Author’s note

After months of messing around with this chapter, it’s done. It was hard to proceed with the story, even though I’ve known for years exactly what happens in this section of the story. But I’m happy to be over the hump, and hope this installment is worth the wait.

Feedback is always appreciated. You can reach me at erikritler@yahoo.com. Sheesh...it feels like years since I’ve chatted with any of you. Feel free to drop me a line about the new chapter, life, your feelings on echidna mating (a four-headed penis?! Wtf?) or anything else, lol.

Enjoy the chapter...I’m getting right at the next one, I promise!

Erik


Previously:

Life seems pretty perfect for Devon and his fellow space refugees. The boys, once little more than a secretive wank club, have their own flat now, thanks to Conner, and the friendships within the group continue to develop and grow. Devon marvels at the fact that Conner even seems open to the idea of being a part of the group play...something he’d never dreamed would happen.

And things on the ship are going pretty well. Steven Caine’s group is causing less trouble following the agreements reached at the summit. There are still questions about what the docking with the Orange County ship will mean for EV5997, including the recent migration of 4,000 French girls. There are also few answers about the missing medication in the medical bay, or why additional medicine is being sent over from the other ship and promptly disappears.

But these are minor concerns, especially to a boy about to come of age. Devon’s 18th birthday party is the best night of his life. Or at least it is until Zane pulls him aside, telling him that they need to get to the hospital as quickly as possible, because one of their closest friends is in a fight for his life...



Space Ship Boys

Chapter 22 – Shattered


The night of my birthday, I get an unpleasant lesson about what it must have felt like during the hours following my accident in October. Uncertainty, anger, terror – these are just a few of the emotions that go careening through my mind that night.

Zane, having pulled me from my party – my perfect night – leads me through the lobby and toward the hospital. Overhead a general alarm sounds, requesting that everyone return to their living quarters for an immediate lockdown.

My voice trembles and nearly cracks when I speak. “Zane...what’s going on?”

He pauses and cast me a sad glance. “I don’t know all of the details,” he says lightly. “I just know there was an explosion, and Charlie got hurt – really hurt.”

He turns and begins walking away. In a tone more terse than I intend, I say, “Stop! Zane...hold up. You said...you said Charlie could...that they...you said he might....” I stumble on my words, hesitant to ask what I want to. In the smallest possible voice I spit it out, “You said he might die?”

Part of me still hopes this is all some weird birthday hoax, even though I know it’s not. Zane doesn’t say anything in response, but just nods as two tears stream down his perfect cheeks, leaving wet trails on his tanned skin. A pang of fear shoots through me, and we continue walking.

The next few hours are a blur.

Zane leads me to the lowest level in the hospital – an area I’d only visited once, when I’d spent the day following Conner around at work. The atmosphere is quite different from that on the other floors. Somehow there is a hazy dread that seems to seep from the walls, and even the lights feel gloomy to me now. This is an area reserved for surgeries and the worst emergencies. I feel dizzy; if my three-story fall hadn’t warranted me being treated here, what had happened to Charlie?

We rapidly traverse a long, sterile hallway, eventually arriving at two doors labeled “Medical Staff Only” in foreboding red letters. Off to the right of the double doors we find a small waiting room. Even this area seems ominous – upstairs the waiting areas are filled with couches and chairs upholstered in horrid pastel designs and silly posters. But this room is sparsely decorated, a line of blue plastic seats the only color contrasting with the sterile white walls and floor. One of the three lights in the room flickers and buzzes annoyingly.

I’m surprised when we find Reid and Patrick waiting here, both looking pensive and scared. I’m disturbed to see several dark, ugly red stains on Reid’s clothes.

“What’s going on?” I immediately ask, foregoing the usual friendly greetings.

“Devon, hey,” Reid replies. I can tell by his tone that he’s trying to be reassuring. “Look...I’m really sorry about your party....”

I don’t mean to snap, but fear gets the best of me and I do. “Can everyone stop apologizing about my fucking birthday party? I want to know what’s happening.”

Reid doesn’t seem offended. He nods to Patrick, who takes me by the arm. “Yeah, okay,” Patrick says softly. “Here, sit down a minute.”

I pull my arm away violently, almost losing my balance. “I don’t want to sit! I’m really scared...tell me what’s happening.” My voice is loud enough that I’m almost yelling, and my body starts trembling involuntarily.

Patrick takes a deep breath. “There was an explosion,” he says. I fight an urge to throw up as he tries to explain things to me as calmly and matter-of-factly as possible. He and Reid had been on their way back to our flat to pick up my birthday present, which Reid had forgotten to bring to the party. They’d been in the forward concourse when the fire alarms had gone off – seconds later Reid, a member of the civilian security force, had been notified via wristcom that there was a fire in the shops.

Patrick pauses, and then explains that he and Reid had rushed to the scene of the fire. “Reid was the closest volunteer. When we got to the cafe, everything looked normal...but then we noticed smoke coming out the vents in the rear.”

Reid continues, saying that they’d entered the emergency tunnels behind the shops to discover that the fire that had tripped the alarm had gone out; there was nothing to burn in the metal hallway. “But something had clearly exploded in there – I couldn’t see much because of the smoke, and everything I could see looked burned. T-That’s when w-we found Charlie, Devon – he was back there when whatever exploded went off.”

I make an odd little involuntary laugh. “Well that can’t be him,” I say. “He doesn’t have access to the emergency tunnels.” I finger my wristcom, where I keep hidden the chip that allows me entrance to the tunnels. Charlie had no such access. The guys must have found someone else, and assumed it was Charlie because they were close to his shop.

Reid places a hand firmly on my shoulder. “Devon, it was him,” he says in a voice meant to distinguish any doubt on my part.

“Are you sure? Because it just really doesn’t seem likely. I mean, why would he....”

Reid cuts me off. “It was him,” he repeats, looking me directly in the eyes.

It takes a moment for this to register. “Okay. I mean...what...how? Is he?”

Reid collapses into a nearby seat, looking grim. He shakes his head solemnly. “I don’t know. There was so much blood. We called in the medical alert, and got him right onto a stretcher. We brought him here – the doctors met us here and took him back there.” Reid points to the ominous doors leading into the operating areas. “I don’t know anything else.”

Zane speaks slowly, staring up at the ceiling with a blank expression. “When you brought him in, was he...was he...breathing?”

Reid looks down at the stains on his clothes, seeming to notice them for the first time. “I don’t know,” he whispers.

Patrick, always practical, interjects that he’s going to go speak to one of the nurses to see if he can find out anything. I sit in one of the uncomfortable seats, hunching over in shock. I look up when I hear someone approaching the waiting room from the entry hall. A small group enters – Sean and Dog, along with Nick and AJ; they all look confused and somber. Zane fills them in immediately, telling them what we know. I sit silently, feeling nauseous as I listen to the same information and non-answers we’d just discussed with Reid and Patrick.

“Patrick is back trying to get some news,” Zane says once he’s told the guys all we know.

When he returns, Patrick shakes his head. “I couldn’t find anything out,” he says apologetically. “They have everyone on duty back in surgical. I went upstairs, but there’s only one nurse up there. He didn’t know anything, but could see in the computer that everyone is marked as being in an operating room down here.”

“Well that’s good, right?” Nicks asks. “It means they’re still taking care of him?” He means well, but I consider the implication of his statement – if the doctors and nurses all emerge suddenly, it could mean my best friend is...gone. I involuntarily sputter and start crying. Nick sticks his hands in his pockets and looks sheepish, knowing what he’s said has affected me.

“Sorry,” I sob, trying to control myself, but making it worse. I sit down and look away from my friends, ashamed at my outburst. AJ takes a seat next to me, wrapping an arm around my shoulder. He doesn’t say anything, but his touch helps me calm down a little.

We wait in silence, all of us occasionally glancing pensively at the doors, which for now remain shut and ominously silent. My mind wanders endlessly. I imagine Conner emerging, smiling and telling us that Charlie will be okay despite a few broken bones. And then I imagine him coming out and telling us that Charlie’s fight is over. One moment I yearn for nothing more than news of my friend, the next I’m cowering in my seat, hoping no one ever comes out.

“I’m going to get some water,” Sean announces eventually, breaking the silence. “Anyone else?” He receives a couple of silent nods and says he’ll bring back enough for everyone.

When he returns we tell him that we still haven’t heard anything. I consider smashing the flickering light, which I’ve calculated makes its annoying buzzing sound every twenty-three to twenty-seven seconds.

A few minutes later, we hear a significant commotion in the hallway from the direction we’d entered. At the other end of the hall, the doors to surgical suddenly open and Ian steps out. He’s dressed in green scrubs, and I can’t help but notice that his pale blue eyes look a bit faded and he seems tired. He glances into the waiting room and offers a wan smile of acknowledgement. Zane stands, looking expectantly in Ian’s direction.

Zane begins to speak, but Ian holds up his hand in a gesture requesting that he refrain for a moment. As he does, a bustling group arrives at the doors. There are eight or nine of them; some dressed in scrubs and the others in casual civilian clothes. A couple of them glance into the waiting room, looking alert and expectant. I recognize one of the newcomers by her bushy brown hair – it’s Doctor Eleanor Hardy from the other ship. She immediately launches into a conversation with Ian, speaking in hushed tones too low for us to hear.

“Who is that?” Dog asks in a whisper. Unfamiliar faces aren’t common on a spaceship.

“She’s from the other ship,” I reply, then explain that Conner and I had met her over there. I don’t add that she was one of the biggest dingbats I’d ever met.

We assume the other newcomers are also from the other ship, although I don’t recognize them. They talk amongst themselves for a moment, and then everyone but Ian and Doctor Hardy head back into surgical. I feel a lump in my throat, certain that we’re about to be left in the dark once again.

I’m surprised when Doctor Hardy glances our way, whispering to Ian before stepping into the waiting room. Everyone stands, eager for any news.

Sounding calm and collected, the bushy-haired newcomer speaks. “I’m Doctor Eleanor Hardy. I’ve been called in on this one and I need to get to the operating room, so I’ll make this short. I don’t have a lot of news for you right now, but I know what it’s like in the waiting room so I wanted to introduce myself.”

I notice that the Doctor Hardy before me seems quite unlike the bumbling, air-headed woman I’d encountered on the other ship – so much so that I wonder if perhaps this is her twin.

She continues, speaking informatively but not devoid of compassion. “Your friend is in very serious condition, but right now he’s alive.” I hold back tears, distressed that Charlie’s status of being alive could change at any moment.

“As you saw, we brought just about everyone who may be able to help. Right now, they’re prepping Charlie for surgery. My first goal is to assess and stabilize. I want you to know that your friend is in the best possible hands – I was chief neurosurgeon at Scripps Orange County for the last ten years, and Charlie will have the full attention of me and my team. I don’t know how long it may be before I have news for you, but I’ll make you a deal – let’s see, it’s just after eleven. I’ll tell you what, I’m going to send Nurse Whedon back out in an hour with an update, then we’ll try and do hourly updates after that. Sound fair?”

I nod, as do the other guys. Doctor Hardy offers a sympathetic smile before disappearing through the double doors leading to surgery. Ian remains, a look of concern and fear evident in his blue eyes; he seems paler than usual, although this may partially be my imagination and the lighting in the room. “I’ll see you guys in a bit,” he says softly before following the others.

And so we’re left to wait, the minutes passing at what feels to be an excruciatingly slow pace. I glance at the clock on my com every two minutes, certain that at least an hour has gone by.

“Hey, where’s Mike?” I ask, noticing his absence for the first time.

Reid gets up and retrieves a bottle of water from the stash Sean had brought back. “He got here just a couple of minutes after we brought Charlie in,” he tells me. “They took him back there; he hasn’t come out since.”

“Oh,” I reply, not sure what else to say.

“These seats are really blue,” Dog says after ten minutes of total silence. “The same as my underwear.” He pulls his pants down slightly to reveal that, indeed, the seats and his undies match.

“Cool,” Nick replies. It’s an inane conversation, but we all understand it to be an attempt to break the soul-crushing quiet.

Shortly before Ian is due to come back out with an update, we’re joined by Beck, who wanders in looking lost and flustered. “Sorry I’m late,” he says. “They made everyone at the party go back to their flats – there’s a lockdown. I got caught in the crush, and they cordoned off the concourses. Anyway...I heard about Charlie and asked Chris and Peter to help get me through the lockdown.”

On cue, the mentioned boys enter the waiting room, followed by Jacob, our other flatmate. “Hey guys,” Chris says in a whisper. He looks serious, as usual, but also worried. Reid relays what we know to the newcomers. He’s answering some of Peter’s questions when Ian emerges from the back, still looking pale, tired and somber.

All eyes immediately dart to the nurse, who seems uncomfortable with the attention. He greets us with a quiet “hey” and then gets right into it.

“I’m really new at this sort of thing,” he says. “So let me tell you what we know and what we don’t know, then I can try to answer questions. Charlie was caught in an explosion, and we’re dealing with a number of primary blast injuries. The good news is that he doesn’t appear to have taken the brunt of the blast, and our assessment is that the force of the explosion struck him a glancing blow along his right side. From what we’ve ascertained so far, his major organs are all intact, although there is a considerable amount of shrapnel present.

“Right now, Doctor Hardy’s objective is to manage the primary injuries that pose an immediate threat. The challenge here is that they also need to get him stable, because anything we do in terms of repairing damage will tax his system...and his body has already been through a lot.”

“Is he conscious?” Dog asks quietly.

Speaking almost at the same time, Nick asks, “Can you tell us more about his injuries?”

This prompts the group to ask questions at random, a long, confusing list quickly accumulating.

“Whoa...whoa!” Zane barks. In a quieter voice he says, “You guys are overwhelming him.” Ian does look like he’s about to collapse. “Here, come over here and sit down.”

Zane offers Ian the seat he’d been sitting in, and the nurse thanks him. Zane continues speaking, “Sorry...we’re just all stressed and confused right now. Anything else you can tell us would be appreciated.”

Ian takes a deep breath, and I notice for the first time that his hands are shaking. “Okay, yeah, thanks,” he says. “This is all really new for me...sorry...I’m not sure how to explain things without sounding like a robot.”

“Just do your best,” I suggest. “This is hard for us too.”

My comment seems to help, and Ian launches into an explanation of what they’d found out so far. Charlie was unconscious – he’d been so when they’d brought him in. “Conner was awesome,” Ian says. “I just froze. I mean, you think about what you would do in a situation like this, but when Conner and I got here and they brought him in...I just froze. But not Conner, he snapped me out of it and went right to work...he saved Charlie’s life, no question. Anyway, he got the bleeding under control and had me put out a call to the other ship – he knew we were in over our heads.”

