The silence seemed to stretch on forever.
In reality, Meg's fall had happened so quickly that, initially, no one else moved or uttered a sound. Then Lynda realized she was hanging precariously and started to struggle. The rope pulled and jerked up into her ribs and threatened to rip her arms from her shoulders. As time speeded up, she screamed in pain. That opened the floodgates.
"Oh God, Meg!"
"Lem! Did you see - "
"No, sir, she's gone - move fast, the other girl's slipping."
Lynda couldn't tell who was saying what above her. She wasn't really listening, she was seeing absolutely nothing except the fading circles and stars that had burst across her retinas when the rope harness snapped into an agonizing cinch around her, and the slide clamp gripped shut around the trawl line.
"Lynda? Dear God - "
"Harkness! Pull her up! Now!"
Lynda scrabbled with her hands above her head, trying instinctively to catch hold of the rope and relief the lariat's knifelike pressure. She started to kick, as if she could somehow swim upwards to safety. The momentum simply threw her into an uncontrolled looping swing, and she slammed into the lift, bouncing from a flange into the shaft wall, and out again. She couldn't even gasp; the stars flared again, yellow and black-limned red. The rope pulled up further across her chest, forcing and scraping its way halfway past her shoulders. She cried out.
"No good. Send her down," Hsieh grunted to Jack.
"Lynda, stop kicking. Stop grabbing for the rope. We'll get you." Jack's voice was flat and insistent. He spoke with a slow precision that reached her through the confusion of other voices.
She couldn't bring her arms down, she discovered, without the pain threatening to make her pass out. But she forced herself to as much stillness as she could. Her vision cleared. She looked up. Her trajectory had swung her around so that she was looking at Jack and Hsieh. Jack nodded.
"Good girl. Now listen, sweetheart, we're going to lower you down. It'll be easier on you that pulling you up. You keep your eyes open. Watch for Lem. Lem?"
"Get her in."
"Alright. Lynda, you ready?"
She couldn't say anything; her head was whirling with pain-induced nausea.
"Lynda?" He almost hid the frantic note in his voice.
"Yeah, I'm here," she got out. "Lower me."
She sucked in a breath, then waited out the descent. She watched the first ledge below her grow in her sight. Now she was past it, heading toward the second ledge. Her ribs ached, but Hsieh and Jack were lowering her so carefully that the earlier knifelike pain receded.
She saw Lem looking up and reaching for her. One more meter, and Lem grabbed her, pulled her to the rail, then unceremoniously hauled her over it. Lynda collapsed on the floor.
"You're all right, ma'am," Lem said. "You're all right."
"Meg," Lynda whispered. "I - she just slipped...I couldn't - I - "
"You didn't do anything wrong," Lem said, kneeling and moving Lynda's arms away from her sides. The little security guard moved with efficiency, and slipped the rope free of her torso. "Let's get you away from the rail. Here. Sit over here." Lem's wiry strength moved Lynda when she couldn't move herself.
Meg's eyes. She couldn't see anything else. They hadn't looked accusatory, she had seen no blame in them. She shut her own, and continued to fight her stomach. Her wounded cheek burned.
Someone sat down beside her.
"Oh my God, Lynda." Govinda, complexion as pale as it could blanch, touched her arm. "Are you OK?"
She opened her eyes. "No."
The other woman flung an arm around Lynda's shoulder.
The rope hissed; Jack was down and heading their way almost before he divested himself of the harness. He knelt by Govinda. A quick jerk of his head, little more than movement of his eyes, and she got the message.
"Look love, take it easy. I'll be right over there," she told Lynda, squeezing her shoulder and looking hard at Jack. He didn't acknowledge the stare so she rose, her mouth moving as if she had to bite down hard on what she wanted to say.
Jack examined Lynda's face.
"I don't know," she said. "She moved too fast."
"Are you alright?"
She just looked at him.
"Yeah," he agreed, then looked away. She shut her eyes again.
