In battle, time slowed.
To newly commissioned Lieutenant McCoy it seemed as if time had stopped. He was suspended in a nightmarish scene ripped from the historic archives, a field surgeon stripped of his tools and left to heal using nothing more than his wits and whatever experience had carried him this far in life.
Blood, warm and sticky, seeped through McCoy's fingers. He increased the pressure on the open chest wound and met the ensign's anxious gaze.
"You're going to be all right." It was the standard reassurance … and a lie. The young ensign's lung was punctured, vessels and flesh torn by a penetrating pulse that cut through the boy's flesh like steel through soft clay. The damage was bad enough, but the terrorist weapon the Tariqs had used, the proto-weapon, destroyed clotting factor VIII in humans. No amount of pressure was going to stop the bleeding.
The distant pulse of sonic fire echoed around him. The salvos hit the ground in thundering waves. McCoy's nerves were like live wires jumping beneath his skin in anticipation of the blast that would strike him.
"Just hang on." He wasn't sure if the words were for the ensign or himself.
His free hand fumbled with the unfamiliar field medical kit. Nervous fingers searched blindly for the hypo.Where in hell is the medic?
He couldn't see anything through the smoke and no one would hear him through the pounding small arms fire. The medic said he'd be right back with a stretcher. That seemed like hours ago. The bombing had moved closer, scattering Starfleet forces. Would they know where to find him? Would they be able to get to him before a wild grenade found him first?
He tilted his head. Thick smoke blanketed the sky, veiling the rocky terrain of Outpost Seven into gauzy twilight. Somewhere there was a sun heating the land like a hot Georgia day. There were almost no trees on the southern side of the planet, and no one could figure out what was burning or from where the smoke was coming. It simply seemed to rise up from the ground like a mysterious apparition sent to contain them.
He pressed the hypo home, emptying its last contents into the young ensign. That was it for his medical supplies. The hypo was nothing more than a placebo. The ensign was going to die. It surprised him how quickly he had gone through the supplies, how many wounded he had treated.
This was supposed to be a training operation, he thought as he checked his patient's vitals. The blood dried sticky on his hands. As he stared at the bluish lips, he wondered at the senselessness of it, at the series of events that had pitted the Tariqs, the normally peaceful native inhabitants of Outpost Seven, against the entire Starfleet force.
The Tariqs had attacked just before noon, bombarding Starfleet facilities with sonic and concussion grenades in protest of the occupation of what they believed to be civilian ground. The weapons were elementary by modern military standards, but still, as Starfleet soon discovered, extremely effective. The first casualties suffered minor injuries, but as hours passed and Starfleet was unable to defeat the small band of rebels, their growing confidence spawned furious aggression, producing more serious injuries. The medical center filled with wounded, pressing the medical staff to triage in the courtyard. New recruits, like McCoy, were tasked to field medicine – scoop and run.What am I doing here?
He might have asked, why did I leave?
A year ago he'd been on the Board of Medicine and served as Chief of Surgery at Georgia Medical Center, treating patients for scheduled procedures and giving lectures at the prestigious Association of Medicine. Now he was in the middle of a war – correction, altercation – on a remote planet near the Romulan Neutral Zone. He'd lost his medical tricorder, communicator and half of his medical bag. Somewhere in front of him, behind a wall of gray smoke and dust, were hundreds of hostiles armed with grenades and field rifles aimed at anyone in a Starfleet uniform. Behind him, scattered like leaves in the wind, were two hundred Starfleet officers, most of who were from the USS Farragut, recently dispatched to assist in securing the outpost.
Starfleet's presence was there to protect the Tariq inhabitants and secure the Federation border. But the native rebels didn't see the importance of the outpost or the protection it offered the Federation. What's more, they seemed not to care.
The high-pitch screech of a sonic grenade ripped through the chaotic sounds of battle. In an instant, heat seared the back of his neck. Friction from the force field pulled at the sensitive layers of his skin.
He swore, cursing the academy-trim haircut that left his skin exposed. He moved to shield his patient as the grenade hit some distance behind. Shockwaves rippled through the hard-baked soil. He staggered on his knees as the ground shifted from the impact.
Damn Starfleet uniform is like a bulls-eye. The Science Department blue stood out against the white terrain, making him an easy target. He was going to get killed playing soldier. They'd ship his body home with a serial number engraved on the silver casket and there wouldn't even be anyone at home to receive it. He'd uprooted his life when his divorce became final – cleaned out his office, sold his possessions, and kissed his daughter good-bye. He'd shed his life like an old coat, discarding the monikers and titles he'd worked a lifetime to achieve.What am I doing here?
"Doc!" The crewman collided into him. Breathless and frantic, the man grabbed hold of his tunic. "What are you doing here? We've been ordered back. You gotta get out of here."
It's about time.
