UHS: If This Is Love…

Steven Bergom

Wednesday May 8, 2418

"If you don't pay attention to what you're doing, Kevin, I'm just going to let you drop that barbell on your neck!" Despite his threat Thomas Above, resident assistant to the fourth floor of dormitory A, kept his hands protectively under the bar of the freeweights Kevin was pressing. "Two more and we'll call it a set, okay?"

Kevin, his face red with strain, glared at Thom incredulously. "Two more? You want two more?! Fine!" With that Kevin pumped the iron weights twice and let the bar clank back onto the stand, breathing heavily from the exertion. "There! Does that satisfy your requirements."

Refusing to be baited Thom calmly released the clamps holding the iron discs in place and began adding more to the bar. Working quietly his muscles rippled beneath bluish-black fur and his jackal's face didn't react when Kevin muttered, "Show-off!"

"If you want to see a show-off, lift with Phil sometime," Thom replied. "He may look the cute little lady when he's dressed up in public, but but those breasts aren't all fatty tissue: they're built on top of some huge pectorals. He puts the both of us to shame. Together even!"

"Yeah, but it's been a while since he — and you — have had the Myrtraal monkeying around you're bodies. It seems like every week or two I get 'tweaked', like I'm a car and the little grey boys are the mechanics!" Kevin slapped at the bench in frustration when he got up to swap places with Thom. "And I don't think anyone else has gone through as much as I have. I'm still trying to get used to the fact that I'm a half meter taller than I used to be! Why won't they give me a rest?"

"Kevin, like you said, the Myrtraal have been screwing with your body more than anyone else. Why? I don't know. Maybe it's because you came to the university later than most of us. You had most of an education already when me and everyone else had none, so I can understand why your transformation would be faster than the rest of us. Then again, maybe the Myrtraal have something planned for you and it's going to take a lot of work. I don't know the answer to that mystery but what I do know is that you've already managed to take all that they've thrown at you and shrugged it off like a real trooper.

"But that's not for here and now," Thom said, checking his gloves before laying back on the bench and positioning his hands on the bar above his head. "Right now, I need a spotter, and you are more than adequate for the task."

They finished their final set and visited several of the other weight stations in the spacious gym before ending their session with five laps around the track. They were both covered in sweat by this time and Kevin swore up and down that Thom smelled faintly of wet dog. Of course, Thom argued strenuously that the smell was only his head, but since the head contained the brain, master of all sensory filters, Thom was fighting a rear-guard action. Eventually they both agreed that they were pretty rank when more than a few people stayed to the far wall as they passed in the hallways. The showers were their first stop before they headed to the cafeteria for lunch.

They finished bathing, walked to the cafeteria exchanging pleasantries with occasional passers-by, retrieved their meals to an empty table and began discussing a subject that has crossed the lips of billions of college students over the centuries. "So, what do your classes look like for the next semester?"

"Same old stuff," Kevin responded around a mouthful of a substance that vaguely resembled lasagne. "Linear algebra, quantum mechanics, medieval history… Oh! and they've got me down for a new class they call Martial Studies."

Thom did a double-take when he heard the course title, dropping his fork to the floor where it clattered loudly. "What?! You've gotta' be kidding me; the Myrtraal know nothing about war! As far as I've been able to figure out, they don't have a violent bone in their bodies; they're scientists! When the colonists first met up with the Myrtraal at Epitychia the humans reached for their side-arms and the Myrtraal reached for their test-tubes." Thom winced when he realized the unintended meaning of his last sentence. Looking at Kevin's overly lanky body and his own furred arms he amended, "Current conditions notwithstanding. Please tell me the course is not what I think it's about…?"

Kevin shrugged. "Can't tell you much except what I've read from the syllabus so far. Tactics and stuff. It actually looks interesting, if a little unexpected from a group of grey midgets with mouths on their stomaches."

"But tactics…"

"Are really nothing more than mathematical modeling and human psychology distilled to an art form. Look, it's probably only something they're trying out. There's only going to be about half a dozen of us in the class so…" again he shrugged, unable to complete the thought. Biting into a forkful of salad Kevin stared thoughtfully. "You know, two others in the class are from my project group."

"That's not too odd," Thom commented after retrieving his fork from its place on the floor and scrubbing at it vigorously with a napkin. "What's your group going to be up to this semester anyway?"

