by Domenika Marzione

The first time Nancy sees the Wraith, it's on MV3-K21. It's a small, pretty planet with tall palm trees and sandy ground with long grasses and giant pink flowers. She's partnered with Klass because dentistry is most of the reason they're there and Lieutenant Salker and his marines are their escorts.

It's a beautiful, sunny day and she's working under the shade of giant palm fronds when noise and panic pass through them like a shockwave. She doesn't know what's going on until the marines come barreling through herding everyone together and setting up defensive positions.

The ships fly low, screaming past them, and the marines push her and her patients this way and that to avoid getting caught underneath. She obeys, a little resentful of the harsh orders and mostly grateful that she's got so many there to protect her. Even if she knows that the marines can do nothing against the scoopy beam, they have rifles and she respects the power of bullets.

She gets hidden on the lee side of a short cliff with half a dozen others; a Wraith appears out of nowhere a couple of yards away and the others scream and try to get away but she finds herself rooted to the spot, transfixed and appalled and fascinated by what she sees. Men are often prey on Earth, but not like this. This isn't about greed or hatred or religion; it's more like getting caught out on the veldt with a lion or a tiger. Except the predator stalking toward her has the light of reason in his eyes, the power of speech, wears clothes, and carries a weapon. She finds the last the least terrifying.

Yanked out of her reverie by her fellow fugitives, she follows as they try to climb back up from whence they came, but it's hard and they're not moving fast enough and that stunner is aimed at them. She feels the crackle as the blast goes by her, smells the ozone-like odor, and barely catches the woman who falls to the ground loose and unconscious. The marines are close by; they were never that far away, but the seconds feel like hours and the Wraith is coming closer.

He (it?) doesn't run, just continues his slow progress toward them, hand outstretched and what was simply disturbing and riveting in the lab is far more vividly horrifying in person and she's the closest one because she's pushed everyone behind her. This isn't how Hippocrates expected her to save lives, but it's better than a car accident or bad blowfish or any of a million other stupid fates... that still await her because the marines pump the Wraith full of lead, emptying enough rounds into his torso to tear a human to ribbons and spatter but here are just barely enough to get him to stop and fall.

The ride home is delayed by hours as they help with the clean-up. Her shock apparently has a pause button because the day's events don't hit her until she's back in the city, back in Medical, back in her lab after leaving Eric (who was safe and unruffled the entire time) to put away their gear.

"Why are you sitting on the floor?" Yoni asks and she looks up at him, not realizing he'd come in. Not realizing she was on the floor, either. He's 'Yoni' in her head now, although she hasn't quite summoned up the courage to call him that to his face again. "If you don't like your current complement of chairs, steal one from Biro. She's got enough to open a cafe. Or, better yet, take one of mine."

"The guys hopped up on chat and stumbling around with AK-47s and you're never sure if they're going to be in love with you or accuse you of killing their great-great-uncle who died sixty years ago... they scared me. Couldn't show it -- not that they'd care, but all the patients in the clinic did -- but they terrified me."

She is dimly aware that she is perhaps not answering the question. Except she is and Yoni could snark at her if he wants to, but it is an answer that makes sense to her right now because it's a logical continuation of all the unvoiced thoughts racing in her head.

He doesn't snark. He crouches down, leaning against the side of the lab bench, and chuckles like he's amused by something. Probably her.

"It was more fun during the war," he says and she blinks stupidly at him because she was bracing for the impact of mocking words. "They had artillery in addition to the Kalashnikovs." And then he tells her a story of trying to get from Adi Quala back to Israel via Addis Ababa and getting stopped at twenty-three checkpoints with each group of soldiers more stoned than the last. She hadn't known he'd worked in the area; he doesn't volunteer information, the ample gossip tends to focus on his time in Atlantis, and she'd rather be on his good side than pry for truth.

But they are still talking about doro wat and churches when Yee comes in looking for Yoni.

"Why are you two down there?" she asks and Nancy can almost see Yoni shutter up.

"We are testing a theory," he says, pushing up to standing. "Obviously it did not work if you are here. What did you need?"

Yee looks like she's sure she's been insulted but can't exactly point out how. Nancy suspects she's right. But rather than feel bad for Roberta, Nancy is distracted by how she herself feels. Which is a lot less like someone who needs to sit on the floor.

She stands up, dusting herself off and realizing that she's dirtier than she thought from her day. Not filthy, not enough that she looks like she should either be a patient or in a shower, but certainly a little unkempt.

Yoni looks up from the paper Yee had handed him and left; he cocks an eyebrow like he's noticed the same thing himself. She frowns at him, but he's returned his attention to the paper and doesn't see.

"It gets better after this?" she asks, knowing he'll know what she means.

"Not really," he says, not looking up. "It just gets more familiar."

The depressing thing, she thinks, is that she's been among this weird stuff -- aliens, spaceships, other galaxies, and other impossible things -- long enough that she can almost imagine that that could be a comfort.


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2 August, 2010