Another explosion shook the ground. It was impossible to see where the line was or how close to the front he had gotten. Another crewmen appeared, face pale and sweat-streaked with dirt. They knelt near the wounded ensign who was almost bled white.
"Take him," McCoy ordered. "Careful."
A heavy impact hit close, jarring his teeth. The crewmen staggered and hurried to get hold of the ensign. Warrior-like cries pierced through the chaos of battle. The Tariq insurgents were close, roused to rage and unwilling to show mercy.
"Wait…please," a thin voice pleaded. "Help me."
He turned toward the front line. Through a layer of drifting smoke he saw the red uniform and the twisted body sprawled across the barren ground.
"Wait…wait, please…don't…don't leave me."
"We gotta go, Doc," the crewman said, moving away with the unconscious man.
"Wait," McCoy called as they retreated. "Get back here!"
They didn't stop. They didn't even slow in their flight to freedom. He stood cold and hollow on the blood-soaked ground. The last fiber of warmth bled from him. In that instant he knew the secret he had been keeping had been exposed. They must have known, must have seen what he had traveled half across the galaxy to hide. Uncertainty, like fear, was impossible to disguise.
Hell with them. He was a doctor, not a soldier.
He turned toward the man.
It struck hard, like a wall suddenly raised in front of him. The ground imploded in a spray of dust. He staggered. Every muscle and nerve cried out from the assault. Paralyzed, he stood on numb legs as a ringing--not from a single source but from every direction--reverberated in a hypnotic harmony inside his skull. The tintinnabulation seemed to choreograph an explosion of dancing lights. All of it drew him into a spiraling world.
Something solid slammed into him. He was thrown to the unyielding ground by a crushing weight. His breath pushed out of his lungs.What--?
He blinked past the spangles of white lights and tried to draw air into his bruised lungs. The ringing soared to heightened proportions, drowning all other sounds around him. A face floated above him. Instantly it came into focus: blond hair neatly trimmed with a single lock falling across the forehead and a pair of sharp hazel eyes, dark with anger. The mouth moved rapidly, soundlessly.What? How…?
He couldn't breathe, couldn't move. The man's weight pressed him to the hard-baked sand.
His ears cleared with a painful pop.
"—yourself killed?" the man asked. "Keep your head down and stay put."
The weight suddenly lifted and he could breathe again. It was little comfort to the ache that resounded throughout his worn body.
Dust settled on him like white powder. He coughed weakly, staring up at the swirling patterns. The wail of phaser fire and the staccato pulse of the proto-weapons filled the air. Beneath him the ground trembled as another barrage pummeled the planet. The reverberations hit at the center of his spine.
Thoughts came sluggish and disjointed in the awakening of his assaulted body. As sensation returned, he remembered—someone needed help.
He braced himself and rolled onto his side, swallowing a moan. The muscles in the back of his neck knotted like iron, driving a wedge into his skull. The ground blurred. Nausea rose. He reached out—
Suddenly, fingers twisted into his tunic and pulled him roughly back.
"I said stay put."
The face was there again. McCoy took in the command gold and the silver insignia. The young man was from the Farragut. He would have known that without the insignia. Starship personnel always looked pale. This one looked almost anemic.
"I have to help." He uttered the words, still trying to catch his breath. The pounding in his head dulled only slightly.
The hazel eyes softened. The muscles beneath the boyish features shifted. "You can't help him."
"I'm a doctor." He said it as if it were the answer to everything. It wasn't what he was; it was who he was – physician and surgeon.
"I know." The man turned away.
His temper ignited. "Look, I'm going to help that man." Anger gave him strength. He pushed off the ground.
The man reacted with lightening speed, restraining him with firm hands. "There's nothing you can do. He was dead the minute the sonic hit. Stay here and keep your head down."
"Now look, son—"
"It's lieutenant, Doctor." In an instant the eyes sharpened and narrowed, the face set in a mask of discipline. "And I'm not your son."
Ouch! A shield erected between them. This man was sensitive about his youth. Precocious, McCoy decided, definitely by the book. He'd been warned about these officers, men craving to make admiral by forty, hungry for command, needing to make a name for themselves at any cost. Military right down to his socks.
Probably saluted his father.
"Okay, Lieutenant," he said softly. He'd gotten his breath back and, except for a mild trembling in his hands, felt stronger and clearer headed. "Now that we've established our rank—"
A sudden spray of dirt splattered into his face. He spit out the dust he had inhaled. Another man from the Farragut had joined them, sliding to an ungraceful halt on his back. McCoy got a glimpse of faded freckles and gray eyes before the man crawled past on his belly.
"Damn it, Gary," the lieutenant said. "I told you to stay with Weins."
McCoy lay between the two, flattened low. Their cover was little more than a dimple in the ground, but it suited their purpose. Around them the heavy fire continued, but he couldn't tell from which direction. For all he knew it was Starfleet raining artillery on them.