"Harkness." Hsieh had made it. He helped Lem pull the ropes in and coil them. While she packed them back in her kit, he walked over to the others. "We can't stay here long."
The Captain's face was a study in granite as he stood to talk, but his eyes moved from Hsieh to the shaft and back, a constant journey.
"Do you know what's down there?"
"No," Hsieh said. "No specs. No idea."
"Fuck." Govinda swore. "I wish I had a fag."
Lynda felt cold and heavy.
"Is there any chance - " Jack started again.
"Harkness, listen," the security chief interrupted Jack almost gently. "I can't imagine anything there that could have cushioned her fall. I'm sorry. You've got to know I'm sorry."
Jack took a breath, blew it out. "Then we go on."
"Can't we, I don't know...can't we at least find out where she landed?" Govinda spoke as she paced, something she could do on this ledge. It was easily twice the size of the one they'd left, with two exits. One to the left lay open and dark. The other was the metal door of a small utility elevator cab.
Lem stepped back to the rail and looked down.
"Sir, there's a light down there," she said without turning her head. "I don't think it was there before."
"Shit." Jack ran his fingers through his hair. "Everyone - Lem, Govinda, help Lynda up. Into the cab."
Instead, Govinda joined Lem at the railing. "What light?"
Lynda levered herself up. She walked stiffly over to the other two women, drawn despite herself to the edge.
There was indeed a light in the depths of the shaft, where there had previously been darkness. It was pale, little more than a misty pin prick, but it definitely hadn't been there when Meg fell. Lynda's heart lurched.
Govinda said it before she could: "Harkness - Jack...that could be her! It could be Meg. I mean, what else could it be?"
"Well, I suppose she could have tripped some sort of light-based alarm when her body...as she went down," Hsieh said, cautiously. He'd followed Lynda, leaving Jack alone against the shaft wall. He looked down, narrowing his eyes as he tried to penetrate the murk. Then he shook his head. "Nothing more than that, I'm afraid."
Govinda hit the railing with both fists. "Are we going to write her off, then? That's it? We're not going to check?"
"We can't," Hsieh sounded frustrated and anxious. "I don't have the plans. I can't take us down there. Not that far."
"We're already heading in that direction; why can't we take the time to..." Govinda stopped, suddenly aware of her tears. "Christ." She angrily wiped at her eyes.
"I'm not sure I like the idea of tripping any alarm, no matter how automatic," Jack said, walking, finally, to join the rest of them. He was still unreadable. "If she - if an alarm was tripped, where does that get flagged?"
"In this shaft? I'm pretty sure nothing would register on the regular grids, even if they were working properly."
Jack look gratified at Hsieh's words, and tapped his lips with an index finger before resuming: "Fine. That moves investigating the light to the bottom of my to-do list."
He rolled his shoulders and pulled at the back of his neck with one hand, then straightened up and captured them with one grim look.
(He'd told them to be quiet. If you hear us fighting up there - if you hear us dying up there - he'd said, enraged at the crowd's sullen and inert terror. They'd heard his advice unwillingly, with more fear than they had accorded word of the Daleks. And she'd followed him into the lift, up into death.)
"I wish I could say or do something to change what's happened. I can't. And things like this...look, if I tell you things like this happen, I know that makes me sound like a perfect bastard." He smiled mirthlessly. "I'm not - I'm an imperfect bastard. And I'd gladly cut off my right arm if that'd bring Meg back."
The breath he drew was ragged. "It won't. So please don't make me say anything more about this. The fact is we can't stay here, we can't go down there, and we can't go back without getting what we started this joyride to get. We do what we set out to do. And we've got to make it fast."
Lynda stared at the floor. He was right, but she didn't care. How could she go with them? How could they stand to have her anywhere around them? She wanted to believe she deserved to be there, that she didn't deserve to have fallen along with Meg, but she couldn't shake that conviction. How must it have felt to fall? It was her fault. She'd convinced Meg to step out, she'd told her it would be fine, that everything would be fine -
She clapped a hand over her mouth, as her stomach tried to empty itself and she fought it to a standstill.