Ian realizes this isn’t a very reassuring statement and goes back to explaining the details. Charlie had sustained damage all along his right side, leading to possible internal injuries throughout his body. Ian says that Doctor Hardy was still assessing these and that any might prove serious enough to require opening Charlie up, which they’d prefer not to do because of the stress it would place on his system. However, he says, the doctors had thus far found the damage to be much less than they’d initially thought.

For the first time tonight, I feel somewhat hopeful. Maybe things aren’t as bad as I’d feared.

“But there’s something else,” Ian says. I sink immediately back into terror and apprehension, feeling foolish for getting my hopes up. Ian considers how to best phrase what he wants to say, and then continues. “Charlie took a severe hit to the head, either from the primary blast or as a result of slamming into the wall. This is actually the biggest area of concern – our scans reveal the onset of severe swelling.” He explains the implications of this – basically that a swollen brain can be crushed by the confines of the skull meant to protect it. He explains they’d tried all the lesser invasive methods of reducing cerebral swelling, but none were working.

“So what does that mean?” AJ asks.

Ian pauses, glancing down at his shoes before taking an uncertain breath and continuing. “This is going to sound worse than it is...but the treatment is actually quite common – it’s called a hemicraniectomy. If Doctor Hardy is satisfied that Charlie can withstand the procedure, she’ll probably want to alleviate the pressure by removing a section of skull.” He goes on to explain how doing this allows the brain to swell freely, which can prevent the catastrophic damage caused by swelling with the skull intact. Ideally, allowing free swelling of the tissue prevents elevation of pressure within the brain, thereby preserving it.

A cloud descends upon the group – internal injuries, damaged organs, opening his skull...it all sounds dire.

“So where does this put us?” Zane asks, giving voice to the question no one wants to ask.

Ian answers immediately. “Doctor Hardy phrased it really well. When Charlie came in, the goal was to keep him alive for the next five minutes. We’re now at a point where our goal is to maintain him through the next hour. Our objective is to extend that out, and then work to extend it out even further. But the short answer is that we just don’t know yet – Charlie’s condition is critical, and it’s going to be that way for a while. They expect him to be in surgery for the rest of the night, if not longer. I-I’m really sorry to have to tell you all of this...I-I don’t want to be clinical, but I figure you all want straight answers.”

“We appreciate that,” Sean says reassuringly.

“Is there anything we can do?” I ask, knowing the answer is probably no.

To my surprise, Ian nods. “Yeah...a couple of things, actually.” Everyone listens intently. “First, Charlie is going to go through a lot of blood tonight. We’d prefer not to use synthetics. He’s A-positive, so if any of you are types A or O, it would be great to have you go upstairs for a donation.”

“Totally,” Nick replies.

“Great,” Ian says. “Also...I really need to bring Mike back out here. They let him back when Charlie first came in, but he can’t be in the operating room. He’s not doing well – Conner had to sedate him. He wants to stay back there, but he’s all alone. I can’t have all of you back there, but can one of you come and talk to him? I don’t want to kick him out, but it’s probably better for him if he waits in here.”

“I’ll go,” I offer. I’m not thrilled at the prospect of facing Mike given everything that’s happening, but I feel something of an obligation for the younger boy.

Once Ian has answered all of the group’s questions, I follow him back into the surgical areas. We walk in silence; the air smells even more sterile and medicinal than in the waiting room. I’m apprehensive, fearful that at any turn we might pass the operating room where they were currently working to save my friend. Part of me wants to see Charlie, to confirm that he’s still alive, but another recognizes how unbearably painful it would be to witness him hurt like that.

“Thanks for helping,” Ian says to me.

“Yeah, of course.”

“I think it will be way better for him out in the waiting room. I’m not trying to hassle him – you get that, right?”

I nod. “Yeah. He needs to be with friends right now...you’re right to have me come get him.”

Ian looks relieved, as though I might have thought ill of him. “Conner has him on a very mild sedative. It won’t put him to sleep, but it should help him cope. I won’t lie – I’m really concerned about him.”

“Me too.”

“We’ll let him see Charlie as soon as possible, but I just don’t see that happening tonight. Until then, we – Conner and I – would like someone to monitor Mike around the clock. If anything happens, let us know right away.”

Ian makes a good nurse. “I’ll talk to the guys,” I reply. “We’ll make sure someone is with him at all times.”

“Good. He’s just up here.”

We turn a corner and encounter Mike alone in an empty hallway. He’s sitting on his haunches, leaning against the wall with hands clasped between his knees. His eyes are closed, and he makes no acknowledgment of our presence as we approach him. I find myself hesitant to disturb him.

“Hey, Mikey?” I ask in a low voice.

He slowly glances up at me; he’s clearly in rough shape. His big brown eyes are full of fear, rims red from crying. And crying is what he does as soon as he registers who’s speaking to him. He stands, and the tears flow freely.

“D-Devon, I...I...I,” he sobs incoherently.

I pause, unsure what to do, but then I take the crying boy into my arms, pulling him close and tight. He lets out a low wail and then sobs uncontrollably on my shoulder, a large wet spot forming where tears, saliva and snot drip. “I know, I know,” I whisper reassuringly, placing my palm on the back of his head.

Ian watches us sympathetically. “I can take care of things from here,” I whisper to him. “If you need to get back.”

The nurse thanks me, agreeing that he should return to his duties. Before leaving us he places a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll be out in an hour with another update,” he says.

Once he’s gone, I let Mike cry for a bit. We don’t speak, we don’t need to. Once he’s a little calmer, I suggest that he come with me to the waiting room. He shakes his head vigorously, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.

“If you want to stay here, I’ll stay with you,” I say. “But they’d really like you wait there – there are seats and everyone is there. It’s only a ten-second walk from here and we’re getting regular updates out there.”

Mike looks down the long hallway, panic crossing his face. “Hey,” I say, hugging him tighter. “It’s okay if you want to come back here to wait, but at least come and see if the waiting room is better. Think you can do that for me?”

Eventually he nods, and when I lead him by the hand he follows me. “Here we are,” I say when we arrive back at the waiting area. The others look up when we emerge from the rear areas, and then make to approach Mike, but I wave them off. They get it, and step back, offering us some space.

“See...it’s just a little more comfortable in here,” I say. When I suggest that we sit down, Mike takes a seat next to me, looking worn and haggard. As soon as we’ve sat, he swings his body around, lying on the chair in a fetal position; he scoots closer to me so that he can put his head in my lap.

“There you go,” I say soothingly. The other guys watch, concern showing in their eyes. I offer them a slight shrug, trying to convey that I really don’t know what more we can do for our friend, who’s clearly in pain.

“You want some water?” Dog asks, retrieving a fresh bottle. Mike doesn’t reply, so Dog tries to hand it to him. Mike just stares at him blankly, as though he’s never seen a bottle of water before. He lifts his head slightly, and I take my arm off his shoulder, thinking he wants a drink. Instead, he leans forward in a lurching motion. I see what’s coming a second too late – Mike hurls, and the contents of his stomach fly into the room and down upon my unfortunate sneakers.

Mike pukes a second time, his vomit landing on the floor in a sickening splatter. I successfully resist the urge to gag. When Mike is done he glances up at me fearfully, looking like a little kid who’s about to be punished.

“Hey, it’s okay,” I whisper. “It happens.”

Mike puts his head back on my lap, not seeming to care that my feet are sitting in a puddle of his spew. “Um...here...let me up a second,” I say. “I’m going to go wash up a bit, then I’ll be right back.”

I immediately find two arms wrapped tightly around my waist. Mike makes a fervent, childish noise that I take to mean he doesn’t want me to get up. I look up at the other guys and offer a meek shrug.

“Here, let me help,” AJ says, moving to where we’re sitting. “Can you guys get me some towels?” he asks.

The group complies, and pretty soon AJ is undertaking the undesirable task of cleaning up the mess. He says it only got my shoes, so these are promptly removed. Everything else is wiped off several times over, until any evidence of the puking is erased. Reid leaves and then reappears with a plastic hospital bowl – just in case – which he sets next to me gingerly. This whole time Mike keeps his head in my lap, his eyes squeezed shut as he sobs. I run my fingers through his hair gently.

The night in the waiting room, possibly the worst night of my life, seems to stretch on forever. Pensive fear turns to fearful boredom, which then evolves into bored anxiety. I feel exhaustion creep upon me bit by bit, like spilled soda soaking into a paper towel.

As promised, Ian emerges from the back about once per hour. Although we’re grateful for the regular reports, we soon discover that, at least for now, there’s not much new info. Over and over, Ian informs us that Charlie is still in surgery, and that it’s too soon to tell anything. The fourth time he comes out he tells us that Doctor Hardy did decide to proceed with the hemicraniectomy, removing a portion of Charlie’s skull in order to relieve swelling, and that this will result in an even longer surgery.

This news sends Mike into a fit of sobs which choke the boy, causing him to sputter and gasp for air. Sean and Dog convince him to accompany them to the bathroom, both to clean up and compose himself.

“I’m really sorry,” Ian says when they’re gone, glancing at our group nervously.

“For what?” Nick asks quietly.

“I-I’m new at this, the ER reporting and all. I didn’t mean, you know, to make him break down and all...”

“It’s okay,” I reply. “You’re doing a great job, we really appreciate you keeping us informed.” When my words don’t seem to make him feel better, I step over and offer Ian a firm hug. He flinches at first, not expecting the contact, but then relaxes. I immediately notice that he feels warm – really warm – to the touch.

“You running a fever?” I ask when I release the nurse from my embrace.

Ian looks me in the eye, curious. “Huh?”

“You’re really hot,” I say.

“He’s always been really hot,” Zane quips behind me. I can tell he means the joke to help us all feel better, but it doesn’t.

Ian blushes at Zane’s comment and shakes his head. “No, I’ve just always had a pretty high skin temperature, especially when I’m stressed.” He asks if we have any other questions about Charlie, and when we don’t he returns to his duties.

The horrid evening becomes a wretched morning. Everyone looks increasingly exhausted, dark circles forming under young eyes. But no one leaves, and no one sleeps. I become acutely aware that I smell awful, and that I probably look terrible. I start to get so tired that I feel like I might throw up.

Mike leaves for a bathroom break at one point, and I take the opportunity to take Reid aside. “Any news on how this happened?” I ask him in a hushed whisper.

He shakes his head. “I’ve been reading through all the security force updates, and they don’t know much yet. But there is...something.”

I cock my head. “What?”

Reid sighs sadly, and then continues. “The blast...whatever caused the explosion, they think it was intentional.”

“Meaning?”

A flash of anger crosses Reid’s tired eyes. “Meaning it wasn’t just a freak explosion, Devon...it was a bomb.”

My heart throbs angrily in my chest and the taste of bile works its way into my mouth. Mike returns from the bathroom, looking at me fearfully. I wipe any anger off my face, realizing now isn’t the time to dwell on this aspect of the accident. I walk over to Mike and hug him, saying I was just stretching a bit. He doesn’t say anything, but when I offer to resume our position with him lying in my lap he accepts. I wince, my ass growing increasingly sore from sitting like this, but I don’t complain.

Ian’s reports grow less informative and useful as the morning progresses, the surgical proceedings growing so complicated that the doctors and nurses attending Charlie don’t have time to fill Ian in other than to tell the nurse that the next few hours are crucial.

By early afternoon, the group’s exhaustion and nervousness grows a bit surly and angry – not a good combination. This is exacerbated when Ian misses his two o’clock update with us. At five past the hour none of us think much about it, then another fifteen minutes pass without the nurse appearing and our group begins to grow worried. I find myself terrified about what Ian’s tardiness could mean, but I try not to show it for Mike’s sake.

Just after three, the doors to surgery open with a clack and a creak. Zane bolts to his feet, as do Sean and Nick, the doors opening like a match tossed into a puddle of fuel given our emotional state. I have a feeling Ian is going to be scolded should he not have a good reason for missing his last update with us.

But it’s not Ian who emerges from surgery, it’s Conner. I feel a knot tighten in my stomach, fearing the worst.

“He’s out of surgery,” Conner says immediately, acutely aware of the tension in the group.

I’m hopeful that this is good news, but the knot in my tummy remains where it is. “And?” AJ asks quietly.

Conner looks about the room, and then waits for everyone to gather around him. I look my boyfriend over. He’s dressed in a fresh set of scrubs, and there’s a smell of lemon soap about him. His expression is calm and professional, and I can tell he’s fully in “doctor mode.” Anyone who didn’t know him well might assume he was just starting his workday, but as his boyfriend I can see below the surface. His eyes look just a little too tired, his shoulders too tight. I can tell he’s doing his best to appear fresh and chipper, but in reality he’s exhausted and tense.

Once we’ve gathered closer, Conner addresses us in a quiet, calm voice. “Okay, so Charlie is in recovery right now. Doctor Hardy is going to make sure he’s settled there, and then she’s going to come out and talk with everyone about his condition, but that’s going to take another hour so I wanted to come out and let you know what’s going on.”

“How is he?” I ask.

Conner looks to me. There’s a certain sparkle missing in his eyes, his green irises slightly lackluster. “He’s not great,” he answers, trying to be both honest and tactful. “But for now he’s stable, and that’s a very good thing. He’s...” Conner pauses, searching for the right words. “He’s better, but not out of the woods. We’re hopeful, but it’s going to be a long recovery.”

The word “recovery” has an immediate and distinguishable effect on the group. Moods don’t lighten exactly, but some of the dread we’ve all been feeling lifts.

“How did the hemi...uh...hemicranular...uh...thingy go?” Dog asks.

Conner shakes his head. “I don’t want to try and get into specifics on the surgery. Doctor Hardy is going to come out and answer questions about that – she performed the procedures and will have more info for you. The short answer is ‘good,’ but I don’t want to give you any confusing info.”

The group is silent for a moment, and then Zane asks a question. “You said they were getting Charlie settled? What does that mean?”

“They’re moving him from the operating room to a bed in intensive care. They’ll clean him up as best they can and get all the monitors hooked up, and Doctor Hardy will go over everything with the nurses and other doctors so that the entire team is on the same page regarding his care.”

“Is he awake?” Nick asks.

Conner shakes his head. “He’s not, but we really don’t want him to be. Right now the most important thing is for his body to remain stable and begin to heal.” He glances at me, and I get the sense there’s something he’s not telling us.

We ask Conner a couple more questions, and he tries to answer each as thoroughly as he can. He’s doing a great job, remaining calm and professional despite the stress and lack of rest. Still, he’s visibly relieved when Doctor Hardy emerges from the back, considerably sooner than promised.

“Gentlemen,” she says, nodding at the group. And then, without pause, she launches right into a detailed description of everything that had happened since Charlie arrived at the hospital. She confirms what Ian had said earlier about Charlie being caught in a blast before explaining his injuries.

