Alex cursed as he drove the knife through the guard’s chest. Where were they all coming from? Ever since the power failure, it was like they were hiding behind every door and intersection. He grabbed the knife off the man’s belt as he fell and felt around his own harness, realizing it no longer had any space, and clipped the sheath to his pocket. He continued, even if there was fighting still going on behind him.
Miranda yelled after him. Anger, not fear, so it wasn’t a guard chasing him. He reached the door, but it didn’t open.
He cursed and pounded on the door. He was so close, he wanted to scream.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Miranda yelled. “You just left us there!”
“He’s behind that door.” He slammed a hand on it again.
“Then open the damned thing so we can get out of here.”
“I can’t! They took the lock off the network.”
“Can’t you access it directly?” Mary asked. “With your earpiece?”
Alex had his mouth open to tell her to mind her own business when her words registered. He cursed and pulled the damned thing out of a pocket, along with his datapad.
“Crimson,” Zephyr said, “I think you need to rest.”
“No, I need to get to Tristan.” He saw them look at one another out the corner of his eye, but no one else said anything. He listened to the lock’s processor, sufficiently stupid not to be affected by having nothing to talk with. His datapad showed him the code. This was almost all math, not so much commands, but algorithms to set the combination. Usually they were set to a central system, which was why any coercionist looking to get into a place went for that and didn’t bother with the lock itself.
He found himself growling at the code when it wouldn’t fall into place. He had programs sifting through it for the algorithm that held the right numbers. He had a program half-written to erase the whole thing and rebuild the lock when it flipped green and the door hissed open.
“Tristan!” He ran in, saw the cage, the fact it was empty, and stopped. “No.” He couldn’t have found this place only for him not to be here. Mary’s warning came back. He wouldn’t believe it. Tristan was alive, he had to be.
“Crimson?” Miranda called, her tone insistent.
“You’re not looking in the right direction.”
He looked where she was, along with Aliana and Mary, who looked on the green side. Zephyr had stayed with him, and only then did Alex realize he’d turned his back on the golden-skinned man. If Zephyr had wanted him dead, that would have been the perfect time. Alex wouldn’t have even felt the knife go in, as distraught has he’d been. The thought that maybe Zephyr had told the truth surfaced, and was immediately buried with more pressing concern.
Zephyr nodded to the others, and Alex headed for them. The body they were looking at was ripped open, and Alex’s steps lightened. He didn’t need to see more; Tristan had done it. He looked at the cage, at the slightly ajar door.
There was another body, his head twisted around.
“Alex,” Mary said, “this guy was eaten.” Just saying it seemed to turn her a deeper shade of green.
Alex crouched next to it. Bite mark in the arms where flesh had been ripped out. His chest was clawed open, the rib cage broken. He looked around. The heart was missing.
“He must have been hungry.” He’d never seen Tristan eat someone, and he hadn’t talked about ever doing it, but this was Tristan. If human was the only thing available to eat, he’d eat that.
“How can you even say that?” Mary was getting back to her feet, wiping her mouth and looking slightly less green.
“Because it’s what he did.” Alex smiled. “He escaped. Now we just need to figure out where he went.”
“Maybe that way?” Aliana pointed in the opposite direction they’d entered. There was another door, kept from closing fully by a gun with blood on it.
Alex stood. “I’m going to say you’re right.”
Miranda sighed. “Haven’t we done enough running at this point? Why can’t he stay still for five minutes?”
“He’s going to head for the hangar, to get off the ship. He doesn’t know we’re here.”
“Okay, so can you access the scanners and find out where he is?”
“I’ll check once we’re out of this room. But Miranda, this should bring back memories for you.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “It wasn’t this much work—well, the first time anyway.”
“There was a second?” Mary asked. The two falling in behind Alex as he headed for the door.
“That time he led me on a merry chase through a city, always a step ahead of me, and he tricked me into capturing the wrong Samalian.”
“The one that looks like him, right?”
Alex had a knife in hand as he pushed the door open. It resisted, then slid out of the way. A dead woman, and a trail of blood leading to their left.