"Same thing as we were doing the last couple of semesters: trying to design a long-range, two-person scout craft around an engine design we know practically nothing about! Talk about frustrating…"

"That's the one Jared Michaelson is in, right?" Kevin nodded an affirmative. "He and I are both in the first class to make it here. I assume he's Lead, right?"

"Actually," Kevin said, ducking his head self-consciously, "I'm Lead. Last semester after I got up to speed, more and more of the work fell to me to do and Jared stepped back. He didn't seem too mad at being replaced, though. 'Guess I'm going to figure out why before too long!"

They chuckled at the imagined ignominy of being in charge of a group of strong-willed students who thought they knew better than their assigned leader. Thom laughed for having already been there in his role as Resident Assistant, and Kevin for soon falling under the thumb of leadership.

Bending back to his lunch Thom couldn't help but notice that his dinner-mate almost unconsciously lifted his head and scanned the room, looking for someone or something, before turning to his plate. "You're doing it again." Kevin raised his eyebrow in query. "That's the fourth time you've checked the room for someone. Who are you looking for?"

Kevin didn't answer but stabbed at some pasta with a little more force than necessary, keeping his head down in avoidance of the question. Thom silently read his companion, made a few obvious connections and decided to confront him. "It's Kara you're looking for, isn't it?" By not answering Kevin gave him all the conformation he needed.

"Dammit, Kevin! She's a time-bomb! The only reason you escaped without a scratch last time was because she couldn't see you. Sooner or later you will say or do something and she will snap and I won't be there to clean up the pieces!"

"Thom, she's been gone for two weeks now and I'm concerned —"

Thom stabbed his finger in front of Kevin's face. "She's been gone for a while and that means that she's been under the Myrtraal's knife. Which means she ain't gonna be too happy when she wakes up. Which means she's gonna lash out at the first person who crosses her path."

By that time Kevin had stopped picking at his salad and was staring intently at Thomas' muzzle. He made sense, but the one thing that Kevin found over years was that human behavior defied logic when emotions came into play. "How do you know that she doesn't need someone to step up and be kind to her? You seem to be stuck on this 'survival of the fittest' trip even after I seemed to prove you wrong in helping Kara after her eyes were worked on."

"This is not my survival of the fittest trip, as you so eloquently put it. Haven't you been listening to me? The only reason she didn't throw you across the room then was because she couldn't see you! If you remember last semester she broke three of Jason's ribs when he made an offhand remark about what tails could be used for."

"So, she got in a lucky blow…"

Thom slapped his hand on the table. "Jason's skeletal structure can literally be compared to tree-trunks! The Myrtraal have got him so modified he can walk around in four gees like we walk in one. Kara's angry, and she knows what she's doing; that makes for a dangerous combination.

"And if she does need someone to intercede, it should be done by either a family member, a friend or a trained psychologist. She doesn't have either of the former and I'm the closest we've got to the latter and I sure as heck ain't gonna get near her.

"If you're still so hell-bent on making friends with her, there she is. She just walked in and… Oh, shit!"

At his startled exclamation Kevin turned to follow Thom's stare. Near the entrance he finally caught a glimpse of Kara, walking gingerly through a crowd that parted to let her through. From the distance he was at Kevin couldn't discern any differences from when he saw her last until he realized he didn't see her normally long, red hair. Studying intently he soon noted that her head was swathed in flesh-colored bandages leaving openings only for mouth, nose and eyes.

"They rearranged her face," Thom spoke quietly. When Kevin looked back, he continued. "Those bandages she's wearing are a type of compression bandage that serve multiple purposes. First, they maintain blood flow and promote tissue growth in recently damaged tissues. Second, there's a mild current running through the cloth to stimulate nerve regeneration. Third, they're soaked in a mild pain-killer, so between the current and drugs she's probably so confused she barely recognizes what planet she's on."

Kevin watched Thom silently stroke his elongated jaw in sympathy with Kara's current plight. His dark eyes were lost in a memory one hundred years distant and Kevin didn't want to disturb his reverie. "What's it like, Thom?"

"Pain. Each step you take jars a thousand different nerves and each nerve sends a thousand different signals to your brain. If you're not drugged or comatose you'll go crazy from the sensations. They have a crude version of the bandage on Earth. It doesn't use the passive-release pharmacology system of the Myrtraal's. Instead you get to drag around a morphine drip…" Shaking off his trance Thom concluded with, "It's not pleasant, even with the Myrtraal's advances."

