She rocked because it brushed her hair over her skin. It was the only way sometimes that she remembered she was still there. The sound of her feet shuffling across the floor, the way the blanket felt when she pulled it around herself tight, the songs she sang in her head?she knew she was real.
They wanted her to forget. Wanted her to forget she existed before they brought her here. They wanted to break her and tear her from reality, but she would not let them win. Because if they won, it meant she’d cease to believe she was real.
She was real.
She was real.
She was real.
“My name is Hannah Black. My parents are Shelby and Bertram Black. My name day is in midsummer as the grain is above my head.”
She spoke to herself to hear the noise. Her voice was rusty and she wondered if she even sounded remotely human anymore. She repeated the words her mother taught her in the time before she started at school.
Several times every day because it helped her remember the person she was. Before. When she got up every day and went to work. When people spoke to her, touched her, when she laughed with friends at large dinner parties. It was real and they would never take it from her.
A banging. She didn’t bother to look. They liked to taunt her sometimes. She didn’t know if they realized the isolation was less when they made sound, but she never responded in any case. There were some lab workers who tried to help when they could. And others who liked to harm when they could.
Some of the latter liked to underline how much power they had over her. Just in case it was a physical lesson she slunk from her cot and headed to her corner, taking her blanket with her. Once, in the very beginning when they still interacted with her, they tried to take it and she took something from the guard instead. She smiled to herself. She kept her blanket and he had a prosthetic eye.
Of course then they’d gassed her room so she was unconscious when they came in. But they never tried to take her blanket again. And from then on they’d used the gas before anyone had entered. Fear made a well-learned lesson. Her father used to tell her that so she whispered it to herself over and over as she rocked.
The door slammed open and she looked cautiously through the veil of her hair. It had been a long time—months—since she’d seen another person. Klaxons rang in the background and when she truly saw him, she knew he wasn’t one of them. She backed up, trying to make herself smaller.
“My name is Vincenz Cuomo and I’m here to help you. I’m a Federation military officer, and we’re about to blow this place up. Do you want to live?”
It took a moment to focus on the words. It had been a very long time since anyone had actually spoken to her. She was afraid to speak. Afraid they’d hurt her. She licked her lips and gripped the bed to stand on legs fear had rendered a trembling mass.
She nodded her head and took a step toward him. Willing herself to believe it was real. Willing herself to believe this wasn’t a trick and she was getting out of this chamber of horrors. But her legs didn’t support her very well and she had to hold on to the bed to keep standing.
Klaxons. Something was happening. Panic began to eat her insides. What if he got impatient and left?
But he didn’t leave. He took a step to her and caught her against his body. She gasped and began to shake all over at the glory of the contact.
“I have to pick you up. Is that all right?” His words were firm, but gentle. He wanted to make her better. She understood this in her belly. Though she wasn’t sure if she could trust it anymore, she knew this might be her only chance to get out.
So she managed another nod, ignoring the nausea. He gently swung her up into his arms, and she put her head on his chest as he rushed out, his heartbeat against her ear steady and strong. She swam into the rhythm of that sound, held on.
There were orders being shouted over his comm, but he remained absolutely resolute as he brought them away from the labs, taking the inner stairwell. Up and up. She jiggled and held on. Nothing mattered but getting out of there. Then staying free.
Outside. Light. She moved her face away from the shelter of his chest and looked around. Her eyes hurt but it didn’t matter.
He spoke to others about her, but didn’t put her down.
He called her a victim. She felt like a wild animal. She clutched the pieces of herself tightly. A group of people came out onto the roof—soldiers. A woman with them looked to Hannah and started. Hannah wondered briefly just what she must have looked like.
The pretty man with the long, dark hair had been giving orders and then he made a sound that wrenched her heart. She knew the sound. Made it herself. There was yelling as Hannah saw the scene play out as if it were on a vid screen.
There was weapons fire and the man shoved the woman who’d been staring at Hannah down to the pavement. In the cockpit of the bird that had landed, the one she was hoping to escape in, a dead man slumped against the seat, blood a bloom of crimson across his chest.
She didn’t scream. Screaming would call attention to herself. So she clung tight to her savior as they crawled toward the woman looking toward the bird, screaming. Vincenz tried to put Hannah down, but she clutched at him tighter, not knowing if she could face being alone, even though she saw the screaming, weeping woman with the braids needed his help.
