touch her eyelids.
“Welcome back, Doctor. How do you feel? Please, don’t tax yourself.” The voice startled her. It wasn’t one she recognized. The man stood on the other side of the glass, the brighter illumination highlighting his features.
“I’m Dr. Yin.”
He looked older, dark hair graying at his temples.
“What’s going on? How long have I been out?” Tori asked, struggling to sit up, her voice low and rasping.
“You’ve been in and out of consciousness for three days. And we’re still trying to figure that out. Though, we were somewhat prepared for the scenario.”
Tori closed her eyes and touched her forehead. “I don’t understand. My eyes...”
“Yes, your eyes are the most telling symptom. But be assured, we’re running every test imaginable. The alien covering did make things more difficult, but we were able to get you to drink, at least.” Tori looked down at Henry and fingered the material. It pulsed softly back at her. The thought they hadn’t been able to stick an IV scared her.
“Would someone please just tell me plainly, what’s going on?” she said, growing more alarmed by the second.
As if on cue, Wells entered. “Ah, you’re awake. How are you feeling?” he said brightly.
“Confused. Afraid. Annoyed. All of the above,” she answered testily. “What’s wrong with me?”
Wells sighed. “We were hoping you could tell us that, Doctor,” he said, staring her down. Tori blinked.
“Did you really think we wouldn’t know?”
She felt her stomach drop and her fingers curled into the bedding. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, come now. We had you more closely monitored than any human being in history. Vid, audio. Hell, even remote viewing. If you believe in that sort of thing,” he added, brow puckering.
Remote viewing. Like ESP? Then Tori realized what he said. “You had the feeds running even when you said you’d turned them off,” she stated softly.
“Of course, we did.”
“But that’s...not right.”
“This is the real world, Dr. Davis. Earth governments don’t deal in chance, or courtesy, or fair play when it comes to the safety and security of our planet and its people.”
His tone was flippant, as if he were dealing with a child, and it sparked some serious indignation.
“They won’t be happy you’ve been deceiving them,” she responded evenly, an image of Aderus’s bright gold eyes warming her skin, along with thoughts of the large, fierce aliens she’d been trying to befriend. Tori was more upset for him and the others than for herself, she realized.
“If they don’t already know then they’re not nearly as advanced or intelligent as we thought they were. And I hardly think spying on your romantic tryst is cause for concern. What should concern you, however, is that you seem to have been infected with some type of alien virus.”
“What?” she said, heart skipping at his words.
“We’ve brought in experts in genetics and virology, and as best we can tell, you’ve been altered on a molecular level.” Tori stared at him. “Your DNA, Doctor. The changes are slight, but they’re there.”
Her eyes. They resembled Askari eyes...more like a cross between the two, actually. But a virus? Altered DNA? She felt her heart pick up as she struggled not to panic. What the hell had she gotten herself into?
“We need you to remain calm,” she heard Yin say soothingly. “We’re still analyzing data, gathering information. Which will be much easier now that you’re awake.”
Tori swallowed and looked down at her hands, then gingerly felt her face. Everything seemed normal, felt normal. Try not to overreact, she thought, fighting to calm herself...until there’s cause to.
“Okay,” she said, licking her lips and looking at the two of them. “I feel fine. Better than I did. The pain is gone.”
“That’s good,” Dr. Yin replied. “It was most likely the virus asserting itself. There are no detrimental effects we’ve been able to detect, yet. Your eyes are really the only telling feature.”
Tori fingered her lids again. Goddess, this was terrifying. Three days? Her brain immediately latched on to the one person whom her world seemed to suddenly revolve around.
Aderus waited at the gate to the Earth vessel, Jadar and Xaphan by his side. He had asked the healer to join him because he was the most level-headed among them. And he chose Xaphan, precisely because he was not. It had been three sols since they had seen the little khurzha, and with each one that passed, he grew more restless...
Something had happened; the feeling was visceral and surprisingly strong. The humans had been rebuffing him each time, their attempts to explain away her absence only increasing his suspicions. They had said she wasn’t feeling well and needed rest, asked if his kind ever got sick or “caught viruses.” Then Wells approached him about giving his blood for them to study. Of course, he’d refused. But Aderus didn’t like the sense he got. As if the diplomat knew something he sought to hold over him.
It had all made him irritated and peevish, and he forcibly clicked his claws as they waited for the Earthers.
The gates parted, and Aderus’s sharp gold eyes locked onto the group facing them. His snout twitched. The number of human guards had increased and more wearing the coverings that Tori sometimes donned were also present.
“Representatives Aderus, Jadar,” Wells said, looking at them with a smile that didn’t quite touch his half-colorless orbs. The gesture was unique to humans, but Aderus could now recognize when it was genuine, and when it was not.
