The dogs growled.
I glanced to where they sat beside the fireplace with their heads lifted and ears pricked. “Jack, Audie, what is it?” Listening, I heard only rain drumming on our metal roof, so I shrugged and turned back to the stove. Plucking a scalpel from the boiling water with tongs, I placed it in the sterile box and blinked steam from my eyes as I chased a needle around the pot. “Dang. C’mon.”
Then the dogs lunged toward the door.
Pearl stiffened at the table, her doll’s clothes forgotten. Wide-eyed and watching me, my seven-year-old daughter knew better than to make a sound as Jack and Audie growled and paced.
I wiped my hands and grabbed the shotgun from the kitchen wall mount. At the door, I pulled up the peephole rag and scanned the yard.
A man stood by our fence. A dark man.
“Oh, Christ. There’s a Stranger inside the gate. Stay here. Stay quiet.”
Pearl nodded. She scrambled into the kitchen and retrieved the scalpel. I chambered a round and said, “Heel, dogs,” as I opened the door. They flanked me, all hackles and teeth and threats, as I crossed the porch and strode through the rain and mud, the shotgun wedged against my shoulder.
He wore the gray-and-green fatigues of an Ohnenrai field tech.
“Don’t you move.” I leveled the gun at his chest as I came across the yard.
He raised his arms, and his gaze traveled from the gun to Jack and Audie. “I’m not here to hurt you. I need a comtab,” the soldier said in English. His fatigues were torn and muddy. A large gash, encrusted with blue blood, stretched from his temple to his cheek and cut across his nose. His left eye was swollen, and blood caked the edges of his nostrils. His hands were bloodied and bruised.
The dogs snarled, their hair raised and their ears back.
The towering pines creaked and whooshed, and water droplets showered us as I stopped and tightened the gun against my shoulder. “No comtabs here, Ohnenran. Not even a phone. You’re in Suffer.”
I wasn’t sure why I didn’t fear him. Maybe it was because the dogs crouched between us, maybe because Pearl stood behind the closed cottage door. Or maybe because fear was so familiar that I’d developed a calloused heart.
He shot me a dark look, then his expression smoothed in the automatic way of his people. “I know where I am.” He shifted, and a grimace flitted across his face.
“Then you know you don’t belong.” I’d never seen an Ohnenran look bedraggled.
“May I put my arms down? Your dogs will shred me before I ever get close to you.” He added in a monotone, “Not that I’m any threat, ma’am.”
My palms were sweaty, but I didn’t dare wipe them. I tightened my grip on the gun. Maybe I wasn’t as fearless as I’d hoped. “What’re you doing here?”
He lowered his arms. Jack stepped forward, and Audie snarled. The man’s hands shot back up. “Last night’s storm caught me on the Upper Ribbon Trail.” He grimaced and shifted. I glanced at his right leg. Mud and blood caked his fatigues from the knee down. It had thundered and blustered all night, and I didn’t envy this man being caught in the storm. “I’m not here to harm you,” he said. “You have my word.”
“Which isn’t worth shit.”
“You don’t know me, yet you threaten my life?”
“You’re Ohnenrai.” The name twisted from my lips like a curse. He was the first Stranger I’d spoken to in the twelve years since my parents had died in Ohnenrai custody.
Jack and Audie rumbled their agreement.
“You’d shoot me because I was born on another planet?” It sounded unreasonable, but I wouldn’t back down. Not from one of Earth’s conquerors. “I can’t undo my birth, can I?” he added.
I raised the gun to point at his head. “I can.”
His chin lifted as he folded his arms and looked down at me, his face a blank canvas. I didn’t doubt that the Ohnenrai people’s emotional detachment had made it easy to kill billions of Terrans.
The dogs, baring and gnashing their teeth, advanced. The man eyed my protectors. “Varet!” The word boomed from him even as he remained expressionless.
I started at his power, and the dogs ceased their threats. I looked at the outsider with newfound respect. I didn’t know Strangers raised their voices; I’d heard that even in battle, with death snapping their souls from their bodies, they stayed cool. Maybe that’s not true.
He watched Jack and Audie resume their slow, threatening advance but didn’t flinch. Instead, he looked back to me, his eyes hard. “Well?”
I studied his wounded face and held his gaze, deciding. “Jack. Audie. Heel.” The dogs stopped. Their snarls subsided to grumbles. They looked from the man to me, and then retreated to my side. “Show me your leg.”
The Ohnenran lifted his pant leg to reveal a swollen gash running the length of his shin. His calf bulged over the rim of his boot and the flesh was purple and black. How he’d managed to hobble around on that thing, I couldn’t imagine.
As he straightened, I said, “Remove your jacket, lift your shirt, empty your pockets, turn around.” He did. There was nothing but dirt and lint and bruises. I lowered the gun but didn’t put the safety back on. “Pearl?”