"He was ordered back. I got separated from Purcell. I think he's still in Bravo Two, but I don't know if he can hold."
Gary eased onto his side and gave McCoy a curt nod before scanning the area. "Nice place you got here, Lieutenant."
"The line's moving," the lieutenant said flatly.
"Yeah, right to us." Gary's gaze fell to McCoy, taking in the uniform with an amused expression. "A little old for a Ricky, aren't you? What'd you do, have a mid-life crisis or something?" He chuckled softly.
McCoy bristled. Ricky Recruits they were called outside the academy halls, a label assigned to cadets who had not yet soiled their uniforms. It wasn't the appellation he minded. He'd survived two years of internship at New Chicago Memorial where he was known simply as "Newbe." What stung was Gary's unspoken definition. Young men joined Starfleet for adventure and ambition. Someone McCoy's age joined to hide from a failed life or to find a new one.
'Is it another man, Jocelyn?' The moment he said them he regretted the words. They were cliché and self-serving.
She stood in the doorway and smiled sadly, an otherwise affectionate expression she made seem sympathetic. 'Poor Leonard. It would be so easy if that were true.'
He fought the rising anger that always followed the memory, anger at Jocelyn for giving up on them, anger for not seeing it coming, and anger at Gary for being so damn sure. He'd been exposed and categorized in a single breath from a boy fresh out of puberty.
"I thought we were retreating?" he said with an edge.
The corner of Gary's mouth curled. His gaze fixed on McCoy. "What do you think, Lieutenant? Should we follow the rest of the rats off the sinking ship?"
"We're not sunk yet." The lieutenant concentrated on Gary. "What are you carrying?"
"A phaser, but it's almost gone."
The lieutenant rested his weight on his elbow. In his hand was a small palm phaser. The power light blinked red – empty. He stared at it. "If we can get behind the line and redirect their fire, Purcell might be able to connect with Captain Bainsworth and halt the approach."
"That's pretty sketchy, Lieutenant," McCoy said, scowling. "Wouldn't we be better rejoining the other units?"
"We?" The light-colored eyes trapped him.
He stared, transfixed by the myriad of emotions colliding – sorrow, uncertainty, anger, fearlessness. Was the young man looking to be the hero, unwilling to share the glory? Or was it too easy to risk all their lives for victory?
"You won't be here," the lieutenant said. "We'll lay down suppressive fire. You should be able to make it back to the compound. Stay low and move fast. One of the other units will be coming across the zone."
He was being dismissed? Not even worthy of sacrifice, a Ricky with no prospects, a liability that needed to be cut loose. Suddenly he was angry. Who the hell did the lieutenant think he was, dismissing him like…like….Like a Ricky!
"Are we going to be able to cover him and the Tariqs with one phaser?" It was the first time Gary looked unsure.
"Check Guererra. He had to be carrying a weapon."
Gary hesitated then opened his mouth to speak.
"Do it." The words were not spoken harshly, but held the authority and command of inarguable obedience.
"Yes, sir," Gary said solemnly and quickly moved across the open field, crouching low for protection. Soon he disappeared into the traveling smoke.
They were alone in silence. McCoy glared at the lieutenant. Of all the heavy-handed, arrogant—
Suddenly the sky exploded in an electric display. Radiant streaks cut through the dusty atmosphere. He dove low, flattening his belly against the ground.
"Get down!" the lieutenant shouted.
Get down? His cheek pressed to the gritty sand. Any more down and he would have to dig. He closed his eyes as the artillery hit, bracing himself as the ground rumbled in protest. His hips absorbed each jarring impact. Instinct urged him to flee; common sense kept him rooted. The rhythmic beat of artillery played a symphony in his head. Each resounding blast cried survive, survive, survive.
Muffled cries penetrated the litany in his head. His muscles convulsed, urging him off the ground in an automatic response to the cries. Fear held him in a vice-grip, overriding instinct and conscience. Whether the cries were of rage or pain, human or alien, he didn't know. Shame and anger filled him.
On my oath and in honor, I swear to protect….
The wail of phasers and the low growl beneath his cheek dulled, waking his senses. The barrage shifted, targeting the section further to the east. He opened his eyes and cautiously lifted his head. A thin veil of newly disturbed dust hung over the area. The east was getting hit hard. The muffled concussion of grenades and faded cries cocooned him in the small dirt pocket where he had taken refuge. Acidic air burned his nose and throat, stung his eyes. He coughed lightly, trying not to inhale the fine particles that choked his lungs.
"Lieutenant?" The word was barely audible.
Another cough seized him, bringing a continuous ringing to his ears. He shook his head as if to stop the sound, but only succeeded in changing the pitch. The ground tipped. His fingers gripped the hard-packed sand as nausea rose.
I am not going to be sick.