"You've been through it before, on Earth, haven't you?" Kevin asked gently. Thom's face was stoic in its silence, neither confirming nor denying the statement. "What happened? Why did you —"

"Stop asking questions!" Thom growled, glaring at a stunned Kevin.

"But —"

"My past is my past. I have not given you leave to pry into my affairs and never will so back off!" Thom's lips were curled into a snarl and it took several tense seconds to calm himself down. Standing abruptly he caught the edges of his tray with his fingers. "I'm done. I have things to do, but let me give you this advice, Kevin: Stay away from Kara. When she wants help she will ask for it, but for now you will only get hurt." Without another word Thom turned and left the cafeteria leaving a stunned Kevin to stare at his retreating figure.

Even to his best friends Thom did not exist much beyond his arrival at the university, and the more one got to know him, the less one knew. If you were able to drag any scrap of information out of him, a thousand questions sprang up to take its place. Friendship is based on trust and Thom didn't seem to even trust himself.

Shaking his head to clear it of thoughts of his RAs past, Kevin turned back to his quarry, Kara, who had managed to retrieve her meal to a table near his own. It was a single bowl that populated her tray and one didn't need to see the contents to figure out that it contained the oatmeal-like mush concocted by the Myrtraal to soothe the metabolic systems of students recently returned from major bodily reconstructions. It was nutritious, contained simple carbohydrates and was relatively easy to eat. For all of its wondrous properties it was still bland, and Kara was having obvious difficulty performing even the small amount of chewing that was required.

Kevin rubbed his jaw in sympathy. He couldn't imagine the pain Kara must have been feeling, but he remembered all too well when he first woke up in his dorm room, unable to move without being certain that irreparable damage had been done to him. When the hand holding her spoon slipped and jabbed her in the face, Kara let out a low, keening wail, sobbing for several minutes before regaining enough control to gently dab at the dirtied bandages. Kevin dropped his hand from his jaw. He couldn't sympathize, he realized. He didn't have a basis for comparison for what she must have been going through. He couldn't even imagine.

Over the following two weeks as classes once again got underway, projects started in earnest and Kevin watched Kara every day like she was some macabre present, waiting to be revealed. What would be under the wrappings? Would it be a new tri-d game from Dad, or a rugby ball from Grandma? Or would it be a lump of coal? With the Myrtraal handing out the presents, it could be anything, and given the volatility of Kara's nature, Kevin wasn't sure he wanted to find out.

Kevin awoke on his stomach, a position in which he did not normally sleep, and had the sense of time distortion that one associates with deja vu or a prolonged stay in the Myrtraal's operating theater. An attempt to roll over confirmed that it was the latter, because as soon as he put pressure on his side Kevin gasped at the sensations that he received.

After the neural feedback he was receiving lessened Kevin again tried to adjust his position, but instead of rolling over he pushed himself to his hands and knees before carefully sliding his legs over the edge of the bed. Breathing a sigh of relief at not having caused further aggravation to his newest modification he looked down at his bare chest to confirm that, under the layers of bandages encircling his chest were two lumps about twenty centimeters below his arms. They weren't necessarily painful when they were poked, but they did produce rather odd sensations.

Kevin shook his head. The students that he arrived at UHS with didn't have to put up with nearly as many interruptions in their schedules as he had so far. After he had the exo-skeleton removed in January it seemed that every other week he was surreptitiously being escorted to the Myrtraal's den to be poked and prodded. Usually he was returned to his bed before the night was over but a quick glance at his clock convinced him that this time he was gone for several days. Luckily it was a rest day so he had some time to catch up on whatever lectures he may have missed out on. The first order of business, as his stomach thoughtfully reminded him, was to get something to eat.

As he moved about the room Kevin discovered that the additions to his torso imposed some restrictions on his movement; any activity which stretched the skin over the new protuberances sent shooting pains across his back and down his arms. He barely managed to slip a shirt over his head without screaming by gritting his teeth hard enough to bring a lasting ache to his jaw. Finally dressed he left his room for the cafeteria.

While waiting for the elevator Kevin was surprised to hear a door slam. Surprised because, though more often than not a student was driven to anger and frustration of life, the doors in the residence complex were impossible to slam because they were servo-controlled pocket doors. He looked down the corridor where the noise had come from but didn't notice anything out of the ordinary beyond a light that announced its need for replacement by flickering spastically.