“Let me start with the things that are pretty straightforward,” she says in a professional tone. “Your friend took a lot of damage to his right side, but we were fortunate that the blast didn’t hit him straight on. Still, there was a considerable amount of shrapnel throughout his body. The most concerning of this was several large pieces in his right lung. Doctor Steffords was working on this injury, and he was able to successfully remove the debris and get the lung working again. We’ll be monitoring Charlie’s lung function closely, but I’m optimistic we can continue to repair any damage there. Likewise, he had some damage to his liver and intestines. Again, we’ve successfully removed everything that concerns us, although we have left a wound in his lower torso open so that we can go in and do some more work later when he’s stronger.

“There is also a considerable amount of debris embedded in his muscles, especially around the thigh area. We’ve left this in place for now, it’s not an immediate threat and I didn’t want to overtax his system. Everything I’ve mentioned so far is manageable, and over time we can fix everything, so these are injuries that I’m not too worried about right now.”

The group listens in total silence. I can’t help but feel sick to my stomach. These are the injuries they’re not worried about?

“Okay, so let me talk to you about the head injury. I believe Ian told you that we’d proceeded with the hemicraniectomy?” Several of us nod.

“Yeah, but he didn’t explain much about it,” Nick says.

Doctor Hardy nods sympathetically. “Basically, like any other organ, the brain swells in response to trauma – I’m sure you’re all somewhat familiar with what a concussion is. For someone who’s had a severe head trauma, this can be dangerous. We have several noninvasive ways to manage this, but in some cases it’s not possible to reduce the swelling without putting the patient in danger. This was the case with your friend.

“After assessing his condition, I was convinced that the hemicraniectomy was necessary. We removed a portion of his skull, allowing the brain to swell freely. This saved his life, without any question, and overall the procedure was a success.”

“His brain stopped swelling?” Dog asks.

Doctor Hardy shakes her head and explains that it can take hours, or even days, for cerebral swelling of this magnitude to abate.

“So his...his skull...” AJ whispers.

The doctor seems to understand that this is a topic many of us will be squeamish about, and she tries to explain things as calmly and professionally as possible. “Yes, for now the portion of removed skull stays off. Once the swelling abates, we’ll suture it back on. With treatment, you’ll never be able to tell it was removed.”

Doctor Hardy takes a deep breath before continuing. “What I need you all to understand is that this procedure only mitigates further side effects of the trauma – it prevents the skull from damaging the brain, but it doesn’t repair any damage sustained in the blast itself. At this time, we don’t really know how extensive this may be...”

“You can’t do a scan, or something?” Reid asks. He’s not trying to be rude, just a concerned friend, although asking a renowned brain surgeon if she perhaps forgot to perform a simple scan comes across as testy.

This doesn’t seem to bother Doctor Hardy, and she just smiles slightly and shakes her head. “It’s not that simple,” she says. “Your friend is in a coma, which sounds a bit scarier than it is. Right now his body is trying to repair itself, so this is a good thing. If he hadn’t lapsed into a natural coma, we would have induced one medically.”

“Induced one? Why?” Sean asks.

Doctor Hardy answers Sean’s query in the same calm tone she’s maintained since arriving. “He needs time to heal. Here’s the bottom line – we saved Charlie’s life tonight, and we’ve given him a chance to get better. He’s young and strong and under very good care, and these are factors in his favor. We’re going to work to keep him stable, and we’re going to help his body heal bit by bit. If everything goes well over the next day, we’ll accomplish this by slowly working on the minor injuries. This will give his body the ability to focus on the more severe trauma. When the swelling in his brain goes down, we’ll be in a better position to assess damage, although I need to be honest with you – we may have to wait until he wakes up to be completely sure in this area.

“So he’s going to be okay?” I ask. The information is a bit overwhelming, and I find myself wanting a simple answer.

Doctor Hardy seems to understand this. She pauses, considering her words before answering. “We don’t know yet,” she says, her tone sympathetic despite the brutal honesty of her statement. Mike offers a sad little whimper next to me, and I place my arm firmly over his shoulder. “I’m optimistic, and right now I’m happy with where we are, but I won’t lie – we’re at the beginning of what could be a very long journey. But let me assure you, your friend will have the full attention of anyone able to assist us in helping him get better.”

Doctor Hardy stays in the waiting room with us, answering all of our questions and explaining everything in as much detail as we ask for. I realize she doesn’t have any other patients on this ship, but I appreciate her efforts all the same. Before she leaves she says that if Charlie’s numbers remain stable for the next few hours, she’ll allow visitors, but under strict limits. She says she’ll let us know when this is possible before looking at her watch.

“Thank you doctor,” Zane says sincerely. “We really mean it. Have you...has your group had any food? I mean, obviously not...what I mean is that I work up in the kitchens, and if you’ve all been here all day...”

“Something to eat would be very much appreciated,” Doctor Hardy says, cutting Zane off. I can tell that Zane’s stumbling speech is more from exhaustion than anything else. I consider this while Zane and Doctor Hardy work out food arrangements for her staff, and I realize just how tired I am.

I’m so exhausted, in fact, that when Conner steps up next to me and places an arm over my shoulder I wonder, just for a moment, why one of the doctors is hugging me. I turn and briefly consider that this new doctor is a pretty cute guy, then my brain kicks in and I remember who Conner is...god I’m tired.

“You doing okay?” he whispers to me.

I just shake my head, knowing this is the only honest answer. And then it hits me, the realization that I’m not okay, and that my friend is hurt and possibly dying, and that I’m impotent to stop it. I realize that in one night my entire life has turned upside down. My body is coursing with exhaustion and fear and anger, and suddenly it’s all too much for me. I realize that I’m about to lose control.

I take a deep breath, trying to maintain as much of a calm facade as possible. “I’m gonna go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.”

I shuffle off down the hall, feeling my emotions building. Why is all of this happening? Charlie is one of the nicest guys in the world, who’d ever want to hurt him? Why the fuck does this shit keep happening – the riot, the farm fire, now this? Can’t people just fucking calm down and live peacefully together on this stupid fucking spaceship until we get to a new planet?

I bypass the first available restroom, wanting to be alone and feeling like I need to walk it off. I know that the floor above us will be empty, so I go there, locating an alternative bathroom. Like I’d thought, I find it empty, the white space clean and sterile and smelling strongly septic.

Splashing some scalding hot water on my grimy face, I feel a little better. Well, not really, but the pain of the steaming water hitting my cheeks and eyes makes me feel...something.

A drying unit sits above the sink to my right, ready for me to insert my hands. Like everything else in the bathroom, it’s made out of a shiny white plastic, but unlike everything else in here it’s not totally devoid of personality, owing to a neon blue smiley face printed in the lower right corner of the unit.

I suddenly realize that I hate the drying unit – I hate it with every fiber of my being. I hate the way it hangs on the wall so that it’s slightly in the way when you’re trying to use the sink, and I hate the way it looks all brand new and innocuous when there’s so much shit going on around me. But most of all I hate the stupid fucking sneer that some stupid fucking engineer decided to put on the fucking thing. I hate it more than anything I’ve ever hated before.

Without really thinking, I punch the unit, using the butt of my hand to deliver a significant blow directly against the stupid blue smile. A loud cracking sound echoes throughout the empty bathroom, louder than I expect, and I find it to be a satisfying sound.

The unit is dented, and a thin crack stretches across the cartoon smile, looking like a scar. But still the dryer smiles at me, as though mocking me.

In my defense, I’d gone more than thirty hours without sleep, and in that span I’d experienced some of the best and worst moments of my life. This should be taken into consideration when judging the manner in which I spend the next few moments, in which I enter a state of mind that can only be called “bat shit crazy.”

Rage builds up inside me – a blind, furious anger stemming from hurt and fear. I glance at the cracked drying unit and feel my fury culminate at a spot just behind my eyes.

“FUCK!” I screech, an undignified bellowing yell. I punch the unit again, and then again. When this doesn’t feel like enough I kick it, a firm, violent high kick with all my weight behind it. I hear another loud crack, and then the unit is attached to the wall at a slight angle.

I kick again and again, and then I punch, until the dryer flies off the wall, landing in the sink with a furious clatter. A single thick electrical cable is still attached to the rear of the unit, running up into the wall and making it seem like the dryer is fervently trying to hold on. I’ve done considerable damage, but I don’t feel like it’s enough...it’s never enough. I flip the unit over to discover the pompous sneer still staring back at me mockingly.

In a frenzy I lift the unit over my head and then bring it down against the stainless steel faucet of the sink, aiming so the point of impact is right in the middle of the fucking smiley face. I do this again and again, until the plastic on the front of the unit shatters, skittering across the countertop and destroying the anthropomorphic image. Only then am I satisfied, pushing the destroyed dryer away from me the way you’d pass a basketball to a teammate all the way across the court. It smashes into the mirror in front of me, creating a spiderweb of ugly cracks.

I look at my distorted image in the mirror. Tears are streaming down my cheeks, and my face is redder than I’ve ever seen it before.

“Devon? What the hell?”

I jump; I didn’t realize that someone had come in during my tirade. Conner is standing in the entrance, looking both concerned and shocked. I’m not sure how much he’s seen, but I don’t really care. I run to him. He flinches at first, perhaps wondering if I’m going to do to him what I’ve just done to the dryer, but when I throw my arms around him he hugs me back, pulling my head into his chest.

Everything I’ve been feeling for the past several hours bubbles to the surface, and I find myself unable to contain myself. I start bawling in hacking, wailing sobs, my tears flowing down my face and staining the fabric of Conner’s scrubs.

Embarrassed, I try to pull away. Conner doesn’t let me, holding me against his body tighter and tighter until my ribs hurt. I try to use the wall behind him for leverage and push off it, but he grabs me by the wrist and firmly presses my arm down by my side. I continue weeping, and Conner just holds me tighter, ultimately sliding down the wall so that we slump onto the bathroom floor in this position.

I don’t know how long I stay like that, how long I’m sobbing into my boyfriend’s chest. But eventually I begin to calm down, almost in the way a toddler recovers from a tantrum. My emotions ratchet down, and when even my gentle sobs cease I find myself embarrassed.

“There you go,” Conner whispers. He releases my wrist and runs his fingers through my hair. I feel comforted by his gentle touch. I cough, and a nasty glob of snot drips out my nose onto Conner’s shirt.

“Sorry,” I moan, my voice muffled against his strong chest.

“It’s okay Devy,” he says, continuing to stroke my hair.

I want to stay here forever – well, not here in the bathroom, more like here in Conner’s arms – but once I compose myself I stand up slowly and then move over to the sink. Once I’ve removed all the shattered dryer parts from the basin, placing them in a sad little pile under the spot where the unit had been attached to the wall, I wash my hands and face, being a little more restrained this time.

Conner steps next to me and does the same. For the first time I notice that he looks as exhausted as I do, his sandy brown locks seeming limp and slightly dull in the mirror. “I’m, uh, sorry about the dryer,” I say meekly, my voice dry and quiet.

Conner shrugs. “S’ok. It wasn’t my dryer. And it probably had it coming.”

A very slight smile crosses my lips, although this is all I can muster right now.

He turns to look me in the eye. When he speaks his tone is sad, but direct. “Devon...I really want to be with you right now, and I wanted to be with you last night. You understand that, right? I just...I just need to be back there. Doctor Hardy is very good, and part of me wants to take time off to be with you and the guys, but then another part of me...Charlie...I feel like I should be there with him....”

I can see how torn Conner feels about this, and I understand why he’d want to be in two places at once. I fight back a fresh wave of tears, and hug Conner firmly. When I let him go I look intently into his pale green eyes. “Go take care of him. Bring him back to me.”

A flash of panic crosses his face, as though I’m asking him to undertake an impossible mission, but then an expression of fierce determination plays across his pink lips. “I will,” he promises.

When I return to the waiting room I find half the group missing. Zane notices me come in, and crosses the room to where I’m standing.

“Hey, everything’s okay,” he says in a hushed tone, stepping over to where I’m standing. I notice that Sean and Dog have curled up together in one of the seats – it looks to be an impossible uncomfortable position, but they both seem fast asleep. “I just took some food back for the staff. Doctor Hardy says that it won’t be until after ten until she’ll let anyone back, if at all. She wanted – kind of demanded, actually – that everyone get some rest, so we worked out a schedule for some of us to stay here and the others to go grab a nap. If everyone stays up, we’ll probably start losing it.”

I think about the destroyed drying unit and smashed mirror upstairs, and feel a little guilty about it. “You’re probably right,” I reply.

Zane looks over to our sleeping friends, then back to me. “If it’s okay, we have you down for some sleep now. Everyone figured you should be the first one to take Mike back there tonight, so...”

“Where is he? Is he okay?” I ask, suddenly realizing that he’s missing. I feel more guilt creep up my spine over abandoning Mike.

“Yeah, he’s okay,” Zane nods. “Well, as much as can be expected. Doctor Hardy insisted he get some sleep, and she gave him something to relax him. I doubt he’ll get much rest, but AJ and Nick took him back to the room for a shower and some fresh clothes.”

“I should go be with him,” I say thoughtfully. “He might lay down with me for a while.”

“That’s what I was thinking, but I have a favor to ask you first.”

Zane looks a little pensive, perhaps wondering if this is the best time to be asking anything of me. I tell him it’s okay. “I have an appointment upstairs with Aden,” he says slowly. “I can go by myself, but I kind of thought...maybe you could come along. Nothing big, I just want to talk to him about – about what’s happened.”

I feel the remnants of the rage I’d experienced earlier in my neck and shoulders. Zane mistakes this as weariness. “It’s okay,” he says. “I’ll go up there on my own.”

I shake my head. “No. I want to go too.”

The trip upstairs is quiet and solemn. And lonely actually, the halls mostly empty because of the lockdown. We don’t see anyone until we arrive at the border between the civilian and military sections of the ship. Although Aden had offices in Topside, he also had a small office in the military sections, which he’d set up after he agreed to bring security force into compliance with regulation.

We find Aden looking tired and slightly worried, although I’m sure he’s a little better rested than either Zane or I.

“I’m going to get right to it,” Zane says in a terse tone once we’ve exchanged curt greetings and taken seats across from the mayor. “The explosion that happened last night wasn’t an accident. I’m here to express the importance of bringing whoever caused it to swift and immediate justice.” Zane’s tone is as uncharacteristic of Zane as it can be, firm and authoritative without a hint of humor.

Aden sits back in his seat, looking troubled. Aden has always struck me as the picture of the all-American college boy, handsome to the point of absurdity, perfectly muscled and fiercely intelligent. At school he excelled at academics and sports to a flawless degree, and as mayor he’s evolved into the picture of the vibrant, capable young leader. But today, a slight slouch to his posture and dark circles under his eyes, some of that magic seems to have worn thin.