Swallowing the nausea, he forced his head up.
The lieutenant lay with his back to him only a few feet away, curled on his side. The ribs moved with rapid, labored breaths.
Arms trembling, he rose to his knees and crawled to the lieutenant. He touched the shoulder and the man rolled his hips, turning onto his back with moan. The young face was pinched tight with pain. A dark stain covered the lower left side of the tunic and quickly spread.
He put his hand on the wound, felt warm blood pulsing against his palm. His mind raced. Where was Gary? His peripheral vision caught a figure sprawled nearby. A Tariq lying face down with a proto-weapon in his hand. The clumsy handgun had delivered a penetrating pulse to the lieutenant's abdomen.
"Lucky shot," the lieutenant said tightly and tried to smile.
He knew better. The lieutenant's body lay in a path between the attackers and himself. The shot had been meant for him.
He pushed the thought aside.
"You're going to be all right." He didn't know how. They were trapped behind enemy lines, without communication or support. He had no farratine or hemosynth, not even something to dull the pain.
"It was a proto-weapon." The lieutenant breathed rapidly through his words. "You can make it back…the area—"
"I'm not leaving you. Save your breath."
The lieutenant gripped his arm. The fingers shook. "I'm ordering you to go back."
"You can't pull rank, Lieutenant. Wounded come under medical protocol." He had learned some things in the academy. "For now, I outrank you."
The lieutenant's mouth was drawn into a straight line. His eyes narrowed. "We're behind enemy lines…and they aren't taking prisoners."
McCoy pressed the wound and raised his head to quickly scan the area. He hated this, practicing medicine on a battlefield, treating patients like dolls on an assembly line while ducking artillery fire. Years of study, of perfecting his skills, the finest medicine in the Federation at the tip of his fingers – and out of his reach – and it came down to geography.Why did Starfleet have to pick this planet for an outpost?
The lieutenant gave a low groan. His fingers tightened like talons on McCoy's arm.
"Breathe from your diaphragm." McCoy said, assessing his patient with a clinical gaze, diagnosing. He knew the physiology of a penetrating trauma. He could quote it from the textbook-- rapid breathing and heart rate due to excessive blood loss. Shock was taking hold. The young man's skin already felt cold and damp with sweat. Even without medical equipment he knew—his blood pressure was low, pulse weak and rapid. "That's it, Lieutenant. Good."
The bleeding was steady and wouldn't stop without the proper medication, but if he could keep his patient still, he might be able to minimize the risk of deep hypovolemic shock. Eventually cells would die, organs would begin to fail, but the young man would bleed to death before that time. For now, the most critical need was oxygen supply. If only he had some tri-ox!
He craned his head. Where was Gary?
Suddenly, the lieutenant was pushing and clawing at him, struggling to rise.
McCoy pulled at the man, surprised at the resistance. "What are you doing? You have to lie still!"
But the lieutenant was on his feet, slightly hunched, tight-lipped and white as paper. Sweat beaded and rolled down his face. His right hand held the small phaser, the left pressed to his side. "We've got to draw fire…break the line."
"You damn fool, you're going to get yourself killed."
The man didn't so much as stagger as he walked east on an interception course with the enemy line. Phaser held securely in hand, the young man appeared like a wounded gladiator about to claim final victory.
"Damn fool," McCoy repeated. It was meant for the both of them. He hurried to the man's side. "I'm not accustomed to my patients walking on out me, Lieutenant. If you want to get yourself killed, do it on your own—"
"Quiet." The lieutenant froze, straining to see through the moving dust.
A strange hush had fallen over the land. The heavy barrage that had assaulted them for hours had suddenly ceased.
Was it over?
McCoy attached a hand to the injured man's arm to steady them both.
"Back," the lieutenant said quietly, taking a retreating step.
"What is it?" He couldn't see anything.
"We have to get back." Another step. The lieutenant pivoted. His knees buckled. With a soft grunt, he went down.
McCoy was on his knees instantly, crouching beside the wounded man. The lieutenant's eyes were shut tightly and McCoy could see the muscles in the smooth jaw bunch. Blood had saturated the gold tunic and was sprinkling like rain on the sand. "You can't make it."
Sweat rolled down pallid features pinched tight with pain. "I can't let them die."
He thought he heard the word 'again' slip past the compressed lips. It was barely a word, more an impression like a fingerprint on glass. He was about to question the lieutenant when he heard it – a sound rising through the dust, a steady beating rhythm growing in volume and proximity. Suddenly, he recognized the noise. His stomach tightened.
He hooked his hands beneath the lieutenant's arm and unceremoniously pulled him to his feet, ignoring the low moan of protest.
"Come on." They had to get out of there. He strained to support the wounded man, hurrying across the pitted earth without a sense of direction or destination, knowing only that they had to place distance between themselves and the approaching sound, knowing what it would mean if they fell behind.