“Well, at least he’s making it easy to follow him this time,” Mary said.
“Yeah,” Miranda replied. “That’s when you should worry.”
Alex followed the blood. When there wasn’t any, he continued forward and reached another set of bodies—shot this time. He started for the one who’d been shot in the back, then noticed the blood down the other direction.
Before he reached it, he saw it was another trail. Someone bleeding. Knife wound, since anyone Tristan could have clawed would have been close enough to kill.
He followed it to another intersection and saw Tristan on the floor, knees pulled to him and his head resting on them. He ran.
Finally, he’d found him. “Tristan!” He didn’t move. Alex started panicking. There was a lot of blood there, not enough to kill him, but if he’d bled out for a— No, this was Tristan, he wouldn’t bleed out. It was the other body with the knife in his leg. That’s who the blood belonged to.
He crouched before the Samalian. He was covered in blood, so much the white speckling was just about invisible. “Tristan?”
Tristan shook his head.
“Tristan, it’s me.”
“Please don’t.” The voice was muffled by him speaking in his fur, but Alex heard the pain in it.
Tristan shuddered. He made a sound that could have been a whine. All Alex knew was that it wasn’t a sound Tristan should make.
He raised his head, and Alex wanted to scream at the misery in those eyes. No. This wasn’t what his eyes should look like.
Tristan reached for him, but stopped before touching his face. He smiled, but it was broken, sad. He let his hand fall. “I tried,” he said, his voice hollow. “But I can’t see a point to it anymore. If you’re not waiting for me, why bother?”
“I’m right here.” He should scream. This wasn’t Tristan. What had this place done to him?
He shook his head. “No, you’re not. I wish you were. There’s so much I want to tell you, so much I need to fix, Alex. I wish…” He began crying. “I wish I could have saved you, but it’s okay. I’ll be dead too soon, and we can be together again, right?”
“I’m not dead,” Alex said, wanting to yell the affirmation, but the way Tristan spoke stole any force he could have mustered. “I’m right here.” He reached for Tristan’s hand, but he pulled it away.
“Justin told me they killed you.”
Tristan shook his head. “He’s not that good. I’d have known if he’d lied. He didn’t know who you were, just that you were in the house and they destroyed it, and everyone in it.” He tried to smile, but the corner of his lips barely lifted before dropping. “I wish he’d lied. Alex, I dreamed it was a lie, that we were together again, but then I woke up, and you weren’t there.” Tears fell again.
“Yes, I was in the house, but I survived the explosion. Cornelius patched me up. I’m here to take you away from this place.”
Hope lit Tristan’s eyes, then died. “You’re just saying what I want to hear. What I dreamed you’ll say. You said that before, how you’d rescued me, then I woke up, alone. I so want this to be real, but I’m going to wake up again. I wish I’d never wake up.”
Alex grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him. “Stop this! Do you hear me? This isn’t you!” He realized what he’d done and let go of Tristan before being struck, but he just looked at where the hand had been.
“Could I have done that if I wasn’t real?”
Tristan touched the spot where Alex’s hand had been. “It’s a dream, Alex. You can do anything here. It just doesn’t last.”
Alex stood with a cry. “What’s wrong with him?”
Mary looked at him, surprised at being addressed. “I don’t know. I mean, clearly he’s lost touch with reality, and one of those things could be the cause.” She indicated the manacles on Tristan’s wrists and ankles and the band around his right bicep. “Or his mind just broke. It depends on what was done to him.”
Alex shuddered as he remembered being strapped to a chair and things attached to his head. He refused to go there. “You can check his blood and find out, right?”
He looked at the blood on the floor, the open hall, how vulnerable they were.
“She’s right,” Miranda said. “We need a more defensible position. We should move to one of the rooms.”
“If we could get someplace with some extra medical equipment, that’d be good,” Mary said. “In case he needs more than just a blood test.”
“You,” Tristan said, and the hate in his voice made Alex look. He was looking at Miranda. “This is all your fault.”