“I can assure you that we’ll be doing everything in our power to do just that,” he says. It feels like a canned answer, the kind that may be written on an index card in his desk drawer somewhere. He hesitates, as though he realizes something is about to happen – something significant.

Zane sits back in his seat, folding his hands calmly in his lap. “To be blunt, that’s not good enough,” he says. “You did everything in your power to get to the bottom of the riot – a riot that put my other friend here in the hospital. You did everything in your power to get to the bottom of the fire, and yet the brig sits empty. You have a growing number of people moving over to Steven Caine’s side, won over by the populist, moronic crap he spouts. You’re losing control, Aden.”

Whatever fatigue Aden is feeling, Zane’s acid comments seem to be the cure. He sits up in his seat, looking slightly angry. “I don’t think that’s entirely true, Zane.”

“Really?” Zane now sounds more than a little pissed, his volume rising considerably. “Then you know that thousands of doses of medication have gone missing, and that thousands more are being moved from the other ship just to disappear as well? You know why that’s happening?”

Aden goes a little pale and looks slightly confused. He pauses, probably to consider the best response.

Zane doesn’t wait for it. “I came here today to make something perfectly clear to you – Charlie Barrett is my friend, and he’s lying in a hospital bed right now because someone set off a bomb. Either you figure out who’s behind it and put them on trial, or we’re having your office turned over to the military crew. If you can’t run things competently, maybe they can.”

Aden shakes his head. “That’s not how it works, you can’t just...”

“Actually, I can,” Zane snaps, cutting the mayor off. “Maybe not right now...but if Charlie...if he...should he d-die.” He falters but then takes a deep breath to compose himself. “If a civilian dies owing to an act of violence, the mayor no longer has the sole right to request military intervention in the civilian sections – anyone living on the ship can request it. I want this to be very clear to you, Aden – if Charlie dies we’ll demand that Captain Bianchi assume control of the civilian sections, and we’ll also propose a vote of no-confidence in your office, requesting an immediate recall election.”

“B-But you can’t,” Aden replies, shocked. “Military control? That would be...that would be a mistake. Think about what you’re suggesting.”

Zane shrugs. “I don’t want that any more than you do – martial law, permanent lockdown – but it’s a step I’m willing to take if it comes to it. And you know I can – read through section four eighty-seven of the regulations if you have any doubts. The process for requesting military intervention in the civilian sections is very specific. So you have your ultimatum, Aden, find out who did this. Find. Out. Now.”

My friend doesn’t wait for the mayor’s response. He stands, and glances in my direction. “C’mon, Devon. We’re leaving.”

I follow him out, reflecting upon what’s been said, but I don’t voice anything aloud until we’re alone again and on our way back to our flat. “Did you really mean that?” I ask. “That you’d request military control?”

Zane sighs. “Yeah. I don’t want to do it. It’s not something you can take back easily. Once the military takes control of a civilian section they automatically remain in power for three months, and the civilians have to abide by a ton of rules and regulations, not the least of which is food rationing and curfews. But, I mean, with what’s happened. First you get hurt, then that fire. Now Charlie...if Aden can’t do his fucking job...”

“We have to do what we have to do,” I say, understanding that Zane is right. If Aden can’t put a stop to this garbage, he should be replaced by whatever means necessary.

We ride in silence for a moment, but then I think of something. Without turning to look at Zane, I voice my concern. “Back there you mentioned the stolen drugs – the Zupertol and Aderalan. A lot of it has gone missing from medical on this ship, and then who knows how much has been snuck over from the other. Do you think that has anything to do with what happened to Charlie?”

Zane sighs and then thinks about this. “I’m not sure,” he says. “It’s certainly possible. We can’t rule it out. Both substances are benign; I’ve spoken with Reid about this, and hell if we can figure out why anyone would want to steal them. Still….”

He trails off, and I ask, “You can’t use them to make…a bomb?”

Zane shoots me a sympathetic look and places a comforting arm over my shoulder. Shaking his head he says, “No. No way. There’s nothing about either that could lend themselves to making any sort of explosive. Still, there may be a connection – stealing the drugs is a crime, and for now we have to assume any criminal activity could be connected to what happened. Devon…you need to know something.”

“Yeah?” I ask uncertainly, Zane’s statement feeling slightly ominous.

“Whatever Aden does; however successful he in in tracking down whoever is responsible for hurting Charlie, Reid and I…we’ve been talking…I don’t know what the next few days will bring, but I want you to know that we’re getting right to work on figuring things out. Neither of us will stop until we find answers.”

I nod in understanding but don’t say anything else. On the rest of the ride back to the commons I think about the faceless perpetrators...whoever set off the explosion that hurt Charlie. I feel my rage bubble up again and I see red, although this time I don’t smash anything.

When we get back to the flat, I find Mike lying on my bed, AJ and Nick sitting on the edge of the mattress watching over him. His eyes are closed but he doesn’t seem asleep. When he notices me standing there, AJ stands slowly, careful not to make any noise, and then walks over to where I’m standing.

“How is he?” I whisper.

A worried expression crosses AJ’s face. “Not great, to be honest.”

“Is he asleep?”

“No, but we got him to lie down. He’s been asking for you.”

I feel a pang of guilt at having left him, but shake it off. I walk over to the bed and then crouch down so that my eyes are at the level of Mike’s. “Hey,” I whisper tenderly. The other boy opens his eyes but doesn’t say anything. I see a glimmer in his eyes reflecting some of the fear he’s feeling, but exhaustion is overcoming my friend and there’s a glazed look to his quiet stare. “I’m back. Do you want to try and get some sleep by yourself, or did you want me to lie down with you?”

He doesn’t say anything for a minute, and I wonder if he’s understood me. But then he looks over to AJ before saying the barest possible whisper, “With you.”

I take this to mean he wants me to lie with him. “Okay,” I reply. “Tell you what. Give me just two minutes to rinse off...I stink. Then I’ll be right back and I’ll stay with you the rest of the afternoon, okay?”

Again Mike is sluggish to respond, and when he does it’s just with a slight nod.

I do as promised, spending only enough time in the bathroom to strip and quickly rinse my grimy body with hot water. It doesn’t get me as clean as I’d hoped, but it helps.

Returning to my room, I slip on a pair of blue boxers before climbing into bed with Mike. The other boy remains silent, but scoots over slightly when I climb over his listless body in order to lie down behind him. AJ and Nick have moved to the other side of the room and are sitting side by side on the other bed; they both look as tired as I feel.

“You want us to stay?” Nick asks.

I shake my head. “Nah. We’ll be okay. Why don’t you guys get some sleep?”

The boys look amenable to this. “Okay,” AJ whispers. “But Zane is staying up. He’ll be in the living room. If there’s any news, he’ll come wake you up.”

I thank the guys for arranging this – knowing someone is on alert will definitely help me relax, and I’m sure it will help Mike too. The boys leave the room quietly, flicking the lights off and closing the door behind them as they do. I wrap my arm over my friend, and feel him snuggle back against me as I do. A gentle sob escapes his lips, and it’s everything I can do to refrain from crying myself.

“It’s going to be okay,” I whisper, stroking Mike’s chestnut hair with my free hand.

I feel guilty, not sure whether saying this makes me a liar or not. Maybe things would be okay – maybe Charlie will heal and things will return to normal. Or maybe this – comforting a friend completely crushed by sorrow and fear – is my new reality. Yesterday everything seemed so, I don’t know, secure...solid...safe. Today….

I stroke Mike’s hair and feel him slowly relax. His breathing eventually grows calmer and slower, whatever drugs he’s been given taking effect. And although my system is clean of pharmaceuticals, it isn’t long before darkness overcomes me too.


* * * * *


In all the years I’d considered what it would be like to be on a spaceship, never once did I pause to consider it might smell slightly like new stereo equipment. Huh.

“Oh my god, I’m beat,” Reid complains, collapsing on the sofa in the living area of our newly assigned flat. His face contorts into an expression of pain and surprise. “Ow!” he yelps.

“I don’t think it’s quite right yet,” I laugh, stating the obvious. We had instructions on how to set up the furniture, but they weren’t very good instructions. The very happy looking people in the pamphlet set their couch up in four simple steps. So far we’d managed to get the couch to look like a couch, but it was roughly the same firmness as a slab of concrete. Maybe the people in the pamphlet could read Chinese better than Reid or I.

“Really? You think?” Reid bitches sarcastically, anger in his voice. Three days since leaving Earth, and we’d spent most of that crammed into the large deck at the rear of the ship. Sleep and food deprived, tensions were running a little high.

“Well it’s not my fault,” I whine, tossing the furniture instructions to the ground. “These make no sense.”

“Whatever,” Reid sighs. He grumbles about how uncomfortable the couch is but doesn’t get up. He lies back and gets as comfortable as possible before closing his eyes. A pang of guilt shoots through me when I notice how bad his black eye is today. I’d popped him good, but it had been to save his life. If I hadn’t he probably wouldn’t have gotten into the escape capsule because of his claustrophobia. Still, I felt guilty about the ring of bruises around his eye.

I decide not to mess with the couch controls anymore right now. Reid is stressed enough that every little thing sets him off, and to be honest I don’t really want to give him reason to give me a matching shiner. I decide to see how Patrick’s doing in the bedroom.

“What the hell?” I gasp upon entering our new room. An hour ago it had been completely empty, but now there were five bunks set up, complete with sheets and pillows and everything. Under the bunk on the rear wall sits three desks in a row, Patrick is setting a computer up on one of them.

He glances up at me. “I know, it’s slow going,” he says. “Sorry.”

I walk over to one of the bunks, pressing my palm into the mattress. I expect the same hard-as-concrete as our misassembled couch, but instead I find the bed to be downy soft. “No, I wasn’t complaining,” I explain. “You did all of this really fast.”

He shrugs. “Wasn’t hard. The instructions were pretty well-written; I just followed those after running them through a translation program.”

I’m about to call him a total nerd when we hear noise from the entrance to the flat. My ears perk up. We’d been wondering when someone else would show up – Patrick, Reid and I had come here as soon as the room assignment had been posted. We assumed the others would do the same, but no one had shown up even an hour after we’d arrived.

I return to the living area to find two newcomers standing in the entryway. They’re both carrying large duffle bags, and they both look lost and confused. “Is this – uh – 23E5?” One of them asks. He’s a lanky guy with dark hair, and I recognize him immediately, although I don’t instantly know from where.

“Hey, I know you,” I say, trying to remember where I’d seen him before.

He looks at me for a moment and then recognizes me. “Oh, yeah, hey – you were one of the guys who gave me a ride, right?”

“That’s it,” I reply, snapping my fingers. On our way to the evacuation site we’d picked up some hitchhikers, and the guy standing in front of me had been one of them. “I’m sorry, I don’t quite remember your name,” I apologize.

“Beck. Beck Harris.” He steps forward and offers me his hand, which I shake.

“I’m Devon, Devon Chasen. Nice to meet you. Er...again.”

I glance to the guy standing next to Beck. He looks exhausted and as though he isn’t quite aware of what’s going on around him. I extend my hand in greeting, but he doesn’t acknowledge it, making me feel a little awkward.

Beck seems to realize this and says, “This is Charlie Barrett.”

Charlie seems to return to reality, looking surprised to find himself standing here in front of me. “Oh, sorry,” he says quietly. He reaches out and offers me a quick handshake. “I’m Charlie.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say, smiling in a manner I hope is more friendly than creepy.

Reid and Patrick come up behind me and we play another round of the introduction game before showing Beck and Charlie to the room they’d been assigned to. Patrick fixes the couch before offering to help Charlie and Beck set up their room. I help out by standing off to the side, not touching anything. We engage in the sort of chitchat new flatmates do, but Beck does most of the talking. I eye Charlie now and again, not quite sure about him.


* * * * *


“Oh fucking hell,” I mutter, my eyes fluttering open.

I know it’s not time to wake up, not even close. If I had to guess, it’s about three in the morning, way, way too early to get up.

But I get up anyway, knowing I won’t be going back to sleep. At least, not until around eleven, when my body will decide it’s time for bed even though my day will just be starting. Three weeks on a spaceship, and one of the things I’d learned – space travel totally fucks with your body clock.

I climb down from my bunk, trying to be as quiet as possible. My four roommates are all fast asleep – they’re apparently immune to the whole space-time disrupted body clock thing. By the time I reach the living room I’m totally awake, even though I’m achy and tired. I physically need sleep, but my brain seems to disagree.

I consider putting on a movie, but the idea of yet another three a.m. movie is intolerable. I could read a book, but the thought sets off my ADD, making me shiver in jittery boredom. I sigh; this lack of focus has been common since coming on board the ship. I hope it’s temporary, along with the insomnia.

I decide that a hot shower might put me back to sleep, even though I’d already tried this, oh, I don’t know, thirty times in recent weeks. Still, it beats standing in the living room freaking out about how boring everything seems.

“Oh!” I exclaim in surprise upon entering the bathroom. The common areas were almost always deserted this late, and I’d grown accustomed to having them to myself. I didn’t expect to find someone using the bathroom, particularly the communal showers.

Instead of an empty room, I find Charlie sitting on the floor of the shower, hunched over and holding his knees into his chest. He’s not naked, still wearing a pair of dark green flannel boxers that cling to his legs. There’s a large red mark on his back where the spray of the shower is landing in a continuous stream, and I notice that his eyes are closed.

“Hey, are you okay?” I ask, speaking loud enough to be heard over the running water.

It takes Charlie a moment to respond, causing me to wonder if perhaps he’s fallen asleep. But then he looks up at me, his eyes puffy and red.

“Have you...are you crying?” I ask, not really thinking before blurting out the question. Charlie was a private guy, and one of the quietest I’d ever met in my life.

He shakes his head, although it’s obvious he had been, then sniffles before speaking. “No,” he lies. “I just...uh...I must have fallen asleep like this.”

Feeling awkward about catching him like this, I proffer a nervous little laugh in response. “Yeah, I do that sometimes too,” I say. “You should turn down the hot water, though, you’re going to burn yourself,” I say in a friendly tone, looking at the nasty red mark on the guy’s back. He just shrugs indifferently.

I step over the tile ledge separating the center shower area from the rest of the bathroom and then reach for the shower controls. “Ow!” I yelp in surprise when my hand comes into contact with the flowing water. It hurts, but not because it’s hot – the water is freezing cold.

I shut the shower off. “Jesus! Oh my god, that’s so cold! Aren’t you freezing?”

Charlie just shrugs.

“I can’t believe you fell asleep with the water that cold.”

Again Charlie shrugs. And then he stands, his shorts clinging to his body.

“I should go to bed,” he says quietly before padding off in that direction.