"We should call the others," Govinda said.
"No," Hsieh said, looking briefly to Jack, and apparently getting the direction he wanted. "We keep comm silence. Time enough to tell them when we get back."
There seemed to be nothing else to say, and on some unvoiced signal, they walked together to the elevator cab. Lem flipped a switch next to the door, and it slipped open, long unused parts squealing in protest. A ceiling light flickered on. The five of them crammed themselves in. At least their shrinking numbers allowed them to make the next leg of their journey as one group, Lynda thought. She resisted the unexpected and obscene impulse to laugh. Lem slapped the tarnished metal button on the cab wall. The doors closed, and it rumbled into the lower levels.
No one spoke as they headed down. Govinda rubbed her temples, Lem checked the contents of her apparently bottomless belt kits, Hsieh looked straight through the doors, and Jack evidently didn't realize he was chewing the cuticle of one index finger until he flinched. Lynda looked; he had bitten too close and had drawn blood. He stared at it, fascinated.
Five minutes on, the cab jerked to a stop.
"Next stage," Lem said, punching the bottom. When the doors opened - less of a whine now - she gave an odd little hand flourish, as if she was a store walker on display duty, with just the hint of a smile. Jack looked surprised as her action flushed a faint, but real, chuckle from him.
The ledge looked no different than the one they'd left, but this belt lift was bigger. With only the slightest hint of hesitation, Jack and Hsieh moved forward to the rail. They helped Lem unpack the trawl and slide lines. As before, the security woman tied herself into the impromptu harness and headed down first, once the lift lurched into movement.
"No other way, folks," Jack addressed that to Govinda and Lynda, who were hanging back near the rear of the ledge.
"I know that," Lynda said. "It's just hard."
"There's understatement for you," Govinda said. "I'd say I'll be damned before I ride on one of those again, but I suppose that's already a fait accompli."
"With all due respect, ma'am," Hsieh said heavily, "that's bollocks."
Govinda was momentarily nonplussed, until Hsieh continued.
"Look, I know this is bloody awful. We all know it. But it's giving in to talk like that, yeah?"
"Right," Jack said, his facade cracking as he spread his hands in swift placation, "She's just tired. She knows, Hsieh. Don't you, 'Vinda?"
"I don't know, Harkness," Govinda said. "Sure it sounds stupid - sounded that way coming out of my mouth, I know it. But...but what the hell are we doing?"
"We're going on. We swim or die."
The programmer shook her head at his words, then massaged both temples again. "That's how you do it?" she asked him. "You just keep going?"
"Absolutely. Maybe. I don't know." His eyes were hooded with one more momentary surrender to exhaustion. "Dying's had a way of convincing me that I want to live. A long, long time."
"Yeah," Govinda said quietly, measuring something in his face. "Something to live for. Davitch...well, I guess I have to get back to keep him in line." With that, she wiped a last trace of moisture from her cheeks, tilted her chin, then carefully smoothed her blouse and skirt. "Is Lem down?"
"Just now," Hsieh said, peering over the railing. "Just a moment...alright...got it? Lem - ah, there we go." He turned. "Do you want to go next? You have to step on this one as it moves; I don't think the switch does the stop and start thing."
"Fine, yeah, whatever." Govinda took off her shoes again, tucking them back into her waistband. "Dunno why, but I always feel safer in my bare feet...which I have to do now, since the stockings are now officially shot to hell."
They waited as Hsieh hauled up the slide line and settled it around her waist. He very carefully pushed her hands away from the knots. "Let me handle this, Ms Pol."
"Don't you think we know each other well enough by this point in the tour to leave the honorifics behind?"
His raised eyebrow wasn't quite as impressive as hers, or the Captain's, but his voice was suitably dry.
"Suppose so. Let me handle it. Govinda."