She raised her hands as Tristan stood. “Hey there, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I haven’t done anything.” Alex saw her looking at Tristan’s midsection, her eyes widening, and she glanced at him.
Alex glared at her.
“I’m going to kill you again.” Tristan took a step forward and Alex stood before him, hand on his chest. He glanced down. Tristan was naked.
“You can’t kill her, she’s—”
“I have to,” he growled. “If she finally stays dead, none of this has to happen.” He took another step forward, pushing Alex.
“He’s definitely nuts,” Miranda said.
“Shut up,” Alex snapped. “Tristan, stop.”
“Alex, I have to,” Tristan pleaded. “If she’s dead, she can’t capture me and bring me here. I don’t have to escape, and we can be together. I killed her before, but she wouldn’t stay dead,” he snarled.
“Tristan, killing her won’t change anything.”
“It will, it’ll change everything. We can be happy, Alex.”
He almost stepped out of his way. The earnestness in Tristan’s eyes when he said that made Alex want to believe him. To be happy, together. If only the universe worked that way.
“She has to die for that?” Alex asked, searching Tristan’s eyes for any indication he could be talked down, but this was Tristan. He would do whatever he thought necessary.
“Alex? You know he’s crazy, right?” Miranda said, concern in her voice, but nowhere near as afraid as she should be, Alex thought.
“It’s the only way, Alex,” Tristan said. The love in his eyes could shatter Alex if he let himself believe it.
“Okay.” He pulled the gun from his pocket and spun. Miranda barely had her mouth open when he fired. This close, he couldn’t miss a center-of-torso shot.
Miranda leaned against the wall and slid down.
“You killed her,” Tristan said, awe in his voice.
“It’s what you made me for,” Alex replied, his voice flat. “Mary, check her. Tell me she’s dead.” He looked at the medic, kept eyes on her as she crouched next to Miranda, as she checked for vitals.
Mary looked up, surprised, but paused before speaking. “You killed her, Alex.”
He nodded. “Aliana, grab her, we can’t leave her here for guards to find. Zeph, take the lead. We’re going back to the cryo room; it should have what Mary needs.”
“She’s dead?” Tristan asked, “Really dead?”
Alex turned. “It’s what you wanted, right?”
Tristan looked confused. “But she’s staying dead?”
“Dead is dead.”
Tristan nodded and a smile formed on his lips. “It’s over. Alex, it’s finally over. We can be happy now.”
Alex opened his mouth to tell him there was still work to do, but Tristan’s lips were on his, kissing him hard and shoving him back until he was pressed against the wall. Alex wrapped his arms around Tristan’s neck and kissed him back, unable to believe that what he’d wanted for so long was finally happening.
Tristan pressed himself against him as their tongue danced together and Alex felt what he wanted. When Tristan put a hand on his ass and squeezed, he moaned. As it died, somehow he registered the gasp and opened his eyes, seeing Mary turning red in the corner of his eyes, Aliana and Zeph looking away.
He pushed Tristan away, and was left panting. “We can’t.”
“Why? You want to. It’s just us, why shouldn’t we? You never said no before.”
Alex wanted to laugh at how badly he wanted this, but instead he felt tears fall. “This isn’t you. It’s whatever was done to you.”
“No, Alex, it’s finally clear. This is what I want, what I’ve always wanted. You and me.” He nodded down between them. “Happy.”
Alex laughed, then buried his head in Tristan’s chest to muffle his cries. How could the universe be this cruel. He could have what he wanted in this parody of Tristan, but it wouldn’t be real. It would be a delusion caused by whatever was done to him. Once Mary fixed what was wrong, then whoever was there, Alex would accept. No, Tristan was broken deeper than that. He’d been broken before this place, and that would have to be fixed too before he got the real one back.
“We’re too exposed,” he said, choosing a tactic that should get Tristan to respond, no matter what state he was in. “We need to get to a more defensible place.”
Tristan looked around, didn’t seem to register the people, but the corridor. He nodded. “We need to regroup, then we can enjoy ourselves before killing everyone here.”