He was about to return to his vigil by the 'vators when the reason for the noise became apparent. About halfway down the hall a door slid partially open before sticking to the accompaniment of swearing from the other side of the portal. As Kevin crept closer, curious, a pair of hands snaked out and began forcibly shoving at the door to open it.

The door was forced open, not so much by the hands and the arms to which they were attached, but by the stream of invectives issued from the room. Soon a shoulder managed to wedge itself in the space between the jamb and the door. With grunts, gasps and more swearing a figure finally emerged, stumbling to the floor of the hallway. The figure pushed itself up, brushed itself off roughly and turned to stare at Kevin.

Kevin's jaw dropped. He knew that Kara lived somewhere on this arm of the H-shaped floor but in all of his six months on Mnalik'tor he had no reason to explore it. Now he knew, but if it hadn't been for the way she challengingly stood and the anger she exuded, he would never have known that it was Kara Marks that stood before him. Her face was nothing like it was before.

Gone were the long blonde hair and the patch of freckles across the nose. Missing were the oval-shaped face and small ears. Instead it looked as if some great suction device had been placed on her face, bringing her jaw and nose forward into a shape that looked like a muzzle. Her ears, now pointed, were relocated higher on her hairless head and her cleft lip was pulled up into a snarl, showing off newly-lengthened and sharper eye-teeth.

"Say it!" she growled hoarsely. "I know you want to."

Kevin shook his head, unsure of what she meant. Perversely the phrase, "Here, kitty, kitty!" flashed across his mind, but he mentally reprimanded his sub-conscious for its inappropriate behavior. Kara began to stalk toward him.

"Say it! Say I'm hideous! Say I'm the most disgusting creature you've ever seen, because I am! Those little freaks have made me into an aberration, a freak like them! I'm — We're not even human anymore!" Kara now stood quite close to Kevin and began to punctuate her pronouncements with sharp jabs which he could block if he did not let his attention waver. "And what are we going to do when we get back to Earth?" Jab. "They're going to point at us." Punch. "Stare at us." Punch. "Put us in zoos and kick us!" Kick. "No one'll want a deformed freak like the Myrtraal are turning us into. No one! So start your laughing now so we can get used to it when we're sent home!" Slap.

Kara continued to reign kicks and punches at Kevin throughout her monologue, and he was able to fend them off with increasing difficulty until a single punch landed in his ribs, just above the new-found nodule on his right side. His vision exploded and a strangled shout escaped from his throat. When he moved his arms to shelter his new injury but that just caused Kara to switch her point of attack, screaming incoherently without stopping. As Kevin slid along a nearby wall to the floor under a hailstorm of punches and kicks he abstractedly noted that the bandages about his chest had somehow turned red.

Whether it took hours or minutes, the blows to his mid-section finally ceased, and just as Kevin lost consciousness he heard Kara scream in a wholly different voice, "Oh, my God! What have I done?!"

Kevin woke in a fog of pain. Each motion of his head and every breath he took sent spikes shooting through his over-abused nervous system. He was positioned on his stomach with his face pointed at the inner wall so it was with agonizing slowness that he twisted his head around. "You know, Thom," he said after his vision somewhat, "we have got to stop meeting like this. I am getting a serious case of deja vu."

Thom snorted from his seat beside Kevin's bed. "You think you're getting deja vu, just think about me! You have no idea how many bedsides I have sat beside waiting for someone to wake up."

"Thanks, Thom!" Kevin replied grumpily. "You have no idea how special that makes me feel."

"Well good! It was supposed to!" Relieved at how easy the companionable banter came Kevin began to chuckle, but realized how bad of an idea that was when the laughter set of a series of wracking coughs and the multitude of pains that came with it. Thom placed a straw at young man's mouth who tiredly sucked at the water when his coughing fit concluded. "I think I'm going to have to put off on our lifting sessions for a while, though."

Thom nodded at Kevin's proclamation but mentally kicked himself when he realized his friend couldn't see him from his position. "That's okay. I'm going to go get some lunch right now. Did you want me to bring you back anything?"

"What's on the menu?"

"Well," Thom vacillated, checking out something on a data pad. "According to your chart, you've got one thing on it. Would you care to guess what it is?"

"Mush?" The RA grunted an affirmative and Kevin sighed, wincing when the action shifted muscles and nerves that didn't want to be. "Might as well. And Thom: thanks. For everything, and for getting me to the infirmary."