“Erm, Xaphan, is it?” he said, glancing toward the scarred male.
Xaphan raised his lip in a silent show of teeth, and the flesh of Wells’ face grew pallid.
“If you’ll follow me.”
The group led them to a bright corridor inside the Earth vessel and stopped in front of a large transparent barrier. The connecting chamber was dim, so Aderus had not noticed movement at first. But when his eyes caught on a small figure, he started, ears pushing forward. Tori was turned away from them, sitting on what Earthers called a bed. It looked like she fiddled with something in front of her. Food or drink, he realized, as he watched her raise it to her mouth. A small feeling of relief stole over him at seeing she wore the havat. It would have protected her from his worst imaginings.
She looked up as more humans filed in behind them and her slight, overly expressive features came alive when she saw him. She dropped her foodthings and pushed herself up but halted when her gaze found the others, the expression dropping from her face. Aderus looked to them; he would know what had happened, he vowed.
“Aderus.” Her soft mono-tone voice drew his gaze back. She had stepped up to the barrier and was staring up at him...
His limbs stiffened, and his nostrils puffed, even as his breathing went still.
Tori watched Aderus react. His tresses flattened against his head and his irises dilated. Yeah, that was about her same reaction, too. His apparent shock helped to dispel her greatest worry—that he had knowingly infected her with something. She hadn’t wanted to believe that, but it needed to be ruled out. Or so said the handful of doctors and scientists that were now diligently studying “the phenomenon.”
She jumped when he stepped forward, clawed fingers thumping against the glass. He rumbled something, which is when she noticed Jadar and Xaphan. She slowly raised her hand to the cool, hard surface, opposite his, and met his gaze.
“I’m okay,” she said with a small smile. “Just...shocked and a little afraid.” Not to mention embarrassed. She’d just assumed that because they were so advanced, there was nothing to worry about in that capacity. Communicable diseases were extremely rare anymore, if that’s in fact how she’d contracted it.
Her focus moved to Jadar and Xaphan as they too stepped forward, their nostrils flaring as if they could smell her through the glass.
“Now that we’re all reacquainted...” Wells said, interrupting them. “Ah, good,” he added, looking down the corridor.
A woman with dark hair rushed up to him moments later. She was about Tori’s height, shapely. “Sorry, I’m late!” she breathed, pushing a stray curl back from her face. Tori looked between them, wondering what was going on.
“This is Dr. Kemina Perez,” Wells said. “She’s one of our experts.”
Tori stared at the pair of black-rimmed spectacles that sat atop the other woman’s nose. It was extremely rare to see anymore, and she frowned, wondering what would necessitate them.
“Hola.” The other woman waved and looked around nervously. Tori could tell it was the first time she’d interacted with the Askari; they definitely had that effect on a person. Her gaze kept fixing on them, as if in awe, but also not daring to stare. Aderus had stepped back from the glass and was looking toward the newcomer as well.
“Em, I’ll get right to the point,” she continued, a slight quiver in her voice. “Circumstances indicate that she’s likely not contagious. Other than potentially, blood to blood contact. We haven’t detected any detrimental effects, but it’s definitely not from Earth. I would...need a blood sample from the original vectors,” she said, looking to Jadar and Xaphan but jumped when the scarred male hissed, flashing both sets of teeth.
“I’m sure we can work something out,” Wells interrupted smoothly. “Though, ideally, it would be the individual who likely infected her to give the sample,” he added, looking meaningfully to Aderus.
“Ideally,” Perez seconded. “We need to see the virus in its original environment to help us know what to expect in a human host, as well as how it might mutate or spread. Though, like I said, right now Dr. Davis is stable,” she said, looking to Tori with a small smile.
Jadar said something clipped and the air grew heavy as the three of them communicated in that way unique to their kind.
“Has this ever happened before? To another species you interact with?” Tori asked through the glass, looking up at Aderus. She didn’t want to force them to do anything they were uncomfortable with, and understood the type of vulnerabilities it could expose, but Tori also didn’t want to die a horrible death or suffer some painful deformity. Who knew what was possible at this point.
Aderus stared down at her. “Their technologies prevent such things.” Then he grew quiet, calculating.
“Your expert can gain the information she seeks aboard our vessel,” he rumbled, pinning Wells with a molten look.
Wait. Did that mean what she thought it meant? Tori had honestly begun to wonder if she’d ever see the day!
Everything in her was focused on what was happening with her body, and on whatever could provide answers. But a tiny ribbon of pride still tickled her chest at his words; they were allowing another human being aboard their vessel.
The diplomat’s eyes flared in triumph. “And if we still need a sample?”
He jerked when Xaphan loosed a snarled, clicking growl.