'They aren't taking prisoners.'
The lieutenant gasped harshly, struggling to keep pace at a hobbling gate. "Right."
"What?" The lieutenant was leaning heavily on him. He didn't know how the man could talk, much less how he remained on his feet.
"Right, right," the lieutenant said through clenched teeth. He had lost all color. "On the ridge."
He obeyed without hesitation, turning them into a thick band of smoke. He had no idea where they were going. It seemed more important to keep moving than to be concerned with direction. Never slowing his pace, he craned his neck around to see if anyone followed. The smoke acted as a refuge…or was it a diversion?
Were they running into a trap? Just as he finished the alarming thought, the ground fell off beneath his feet. In an instant, they were tumbling down a ravine, arms and legs flailing wildly against the air. He lost his grip on the lieutenant as his knee impacted sharply with the ground. He pitched forward, skimming his chest against the gritty sand before rolling head over heels in an ungainly somersault. Momentum carried him forward, back to front in a whirlwind motion, kicking up sand and rocks until finally he stopped.
He lay on his back, showered with sand and tiny rocks that cascaded like a miniature avalanche down the steep side of the ravine. He coughed once and slowly opened his eyes.
"You okay?" The voice belonged to a young man with the largest set of ears he'd ever seen.
"That's a stupid question to ask a man who just fell down a ravine."
The man straightened his spine and blinked in surprise. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."
McCoy moaned and rolled onto his side. No broken bones that he could feel, but his head was splitting. He surveyed the deep crevice. They were not alone.
A dozen Starfleet personnel hugged the steep side of the ravine. Their phasers were drawn, but they didn't appear to be going anywhere. Like a troop of tin soldiers on display, they stood poised and out of place.
He glanced up at the young man still waiting silently next to him. "Well, don't just stand there. Help me up."
He swayed as he managed to get to his feet. It took him a moment to focus. On the ground just in front of him lay the lieutenant. Two Starfleet cadets knelt near, appearing more like observers than aides. He started immediately toward the wounded man, mentally preparing for what he'd find. From the expressions on the cadets' faces, it was bad.
"Stand aside," he ordered the cadets. The lieutenant's eyes were open, but he lay unmoving, one arm outflung against the barren ground. He knelt beside the man, pressing his fingers to the side of the neck. The flesh was cool, the pulse hammering. "You have a lousy sense of direction, Lieutenant."
"I assumed you saw the thirty foot crater." His voice was weak and breathless, and color had bled from his lips and cheeks. But his eyes retained a vivid intensity, seeming vital and alive in his failing body.
"Is that humor, Lieutenant?" he asked as he carefully peeled back the blood-saturated tunic.
"Just reporting a fact," the lieutenant replied.
He examined the injury. The entrance wound had almost sealed shut, a by-product of the proto-weapon, deceptively reassuring. The flesh around the tiny hole was colored a deep purple and had spread across the flat abdomen like a burgeoning nebula.
"That's from a proto weapon, huh?" one of the cadets asked.
McCoy spared a glance at the kid, wide-eyed and astonished. He wanted to offer a word of comfort or reassurance. Somehow he'd forgotten his bedside manner when he had learned how to stand at attention. Here was a boy who was witnessing the horrors of war outside the neatly displayed charts and graphs of the academy classroom. He couldn't help but remember his own awakening from medical school to internship; the first cut into living flesh, the way it felt and smelled. How he had wanted someone to tell him it was all right to be afraid.
"Join the others, cadets," the lieutenant said softly.
The words surprised him and he watched as the young cadets wavered a moment in indecision.
"It's all right. Go on." The words were soft and reassuring.
McCoy met the lieutenant's steady gaze. He could see the pain the young man was trying to mask, the weakness he fought with each breath, and yet he had the presence and sensitivity to take pity on the cadets.
"How much time?" the lieutenant asked.
He didn't blink, but found himself unaccustomedly hesitating. "It's hard to tell. An hour. Maybe less."
The lieutenant turned his gaze to the cadets. "Enough time …maybe."
He could see the lieutenant's mind working, unfolding like a map. "They're just boys."
"They're trained Starfleet cadets with powered phasers."
He frowned. "You'd risk their lives over a piece of ground."
"Not just a piece of ground. Federation ground." The lieutenant stiffened as a shudder tore through him. His voice thinned. "Starfleet ground."
"It's the Tariqs' planet. Let them keep it."
"What about the rest of the Federation? What about the outpost? It's here to guard the border. What about the Federation planet behind this one? It's not just one planet -- it's a link in the blockade. Do you think a Romulan warship won't see the break?" The lieutenant closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath. "We have only one chance."
McCoy was torn between admiration and outrage. On some level he respected the man's unbending determination. And yet, he couldn't understand the sacrifice. He'd taken an oath to save lives, to heal to the best of his ability, to do no harm. Was he to sacrifice his Hippocratic oath for Starfleet duty?