"You're welcome for the everything part, but if you need someone to thank for calling out the medics, thank Kara. From what I gather she's the one that saw you and called up the Myrtraal on the emergency channel." He paused. "You know, I think Kara has a crush on you."

Kevin stared into his pillow, stunned, for a long moment. "Yeah, sure," he finally responded in disbelief.

"I'd still like to know who you offended so much that they'd want to do this to you. 'Was hoping you could tell us something."

"Sorry, I never got a good look at their faces, and the whole incident is kinda' fuzzy, anyway."

"Oh, well. I'm off to lunch, so I'll see you in about thirty minutes. 'Bye!"

As Thom left the room Kevin silently contemplated what the jackal-man told him. Did Thom truly not know what happened, or was he protecting Kara from any repercussions that may occur? Did he have some hidden purpose in his rhetoric? Thom was forever an enigma, not letting anyone know his ulterior motives however he acted.

Even as these thoughts percolated through his brain, Kevin had to smile wryly at Thom's comment about Kara having a crush on him. A painful crush, at that. And if this really was love…

Lounging against a large pile of pillows set on his bed Kevin attempted to catch up on the lectures that he missed while he was being fixed by the Myrtraal. He was extremely thankful that the semester was relatively new and so there wasn't as much material to cover as during the middle of the term. Of course, where the Myrtraal teachers were concerned, the amount of text to read was worth several weeks of reading at a high-quality Earth college.

While he was negotiating the mathematics that connected fractional topologies with wind vortices his door chimed. "Come in!" he called out without pulling his nose from the data pad his was studying. The door opened, closed and Kevin became aware of a silent presence in his room. "Thom, if you're here to convince me to come 'lifting today I'm going to have to take a rain…"

It was not Thom who entered but a hairless young lady with a vaguely feline face looking nervously everywhere but at Kevin. "Kara! What are you doing here?"

Her whole body was tense as she stammered out an answer to his question. "I- I… I wanted to I'm s-sorry for, um, what I did to you and I'll never do it again, 'bye."

Just as she turned to dart out of the room Kara was stopped with her hand poised over the door control by Kevin's voice. "Kara, come here." Warring with an intense desire to run was a feeling that she was beholden to Kevin for the pain she caused him. Glancing back she saw the lanky man set down his pad and motion to a chair next to his bed. With her heart beating a tattoo against her ribcage she circled the bed and sat on the edge of the seat.

"Since you came here to apologize, I feel that I should, too. I —"

"No, you shouldn't it's all my fault you didn't do anything wrong…" Kara spoke in a rush but quieted when Kevin held his hand for silence. In obeyance her eyes fell to her lap where her hands were unconsciously twisting the edge of her shirt.

"I was saying that I wanted to apologize because in the hallway I was going to make a comment about your face. You were well within your rights to be angry with me." The room was silent after Kevin made his admission; Kara continued to worry her shirt and Kevin watched her for any reaction.

Chewing her lip Kara lifted her head, took a deep breath and said, "Tell me."

"Now Kara, I don't think —"

"Tell me what you were going to say! I deserve it! Go on!"

Kevin dropped his head sheepishly and quietly stated, "I was going to make mention of the fact that you don't have any eyebrows."

Kara blinked, and then blinked again. Her hand raised to the ridge above her eyes and felt the skin there. With incredulity writ large on her face she leapt to the mirror above the chest-of-drawers to examine her face intently. "I don't have any eyebrows!" she said at last turning to stare in confusion at Kevin.

"Well, if it makes you feel any better, at least now you can't show surprise," and in demonstration Kevin brought his own up.

Kara mimicked Kevin for several moments until she realized what she was doing. First the corner of her mouth tugged up in a suppressed smile. Then her diaphragm forced a chuckle and finally she fell to the floor, holding her gut to stem the laughter that was threatening to make her sides burst.

Helpless to resist Kevin joined Kara in mirth but his guffaws were punctuated by barks of pain as he stretched his newly healed muscles beyond where they wanted to be. Unfortunately he could not stop and so had to take the joy with the pain.

After several minutes the two were reduced to panting from their exertions. Kara was on her hands and knees on the floor and shook her head. "I haven't laughed like that in…" she muttered.

Kevin patted the bed beside him. "Come here. It's more comfortable than the carpet." Kara looked hesitantly at the spot he indicated but eventually moved to the bed and sat on the edge, ready to run if there was need. Kevin, in response, moved over to give the girl more room to get comfortable. "So, Kara, tell me about yourself."

