I jerk awake at the shrill tone of the vidscreen, and I sit up with my heart in my throat.
I’m in a chair. My office chair? Well, that would make sense, since I’m still sitting in my office.
I fell asleep on my desk. Again.
I must look a mess.
I clear my throat and turn to face the clanging vidscreen. With my luck, it will be the director, and he’s going to wonder why I’ve got the imprint of a stylus on my left cheek. I’ll just have to come up with a witty response.
I press the receive button, and the screen flares to life. But it’s not the director. It’s not the clinic downstairs. And it’s not even a patient.
It’s the last person I ever expected to speak to again.
“Helga?” My voice catches.
The angles of Helga Zahn’s sharp face haven’t changed since the last time I kissed her, the day we said our last goodbyes. Her blue eyes are just as cold as they were then.
“Evy,” Helga says softly.
I just stare. Why is she calling me? What could have possessed her to call me? Is something wrong with her? Is she dying?
“You have been asleep at your desk,” Helga notes with a half smirk.
That smirk always drove me crazy at university. In our apartment. In our bed.
“And if I have?” I stiffen.
“You work too much.”
“Helga, you’re not calling to criticize my work habits after all these years,” I say.
Helga straightens on the screen. What is she wearing? It looks like a NUSovian military jumpsuit. Helga had no interest in the military, and even if she did, she would never agree to serve with anyone other than NUGermany.
What happened to her?
“The story is long,” Helga says, “and communications are poor.” As if to emphasize her point, her image on the screen shivers. “I have found a patient for you, my friend.”
“Where are you?”
“Onboard a NUSovian mineral harvester,” Helga says. “The Anastasia. I was transferred.” She sighs. “As I said, the story is long.”
I shake myself. “A patient? Helga, what are you talking about?”
“We discovered an old derelict on the passing to the asteroid belt,” Helga says. “There were bodies on board. One of them was alive—a girl.”
“And she cannot remember anything.” Helga smiles gently. “Her name. Her home. Her family. She is lost, Evy.” Her smile broadens just slightly. “So I thought of you. If she can make it to you, will you help her?”
Well, this is a fine situation. I haven’t spoken to Helga in years, and this is what we’re going to talk about? She’s met someone else? I know we parted badly, but we were together for so long—Maybe it meant more to me than it did to her. Everything usually always did.
I sit back in my chair. “How old is she?”
The smirk is back. “Will you help her, my friend?”
I grind my teeth together. “I’d like some information about her before I agree to do anything, Helga.”
Helga hasn’t stopped smirking. “We are far away from NUSaxony,” she says. “I am not certain when she will arrive.”
“Will you be with her?”
“No, she will be alone.” Helga looks sad. “I cannot leave the ship.”
The screen fills up with fuzz, and Helga leans closer, as though the screen were my ear and she were whispering.
“Please help her, Evy. She is—different.” Helga’s voice is heavy with unusual emotion. “She is unlike anyone I have ever met. Say you will help her, my friend. I ask you—”
My friend. My friend. My friend. I do wish she’d stop calling me that. I’m not even sure that’s what we are.
The screen blurs again, but it doesn’t come back this time.
“Helga?” I touch the side of the screen. “Helga, are you there?”
The screen shuts down with an electric snap, glowing green letters announcing the loss of the signal.
I sit back in my chair and wait for the vidscreen to ring again. Maybe she’ll redial. But the longer I wait, the more certain I am that she will not. If she truly is on a NUSovian freighter, it’s unlikely they’ll be in contact again for months.
I shut the screen off and turn back to the stack of datapads on my desk. I should straighten them up, but my mind feels as disorganized as my desk looks.
Now she’s gone and soured my mood, and I’ve no focus left. At the moment, all I want is a glass of wine.
No, that’s not all I want.
How could Helga call me like that? Doesn’t she know how long it’s been? Doesn’t she realize just how difficult it’s been without her?
I slam my chair back and stand up, stacking the datapads in haphazard piles. I’ll straighten them tomorrow. I’m too angry tonight.
Stupid, stupid Helga.
And she didn’t call to say hello. No, that would be far too personable for a human icicle like Helga Zahn. She called to tell me her new lover needs a new brain. Who better to ask than her old lover? As though I owe her something.
NUGerman sensibility is maddening.
My desk is as straight as it’s going to get tonight. I grab my clutch purse and start for the door, feeling the stab of my heels in the carpet with every step. The android receptionist says something to me as I march past it, but I don’t hear.
I just want to be home. With my shoes off. With a nice glass of wine. Where I don’t have to think about Helga with her lover tonight, while I’m at home by myself.
It shouldn’t bother me. It shouldn’t because we both agreed we weren’t right for each other. But it stings. It tears at the fabric of my heart because something in me never expected Helga to find someone else.
After all, I didn’t.
But then, I’d never gone looking.
My little house is bright and cheerful in the foggy gloom of the night. Some days I wonder why the climate engineers fabricate such dreary weather, but for tonight, it suits me. And it makes the white-paneled flat I live in look all the more welcoming. Even though it’s small. And empty.
I step inside, shut the door, and toss my heels to the furthest corner of the entryway to be dealt with in the morning.
It’s one thing to leave my desk a disaster. I can’t just chuck my shoes into a corner. That’s barbaric. And anger at Helga notwithstanding, nothing excuses slobbery.
So I take my shoes to my room and deposit them on the rack while I strip systematically and pull my nightshirt over my head.
Moments later, I’ve got my glass of red wine, and I’m propped up on the living room sofa, buried in more pillows than practical, watching the dim kitchen lights reflect on my painted toenails.
If Helga is telling the truth—and I’ve no cause to question that—she just happened to meet this girl. It was an accident.
I can only imagine how frightened the poor thing must be. I don’t know much about military ships, but I do know the vast majority of the crew is usually male.
I block that train of thought. I had enough of that growing up, and I’ve no interest in reliving those moments in the sanctuary of my home.
Helga is such a protector, I’m sure that’s how they ended up together. I don’t blame the girl. Helga is a beautiful woman. She always has been.
I sip my wine.
But does Helga love her? Does Helga love her the way she loved me? Can this girl who doesn’t even know her own name love someone with her whole heart? She doesn’t even know her heart.
Helga must love her. Otherwise she wouldn’t have asked me to help her. Helga doesn’t ask favors of anyone.
I take another sip. A long one.
So be it.
I’ll help her. If Helga loves her, I’ll help her. Helga may not feel like she owes me anything, but I feel differently. I owe Helga my life. Whether she loves me or not, I’ll do whatever I can to help the ones she does love.
I throw the rest of the wine down and pretend it’s the burn of the alcohol that makes my eyes moist.
I set my glass down on the carpet and wrap my arms around one of the pillows, pressing my face into its softness and wishing it weren’t made of fabric.
I’ll sleep on the couch tonight.
Not that it matters. There’s no one else here to care.