A/N: Line from the Kate Bush song "Experiment VI" used without permission, but I hope she'd approve. This story was written for Inkling. Thanks go to her, and to my beloved Aslowhite for their wonderful, wonderful betas and encouragement
Discarded bandages lie stuffed into a corner, stinking with the effluent of uncountable casualties. There's no place else to put this waste, so Carson Beckett tosses it into the corner, where at least it's out of the way. The reeking pile is now almost four feet high, and is white and red, and brown where the red has dried.
"Now," he says, taking a breath and pulling his shoulders back. "What have we here, lad?"
"Don't take it," the warrior grits, his fists balled up with his agony. "Give me the root if ya hafta, but don't take my leg."
Ampoules of root extract are stacked in a cabinet, locked away but ready if they are needed. Carson's used root on one patient, so far, and that person was unconscious when he'd done it. He doesn't know what it's like when used on someone awake and aware of what's happening to him.
"Don't worry for now, son. I'll give you something for the pain and we'll go from there, aye?"
The soldier nods bravely. "Aye, something to take the worst of it."
With explicit permission—for a conscious man must choose what path to take—the doctor washes the wound with anesthetic, which takes the edge off his patient's suffering. In a short time, the man lies limp, floating between all of the healthy years he's had and the fevered death his injury will eventually bring him. Two, three days from now, Carson will probably have to unlock the cabinet, remove an ampoule and give it to the soldier, who would rather die than be a burden or a cripple.
When he finishes doing what little he can for this man, Beckett strips off his gloves and throws them on the pile in the corner. He looks around the field hospital. Its rough wooden sides tip a little as the wind outside hits them. The plywood roof shifts some. Carson is accustomed to this. It's a long, ramshackle structure, fully utilitarian and unnervingly practical. There are doors at one end, doors at the other and a few in between.
Uncountable numbers of patients have come and gone in just the short time that Carson's worked here. Uncountable numbers lie in the beds right now, and they send up a constant moan, like the wind makes when it skids around the building's northeast corner.
"Who's next?" Carson asks no one in particular. He has several assistants, some of them well-trained volunteers, some of them conscripted, some flat-out coerced, as he was. Soldiers stand nearby, watching him work.
"We have many more, Doctor," one assistant says.
"Aye, who is with them now?"
"No one, Sir." The assistant pours disinfectant over the steel table used to examine patients and perform surgeries. He pushes the fluid around so it mixes with the blood and urine and dirt and other things on the table. A shallow perimeter gully catches this mess and sends it down a waste pipe into a sewer under the building. It washes into the Holin River, which flows red at times like this.
"Bring the next one," Carson says, donning another pair of surgical gloves. He can do this, Carson tells himself. The soldiers watch him, so he must do this.
Another assistant brings Carson some tea, which he doesn't bother to drink. There is nothing resembling sugar on this planet, and the tea is bitter and dark.
A man is wheeled in on a rolling stretcher. He is lifted and placed on the washed table. Beckett closes his eyes and breathes deeply, again. The man here is unconscious, covered with dirt and still has his uniform on.
"Why wasn't he stripped?" Carson says, handing a pair of trauma scissors to his assistant and taking up a pair for himself. "Start with the top, I'll take the bottom."
They work in silence. Carson removes the boots, and cuts up the man's pant legs and spreads the material. His patient's skin is hot and damp, an unlikely combination, given the weather. His feet and calves and knees and thighs are without blemish. The assistant finishes cutting off the shirt and undergarment beneath it. Only then does Carson begin his head-to-toe exam.
He takes up a small penlight and rounds to the patient's head. The light falls to the floor with a quiet clatter.
It's not fair.
He places his hands to either side of his patient's head and uses his thumbs to pull up the man's eyelids, willing anything but this.
"Oh, no," he whispers. "Can you hear me, man?"
The patient says nothing and doesn't move at all.
Carson rubs the patient's sternum and tries to hide his panic.
"How did this happen to ye?" he says, and then notices how his assistants and the soldiers watch him, puzzled.
"Doctor? Do you know this man?"
Realizing that he's very close to absolute disaster, Carson straightens and collects himself.
"No," he says. "Just… He's so much older than the others."
"Aye, must have come from the Far Country."
"Get me a radiological unit and a glucometer."
"You heard me, boy."
The assistant leaves and Carson looks to his patient again. A rapid trauma sweep reveals a possible fractured collarbone but no other obvious injuries. The man is feverish, but then so are most other people arriving from the battlefields. The water is contaminated, the food is perished or otherwise tainted. His moist skin indicates another problem entirely.
The man on the steel table groans and opens his eyes. He raises his arms defensively and then winces as he moves his injured shoulder. Carson takes his wrists as gently as he can, so as not to alarm him.
"Settle down," he says, bringing himself close enough to be seen and understood.
"Hi," says the man, obviously still only half there.
"Hi, yourself, Rodney," Beckett replies.
"Please tell me why everyone wants me dead."
"Not everyone, Rodney. I don't want you dead."
They talk very quietly, as Carson checks Rodney's pupils and vital signs. Ordinarily he'd get an assistant to do this for him, but the morning crew hasn't arrived and the night shift has gone home already, and, anyway, this is Rodney and he wants to take care of his own.
"Cold comfort. Have you seen the others?"
"Nae, haven't. Does this hurt?" He pushes his hand up and into a bruise on Rodney's side.
"On a scale of one to ten…"
"Two. Okay, three. Stop it, now, will you?"
It's been days without a break for Carson. He runs his hand over his face, stopping for a second to reassure himself that he washed up thoroughly before coming to the ward this morning. Even scraped under his fingernails, which brought forth so much debris that even now he checks and rechecks his hands to make certain that nothing lies in the small folds and cracks, or tucked up around the cuticles.