Chewing her lip Kara stole furtive glances at Kevin while trying to figure out what he wanted. "I- I'm studying Information Sciences," she said nervously. Kevin nodded and motioned for her to continue. "I'm from Texas, on Earth. El Paso."

"What else? What do you like to do for fun?"

"I…" Kara stopped. What was this man doing? She had come to his room to offer only a simple apology and then leave, but now he was grilling her about her life! "Why are you doing this?"

Kevin opened his mouth and then shut it. Pausing, he considered his next words very carefully. "When I was younger, living in the orphanage of the Sisters of Mercy, there was a boy, Petey, he was called. Petey wasn't his real name but the kids called him that because he hated it. He was picked on constantly. Usually he was ignored, but when he wasn't, he was being brutally picked on. I had never seen someone so angry before in my life and I thought that everything would be okay if only he had a friend.

"But I was only five, he was nine and his tormenters were even older. If I tried to be nice to him I knew that I would become a target of abuse just as he was, and I didn't want to risk it. Eventually the nuns saw what was happening and transferred him to a different orphanage, but to this day I haven't forgiven myself for not having the guts to do something."

"What happened to him?"

Staring straight ahead Kevin replied in a dead tone, "He is living out the remainder of a life sentence on a penal colony somewhere off the coast of Antarctica. When he was old enough he sought out each of his tormenters and murdered them."

Kara worked her mouth in stunned silence, unbelieving Kevin's factual pronouncement of Petey's fate. "And you think that I'll end up like that, too?"

"Now, Kara, that's not what I mean. I just —"

"I don't care what 'You just'! I come in here and you do nothing but make fun of me! I am not a murderer!"

Before Kara could unfold herself from her seat beside Kevin, he reached out one long arm and wrapped his fingers around her upper left arm. The effect on Kara was immediate. She started to scream incoherently, trying desperately to pry his fingers loose while pulling away with her body. Kevin's grip was like iron, but on one attempt Kara's fingers slipped and ended up spearing Kevin in the side.

Immediately Kevin loosed his grip to clutch at his bandaged ribs, hoping that no more damage had been incurred. Kara's emotional state had, in the meantime, performed a complete turn-around and instead of wanting to get away she was hurriedly repeating apologies and choking back sobs.

Aware of Kara's reaction Kevin reached up and took her hand in his own. Kara tried to resist but because of the angle she was at and Kevin's greater strength she fell into his embrace. There she opened up and cried.

An hour passed with the two locked together; Kevin rocked back and forth murmuring soothingly to the tearful Kara. After she had been reduced to sniffles for a few minutes Kevin spoke quietly. "I told you that story because I keep wondering if I could have done something to help Petey. Petey was alone, and no one tried to help him. Eventually, he let himself become dead to the world and the world became dead to him. You… I just don't want to see you lose faith in the people around you.

"We both have demons to exorcise. Mine include a constant wondering about what would have happened if I had acted. I don't know what yours are, but I think that they'll be easier to face if you have a friend."

Kevin continued to gently stroke Kara's back. "Are you okay now?" he asked. Kara nodded her head against his chest, afraid that her voice would give out if she tried to speak. "You know, I've been cooped up in this room long enough and I'm starting to get a little starved. Are you hungry?" Again she nodded. "Would you like to join me for lunch in the cafeteria?"

Kara was silent for a long time before she answered in a tear-roughened voice, "Okay."

Slowly they rose from the bed. After straightening their clothes and giving their faces a quick wash at the vanity Kara and Kevin stood before the door. Kevin was surprised when she slipped her hand in his and answered his squeeze with one of her own. In a flash of insight so sudden it left him rocking back on his heels, Kevin understood Kara.

She wanted to be strong. She built a fortress around herself and guarded its ramparts ferociously, attacking first before anyone else could attack her. As a result the walls of the fortress had been battered, not from without, but from within, where the walls weren't expected to receive blows. What she needed was not someone that would tear down the walls, for that would leave her defenseless, but someone to buttress her and give her time to re-architect and re-build. Kevin could  — and wanted — to be the one to help Kara. Smiling wryly he realized that Thom had already given him a vote of confidence when he said that the tall young man was more than adequate for the job of spotter, though this may not precisely be the spotting the RA had in mind.

"Are you ready?" he asked after he absorbed this lesson.

Kara swallowed. "Yes. I'm ready."

Kevin smiled down at her and pressed the button to open the door.