“Hey,” I call to him just before he leaves the room. He turns to look at me. “If you ever need to...uh...talk or whatever.”

I don’t know what else to say. I mean, Charlie doesn’t seem quite right – he never does. I’m not sure if that’s been the case just since leaving Earth, or if he was always like this. But either way, we were flatmates now, and I felt like I should offer.

Charlie doesn’t say anything, but does return a wan nod before leaving the bathroom.


* * * * *


“Oh for fuck’s sake! Again? God fucking dammit!”

“Shut up, Chris,” Beck replies tersely – and bravely, Chris outweighs Beck by like fifty pounds, all of it muscle.

I just stare dumbly at the scene, not really wanting to get involved. Beck is hunched over Charlie, who’s pathetically lying in a puddle of his own sick, which has formed a nasty brown splatter in the middle of the bedroom floor.

Charlie, obviously completely drunk, just giggles and runs his forefinger through the puddle of spew while trying to lift himself up onto one elbow.

“Oh, don’t do that,” Beck grunts at him, disgusted. He pulls Charlie away from the vomit, losing his balance and collapsing against the bunk behind him. Charlie slips and falls back to the floor, his cheek plopping audibly in the pool of spew disgustingly.

“I don’t care if he gets wasted, but I’m fucking tired of him puking in here,” Chris says angrily. He has a point, the room stinks, causing my stomach to lurch involuntarily.

“I’ll clean it up,” Beck sighs. “Devon, can you take him to the bathroom?”

“Um,” I reply, not really certain I want to take custody of the inebriated, vomit-coated boy. But then I agree, walking Charlie to the restroom.

“Again?” Reid asks when we enter the living room.

There’s concern and exasperation in his voice, and for good reason. Two months into our trip, and Charlie had started showing up in this condition on a regular basis. At first everyone laughed it off as the antics of a teenager experimenting with partying and booze, but then it started to become obvious it was more than that.

“Yeah, I’m taking him to the bathroom,” I reply, struggling to keep Charlie upright.

Reid gets up to help me. Together we’re able to get the drunk boy to one of the stalls, and just in time. Charlie leans over the toilet and lets loose with another volley of puke.

“Um, I’ll let you take it from here,” Reid says, scrunching up his nose.

“Yeah, thanks,” I reply sarcastically.

Charlie pukes a couple more times; I stay in the stall with him, holding him upright so that he doesn’t choke. When he seems finished I drag him into the shower area, opting for a private stall. I don’t need our flatmates gawking at Charlie in his undignified condition.

I don’t bother to undress him, and instead step fully clothed into the shower with him before turning the water on. Once it’s warm I aim the spray at him. He splutters when it hits him in the face, but then leans into it so that the hot water is landing on his head. The remaining chunks of filth run down his body and onto the shower floor, and again I restrain myself from throwing up.

After a minute he turns to look at me and giggles softly. “I like your hair.”

Even though he’s wasted, I appreciate the compliment. I’d added a bright blue streak to the blonde earlier that morning. We were in space, after all. “Thanks,” I reply, rolling my eyes. How’d I end up in charge of the drunk guy?

“And thanks for being my friend,” Charlie mumbles before closing his eyes and putting his head back under the stream.

I pause to think about what he’s just said. Are we friends? He was a flatmate, but one I didn’t hang out with that often. And whenever he was around, he was pretty quiet. But yeah, I guess I could call him a friend.


* * * * *


“You look rather proud of yourself,” I laugh.

A shiver moves down my back. It’s August, dammit. August should be warm, if not sweltering. But that was on Earth, of course. On the ship there are no seasons, as demonstrated by the farm Charlie and I were working on this afternoon. Cool, drizzly “rain” drifted down from above, coating everything in a layer of damp. This farm was always like this, and it always smelled of pine and moss and mold, reminding me of my childhood trips to Canada.

“I am proud of myself,” Charlie laughs, taking a seat on a stump. The moss-covered wood crackles under his weight, apparently somewhat rotten. He looks...good, the damp drizzle coating his longish hair in a million little dots that reflected the light from above. And besides that he was smiling, something that was rare for him, although he’d been doing it more lately.

Charlie and I stare at one another for a moment, and then we both break into a fit of giggles. We’d been a little euphoric for the past two days, ever since our efforts to trick several guys into a circle jerk had proven successful.

I take a seat on the ground near Charlie, sitting cross-legged. The soil is cool and damp against my ass. I pinch the bridge of my nose between my fingers, rubbing my eyes as I do. It’s an involuntary gesture I make when I have a headache, or when I’m thinking about something I’m having a hard time comprehending.

“Oh my god, I can’t believe we went through with that,” I say.

Charlie cocks his head, looking at me curiously. “You having second thoughts?” he asks.

“No...I just can’t believe it worked,” I reply. I run my forefinger through the dirt in front of me. It smells rich and loamy, and I realize this is one of the reasons Charlie and I liked our shifts on this farm – it was a different climate than San Diego had been, but still it was a lot like being back on Earth.

“I can’t either,” Charlie admits. “I thought it was gonna be a total bust, but then Zane...oh my god.”

“Yeah, no shit,” I laugh. Charlie and I had taken the evening halfway where we wanted it to go. We’d assembled a group of six guys on the pretense of making it a poker night, and then we’d gotten everyone a little drunk and happy. But neither Charlie nor I had known how to take it from silly fun to sexy, which is what we’d really wanted.

Fortunately, we’d included Zane, a friend I’d made at work. Zane was...well...a little crazy, and he’d been the one who pushed the evening right where Charlie and I had wanted it to go, first suggesting a round of Info or Actions, a game notorious for its sexual connotations, and then making sure the questions and dares got everyone aroused. First he got people talking about their sexual experiences, and then he sort of tricked me into having him get naked. That had kind of clinched things – an hour later we were all nude and masturbating together.

I look up at Charlie, who has a dreamy expression playing across his youthful face. I don’t have to ask what he’s daydreaming about. “Do you think we should tell them?” I ask, putting voice to a concern I’d had since “poker night.”

“Huh, what?” Charlie mutters, returning to reality.

I shrug and play with my little pile of dirt. “I was just thinking – we kind of tricked everyone. Inviting them there, then getting them buzzed. We picked them because we thought they’d be up for play, and they all were. Should we...um...should we tell them we kinda planned for things to turn out that way?”

Charlie huffs, but then thinks about what I’ve said, taking my question seriously. “Nah, I don’t think so,” he finally says.

“Really?” I ask. “I’ve felt a little bad...not about what we did, just because we kind of tricked them.”

Charlie thinks about this. “I guess we could tell them, if it’s important to you. But we didn’t trick anyone, not really. We just...hmm...we just presented an opportunity, and they all took advantage of it.”

“Yeah.”

Charlie’s eyes light up. “And hey, most of them have already asked if we’re meeting again this Friday. Honestly, I don’t think they’re interested in card games.”

I arch an eyebrow. “Really? What we did was...fun. But I thought it was a one time thing, to be honest.”

I get a curious look in response to this statement. “You want it to be a one time thing?” Charlie asks.

I laugh wickedly. “Hell, no. I want to do it again – that was the hottest thing I’ve ever...I never thought in my life...whew.” I find myself a little out of breath all of a sudden.

Charlie chuckles. “I think that sentiment is unanimous. Sean and Dog emailed me the morning after asking to be invited to the next poker night, and you just know Zane is up for it.”

“Oh I’m sure he is.”

“The only one who hasn’t replied about coming again is Mike. I emailed him Sunday and then again yesterday. I haven’t heard back, but you know...I’m okay with that.”

“Really?”

Charlie nods. “Yeah. I mean, he’s cute and all, and I’m glad he came, but honestly I’m not sure I like him all that much.”

“Sheesh, harsh.”

He shakes his head defensively. “No, no, it’s not like that. I’m not saying we don’t invite him, especially if you like him, just that it wouldn’t be a big loss if he dropped out.”

“Okay. But you absolutely want Zane back, right?”

A lustful sparkle crosses Charlie’s eyes. “Oh hell yeah. I mean...wow. When he got naked and his dick was all lying over his leg like that, I thought I was gonna cream right then and there.”

I think back to that night, how Zane disrobed and sat back all buff and cocky. He was rather Apollo-esque. “Yeah, me too,” I admit.

Charlie and I fantasize silently for a bit, and then I look over to see that he’s begun to slowly rub his crotch through his pants. A slight lump has formed there, and noticing this makes my own cock twitch eagerly.

I consider running off to the bathroom to relieve myself, which has been the appropriate response to my condition since I was a young teen. But then I eye my friend hungrily. We were wank buddies now, and as such that gave me a certain amount of freedom to be sexy around him, or at least I supposed it did. This was still all so new.

I take a deep breath, my lust offering me courage. I scoot closer to where Charlie is sitting and then very slowly reach over to my friend. He doesn’t say anything and his expression is hard to read. But when my palm comes into contact with his growing bulge he smiles at me slyly, and I know that what I’m doing is okay.

I rub his groin a bit before unfastening his pants. Pulling the flaps of his fly as widely apart as possible, Charlie’s erection shows obviously through the royal blue fabric of the briefs he’s wearing.

“Aha,” I whisper, as though I’d just made some remarkable discovery.

Charlie glances at my crotch, which is betraying my own aroused condition by displaying a prominent tent. His sly smile grows a little more wicked, and then he scoots down off his stump, taking a seat next to me in the dirt.

I groan when his hand moves over and cups my crotch eagerly.


* * * * *


“I can’t believe I’m eighteen,” I mutter to myself the morning of my birthday. The very early morning; it’s probably not even six yet.

I breathe in deeply, taking in Conner’s scent. He’s nestled up against me so that I’d been sleeping with my face planted firmly against the nape of his neck, which is, if you ask me, where Conner smells the best.

It’s therefore no great surprise to me that I have a rampant boner tenting my green briefs. I press in closer to my boyfriend, half pretending that I’m just moving around in my sleep. My intention – sort of – is actually to wake him. I’m so horny right now.

“Mmmrrr...hrrmmm,” he mumbles, shifting a bit.

The room is dark, but there is enough light from the electronic equipment kept in here that I can make out Charlie and Mike across the room. The idea that the unoccupied flat was ours was still new and exciting. Living with my boyfriend in a room with Charlie and Mike was all the joys of summer camp, video game overnighters, boy orgies and young love rolled into one awesome package. Just thinking about it makes me giddy and a little hornier, if that’s possible.

“Your boner...pressing...mmmmrrr,” Conner mutters.

“Huh?” I whisper. My breath causes Conner’s sandy locks to brush my nose, tickling me and almost causing me to sneeze.

Conner shifts and says a little louder, “Your boner is pressing into my kidney.”

“Sorry,” I whisper back. I reach down and put my hand between my erection and the spot on Conner’s back it had been pressing into. “Your kidney is here? Cause I kinda thought it was right...here!” I reach around and press my fingers firmly into his side just above his hip. It’s a particularly sensitive Conner-spot.

His body tenses and he instinctively pulls away from me. I remove my hand right away, not wanting to piss him off or cause him to roll off the bed. I just want him more awake. When he realizes I’m not going to torture him further he relaxes and scoots back into position next to me.

“Devon,” he sighs. “It’s so early...sheesh.”

I run a finger over his ear, which I know he loves. “I know, but I’m horny,” I whisper coyly.

Conner huffs. “Well, I’m sorry about that, but you can be horny all you want – you’re not getting any right now.”

There’s something odd in his tone. I decide to keep on trying, as horny boys will. “What? Why not? It’s my birthday.”

“I know it’s your birthday. And you know why not.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. Confused, I lift my head and prop it up against my palm. Is Conner mad about something? “Actually I don’t know,” I whisper. “Did I do something wrong?”

Conner sighs and rolls over onto his back. The sheet shifts to reveal his naked chest, and I can’t help but stare at the rounded muscles of his chest. “No, Devon...you didn’t do anything. It’s just...we can’t have sex in here, you know, with Charlie and Mike right there...” He glances in the direction of our sleeping friends.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you have to wait until we’re alone.”

“What?” I ask incredulously, a little louder than I intend.

“You heard me. Just go back to sleep.”

Conner remains where he is, looking at me, probably fully aware that “just go back to sleep” is a remark that will be followed by everything but my doing so.

“I don’t think they’ll care if we wake them up,” I say.

“I don’t care if they care,” Conner says, making a funny face when he realizes that his statement is a little confusing. “I mean...that’s not why.”

“Why then?”

Conner sighs. “Devon...” His tone is like that you would use with a little kid – one you know is about to throw a tantrum. “I’m just not...I’m not going to make love to you with other people in the room.”

“What? Ever?”

Conner looks at me as though I’m from another planet. He nods. “Yeah, ever. It’s just...that’s something private.”

I know Conner is shy. It’s part of why I love him so much. But at the same time, he’d really adapted to my friends and my...er...lifestyle. He’d participated with the club, fully, and even last night he’d had Zane’s toy stuck up his ass...

“But this is our room now,” I say, disappointment seeping into my voice.

When we’d made the unoccupied flat officially ours, one of the tradeoffs had been that there were more guys living here permanently. This meant four to a room, ending the tradition of Charlie having his own room with Mike and me having my own room with Conner. This was something that had excited me, to be honest, the way a little kid gets excited about a sleepover. Never had it crossed my mind that there would be restrictions placed on our intimacy. We’d all seen one another being sexual before – we’d all been sexual with each other, for Christ’s sake.

Conner shifts so that he’s lying facing me. “I know it’s our room,” he whispers. “But it’s theirs too. Look...I would love to have our own private bedroom, but that’s just not feasible. Let’s just be glad we don’t live on a ship that’s as packed as EV1985 – we only have two roommates to consider, not forty. Don’t worry, you’ll get your birthday sex...you just have to wait a bit.”

“I hate waiting,” I grump.

“Yeah, I’ve noticed.”

“Hey, maybe we can hang a curtain or something.” My eyes light up at what I feel is a brilliant suggestion.

Conner rolls his eyes. “They’d still hear us. We’re all adults...we’ll just have to work out a sex schedule or something.”

“A sex schedule?” An image of a complicated chart appears in my mind, one where Conner and I are only allowed to fuck intermittently – like every other day or something. Then I think about his job and how many overtime shifts he pulls, and the chart in my mind changes so that we only have one fuck slot per week.

“This is bogus,” I bitch. Conner just offers a sympathetic shrug and closes his eyes as though to go back to sleep, signaling that the discussion is tabled, at least for now.

I stare at him for a moment, considering how angelic he looks. And then I become a little pissed that he won’t have sex with me right now. He scoots a little closer to me, his body looking for the comforting warmth it always finds against mine, but I scoot away from him as he does, annoyed. He sighs lightly in frustration.