While they spoke, Lynda edged her way closer to the end of the rail farthest from the belt lift. She was still fighting nausea, and a sporadic doubling of vision that had been going on since Meg's plunge and her own painful recovery.
(Fear shot through her with a bright jet of adrenaline as she felt her weightless fall begin. Everything flashed white around her, in her head, and her vision cleared only in time to see Meg's calm eyes watching her from farther and farther away. Somewhere inside her something howled, something else laughed and spoke in soft liquid syllables that faded almost before she heard them.)
The light was still there, she noted, brighter now. She watched it carefully, and fancied she saw a very slight pulsation...maybe once a second, possibly slightly faster. She congratulated herself on her dispassionate observation, which also included the vaguely pleasant realization that her nausea had receded. She tried looking away, then thought she should continue watching that light. Just in case. Even though, really, she didn't know what she was looking for. The light continued to pulse.
She turned, almost unseeing. Jack had walked up behind her. She jumped when he touched her shoulders, but stilled when she looked into his eyes. The shaft's dusk should have made them opaque, but there was something in them that she could see -
(shades of rust and burnt ochre, faded blood and muted flame)
"Who are you?" she whispered. "Why do you have my eyes?"
Jack tensed, looking, had he known it, like a hunted animal seeking its attacker. Or, again, like the predator itself.
"Lynda, come back. Come on, sweetheart," he said, maintaining a gentle grip on her and speaking low. "It's me, Jack. What are you seeing, honey?"
"I...Jack?" Lynda stirred. Nausea rolled over her again as the odd double vision surged, and something that felt very like a nail stabbed at her behind each of her eyes. When her sight steadied, she saw Jack's own blue eyes. "I dunno, I saw something - "
She shook her head to free it of the pain and looked about in confusion. Jack hadn't had to lower his voice, she saw; Hsieh had gone ahead, and they were alone.
He was taking her seriously. Why?
It wasn't her imagination. Jack knew something, or felt something, else why was he clutching at her shoulders so painfully, why was he staring so?
He looked down, and turned to stone. She returned her eyes gratefully to the light as well, and felt the nausea fade again.
They could have watched it for a second, or a century. Her only clue, as something stubborn in her forced her to avert her gaze, was that no one from the ledge below had called out to them, wondering at their absence.
Lynda shifted in Jack's grasp, and very lightly touched his face. He shivered, and reluctantly turned from the abyss to scrutinize her.
Could she speak?
"The light, it's...in our eyes," she finally managed.
She blinked rapidly. Did she mean that?
(Nononono, no death, no more, live, livelivelive)
"Jack, it hurts - "
"Lynda, answer me. Now. What did you see?"
"I saw that light down there. It's something I saw in...in your eyes. It was in mine, too. I mean, I saw it in the mirror, back at the apartment. Like...I dunno...like...."
He looked afraid. "What was it like?"
She shied, catching his fear, and refused to speak.
"Lynda, for the love of god," he pleaded. When she tried to pull away, he caught at her shoulders again, and started to shake her.
"Jack, stop it!"
He did, shame briefly replacing the glowing shadows in his eyes.
"Please. What was it like?"
She tilted her head curiously, even though doing so sent the shaft whirling around her. The way he'd said that. He didn't ask what it was, just what it was like. As if it couldn't be just any one thing, she abruptly realized.
And the answer came.
"A sea of blood and gold flame," she said breathlessly, feeling the words flow from her as if they were some stranger's. "Impossible to name because it was impossible to control."
The world spun faster and faster around her, and the next answer flooded her mind as inexorably as an ocean. "No! I can name it, Jack, I can!" Now it was her grabbing his shoulders, trying to stay conscious long enough to give him the truth.
"It was her! It was Rose!"
(Rose as red as blood, gold as the sun, sweeping across the sky...a beast in her eyes...)
Jack staggered back from Lynda, his hands grabbing at his head. He cried out in agony. So did she.
They went down together into the darkness.
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