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Chapter 13 - Can’t Trace Time by A.J. Hall

The problem with hospital beds, Owen had long since decided, was that they had been designed for the convenience of the ward staff rather than that of anyone else. That meant that they were too high for patients to get in and out of with ease. They were set up to be inclined at angles which may have been convenient for the nurses, but which gave patients back-aches and their visitors cricked necks. And - crucially in this instance - they had baremetal frames and an absence of hanging drapes and valances which not only made them easier to clean beneath (the official explanation) but which also rendered them functionally useless as concealment.

Nevertheless, the alternatives were limited. Bel and Owen considered every other option, but eventually were forced to concede defeat. If Owen was to be hidden anywhere in the room, under the bed it would have to be. At least - for paranoid security reasons - the room had no windows. They did what they could to focus the artificial light elsewhere. Bel draped the bedclothes artistically, as though it’d tossed them back in a paroxysm of existential anguish. Owen rolled himself under the bed and tried to think himself into the role of an extra-large fluff-ball with every fibre of his being.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Bel thrust a weapon into his hand. Involuntarily Owen let out a sound which, he suspected, sounded rather like “Ack!”

The herm sounded very patient. “Haven’t you handled a stunner before?”

“Er - I - that is -” Blessedly, the shade of Carter-Wright came to his assistance again. He injected a note of frozen hauteur into his voice. “I’m a doctor. I’ve always had people to do security for me.”

Bel knelt down, illuminating the area under the bed with something that looked remarkably like an angle-poise lamp. To be blunt, actually, an angle-poise lamp that was the spitting image of the one Owen had picked up at the Ferry Road IKEA only two weeks ago. Which was a truly worrying thought.

Somewhere on this planet - millennia into the future, half-way across the galaxy - there are people still wondering why - if all they went in for was a Billy bookcase - they also ended up with a new laundry basket, 100 tea-lights, a pot of sprouting bamboo, two curvy mirrors and an unfeasibly large pack of frozen meat-balls.

And why the till receipt came to over £300 quid. Again. Or whatever that adds up to in Barrayaran marks.

“Here,” Bel said, catching his hands and spreading them across the cool, smooth, alien metal of the weapon. “This is the bit you press. I’ve set it to “light”. If anything goes wrong, aim it at their ankles or whatever bits of their bodies you can see, and keep pressing.” It sighed. “And if you do happen to get me or Dr Comienski - whenever she appears - in your field of fire, always remember that the stunner really is the weapon which lets you shoot first and ask questions after.”

Owen nodded. There didn’t seem a lot to say. The angle-poise was withdrawn and there was a faint creak from the springs above him as Bel swung up onto the bed and dimmed the overhead lights. It occurred to him that it couldn’t be easy - if one had spent the last four days being beaten up, retconned, and then beaten up again - lying there to await whatever might be coming out of the dark to claim one. And Petrova had only been able to abstract one stunner from the cache of weapons taken from people reporting themselves into A&E, and that was the one Owen was holding. So. Lying in the dark, barehanded, one’s demons all around.

Everything the books had told him about “bedside manner” suggested that it was time to put the patient at ease by introducing familiar uncontroversial conversational topics.

“So,” he said brightly, “What’s it like? Feeling it both ways when you come, that is?” He paused, momentarily. “If that’s what you do feel, of course? The medical literature didn’t seem interested in that bit.”

There was a pause. Then a cough.

“Are you by any chance trying to discuss sex?”

“Yup.” He shrugged, before realising how awesomely stupid that was in the circumstances. “I mean - what else is there to talk about? We’ve not been on this planet long enough to know who’s fancied for the league title, and I’ve never been that into cars, so - “

There was an amused bubble of laughter from right above his head. “Ah. I see. Not prurience, just conversational bankruptcy. Well, what’s it like not feeling it both ways? I’d feel short-changed, myself, but - who knows, perhaps there are compensations. So what’s it feel like, Owen, being totally monosexual? I’m dying to hear all about it.”

Rather regrettably, he found himself falling back on “Ack”. A remarkably useful syllable, all things considered. And at that moment - perhaps fortunately - the door to the room hissed open.

“Well. Here we are again.” Hasek’s voice was jarring. One good thing; there was only one pair of boots standing in the shaft of light from the corridor. Owen wriggled round onto his belly and aimed the stunner with care.

“Yes.” Bel’s voice was cool and non-committal above his head. “What now?”

“We’re moving you. To another facility. Somewhere they can give you some proper treatment for your amnesia.”

A pause. And then - “But I don’t know anything about the people there. Suppose I say no?”

There was a new note in the herm’s voice: feminine, almost panicked. Sorely in need of the strong arms of a protective male.

Hasek came fully into the room; the door swung to behind him. “Oh, I think you need to trust my clinical judgement on what’s best for you.”

“Truly?” There was a creak of springs, a pair of bare legs blocked his line of sight. Bel was sitting on the edge of the bed, its feet on the floor. Owen suppressed an urge to swear, and dodged round the obstruction they presented to keep Hasek’s boots in his stunner sights. “Suppose I don’t?”

There was an obscenely seductive lilt in Hasek’s voice. “Trust me. You should know better than to resist, surely.”

“How could I?”

Hasek’s boots took three strides closer to the bed. Bel - judging from the squeak of bed-springs - stood up in response.

“It’s such a relief to meet someone without these planet-bound prejudices. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever -“

Hasek strode forwards. Bare feet and booted were almost on top of each other by now. Under the bed Owen ground his teeth and stroked the stunner butt. If Hasek made another inappropriate move he was dog-meat -

“You mutie bitch!”

There was a faint sharp hissing sound. And then a venomous whisper. “Ditch the sweet-talk, Dr Hasek. Tell me what you really think about me. Because you’ve just lost the option to do anything else. In case you were wondering, that was fast-penta in the hypo-spray. I decided to take your chances on the allergy testing. Oh: and one other thing. One false step and I break your arm. So. Sing.”

There was a listening pause in the room, and then -

A shaft of light cut across the room as the door opened wide.

“Is everything all right?” Petrova Comienski said. “I’m sorry I’m a bit late but the traffic was just unbelievable. Has anyone showed up yet?”