Less Than Human, 8

The oppression of the air faded in the minutes following the transmission between Tiberius and the incoming Celestial craft. Tears streaked down Helena’s cheeks, and she cried out strange words of joy. A smile played at the corners of Tiberius’s mouth. There was a buzz in the patrol car, and even Reid couldn’t contain his elation.

“They’re tracking us,” Tiberius said to Reid. “Is there a safe place for a landing nearby?”

“There’s an airstrip not far from here,” Reid offered. He remembered that there were advertisements for air shows, though he’d never seen one himself. His mama always called it “the airstrip” and said that people used to learn how to fly there. “I hope that will do.”

Tiberius smiled and nodded. “That will do fine.” He spoke in his native language into the communicator.

The airstrip was indeed not far. A battered sign swayed in the breeze. Pinkish letters, faded from years in the elements, stood out above a gray background: ELLSTON REGIONAL AIRPORT, TURN HERE.

“Do people still use this airport?” Helena asked, staring at the dwindling sign. Her anxiety re-emerged, though not so strong as before.

Reid shook his head. “Nope. People don’t come this way. Lotta bad stuff happened out here. Lotta people died.” He decelerated, peering at the gaping potholes without trust. “If people need an airplane, Columbia isn’t too far from here. Much safer, too, even before this place fell apart.”

Fell apart was an effective description. There were a cluster of old hangars, all of them in various states of disrepair. A corpse of an airplane rested askew on the tarmac, its landing gear bent crookedly, offering no support. The grass stood ominous, tall enough to conceal a man or any number of large beast. A few miles off, a family of vultures drew lazy circles in the sky. Reid knew it was probably some poor animal, but in this place, he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a person.

But not Cassius, not Hopper neither, Reid thought, and a wave of nausea passed over him. They’re back the other way. Maybe another meal another day for those buzzards.

“Why didn’t they fix this place?” Helena asked. Her voice was soft and small.

“I don’t know,” Reid answered. “I guess maybe these parts wasn’t as important as the big cities.”

“That’s precisely it,” Tiberius replied. “The humans were more worried about getting their cities back together. These places were left behind, to be fixed and cleaned another day, once we got around to it.” He pressed his lips together and sighed. “We should have known, just seeing places like this, that humanity would never cooperate with us. To abandon something like this, a place where people would live and work and raise their children…it’s simply wrong.”

Reid pulled up close to one of the more stable hangars. There were no planes spending their purgatory in this particular spot, and that made him feel more comfortable. He slid the car into park and killed the engine. The noiselessness closed in upon them.

“What now?” Reid asked, mainly to break the silence.

“We wait again.” Tiberius rested his head against the side of the door and closed his eyes. “It could be a while. They wouldn’t dare just come; if the humans spot them, there would be more death. Peace, Helena. They are coming.”

She nodded, but the evident nervousness wouldn’t ebb. Reid reached over and took her hand, patting it softly. She offered him a smile in return, but it was forced.

They sat in the silence of the patrol car for some time. Reid waited, bracing himself for the sudden whine and clicks that the communicator would bring, but no sound came. He began watching the skies, hoping to spot the Celestial craft, but only an occasional bird would float past. Despite all that they had faced, Reid found himself growing bored. He rapped his fingers on the dashboard.

The sunlight was fading, and the first sounds of the nighttime symphony began to rise, with chirping frogs and warbling cicadas making their presence known. In no time, the sky went from gray, to red, to violet, and the moon hung in the sky, fat and nearly full. Wispy clouds floated by, translucent against the dark.

“I never liked the night,” Helena said suddenly, and in the muted light Reid could see that she was crying. “It’s so dark and empty and lonely. Even with your moon.”

“I slept with a night-light when I was little,” Reid replied. He felt a little silly admitting it, so he added, “I don’t no more, but I did. I didn’t like the dark.” He shivered a little. “I guess maybe I still don’t.”

She smiled at him. “You’ve been very brave, Reid. Your arm…I know I stopped the bleeding, but does the pain return?”

It still throbbed if he messed with it, but he shook his head. Stubborn pride had nothing to do with it; Reid didn’t want her muddling his mind again and then leaving a fresh new pain to deal with. “I’m fine. I’m worried about…” He gestured toward the back seat. “His chest. Did you see it?”

Helena nodded. He may have broken some bones. Your kind calls them ribs. He will be fine, so long as he gets treatment. She bowed her head slightly. “I am so afraid.” Her voice trembled. “Why haven’t they come? Have they been stopped?”

Reid swallowed. He watched as her shoulders shivered, and then began shaking. Her hands covered her face, and there were soft, wet noises coming from her direction. He’d seen his Mama cry before, and every time it filled him with a sense of hopelessness, like he had so little that he could do. That old feeling broke the surface again, and it shamed him.

He slid in the seat, and without thinking, draped an arm over her shoulder and pulled her close.

At first she tensed, and he was certain that she was going to pull away and tell him not to touch her. But then she relaxed, and her face was buried in his uninjured shoulder, her crying much louder. She spasmed with each sob, and he gripped her only more against him. She spoke words that made no sense to him, and he hummed a song to her. He didn’t know what the song was, but it was the sort of thing his Mama did for him when he was crying, and it always made him feel so much better.

After a very long time, she glanced up at him. Her face was marred from emotion. Puffy eyes peered through tangled strands of ivory hair. He blinked, and she smiled. “Thank you,” she whispered.

And she kissed him.

She moved slowly, and he half expected her to start crying again, but her lips found his. Momentarily he was dazed – no woman had ever kissed him before – but then he found he was kissing her back, and a glow surrounded him. He pulled her in nearer to him, and she came closer, and their lips continued to find each other, again and again, and his heart raced.

She pulled her face back, and her cheeks were glowing, rosy. “Thank you,” she repeated.

He laughed, soft and light. “Thank…thank you,” he managed.

She laughed, a low and merry sound, and rested her head on his shoulder and embraced him. He could smell her unwashed hair, but it smelled wonderful in his nose. His heart thrummed in his chest, and he stroked the fine, long locks. In no time, he could feel her steady breath on his neck as sleep found her. He kissed the top of his head and leaned back. His eyes closed, and in no time, her breaths matched his own.

The End

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