He rubbed his palms against his trousers. A trickle of sweat ran down his back. Somewhere beyond the ravine a troop of rebel forces approached. In the smoke and dust of the plains, Starfleet scrabbled for control. Here along the ravine wall the untried cadets waited.What are we doing here?
"Saving lives." The lieutenant spoke softly, calmly.
He stared at the young officer who watched him closely. He hadn't realized he had spoken aloud. By virtue of their positions, they were posted as natural adversaries – the military commander orchestrating the loss of lives, and the physician campaigning to save them. And yet they were allies in the same offensive, officers sharing an unfamiliar battlefield, drawn together by circumstance and bound by duty.But whose duty?
"Forget the equation…it doesn't compute." The lieutenant struggled to breathe, to feed his oxygen-starved blood.
The young man didn't have much longer. McCoy carefully took the lieutenant's limp, outstretched arm. His fingers instinctively circled the wrist to feel the pulse.
"We have to split the line." The words were barely a whisper.
The lieutenant wasn't seeking mercy; he was demanding obedience. For an instant, McCoy envied the man's conviction. He had never been that certain of anything in his life.
One chance. Had he been running away from his life, or had he been running to it? Or maybe it was that he hadn't been moving at all.
'I'm tired, Leonard. Nothing has changed. Nothing ever changes.'
The lieutenant's eyes clouded.
McCoy stroked the damp hair, only to have the lieutenant's brows draw together in disapproval. Inside he smiled. Stubborn, determined…
He looked beyond the lieutenant. "Cadet, front and center."
A gangly young man stepped forward to answer the summons that had been intended for any one of the dozen cadets. "Yes, sir?"
He motioned the cadet to kneel on the opposite side of the prone lieutenant, and then turned his attention to the wounded man to listen as he spoke.
"Listen carefully, cadet," the lieutenant said weakly. "We don't have much time. You have to drive a wedge through…the Tariq line. Dog One is trying…to break through. Split the line…and Bravo will join."
The cadet stared at the lieutenant then glanced quickly at McCoy as if seeking confirmation. "How—"
"Two teams," the lieutenant said. His eyelids fluttered. "One to split…the other recon."
"Academy training, cadet." The lieutenant's eyes slowly closed. His lips moved silently with a final command, then stilled.
"He's unconscious." He's going to die and there's not a damn thing I can do about it.
Twenty-fourth century medicine, and patients still bled to death. It was insane. He looked down at the still, pale features, and the softly parted mouth.
It should be me.
They both knew the truth, though nothing had been said. Maybe it hadn't been important enough to the young lieutenant to draw attention to his heroic act. As if stepping in harm's way was all a part of the job.
"What do we do, sir?" the cadet asked.
"You have your orders, cadet."
"I don't think he was thinking right." The cadet ran the tip of his tongue across his dry lips. "I mean no disrespect, but…he didn't seem like he was thinking right. I think we should wait to join the other units."
In an instant, heat flooded McCoy's face. A tight band wrapped around his chest. Is that what the cadets had been doing? Waiting for someone to save them, waiting while their comrades risked their lives to end the uprising? The lieutenant's hand was limp and cold, his pulse weak and thready.
It should be me.
"He's going to die and you want to wait." He thought about Gary and Guerrera and the many faces of the nameless officers lying dead on the field, of the wounded writhing in pain, abandoned for a greater need, a higher cause. But the image that drove him was of the lieutenant standing on the battlefield with a hand pressed to his bloody side, fearless and determined. The cadet's face almost shattered that image. "We're here to protect the Federation, Mister, and that includes that field out there."
"I'm not sure—"
"What? That you should crawl out of this hole and face the enemy?" He reached across the lieutenant's unconscious body and grasped the cadet's arm. "You're going to follow your orders, cadet. I'm not going to stand here and watch this man die while you try to figure out what you want to do."
He stood, not releasing his grip from the cadet, and smoothly steered the man back to the group.
"Is he dead?" one of the cadets asked.
"No, damn it," McCoy replied, "but he's going to be unless we get him back to the compound."
"How do we do that?"
"Straight through the Tariq line." He knew one thing; if they stood in one place long enough, the Tariqs would come to them. He was done standing still. It was time to get moving. Quickly, he relayed the lieutenant's orders, dividing the cadets into two groups. "Set your phasers on high and the widest possible range. No matter what, don't separate." He met each pair of eyes. "We're going to do this and we're going to survive."
What a sight he must be, standing with bloody hands, covered in dirt and sweat. He watched as the young cadets scaled the ravine wall and disappeared. Slowly, he walked back to his patient. His duty and responsibility was clear, but he couldn't help but feel a ribbon of guilt wiggle its way into his consciousness. He was a doctor. He was supposed to save lives, not send them out to be lost.