He crooned to the weeping woman and dragged her to a nearby doorway. Hannah had to concentrate very hard not to tear at his uniform to keep hold of him. There was no way she’d go back in the building. She’d jump off the helipad and end her life before she’d go inside again.
Her muscles tensed and Vincenz made eye contact. “I’m not going to leave you. Do you understand me?” She swallowed hard and believed.
He held the other woman, Piper, she heard him call her, but didn’t let go of Hannah. Spent shells rained down, the sunlight glittered from them with deadly beauty. Plas-rockets were being shot off time and again and the air stank. The humming lived in her belly. The helo hummed, the plas weapons hummed, there was shouting and shooting and that hummed too. All around them weapons fire hit the ground. Pieces of it tore into her leg but she didn’t cry out.
And then it was over. The other man came to gather Piper and they headed toward the helo. The man who’d been killed had been covered with a drape. The woman sat, staring. No longer screaming. It smelled like blood and burning things as the soldiers spoke in clipped tones. Panicked reports came over an in-dash comm system. The Parron Governance Portal was telling everyone to get out and do it now.
If she died, at least it would be as a free woman.
But if she lived, she’d spend every moment from then on working to destroy the people who did this to her. They’d stolen her life from her for how long she wasn’t exactly sure. Made her into little more than a scared animal, always reacting.
There would be a reckoning. How she’d manage it, when, she didn’t know. But the knowledge of it, sure and deadly, lived in her belly, keeping her going.
Then there was a shaky landing and she was carried—again by Vincenz—into yet another ship. It all seemed to go very fast. She could scent the panic, knew people were worried they wouldn’t make it out. But she turned it all off and looked only at his face as he gave and took orders. He wasn’t panicked so she could hold on.
He had her.
Their bird took off. There was more chaos, noise from what sounded like a series of explosions, shouting over the comms to get out, get out, get out, and they were through the portal.
Once things had smoothed as the transport had fully engaged and they were safely in the portal, Vincenz carried her deeper into the ship, waving away anyone who tried to take her. She held him fiercely; though her eyes were screwed tight and her muscles trembled, she wanted to survive and he would help her with that.
He managed to sit down while still carrying her. “Have you traveled via portal before?” He spoke to her softly but firmly, and she slowly opened her eyes.
“Can you speak?”
She paused, as if she didn’t know. “Yes.” Her voice was full of snags and burrs.
“I’m going to strap in so I need to touch you.”
Her fingers tightened in his shirt and then he saw her force herself to relax enough to let go. What had they done to her?
“You can stay in my lap. We’re just going to hit some disturbances in the energy flow. They’ve collapsed the portal on Parron so we need to move far more quickly.” He strapped them both in as he explained.
“What’s your name?” He’d seen it on the log back at the lab, but he didn’t want to lose her and she seemed so very far away in her mind right then. Fear lived in her gaze as she scanned the room.
“My name is Hannah Black.” She paused as if she wanted to say more, but then didn’t.
“Hannah, my name is Vincenz. I said it back there, but it was sort of hectic. You’re safe now. No one is going to hurt you.”
She looked doubtful but didn’t say much. Her color had risen to something close to normal, which he was encouraged by. Andrei held Piper and they shared a look. Piper had broken down utterly after seeing what happened to her brother and Andrei had given her a sedative. He rocked with her, slowly, rubbing a hand up and down her back.
His friend had found something entirely wonderful in Piper Roundtree. Vincenz hoped it would help Piper get through the grief.
“Would you like something to eat?” She was thin. He could feel her bones, so very close to her skin. Fragile, and yet he sensed she was a very strong woman despite that. Maybe because of that.
She nodded and after they were able to get some distance from the collapsed portal, the ride smoothed out. “We have a small bathing suite here. If you’d like to clean up a little.”
Wonder flashed over her face and then she bit her bottom lip. Worry and fear were back on her face.
“What is it, Hannah?”
“Would you . . . stay?”
His chest tightened at the entreaty in her voice.
“Of course.” He unstrapped and stood, placing her carefully on her feet. She took his hand and he had no desire to take it back. Leading her through the ship toward the sleeping berths, he took in the way she ate up every detail. And that’s when he noticed her limp.