Glancing over Conner’s shoulder, I see that Charlie is awake. He’s staring at me with a sly smile, and when he sees that I’ve noticed him he rolls his eyes and mouths to me. “Cranky,” he mouths silently, grinning.

I return an icy glare.

Apparently the glare is a good one. “What’d I do?” he mouths back, looking wary.

I shake my head and point to Conner. Charlie nods in understanding and then shrugs and makes some confusing gestures; I presume he’s asking what Conner did to get me mad. I try to articulate “he won’t have sex with me” with my hands, but I’m not sure Charlie doesn’t interpret my pantomime to mean “he wants a pet kangaroo” or something equally nonsensical.

But he gets it, or seems to, and apparently decides to taunt me about it. “Aww, poor baby,” he mouths, looking comically sympathetic. In a silent, rapid gesture he removes the covers from atop himself and Mike, revealing their naked bodies. Mike is lying in a fetal position low against Charlie’s body, looking deeply asleep and quite innocent.

Charlie stares at me wickedly, and then he runs a finger down Mike’s side, starting at his neck and moving down his ribs and then onto his rump. His hand disappears down behind his boyfriend, although I can tell from the way he’s positioned that he’s moved it down between Mike’s legs. And then a moment later Mike sighs contentedly, shifting slightly. Charlie looks at his boyfriend’s face and then back at me, his mischievous stare appearing slightly evil in the dim light of the room.

I’m not sure where Charlie is touching Mike precisely. He could simply be stroking the other boy’s thighs, or perhaps running his fingers lightly against Mike’s balls. But he could be stroking the other boy’s hole lightly, and the fact that I can’t quite tell what he’s doing causes my imagination to instantly run wild. My morning boner returns in full force, greeting me with a lusty throb.

I scoot back up against Conner, positioning myself so that my green briefs press into the grey low-rise trunks he’s wearing. It’s a pair I particularly appreciate because it makes his long, lean body appear even longer, although the truth of the matter is that I appreciate almost all of Conner’s undies.

Across the room, Charlie nudges Mike, and then gently guides the sleeping boy into a new position. He lifts Mike’s top leg slightly, and then straightens it so that Mike is less curled-up. It’s a maneuver that takes skill – rearranging the sleeping youth without waking him. It’s the sort of thing you learn to do when you’re with someone for a long time. Conner and I were getting better, but we were still at the “accidentally jab you in the eye with my elbow” phase when sleeping together.

Charlie sighs, and a moment later I figure out why. The tip of his hard cock appears between his boyfriend’s legs just below Mike’s sack – he’s moved himself into position so that his morning erection is right between his boyfriend’s legs. Lucky bastard.

He thrusts in and out a little, probably waiting until he’s generated enough boy lube to slicken Mike’s thighs. Knowing Charlie, this won’t take long.

I’m not really sure whether Mike is truly asleep or not. His eyes are still shut tight and his expression is neutral. But I can see his dick now that Charlie has moved him, and whether or not Mike is consciously aware of what his boyfriend is doing, his penis seems to be. It throbs slightly, growing slightly larger with each pulse. At first it’s all cute and little, but as he becomes aroused it slowly points upward, curving as it engorges.

“Devon,” Conner sighs, slightly cranky. Without really meaning to, I’ve moved my hand down between us, where I can feel both my now-rampant erection and his morning semi.

“Sorry,” I whisper.

“Told you...you have to wait,” he mumbles sleepily.

“Charlie and Mike aren’t,” I reply. “They’re doin’ it right now.”

Conner’s eyes flutter open. I’ve noticed lately that in dim light they appear a darker hue of green, and it really turns me on. “They’re doing what?” he whispers.

“Having sex,” I say defiantly.

Conner rolls his eyes. “You’re such a goof. They are not.”

“What? They totally are!” My whisper comes out a little louder than I mean it to. Across the room Charlie looks at me, smiling widely. “See for yourself.”

Conner realizes that I’m not kidding and blushes slightly. “Uh...no, that’s okay.”

“Why not?”

“Cause,” he says shyly, “I’m...I don’t know...I don’t want to spy on them or whatever.”

Charlie reaches over Mike and strokes his hard cock gently. Mike moans lightly and shifts his weight, probably starting to wake in earnest. Charlie can tell I’m talking to Conner, but I’m pretty sure he can’t hear anything we’re saying. He looks to me inquisitively.

“Spy on them?” I ask, almost giggling. “I’m pretty sure if they wanted privacy Charlie wouldn’t have pulled the sheets down to show me what he’s doing.”

“What?” Conner asks. He rolls over slightly to glance back over his shoulder. Then he shifts back into position facing me. “Okay...they really are doing it,” he says.

“I guess they didn’t get the memo about the sex schedule.”

“Um...yeah, I guess not,” Conner agrees.

“So I can have birthday sex now?” My eyes are wide and hopeful, my best puppy dog expression on display. I reach across Conner to stroke his back right below the shoulder blade.

He hesitates, and then says, “No. Maybe. I don’t know. This is...this is a little weird. I’m not sure how I feel about having sex in the same room with your friends.”

“I know how part of you feels, at least,” I grin. I don’t need to point out that I’m talking about Conner’s dick, which is fully tenting his trunks. In fact, he’s so excited that a patch of warm, slick precum has soaked through the fabric in a small, wet blotch.

“Er, yeah, I guess,” he replies, blushing.

Conner’s a shy guy, but he’s also young and horny and lying in bed with a boyfriend who’s currently pumping the room full of boy pheromones. On top of that, there’s a light moaning sound coming from the other side of the room, where Mike has become more aware of his boyfriend’s ministrations.

I consider whether the best thing is to let Conner have his privacy and wait, or try and get him so horny he doesn't mind the presence of our friends. Needless to say, in my current state one option seems better than the other. Besides...if I get him to fuck now, one of our first nights in the room, it might set a precedent...a good one.

“Ahh...oh!” Conner gasps when I run my forefinger across the wet patch on his fly. I smile devilishly, knowing that his hormones are taking control.

Across the room Mike stretches fully, yawning as he does. First he reaches his arms way up over his head, jutting his cute little ass back and against his boyfriend. And then he rolls onto his back and gets as long as he can on the bed, his curved boner jutting proudly in the morning air. He completes his ritual by rolling onto his front, sighing as he stretches his back, pressing his torso up and away from the mattress. Charlie and I both watch as the boy contorts, flexing young muscles sensuously.

Beneath the sheet I continue playing with Conner through his underwear. His eyes glaze over slightly, but he also winces. Conner is long enough that boning up in his underwear can result in some uncomfortable bending...he doesn’t like this. I don’t like this. No one likes Conner’s boner bending painfully…ouch. I help him out by pulling down on his trunks; his lifts his body slightly so that I can hook the waistband of his shorts under his balls. I feel my boyfriend’s hot, hard shaft brush against my forearm.

“Oh...Devon,” he moans lustfully. Taking me by surprise, he reaches over and brusquely pulls my body into his, our lips meeting for a hungry, wet kiss. His mouth isn’t the only thing that’s wet; I feel a string of warm dick-drool ooze onto my fingers.

“Mmmm,” I moan, letting my boyfriend kiss me deeply, tasting me. He presses his warm body against mine, grinding against me as he does, and I use the lube he’s provided me to slick his shaft gingerly.

Like a flame that’s found an ample supply of oxygen and fuel, our lust flares up. Suddenly Conner’s hands are all over my body, and mine on his, feeling and groping and scratching at young flesh. I run my fingernails down his back, and then slide my hand between the taut muscles of his ass. He sighs when warm fingertips brush against his secret place, and I sigh when his eager fingertips tickle at the soft skin of my scrotum.

Charlie smiles in my direction, probably correctly assuming I’ve managed to get Conner to have sex with me. He then climbs atop his stretching boyfriend, straddling him before pressing him palms firmly against Mike’s back. With one long, deliberate stroke he presses them up his boyfriend’s lats, massaging them deeply.

Conner and I struggle to get out of our undies. We both want to be naked, hunger for it, need it. Once we are he presses into me again, warm skin against warm skin, two hard cocks jabbing into each another hungrily.

Conner surprises me by biting my lower lip at the same time he pinches my nipple firmly. Neither hurts, but my eyes widen slightly and I mutter an involuntary moan.

We make out a bit, and then Conner pulls away from me slightly. I’m afraid he’s going to demand that we stop, suddenly shy again. He glances behind him, where Charlie has continued giving Mike a starkers back massage. Well...it started as a back massage. Charlie is completely hard and pressing his dick between the cheeks of Mike’s butt, and I’m pretty sure the massage is about to evolve into something else.

Conner looks back to me, his green eyes lustful. “What do you want? To do, I mean?”

Under other circumstances I might kid him, replying “go to the circus,” or something equally silly. But it was hard work getting birthday sex out of him, and I don’t want to jinx it. I don’t want to push him too far, either.

“Don’t know,” I reply. “The kissing was fine.”

Conner smiles and leans into me, offering another long, wet kiss. Then he pulls back again. “You want to fuck me, don’t you?” He looks down at the sheer sheet covering our bodies; a bigtop-style tent is being held up by two sturdy masts.

“Er, whatever,” I say. I do want to fuck him, but I don’t want to make him uncomfortable.

“I want you inside me,” he replies, his eyes hungry and pleading.

Conner rolls over, straightening his lower leg while pulling the other one up toward his chest. He reaches back behind himself, exploring with his fingers until he brushes against my face lightly. He wraps his hand firmly around the back of my neck, nudging me closer to his body.

“Are you sure?” I whisper, looking over at our roommates. Charlie has located a small bottle from beside their bed and is squirting a clear liquid between Mike’s butt cheeks.

“Fuck me now,” Conner answers, his voice demanding and husky.

He doesn’t have to ask twice.

I hurriedly retrieve a similar bottle of lube from a stash I keep between the mattress and the wall, and then about a half second later I’m applying some to my dick while getting it into position behind my boyfriend’s ass, which Conner has presented to me beneath the sheets, his round rump covered only by a sheer layer of blue cotton.

I mount my boyfriend, sliding between his body and the bedding. Mindful of how it feels to have a boner jammed up your butt too fast – something I was learning about as I became more experienced with Conner – I go slow, reaching between us to first lubing him with a slick finger. I penetrate his hole slightly, relishing the way his body heat feels against my fingertip.

Conner grunts and makes a silly little chirping sound before reaching around to grab my butt, pulling me toward his body.

“Okay, okay,” I whisper, laughing. “I’m going.”

What was once a clumsy maneuver for us has become practiced and familiar. My tip finds Conner’s waiting hole, and I very slowly press against him, giving him time to loosen up and accept my advance. First my helmet penetrates him, the lube on me adding to that I’d applied to him. I press into him another inch and then give him a moment to become accustomed to me being there, and then I press further before pausing once again.

Conner, apparently ready for me, pushes his ass down against my body, taking the rest of me in one swift, slick penetration.

“Ergh,” I gasp, my eyes rolling back into my head. The sensation of this is...really good.

Whatever hesitance he felt before, it’s long gone, and Conner uses his feet to leverage himself against me, sliding up and down my shaft slowly, not waiting for me to get to my boyfriendly duties. Fuck I love this guy. I love his hair and his shoulders and his ass and his back and his dick...I love the way he gives himself to me.

I open my eyes to find that we have an audience. Charlie has penetrated Mike and is slowly fucking his boyfriend, but both guys are intent upon watching Conner and me. The sheet is still wrapped around us just above our navels, but I’m sure my two friends have an idea as to what’s going on beneath it. Too bad they can’t see more, though.

As though reading my thoughts Conner grabs the blanket, pulling it down and throwing it back away from us. With an additional few kicks he’s exposed us completely, and I relish the cool air against the skin of my lower body.

“Ooh...fuck me Devon, fuck me,” Conner moans, no longer bothering to whisper. I kiss his slender, sexy neck and he reaches behind to grab at my hair, tugging it slightly. I moan and penetrate him a little deeper, causing him to moan and tug a little harder.

There is something a little different about our lovemaking this morning, something slightly more urgent and primal. I go with it, enjoying the ride.

“Ah...ah...I love you, Conner,” I grunt, fucking my boyfriend with long, deliberate strokes.

“Ah...oh...yeah...yeah...yeah,” he moans, the sounds of his lust making everyone in the room a little more excited.

I relish the way it feels to be inside him, all squishy and hot and exciting. Each stroke sends a pulse of pleasure through my frame, as it does for Conner, who grunts in arousal and lust each time I press fully into him. A fine sheen of sweat forms on our smooth bodies, the slight tang of salt rolling off us and filling the room.

Conner asks me to pause, and when I do he rolls onto his back before reaching down with eager fingers to find my throbbing member. When he does he guides me right back into his ass, and gets no complaints from me for it.

I fuck Conner, loving every moment. He lifts his legs and ultimately places his feet high on my chest. It’s a position that works well for us, offering an appropriate amount of resistance to my maneuvers. I smile, a bead of sweat dripping from my bangs and landing on Conner’s lips. He licks it away with a groan and I fuck him a little harder.

To my surprise, Conner grows noisier than I’m accustomed to. At first he returns a light moan each time I thrust into him, but then those moans become grunts of pleasure. He grows louder and more frantic, until he’s almost yelling in ecstasy, lost in the pleasure of the moment.

Across the room, I hear Charlie and Mike get into it a little harder, probably driven even wilder by Conner’s guttural moaning. I close my eyes, happy as I can be.

Not much longer after that, Conner cums. “OH! Ah...ah...ah!” he screams, arching his back and tensing all of his muscles at once. “ERGH...FUCK!” he screams, loud enough that I suspect they heard us next door.

I watch as a long white string of semen shoots from his rampant cock, flying off the bed and out into the room. “Yeah...fuck...urg,” he grunts, nine or ten more shots joining the first on the floor.

“Wow,” I say, looking over Conner’s shoulder. His spunk made it three-quarters of the way to the other bed. Charlie and Mike also seem impressed, if only for a moment. Charlie goes back to fucking his boyfriend, who presses his face into his pillow with a lustful moan.

Conner catches his breath, and then surprises me by saying, “I’m not done. Can I be on top of you now?”

“Er, of course,” I reply.

He pulls away from me, my dick popping out of him with a light plop. He pushes me over onto my back, and about a half second later is straddling me, my erection pushing up into his ass. He really likes this position, and you know what? It’s not half bad for me either.

Conner takes control, using his strong legs to lift himself up and down, causing my swelled cock to push in and out of him in rapid, satisfying thrusts. This is something else we’d gotten considerably better at – Conner was now so good at this position that he could do it and keep me inserted the whole time, where at first sometimes I’d clumsily pop out.

A fine sheen of sweat covers Conner’s torso, and I stare at his undulating body lustfully. This position feels more intense than most, but it also keeps me from cumming unless I’m way wound up. I reach out and put my hands on Conner’s slender hips, offering him support and enjoying the way his body feels like a machine pumping up and down atop me.