Phaser fire split the air.
He stood, feeling a sudden surge of adrenaline. Dozens of phasers fired in random patterns. Disjointed words punctuated the rapid fire. Beneath the chaos was the hollow pulsing of proto-weapons. They had engaged the enemy.
He sank to his heels and put a protective hand on the lieutenant. Sensitive fingers felt the gentle rise and fall of the man's chest. Still breathing. By some miracle the young man lived. What kept him fighting? The family he left behind? Duty?
I don't even know your name.
He hadn't known any of the crew's names. They were patients identified by their wounds, categorized and compartmentalized. The line between doctor and patient had been clear; distance was the key to survival and sanity. With the lieutenant it was different. He didn't know why.
As quickly as it began, the firing ceased. In the ominous silence, he heard the steady, frantic beat of his heart, the rush of air in his lungs. He moved closer to the lieutenant, looking at the ridge. Smoke drifted near to the ground, mingling with the planet's chalky dust in an amorphous curtain that appeared to have a life its own. Then out of that curtain something moved. On the ridge, dozens of silhouettes moved toward him in tight formation.
'They aren't taking prisoners.'
A thin trickle of sweat rolled down his temple. The sound of his heartbeat was almost deafening.
A row of figures crested the ridge and descended the slope. His first clear thought was that he had failed, not only in his responsibility to his patient, but in his duty to the Federation. Thousands of light-years from home and nothing had changed. Failed marriage. Failed career.
He looked down at the dying lieutenant. "I'm sorry."
"Keep moving. All the way to the bottom."
Perfect Standard English. He looked up. The silhouettes had taken form and were easily identified as Tariqs…but directly behind them were Starfleet uniforms and among those worn bodies, a few fresh-faced cadets, prodding the rebels into the crater like sheep into a pen.
How many cadets remained on the field? How many silver boxes would they fill?
On the south ridge another troop of Starfleet officers, seasoned and mature, quickly maneuvered down the steep slope to join their comrades. A familiar face, anxious and tense, emerged from the troop, locking on to where McCoy stood at vigil. The light colored eyes were not focused on him, but on the wounded officer at his feet.
Gary rushed to the lieutenant's side, dropping to his knees. Fear had suddenly stripped away his cocky expression. In that instance, McCoy saw the love the young ensign had for the lieutenant, expressed in the terror of loss.
Gary's gaze darted to McCoy. "Is he…?
"No, but we don't have much time."
Gary wasted no time, barking orders and calling for an immediate evacuation. Then the young man stood still a moment and looked down at his friend. "He did it. He moved the whole damn Tariq force."
Officers and medics swept into a whirl of motion to save the young lieutenant whose name McCoy still did not know. The battle faded from McCoy's thoughts as he raced to keep safe the thread-like hold the lieutenant had on life.
It was the talk of the compound; how a dozen fresh-out-of-the-academy cadets took on the whole rebel force. Low murmurs filled the corridors and entranceways. Now that the battle had ended and Starfleet had won, there was nothing more for the officers to do but congratulate one another on the victory and regale each other with battle stories, as if the skirmish were more than a moment in time. Even the wounded shared in the glory, brandishing their scars as trophies.
McCoy walked into the recovery ward ten minutes late for his shift. He'd overslept after a lengthy tour of surgery last night, and had allowed himself a leisurely shower before starting duty. He stood in the corridor and enjoyed the climate control of the medical building. The sun was low in the sky, but the heat was rising outside. He was glad he had rounds this morning and would be confined to the interior buildings.
"You look refreshed." Ami Torguson stood at the circulation desk making notes on patient files. She was in her second year of internship. She'd studied at Starfleet Medical and wore the prestige of service like any third generation military officer.
"I am," he said and looked at the registration chart. There were some forty patients in the ward. Rounds and updating their charts would take him most of the day.
"People are looking for you." Torguson returned to her files as she spoke.
"The two-legged kind with lots of stripes on their cuffs."
Commander R'ell, Chief Surgeon of Outpost Seven and a royal pain in the ass.
"What'd I do now?"
"You're an important man." She still didn't look up from her clipboard. The easy set of her shoulders told him she was working up to something. "Everyone's talking about you."Everyone?
"You know something," he said flatly.
"I know a lot of things." The corner of her mouth curled upward. She continued updating her file.
"Well, do I have to guess?"
She reached into the stack of files and withdrew one, presenting it to him like a secondhand prize. "Those proto-weapons are nasty. Kirk was circling the drain last night. We counted him as a casualty."
"Who?" He took the file.
"Lieutenant. Hypovolemic shock. DIC. Lucky thing he didn't die." She looked at him, her eyes shining. "He may just have saved you."
His eyes narrowed. What was that supposed to mean?