“What’s wrong with your leg?” He paused to kneel and examine it closely. Shrapnel had torn through the skin. “I’m sorry I didn’t see this earlier. We need to clean it up. Sit while I get the triage kit.”
She held very still, her gaze taking in every move he made has he cleaned out the wounds. “I’m going to hold off on the numbing gel until after you bathe.”
She swallowed hard and shook her head. “I’m fine.”
He didn’t want to argue with her so he stood, taking her weight as they finished the walk. “Here we are.” He pointed toward the bathing suite. “I can’t vouch for the heat in the water, but there’s soap and it’s big enough to get clean. I’ll see if I can’t find you some clothes.”
She looked to the door and then back to him. Over and over. And then she slid to the floor, her shoulders shaking as she wept.
He went to his knees and hugged her, not knowing what else to do. “What is it?”
“I’m . . . I’m sorry.”
“How long did they have you in there?”
She reached up and touched her scalp. “Eleven.”
She shook her head. She paused, clearly thinking, and he wondered how hard it was for her just to simply speak to another person after her ordeal. “Months, I think.”
Nearly an entire standard year? What would that do to a person?
He took a deep breath even as he sent his most fervent prayer that his father simply drop dead and end this misery for everyone. “Alone? All that time?”
She nodded and he closed his eyes a moment, needing to find patience when he just wanted to hurt someone.
“You’re safe now. Is that what’s got you so upset?”
She shook her head.
Fine tremors worked through her. He watched her hug that wretched blanket around her body and calculated the odds of getting it away from her long enough to at least launder.
Perhaps it was the fear of being alone again? “I’ll come in with you. Would that help? I’ll close my eyes. And I won’t leave the room.”
Her eyes were greenish brown. Pretty. Filled with gratitude as she looked up at him. “Yes.”
He helped her to stand and one-handed, he grabbed a drying cloth and some clean clothes before leading her into the room.
Not knowing how close to stand or what she needed, he hoped she’d indicate it if he wasn’t doing it right. He showed her how to turn the water on and turned his back when she began to undress. Not soon enough to miss the scars on the backs of her legs. He fisted his hands again but kept quiet. She didn’t need his anger on top of everything else she needed to process.
She stepped in and he caught sight of her in the nearby looking glass. Her head was bowed as the water rushed over her. Fascinated, he watched her touch the soap and make a lather. The frosted glass on the shower door hid most of her body, the parts not normally on display anyway, but she slowly and surely soaped herself from head to toe in an orderly fashion, paying attention to the shrapnel wounds in her calf without even a flinch.
Her hair was longer than he’d thought. He noticed it when she got out of the enclosure and wrapped herself in the drying cloth. Back still turned, he spoke. “Clothes are there. They’re probably too big, but there’s a belt too. We’ll be in Mirage shortly so we’ll get you something more appropriate there.”
He slowly turned, waiting for her to stop him if she hadn’t gotten dressed all the way yet. Clean she was even more alluring. More wounded too. Her eyes had smudges beneath.
“How long has it been since you’ve eaten?”
She took his arm as they left, leaning into his body. “Don’t know. I keep track. Kept track, back in the . . . place.”
He clicked his teeth together, anger rushing through him. “I can’t promise you anything truly good until we get to Mirage. But we’ve got protein bars. Looks like you might need some.”
Her laugh was the barest whisper. “Probably.” She hesitated when he guided her to the table in the small break room.
“What? You don’t know me, but I do want to help.”
She pursed her lips, concentrating. “What will happen now?”
He swallowed as he put a glass of watered-down juice in front of her. He didn’t want her to get sick, even as he wanted her to eat. “We’ll stop in Mirage. Federation personnel will want to meet with you. Doctors probably as well to give you a checkup. They’ll handle a debriefing as well. They can do it rather quickly via brain scan.”
She paled so much it alarmed him. Shaking her head nearly violently, she snarled, “No doctors.”
“Not like those back there. I promise. You’ll be under when they do the scans.”
She shook so hard she couldn’t hold the glass without spilling.
He knelt before her, putting his palms on her knees. “I’m not going to let anyone hurt you. You have my word.”
He had no right making that promise, but he had, and he would keep it no matter what.
Hannah Black had become his in a very real way. He didn’t understand the whys of it beyond the fact that it had been he who’d saved her back on Parron. But he knew it was more. She needed his protection. And he’d give it to her.