Did I say this position keeps me from cumming? Not always, as it turns out. Conner’s grunts of pleasure, the sweat dripping from his hair onto my overheating body, it’s all too much.

“Ohh...Conner...I’m getting close...too close...oh wow....”

Conner eyes me greedily. “It’s okay. Do it. Cum inside me. Fuck me and cum inside.”

“Oh...ah...Conner, I’m...I’m almost....too intense...wow, slow down...”

But he doesn’t. He goes faster and harder. “Shoot in me, Devon. Fucking fill me up. Ah...ah...ah...fucking fuck me...ah...yeah...yeah,” he pants.

I can’t...I can’t even think straight. It’s too much to take in, Conner’s firm chest, all red and coated in slick sweat, and the feel of his skin against my fingertips. And then there’s what he’s doing to me “down there,” his body hot and slick and wrapped around my cock just right. Oh...being inside him...it’s just so...good.

What does it is when he closes his eyes and bites his lower lip. Yep, that’s the trigger. Everything else, the slapping sounds our bodies make pressing together and the sweat and the moans, they help, but the lip-biting pushes me over the edge.

Way over it.

“Oh...Conner...UGH...FUCK...AHH!!!”

My entire body tenses and my hands fly to the bed on either side, grabbing fistfuls of sheet in tightly clenched fingers. I throw me head back with a barbaric moan, just as my first volley of jism flies out of my penis and deep into my boyfriend’s ass. I cum so hard it almost hurts...no, it definitely hurts, my cock pulsing and throbbing inside Conner as my brain erupts in pleasure.

“AHH...jeez...OH!” I hear from across the room. It’s Charlie, and I can tell he’s cumming, but I don’t look. I can’t look, my orgasm is too intense. My legs start to cramp, but I don’t give a fuck.

“Oh...oh...yeah...fucking do it!” Conner growls. And then he leans back, causing me to squeak as intolerable pleasure passes through my still-orgasming cock and young body. Conner’s dick, long and hard and proud, juts from his body, looking impossibly large and swollen.

“Ah...ah...ah,” he grunts lightly. And then he releases a guttural “ERGH!!”

And then he’s cumming again. Semen erupts from his cock once more, this time flying back over his shoulder and landing against the wall in a soggy splat. As is his way, he cums a lot despite the fact it’s his second load. At least ten other spurts coat his chest with dots of boy spunk, creating a constellation of salty lust.

“Holy freaking shit!” I laugh as we both struggle to catch our breath.

“I know, right?” Conner grins, gasping and panting.

“Feel better?” I ask.

I’m surprised when he shakes his head. I’m about to ask him what’s wrong when he gets up onto his knees. He then pulls me up too so that I’m directly behind him.

“What?” I ask, slightly confused.

Conner grunts and pushes his ass down toward my still-erect cock. What? You’ve got to be freaking kidding me.

I’d started to soften, but that process ceases when my boyfriend motions that he wants me to penetrate him again. I shrug, and a moment later I’m pounding away at him, Conner grunting and swearing under his breath uncharacteristically.

Charlie and Mike watch us wide-eyed. They’d never seen me fuck Conner before, and I make a mental note to later tell them it isn’t always like this. I have no idea what is with him today, but I’m not going to question it.

While I fuck Conner, apparently marching him toward his third orgasm of the morning, Charlie rolls Mike over onto his back. He goes down on his boyfriend, taking the curved shaft between his eager lips. Mike moans lustfully.

Conner leans forward to support himself better, and I continue fucking him doggie-style. My view of the other boys now unobstructed, I watch as Mike gets blown while Mike simultaneously watches me fuck Conner, our eyes locked onto one another.

“Mmmm....mmmm....mmmm,” Conner whimpers urgently. I know he’s close again. When he hits the edge I pull out, reaching under his lean body to grab hold of his cock. “Ungh!” he yells. His dick erupts just as I’m sliding my fingers over the slick tip, and as Conner pants and moans I relish the way his semen feels shooting from his cock into my fingers, all sticky and hot and wonderful.

He finishes and then collapses onto the bed, panting and groaning. It’s too much, this display of youthful vitality, and I find myself in urgent need of a second orgasm. Charlie and Mike seem to be in the same condition; in unspoken agreement we all three move to frantically jerk ourselves off, me using the natural lubricant just provided by my orgasming boyfriend.

“Oh...AHGH!” I grunt, delighting as I start cumming again.

“Yeah! OH!” Charlie yelps, spraying a second load onto his boyfriend’s tummy.

“Uh, uh, uh!” Mike moans, adding to Charlie’s spunk.

The three of us collapse onto our respective beds, the room filled with the sounds of four panting boys. The scent of spunk and sweat is tangy in the air, almost, but not quite, gross.

“Wow...you two...are...pretty...wild,” Charlie laughs, speaking to Conner.

My boyfriend, lying face-first on the bed, doesn’t speak for a moment. “Er, thanks,” he says eventually. I grin when his butt cheeks flush red.

“Yeah, that was amazing,” Mike says, looking down at where Conner’s spunk had hit the floor. “You made quite a mess.”

Conner sits up, looking sheepish. “Er, I’ll clean that up,” he says shyly.

“No rush,” Charlie shrugs.

I try not to giggle when I look around the room to take in the mess Conner’s made. His sperm is on the floor between the beds, and dripping down the wall behind us, and all over the sheets between us. My chest is sticky with it, as is my cock, and there are several smears of it across his body where he’s either spurted it onto himself or lain in it afterward.

Eventually the four of us pad off toward the showers, eager to clean up. The flat is empty; it’s still pretty early.

“Wow, Conner, that was something,” Charlie reiterates as four young bodies are rinsed of sweat and grime and spunk.

“Er thanks,” Conner replies, going crimson. Charlie looks at me and smiles his crooked smile, proud to have made Conner’s ass flush red. I smile back, thinking how much I like my friends.


* * * * *


My eyes flutter open and I find myself immediately disoriented. Part of me wants to smile, expecting to see Mike and Charlie cuddled up on the bed across the room, but when I see that it’s empty my brain begins to distinguish between dream and reality, and a nauseated feeling passes over me.

When my eyes adjust I notice Zane standing silently in the doorway. When he sees that I’m awake, he hesitates a moment, causing a jolt of fear to pass through my body. He must realize this, because he walks over to my bedside, leaning down to whisper, “Hey, everything’s okay. I didn’t know if I should wake you guys or not, but Doctor Hardy called. They just finished an examination, and she’s going to let you guys back to see him in a little bit.”

I glance down at Mike, who’s wrapped tightly around my midsection. Despite being asleep, he has a firm enough grasp that my right arm has gone numb and tingly. I wonder whether we should wake him; he looks rather haggard, even sleeping.

I decide that he will want to get into see Charlie as soon as possible, so I gently nudge his shoulder. His eyes flutter open, confused at first and then fearful.

“Everything’s okay. The doctor says you can see Charlie now,” I whisper when he seems coherent enough to understand what I’m saying.”

Mike stares at me blankly for a moment, and then glances over his shoulder at Zane, who nods affectionately and offers Mike a brief pat on the back. Without a word, Mike climbs out of bed, crossing the room to change into fresh clothes. He looks like he might start crying again, and seeing him like this almost makes me start crying too.

Zane and I share an uncomfortable look, both of us unsure about how to deal with Mike. I want to give him enough space, but I also want him to understand he’s not going through this alone. I get up and consider giving my friend a firm hug, but then resist, afraid this might be harder on him emotionally than helpful.

Once Mike and I have both changed we follow Zane into the living room. AJ and Nick are asleep on the couch, and although we try to be quiet we wake them. Zane updates them on Charlie’s condition, and while he does I run over to the kitchenette. I pour two large glasses of orange juice, returning to the living room to offer one to Mike. I’m concerned he might make himself sick not eating or drinking enough.

He accepts the glass feebly and sips at the juice. His expression remains neutral, but I can tell he’s straining to keep it together.

AJ asks if we want Nick and him to come with us, but Zane suggests they should get some more sleep. Leaving the flat, I find myself disoriented. My body insists that it’s three or four in the morning, although in reality it’s early afternoon. The concourses are crowded, but perhaps not as much so as they’d normally be. The mood on the ship seems muted, but I’m not sure whether this is my imagination or if things really are more somber.

“Hey, I’ve been waiting for you,” Ian says when we arrive at the waiting room. He’s standing in the doorway, and I look over his shoulder to see that the waiting area is considerably more crowded than it had been last night. Sean and Dog are still here, looking bleary-eyed and tired, as are Patrick and Reid. Several of the guys from our old flat are here as well, so that the waiting room feels a lot more cramped than it had before.

“I’ll take you back,” Ian says, after explaining that Doctor Hardy has said no more than two visitors. Zane pulls me aside before we head back.

“Mike isn’t doing so great,” he whispers, looking concerned.

“Yeah,” I agree, not sure what else to say.

“Just try and be as calm and supportive as you can. If you need anything, message me.”

I try to offer Zane the most appreciative look I can muster. “Thanks.”

Ian leads Mike and me through the restricted area, telling us that he wants to let Doctor Hardy fill us in on Charlie’s condition, although he does mention that Charlie’s numbers are stable. Before I can ask what he means by “numbers,” we arrive at a large octagon shaped room comprising a central nurses’ station ringed by intensive care rooms, each room divided from the common area by a doorway and large glass window.

It’s not hard to guess which room is Charlie’s. All of the rooms save one are dark and empty, their doors standing open and the curtains on their windows pulled back. One room is lit, with curtains drawn. Five or six doctors stand in a semi-circle outside the door to the room, speaking in hushed tones. Conner is there, his back turned to us, but I can tell from the way that he’s standing that he’s completely exhausted.

Doctor Hardy sits at a console in the nurses’ station, typing something on the computer there. When she notices us she smiles, gesturing that she’ll be right with us. She quickly finishes what she’s doing and comes over to where we’re standing.

“Here, let’s have a seat over here,” she says, motioning to a small alcove, where four upholstered chairs are arranged around a small coffee table. We take our seats, and I reflect that I feel a bit like a kid who’s just been sent to the principal’s office. I brace myself, my stomach going acidic and sour.

Doctor Hardy gets right to it, understanding that we’re not in the mood for small talk.

“First off, I’m very happy with his stats right now,” she says, sounding sincere. “He’s recovering from surgery pretty well, all things considered, and right now he’s stable. Blood pressure is good, and his blood work is where I’d like it. Liver and heart functions are good...in a nutshell, everything is stable right now. Our top priority is to keep him that way.”

“Does that mean...he’s okay?” I ask slowly.

Doctor Hardy pauses to consider how to answer this. Eventually she says, “Recovery is going to be a long road for Charlie. But he’s strong, and I’m optimistic.”

“What is the...um...course of care?” I ask. Mike is sitting next to me, looking dazed. I know he wants this information too, but he hasn’t spoken since we left the flat.

Doctor Hardy sits back in her seat, crossing one leg over the other. “What we’re doing right now is keeping his numbers in line while we give his body some time to heal. This morning we talked a little about the procedure I performed, and about giving the brain time to recover. This is the area where I’d like to see the most progress. Once the swelling in his brain goes down, we’ll go in and close his skull back up. Until this happens, like we talked about, it’s difficult to assess if there’s been any permanent damage.”

“Like brain damage?” I ask, feeling really stupid as soon as I’ve said it.

Doctor Hardy doesn’t seem to consider the question foolish, however. She nods. “Yes. I’m hopeful – we were able to perform the procedure relatively quickly and everything looked good in the O.R. But this is a tricky sort of injury, and it’s not easy to gauge potential damage right away. It’s possible there is none, or very little, but I have to be honest with you, it’s also possible that he might suffer considerable permanent damage. That assessment is just going to take time, as frustrating as that is.”

I feel sick upon hearing the doctor’s words, and Mike makes a feeble little whimpering sound.

“It’s important that we stay optimistic,” Doctor Hardy says compassionately, seeing how the news is affecting us. “Your friend is young, and strong, and everything I’m seeing indicates that he’s fighting to get better.”

“Okay,” I agree. I feel tears forming in the corners of my eyes, but I try to stay calm for Mike’s sake.

“So, before we take you to see him, I want to prepare you a little. Seeing a patient in intensive care can be confusing, so I always find it best to explain what you’ll be seeing. Like we spoke about earlier, Charlie is in a coma, so it will appear that he’s sleeping. He won’t be responsive, but I always like to think that patients still know their loved ones are around, which is why I allow and encourage visitors.

“For the most part, we have him covered with blankets and special heating pads to keep him warm, which can look a little weird. He has several injuries to his right side, and you’re going to see that we’ve left one wound open. This can be a little shocking, but it’s not uncommon for a patient with this type of injury. As he gets stronger we’ll work to repair any damage to his organs, but for right now I want to let him gather some strength. Leaving the wound open gives us access if we need to get in there. There’s some additional shrapnel still there, but none of it is threatening right now. I want Charlie to have some time to heal before we undertake further removing it or repairs.”

Mike and I shift in our seats uncomfortable. I think back to a splinter I’d gotten a few weeks back. It had driven me insane from the moment I’d noticed it until I’d pulled it out of my palm. I shiver, incapable of dealing with the thought of having a gaping wound to my side left open.

Doctor Hardy continues, “The most frightening looking thing, however, is the head trauma, and I want to address this before we take you back. As you know, we removed a portion of Charlie’s skull to allow the brain to swell. This is exactly what’s happened, and I want to assure you that everything you’re going to see in there is normal. It’s very off-putting to see a patient in this condition, especially the first time. Right now Charlie’s brain is swelling beyond his skull, and this can look a little scary. But I want to be very clear – it’s doing exactly what it needs to be doing to heal, and there isn’t any reason to be alarmed.”

“H-How long? How long will it be like that?” I ask feebly.

“Probably a couple of days,” Doctor Hardy says. “And that gets to your question about course of care. We’re going to give Charlie some time, and we want to see the swelling go down. Once this happens and he is strong enough to withstand another surgery, I’ll go in and suture the bone I removed back on. We’ll then give him some time to recover from that, and if everything goes well we’ll be in a position to tackle the lesser injuries one by one.”

“Uh, that sounds like a lot of recovery,” I say.

Doctor Hardy nods. “It is. And there’s going to be a lot of waiting. I won’t lie to you, the waiting and seeing is going to be pretty difficult to deal with...more for us than Charlie. But again, I’m hopeful that the prospects for recovery are good. He will be under twenty-four hour care. For now I’m going to keep both a nurse and a doctor with him around the clock. As we progress, I’ll keep you updated. Anyone assigned to this unit will be solely assigned to Charlie. Everyone on my team is very good, both at caring for the patient and understanding what you’re going through. They’re happy to answer any of your questions, and so long as you let everyone do their jobs when they need to, we’re happy to have you back here.”