Behind me, the cottage door creaked. “Yes, Momma?”
“Set the cot by the hearth and get my medical bag. We’ve got a customer.”
I pumped the shotgun and handed it to Pearl. “Shoot him if he looks at you funny.” I’d left the soldier in the rain and returned to the house to gather my medical supplies. He’d crossed our porch but had stopped at the threshold of our dark, tiny home.
“My name is Ehtishem Zain.” He proffered his hand, and then dropped it as I stared.
“Leave your jacket on the porch and come in.” I pointed at the cot beside the fireplace. “I need to reset that ankle.”
“How do you know it’s broken?”
“Any fool can see that.”
Jack and Audie grumbled and paced.
“Audie, with Pearl.” The brindle dog took his place at her side and faced the Stranger. “Jack, heel.” The large black hound followed me into the kitchen. He also watched the man, who more than filled the doorway.
The soldier’s aloofness made my shoulders hunch. The emotional detachment of the Ohnenrai had led to the Suffern nickname for them—they were strange, strangers to us, and strangers to each other, or so I’d been told. They didn’t marry, didn’t pair. Their children were raised in groups without parents.
I exhaled slowly, quietly, and flattened my palms on the counter, willing my hands to stop shaking. Then I got morphine tablets from a cupboard and lifted the pot of hot, sterile water from the stove. Ignoring the man, who’d remained in the doorway, chin to chest with his hands relaxed at his sides, I left the water on a table beside the fireplace and popped open the cot. I took the oil lamp from atop the hearth and hung it on a wall hook, then turned to him.
His short-shorn black hair topped the doorframe, and his green pants looked like the heavy canvas type I’d seen on the Ohnenrai soldiers who sometimes air-dropped supplies. Ehtishem Zain towered over our men.
I gestured toward the cot. “I need to cut off that boot.” He hobbled across the room and sat. Beside me, Jack growled.
I pulled a stool between us, draped one of the towels across my knee, and rested the Stranger’s foot on my leg. I pulled heavy shears from my brown leather bag then cut his pant leg up to the knee and away. I unlaced the boot and eased it back from his swollen ankle. And was relieved to see that he didn’t have a compound fracture.
Pearl, accompanied by Audie, scuttled across the room.
“Don’t run with that weapon.”
“Sorry.” She eased back to the bedroom doorway, the gun in her arms, muzzle down.
Ehtishem Zain watched her. “Isn’t she young for a firearm?”
“She’s seven and not too young to know how to defend herself.” I gestured at the floor. “Remove your shirt and drop it here. Do you have any allergies?” He shook his head as he took off his long-sleeved, gray thermal shirt.
I didn’t know much about the Ohnenrai, but I knew they were human, or close to it. I knew their blue blood bound oxygen with copper, as well as iron. I knew their secondary heart acted like a sump pump. I knew their black bones contained melanin. My mother had taught me to heal them; my father had told me to kill them. I pulled a stethoscope from the medical bag. “Do you have any abdominal or chest pain? Any difficulty breathing? Have you coughed up blood?”
I listened to his lungs and palpated his abdomen. The man was so solid he’d probably crushed whatever he’d landed on. Still, a slow bleed could hide from me, and he was bruised front and back. “Ever had morphine?” I uncapped the bottle.
“I don’t want it.”
I paused. “You don’t realize how painful this will be, soldier.”
“I can handle pain.”
I shrugged, capped the bottle, and picked up the scissors. He lay back on the cot and closed his eyes. He didn’t flinch as I cut through the heavy leather of his boot, eased it off, and pressed my fingers into his flesh. Finally, I straightened with a sigh. “Well, there’s no way of knowing what’s under all that swelling.”
The Ohnenran sat up and nodded. His ankle and foot were banded—blue to purple to black—from the blood and fluid that had rushed to the injury. “What do you advise?” He eyed his distorted ankle, his reaction no stronger than if I’d I told him that leaves grow on trees.
“Rest and elevation. The swelling should reduce over the next few days. Once I can feel the break, I’ll know whether to cast or operate.” I scrutinized his face for any reaction, but his features remained serene. “I’ll splint it; don’t put any weight on it. Clear?”
“Cleaning your wounds will take time and be painful. I’ll start with that cut across your face before getting to your leg.” I retrieved his shirt. “Put that on.”
Ehtishem Zain did so, then folded his hands in his lap and closed his hazel eyes.
I studied him, and then set to work. “Tell me if you feel pain.”
“Do what’s necessary.”
The gash was deepest across his high right cheekbone, tapering to a scratch as it crossed his broad nose and ended low on his jaw. I cleaned dirt and grit from the wound. “I’m putting a few stitches below your eye.” His self-control was disconcerting. He said nothing, didn’t even twitch, as I punctured his brown flesh again and again with the needle. “All right. You’ll have scars, nothing I can do about that. You can relax.”