"It's not everyday you save Starfleet's brainchild." Torguson looked beyond him and scowled. "Diaz, don't bring that in here."
He concentrated on the chart as she pushed back from the desk.
"I don't care what your orders say…" Her voice faded.
He stared at the name on the file: Kirk, James T, Lieutenant assigned to the USS Farragut. The name of the ship compelled no memory, yet Torguson averred that the man had influence, perhaps was the son of a famous admiral or something. Then again, McCoy was just a country doctor and not familiar with military icons. His curiosity roused, he slowly headed toward the recovery ward. Certainly the lieutenant stood out by his manner, separating himself from the pool of usual rank-seeking officers. Intelligent and quick thinking, Kirk's actions had diverted the Tariq forces, providing Starfleet the opportunity to take control. Even if the cadets had taken all the credit.
A privacy curtain had been pulled around the lieutenant's bed. As he approached, he heard the low murmur of an unfamiliar voice.
"…part of the job, Lieutenant. You understand that, Guererra understood." Pause. "So did Captain Garrovick."
He stopped just outside the partition. The response was so faint he didn't hear, but he other man's words were strong and compassionate.
"Sometimes it's not a matter of getting through the line, but getting past it."
Without warning, a figure emerged from behind the partition. McCoy straightened reflexively with discomfort at having been caught eavesdropping. Pride kept him from taking a step back as the large man approached. The insignia on the gold tunic was identical to that of Kirk's, but this man had an extra braid on his cuff. "Captain."
What was the man's name? Baily? Bain…?
"Doctor McCoy, I wanted to thank you for saving Lieutenant Kirk's life."
He mentally stumbled as much from the use of his name by a man he'd never met, as from the lack of a reprimand for eavesdropping. "I…ah…I had a lot of help…sir."
"That's not what I heard." The Captain's shoulders squared. "Medical personnel were called off the line."
The Captain considered him for a long time, than briefly glanced toward the partition before directing attention back to him. "Lieutenant Kirk will be transferred to the Farragut this afternoon. I've put in a commendation for you, Doctor. You showed strength and character on that field. Starfleet is very grateful for your duty."
Why did the speech sound rehearsed?
"I'd like you to join the medical team on the Farragut. Starships need men of your caliber."
Starship duty? Man of caliber? What had Kirk told the captain?
"Thank you, sir."
The Captain stood silent. McCoy wondered if he'd chosen the wrong response to the announcement. The man seemed to be waiting for something from him.
Finally the Captain said, "Carry on, Doctor," and stepped past him.
He waited a moment, knowing he had missed something vital in the exchange, but unable to identify what. Whatever it was, he sensed Kirk had something to do with it. He stepped behind the partition. Kirk lay still and pale, staring at him as if awaiting his arrival.
"You should be sleeping," he said, studying the diagnostic panel above the bed. "How are you feeling?"
"Better," Kirk said weakly.
"That's not difficult. You lost over half of your blood volume. I had a time trying to control the bleeding."
"I wasn't going to die."
For a moment he thought it was a question, then he met the hazel eyes and stepped closer. Did the young lieutenant think himself infallible? Certainly the man hadn't considered his own well-being when he'd taken off in pursuit of battle. Wasn't that the stuff of a well-trained officer? Duty first.Who are you?
Kirk's lips pulled into a tiny, transparent smile. The lieutenant was going to keep the victory.
"Okay," he said slowly, conceding defeat, then eased into the chair by the bed.
"It still doesn't compute."
It sounded like a friendly warning to him. Maybe it was. Kirk was in this for the long haul and understood something about the mechanics of the military, seemed to be reconciled to them. The words implied that McCoy was not.
"I'm in awe," he said lightly. "It's not everyday I meet a hero."
Kirk scowled and rolled his head on the pillow. "I'm no hero."
"You saved Starfleet," he said. "You saved me."
No humbling response. No false modesty. No flat acceptance. Just silence. What was it that the young man really wanted? Not medals or promotions. Not recognition for the deeds he's done.
"Why did you keep fighting?" he asked suddenly.
"Why did you stay?"
Impasse. Neither was going to let go of their carefully guarded secrets.
So be it.
"Captain tells me I'll be transferred to the Farragut. You didn't have anything to do with that, by chance?"
"Captain Bainsworth knows a good officer when he sees one." Kirk's eyelids fluttered with weariness.
"I'm just a country doctor."
The corner of Kirk's mouth curled and a sleepy chuckle escaped the pale lips. "Okay, Sawbones."
He stood. "Get some sleep, Lieutenant."
"It's Jim," Kirk said quietly, eyes closing.
He watched the sleeping man with a strange sense of hope. One chance Kirk had said. To McCoy it had been a second chance. From death on the battlefield to a starship assignment, he had survived, and for the first time he looked forward to tomorrow and what it would bring.
Smiling, he clasped his hands behind his back then turned to finish rounds.