“We can...you allow visitors all the time?” I’m not sure my question makes sense, but Doctor Hardy nods and seems to understand what I’m asking.

“Yes, I like to keep an open door policy,” she says. “So long as you abide by my rules, which are pretty straightforward. For right now I don’t want more than two people in the room with him at any one time. I’ll let you manage whether you want to let others visit, and I’m okay with a third person being out here in this area if you work out some sort of rotation, but I really need to stress that there can only be two visitors in that room at a time.”

“Got it,” I say.

“I’m also not a fan of visiting hours,” Doctor Hardy continues. “Kicking people out at ten pm is just...well, I’ve never been a fan of that. Once things calm down a little, I’ll have Nurse Whedon move two sleeper chairs into the room. I always recommend getting some sleep in your own beds, but if you want to stay overnight with him you’re certainly welcome to.”

Doctor Hardy pauses, and I ask, “If we stay, there will be nurses around, right? I mean...in case.”

She nods affirmatively. “Yes. We’ll be set up right here. I’ll have a nurse in the room with him around the clock, and then I’ll have one of the doctors staffed out here for the foreseeable future. This is also a learning facility, given your ship population, so we’ll probably have some others around during the day. I want Doctor Moreno to use this as an opportunity to teach the other staff about this type of care.”

Doctor Hardy covers a few more points about visitation, and then asks, “Okay, I think that’s enough preparation for one afternoon. Are you ready to see your friend?”

My heart pounds a little faster at the question. Following all the discussion, I’m not really sure how I feel about seeing Charlie. I want to be there for him, but I also have to prepare myself for seeing him hurt.

When Mike stands he looks a little wobbly, and I think about what Zane said to me. I put an arm over his shoulder, offering him both figurative and literal support. He leans into me, and I notice that he seems somehow smaller than usual.

Doctor Hardy steps across the central space toward the door to Charlie’s room and we follow. The doctors notice us and move to the side, all except Conner, who offers me a firm hug before embracing Mike in the same manner. My boyfriend looks at me, his eyes tired and mournful, but hopeful, but we don’t say anything – I’m not sure there’s anything to say.

Conner follows us into Charlie’s room, probably more in his capacity as boyfriend than doctor, and I’m glad to have him here.

I stifle a sob when we enter, seeing Charlie for the first time. All the things Doctor Hardy warned us about, her speech about what to expect, I immediately discover that it did absolutely nothing to prepare me for what we find.

As we were warned, Charlie is lying in bed covered by what appears to be a mountain of white blankets. A metal device on the right side of the bed holds the bedding away from a section of our friend’s torso, where a gaping wound sits open in his side, offering a horrid view into Charlie’s torn up body. I can...I can see his insides, and I fight the involuntary urge to vomit.

Even worse is Charlie’s head, which is too wretched to describe...to even think about. It’s been completely shaved, the skin burned in several ugly red patches. A dreadful hole sits open on the right side of his head, and a large brown slimy-looking ball protrudes from the opening, sitting on Charlie’s head like some askew, grotesque hat. Charlie’s face is sallow and yellowed, and his eyes are closed. He looks...small...somehow, and frail. But Doctor Hardy was wrong about one thing. He doesn’t look asleep at all – my friend looks dead.

I’m not the only one unprepared for this. The shock and stress, it’s all too much for Mike, and it culminates in an immediate fit of frantic, heaving sobs. He collapses onto the floor, so distraught that he’s unable to remain standing.

I immediately plop down next to Mike, wrapping my arm around his shoulder once again. His grief is too much for me, and tears flow freely down my cheeks. I’m surprised when Doctor Hardy sits on the floor directly in front of us. She looks at us both with compassion and understanding in her eyes, and I sense that it genuinely hurts her to see us in pain like this. Taking Mike’s hand into hers, she attempts to calm him.

“Hey, hey,” she says soothingly. Mike fights to compose himself, and if not able to stop crying completely he at least stops weeping. “Here, I want to show you something,” she says, standing and motioning for us to do the same.

Mike sniffles, and then does as she requests. We follow her to the left side of Charlie’s bed. All around us machines beep and chirp and whir, a confusing and somewhat intimidating symphony in the otherwise silent room.

Charlie’s left arm sits to his side on the surface of the bed. Gently, Doctor Hardy takes the comatose boy’s hand into hers and then gestures for Mike to do the same. “Do you feel that?” she asks.

“H-He’s warm,” Mike replies, nodding.

“Yes, yes he is. He’s warm, and he’s alive. That’s the warmth of a boy who’s fighting to get better. It’s going to be a long, hard fight, but he doesn’t need to do it all alone. You can help, by being here, and by being strong for him.”

“O-Okay,” Mike says. Tears stream down his cheeks, but he keeps his composure, looking like a soldier who’s just been handed a solemn and all-important duty.

Doctor Hardy steps back, leaving Mike to hold Charlie’s hand. I move into position next to my friend and put an arm around him. We stare down at Charlie, trying to keep the fear and uncertainty in check with a fierce determination that he will...must...get better.

I’m not sure how long we stand there that first afternoon. The world around us is a blur, doctors and nurses entering and leaving the room in a constant confusing shuffle. Conner appears now and then, offering us bottled water and then later protein bars. I accept these gratefully, and then make Mike eat his despite his initial refusal to do so. It feels like we’ve been standing by Charlie’s bedside for only a few minutes when Ian brings two folding chairs into the room. I notice that it’s after eight pm, and that my feet are suddenly sore and tired.

Mike and I sit, and resume our vigil. Ian leaves to report back to the waiting room, and the night nurse, a middle-aged woman named Terry, appears, checking the various machines in the room with fastidious precision. She chats with us as she does, explaining what each machine does and what each number means. She assures us that the numbers all look good, and even goes over some of her goals for the night, which include keeping Charlie’s blood pressure within a specific range and getting some of his blood chemistry numbers up or down, depending on Doctor Hardy’s specific instructions.

All the while, Charlie lies silently in the bed, his chest rising and falling feebly with each breath. Around us the machines and monitors beep away in a constant cacophonous rhythm. I panic anytime anything changes – whenever an alarm goes off earlier than I expect, or if the numbers on Charlie’s monitors shift perceptibly.

The evening grows late, and then night comes. Ian ultimately rolls a sleeper chair into the room, a distinctly medicinal looking piece of furniture that has the ability to recline. He leaves and then returns with a second chair moments later.

He says he’s been sent off-duty for some sleep, and before leaving he insists we get some rest tonight. I agree, and not long after he’s left I roll one of the chairs next to Charlie’s bedside, putting it into position so that Mike can lie in it while still holding his boyfriend’s hand. Eventually exhaustion overcomes him, and around three in the morning he falls asleep in this position.

I scoot my sleeper into the far corner of the room so that I’ll be out of the way of the nurses and doctors, who are still rotating through the room in a steady stream, albeit less frequently. I sit, wondering whether I should stay awake, lest Mike get up and need me. I ponder things in my head, wondering what the future will bring. I cry lightly now and then, sometimes daydreaming that Charlie is magically better and then sometimes envisioning myself in black funeral clothes. I stay awake that night, feeling that I need to be alert. Mike doesn’t get much sleep and wakes up in the early dawn. I tell him everything that had happened while he slept, which wasn’t much. We push the sleepers into a back corner and set the smaller folding chairs up next to Charlie’s bed, resuming our watch over him.

The next forty-eight hours are much the same. Mike and I stay by Charlie’s side around the clock, which is both comforting and terrifying. The doctors come and go with an aura of determined professionalism, but we find the nurses to be a little friendlier and more talkative. Occasionally I think about the waiting room, and wonder whether we should bring anyone else back to see Charlie.

Mike is a little better sometimes, and then he gets a little worse. Charlie remains more or less the same, and we find ourselves growing overly excited or fearful about very minute changes in his condition. The swelling doesn’t seem to diminish, and Charlie’s brain remains horrifically extended outside his skull. Doctor Hardy reassures us about this, but I feel like there’s concern swirling just behind her tired eyes.

The morning after our second night sleeping in the room, I suggest that some of our other friends might want to see Charlie.

“If that’s okay,” I say. “I’ll have Zane organize things out in the waiting room, and we can have one person at a time come back here. Doctor Hardy says I can wait out in the alcove...in case you need anything. We don’t have to, but maybe you’d like to see some of our friends?”

“Yeah, I’d like that,” Mike says, nodding. It’s the most he’s said all day.

I realize that I stink – toweling off next to the sink in his room wasn’t cutting it. I tell Mike I really want to take a shower and clean up. “IS that okay? Is there anyone I can have come back while I do?”

“Dog,” Mike says, his face neutral.

“Hey, I can stay if you need me to,” I offer. Mike shakes his head wanly.

I consider remaining, but I knew the other guys had been wanting to come back to see Charlie. I message Dog, asking if he’d be up to staying with Mike while I take care of some stuff. A few minutes later he enters the main room, waving to me from the alcove.

“How is he?” he asks when I go out to greet him.

“Better,” I reply, not really sure if we’re talking about Charlie or Mike. I glance back to the room, noticing that the only thing you can see from the nurses’ station is a line of machines and monitors.

Doctor Hardy’s explanations before taking us to see Charlie hadn’t mitigated all of the shock, but I decided it had been helpful. I do the same with Dog, carefully explaining everything he’ll see back there. My friend tears up as I talk about Charlie’s condition, but he doesn’t start crying. I just feel numb, like every possible emotion has been completely drained from my body, and that maybe I’ll never feel anything ever again.

“If you can, also watch Mike. He’s...just to warn you, he’s constantly on the verge of losing it. I think he’s okay for right now, but it doesn’t take much to set him off. Call me if anything happens.”

Dog hugs me firmly and kisses me on the cheek before heading to Charlie’s room, taking a deep breath to prepare himself when he does.

Feeling somewhat bad about leaving Charlie and Mike, I navigate out of the restricted areas. At the last minute, I realize that I’m not up to facing everyone, so I take an alternate route, bypassing the waiting area and exiting the hospital on a different floor.

The open air of the concourse feels oppressive and restrictive somehow. Like processed or something. For the first time in months, I’m acutely aware of being on a spaceship, and not overly happy about the fact. I need sunshine right now, or something to indicate things are going to get better. I daydream briefly about jumping in the Pacific Ocean, ready for a day of surfing, and in my exhaustion my brain grows slightly confused over whether I’m really here or there. I get dizzy and stop to catch my breath.

“Devon!” a voice calls to me from behind. I turn to see Zane jogging to catch up to me. “Sheesh, didn’t you hear me calling you?” he asks when he does.

I shake my head. “Sorry.”

Zane cocks his head, looking at me curiously. “Hey, no problem. You okay?”

I shrug. “No. Yes. Maybe. Best as can be expected.”

“I was waiting for you back in the hospital, but you never came out.”

“I...I just wasn’t up to seeing everyone,” I explain, feeling somewhat lame.

Zane sees how tired I am and offers an understanding smile. “Hey, no problem. I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You going to get some sleep?”

I shake my head. “No. I feel like I should be there...for Mike. He’s still pretty messed up. I’m just going to grab a shower while some of the other guys see Charlie.”

Zane nods, and then suggests that I need a hot meal. To be honest, he’s not wrong. The twenty or so protein bars I’d eaten over the last two days were...let’s just say I was getting sick of protein bars. Still, I’m tired and stinky and not really in the mood to put up with the atmosphere up in the cafeteria.

“Okay...how about you go shower, and I’ll bring something down for you?” Zane suggests.

The idea is actually very appealing, and I tell him so. He shuffles off to get me some food. I don’t tell him what I want, but expect he’ll know anyway, returning with chicken fingers and mac and cheese.

I try to scald the exhaustion from my body with an extra-hot shower, but it doesn’t work. When I exit the bathroom, my skin beet red, I find Zane in the living area, several plates heaped with food.

“I wasn’t sure what you felt like,” he says. He’s brought back the pasta I want, and also fish tacos...and about twenty other entrees.

I dress and then return to the living room, plopping down onto the couch. My body has a brief but fierce argument about whether I’m more hungry or tired, and hungry wins out. I lay into the spread Zane’s brought for me, starting with devouring a quarter of a roasted chicken. The meat tastes salty and comforting, and I immediately begin feeling a little better. I move on to an oversized bowl of creamy mac and cheese, relishing the taste and wonderful saltiness of it.

Zane just sits back, watching me greedily gulp down my food. “Wow, you were hungry,” he marvels.

We don’t say much, even when I’m done eating. There’s something comforting about this, the way we can sit in silence, enjoying one another’s company without speaking. But then I do, needing to express something to my friend.

“Zane?” I try to put emphasis on his name, indicating I want to ask him something important.

He gets it, sitting up in his seat and looking me in the eye. “Yeah?”

“What you said before, when we went to see Aden, about how we need to catch whoever did this no matter what. You were serious about that, right?”

He takes a deep breath, and then says, “Yeah, totally. I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life.”

I think about the past couple of days, and about everything that’s happened. In the corner of the room I spot a pile of birthday presents – presents I’d never opened. Someone had brought them back to the flat, and now they sat in a disheveled pile, no longer the shining symbol of vitality and celebration they had been at the party. Now they just looked gaudy and sad.

I think about Charlie, and how he’s currently lying in a hospital bed, fighting for his life. I consider that someone caused that to happen, and a tinge of rage and frustration courses through my exhausted body.

“Good,” I say. “Because someone did this to Charlie, and they did it on purpose.” I stab at the remaining chicken on my plate, my temper flaring.

Zane looks at me, his brown eyes sad, lacking any of their usual humor. He doesn’t say anything for a long moment, and then he just nods.

I think about what I’m feeling briefly, and then I say, “When we figure out who did this, I’m going to kill them.”



To be continued...



Author’s End Notes

Soundtrack: I assign a song for each chapter. If you put them together, you have a soundtrack for the story. The song for this chapter is Hometown Glory by Adele. Check it out on the Yahoo Group site. I chose it because I wanted a song that had an appropriate tone for this chapter. I am a sucker for rolling, low piano rhythms and a great voice. So I went searching, with some help from my friend, and this beat out the other contenders, hands down. It’s moody, beautiful, hopeful, sad, mysterious...I just love it for this chapter.

This chapter deals with the days following Charlie’s injury, which you know if you’ve read this far. I’ve received, I don’t know – two hundred? – e-mails asking how I could hurt Charlie and why (a majority of these may have been from a very good friend in France, who I particularly upset with the last chapter).

For now, I’ll let everything that’s happened in this chapter stand on its own, but I promise to make some notes about this story arc in one of the future chapters, once things are more resolved one way or the other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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