Once again, he settled back.
Pearl brought clean water and towels.
I examined his leg and was surprised to find little debris inside the wound, though it was deep enough to expose black bone in some places. “You cleaned this?”
“As best I could in running water.” Sleep slurred his words.
My jaw clenched. Creek water was full of bacteria. No wonder there was an infection. I flushed and debrided the wound then packed the gash with clean, damp gauze. “This is a wet dressing. It’ll remove infected tissue as it dries.”
“He’s sleeping, Momma.”
I stared at his relaxed face. How could he sleep through that? I didn’t know any Terran man who could take that much pain using only self-control.
The clank of Goat-Goat’s bell carried across the yard and through my thoughts. “Did you bed down the animals?”
“Oh, sorry.” Pearl straightened. “I forgot.” She handed me the gun, then scurried out the door. “C’mon, goat, the chickens already beat you to bed.”
I watched her for a moment before turning back to tending the sleeping Stranger’s leg. Pearl and I looked so alike with our dark, wavy hair, long limbs, and heart-shaped faces. But gazing upon her brought a terrible, weighty feeling that we would never escape Suffer or Elder Cyrus—the man who tormented me. She and I had green eyes, but where mine were dark like the sea, hers were ice-green. Pearl had Cyrus’s eyes, and sometimes I had to look away from them.
Audie barked, and I glanced out the open door to see him circle and nip at our poor dairy goat. She stamped and snorted, tossed her head in protest, then scuttled into her rickety little shelter. Audie lunged and hopped and pranced around Pearl as she closed Goat-Goat’s pen, peered into the hen house to count the chickens, then crossed the yard to lock the gate. A few moments later, she thumped up to the porch and peered through the doorway. “Momma.” Her gaze darted from the man’s closed eyes to me. “Come see what I found.”
“Hold on.” I clipped a needle free from stitches on the Stranger’s left palm. He was battered from head to toe, evidence of quite a fall. I’d have to watch his pulse throughout the night; that would reveal any internal bleeding I might have missed.
What does it matter if he dies? I sighed, wiped my hands, and trailed Pearl. It would matter to the Ohnenrai when they came looking for him. I pushed away thoughts of armored troops and blazing gunships. Heal him, and get him out of Suffer. Fast.
Pearl ran across the yard and stopped outside the gate. When I reached her, I saw a military pack at her feet. It was almost as big as Jack.
“He musta left it, Momma. Can we open it?”
I studied the muddy, green bag and checked the fasteners. “It’s locked.” I straightened and glanced toward the house as I sucked air through my teeth. “Hmm. He left it where he couldn’t easily reach it.” I grabbed the shoulder straps and hefted. “Oh, Lord in Heaven.” I sagged beneath its weight.
Pearl caught the other end, and we staggered back through the rain to the house and left the pack on the porch. I retrieved his jacket and went through the pockets, but they were empty, so I brought it into the house. I’d expected a weapon, a broken comtab, tools, something. Why had he tried so hard to appear non-threatening?
Pearl and I lay in bed. “I thought they didn’t carry packs.” Her breath tickled my neck.
“Infantry don’t. He must be a scout or a technician, someone in the field for long periods. He’s not wearing a bio-suit.” That meant no outer armor, though he was big enough to handle an Ohnenrai mech-suit.
“But he’s a soldier.”
“What makes you so certain?”
Audie groaned, stretched, and stuck his nose in Jack’s ear. The dogs always slept on a salvaged mattress and blankets beside our bed.
Pearl yawned and shrugged. “I dunno. Just am.” She sighed and snuggled Holly Dolly’s headless ragamuffin body to her. Her muscles went lax as she dropped into sleep.
I envied her. More often than not sleep eluded me. And when I did find it, nightmare visions of drowning, bindings, violation filled my mind, and I awoke afraid, panicked, nauseated. Nightmares and flashbacks were the stuff of my days and nights.
The bedroom door bore no lock; the dogs were all the early warning we needed. The shotgun leaned in its rack beside the bed, always loaded and within reach. The plink of rain on our street sign roof lulled me to sleep.
I awoke with a scream strangling me and stared into the dark fighting to block the too-familiar face of my enemy. After Pearl’s birth I’d learned to wake from most nightmares without moving or crying out. Pearl had learned to give half-conscious comfort when I failed.
I slipped from the bed, tucked the blankets around her, and embraced the chilly room. The cold air made me shake and pushed back my panic. I lit the oil lamp, retrieved the gun, and eased through the door.
Excerpted from "Girl Under Glass" by Monica Enderle Pierce. Copyright © 2012 by Monica Enderle Pierce. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.