He stops looking at his hands and fixes his gaze on McKay. "How did you end up on the front lines? I thought you had been placed in the technology sector?"
Rodney half-grins. "They said that I had no enthusiasm for my work." It is a partial explanation, but a precise one. "How about you?"
"I've been here the entire time." He gazes about the ward, bed after bed after bed. The room is fifty yards long, and is filled with the sick and the wounded and even the shell shocked, who are heavily sedated.
Carson continues to palpate Rodney's torso. "Two days ago, they brought in one of the field surgeons. Leg off. Mortar. He died. A mercy, really."
Carson doesn't answer. He is dreaming with his eyes open, watching himself give the root to the young doctor lying on the steel table, how the man had begged for it before falling unconscious.
Rodney looks at him. It's a comfort knowing that at least one of the landing party survived capture, but it sends Carson to missing the others and to worrying about them again. To busy himself, he rechecks Rodney's shoulder and the IV line that is giving his friend some fluids and glucose, nutrients and pain relief.
Late in the day, a Commander, Hale Mansoor, arrives to determine which patients will be returned to the front line and how soon. He and another Commander, Hale Boski, do this every few days.
"This man will go tomorrow." Hale Mansoor stands before a young soldier who took shrapnel and whose stitches still hold a large portion of his skin together.
"Don't be daft! He's not ready!" Carson stands close to the soldier, a boy, really, still holding up the thin gown to show the many, many lines of sutures over his belly and chest.
"Take out those threads. He will be fine. Can you hold a weapon, son?"
And the boy nods his head and slides his eyes over to Carson, pleading and brave at the same time.
"I tell you, he's not healed!"
Mansoor pulls his lips into an avuncular smile. "Of course he is. He will fight and serve proudly and help us win this war." And he places his massive hand on the boy's shoulder. The boy flinches but keeps his face alit with joy, even if his happiness isn't reflected in his eyes.
Carson sputters and walks over to the supply cart, where he takes up a small blade with which to cut the stitches out of the boy's body. A hand on his shoulder turns him on his heels. Hale Mansoor, very tall and broad like a locomotive, towers above the doctor.
"You do not tell me who I may return to service," he says calmly. "When I want to know your medical opinion, I will ask it of you. Do you understand this?" And he squeezes Carson's shoulder, pushes his thumb right into the brachial plexus, so Carson's arm jerks and tingles and the blade slips from his hand and falls to the floor.
"Aye, I do," he replies, breathlessly.
The Commander lets him go and reaches down to retrieve the blade.
"I believe you have a scientist here?"
Carson has never voluntarily betrayed anyone—no one human, at any rate—in his entire life.
Mansoor looks around the ward.
"I want to see him. The scientist. Where is he?"
He places his hand on Carson's sore shoulder. The doctor hangs his head.
The transport bus rolls away. Blue exhaust blows out of its rusted tailpipe. Rodney waves a hand to move the polluted mist away from his face. His eyes never leave Carson's, even as other partially healed patients push him this way and that as they stumble to find seating in the open bed.
The raw, grey day hangs its cold fog over the hospital grounds. Carson shivers along with Rodney, who cradles his injured arm in a self-splint. He is being returned to the technology sector until he is well enough to take up a weapon and head back to the front lines.
The war is supposed to bring "freedom and prosperity to all developing nations." It has not done that. Wars never do. It has brought a lot of suffering to the aggressors, the Berlish, for whom Carson must toil; much more to those trying to defend their lands. A half-million or more Ibani have perished, from violence perpetrated by the invaders or from the civil strife that has arisen, from disease or starvation or from people simply giving up the will to live.
Rodney's a stubborn git. He won't give up the will to live for anything. Carson wants to be like Rodney and in some ways he is. He watches the transport vehicle chug and rattle down the muddy, pitted road until it goes around the bend and Rodney is gone for him. Turning to walk back to the wards, Carson sees Hale Mansoor over by the hospital doors.
"We will prevail," the huge Commander says, with the automatic diction of someone who has said this so many times it has ceased to hold meaning.
"Aye," Carson responds, because that is what he's supposed to say. "We will prevail."
The first explosion sends an entire quarter of the hospital ward plummeting to the ground. A tremendous fireball sears people lying in adjoining areas. Smoke chokes out some patients farther still from the center of the blast. Beckett is thrown from the cot on which he has curled and is blown several feet to land heavily against a wall far opposite where the shell impacted. The hospital is under attack. Thank God Rodney isn't here to die in this.
As soon as the dust settles, Ibani insurgents—ungrateful members of the population Carson's side intends to "free"—pour forth into the remains of the building. They start at the far end of the bombed-out building and go from bed to bed, shooting the helpless men who lie there.
"Oh, God, no!" Carson gasps when he sees this. The ward fills with smoke as parts of it burn. It smells of gunpowder and terror. He chokes on his own fear as he crawls along the wall, out of sight of the Ibanis for the moment. He peeks up long enough to spy one of his assistants hurriedly unlocking the cabinet that holds the root. Suicide isn't unknown in war. Either despair or insanity will make that happen. The assistant removes the boxes containing distilled root essence. Each box holds 100 doses, 100 deaths. As he turns to the beds closest to him, a shot rings out and a small hole appears in the assistant's forehead. He looks puzzled, then drops the box and falls dead across the bed, across the legs of a terrified youth who hasn't the strength to push him off.
Ibani loyalists take aim at Carson's end of the ward as they make their way forward. Patients are shot one at a time. Some of them say nothing before this happens, and some of them beg for their lives and for the lives of the friends who are hospitalized with them.
Carson can find no way out of the ward without being seen. He crouches in the corner, holding his face with his hands, wishing the nightmare away. A shot. Another. Bootfalls, one step, one more step, they come closer. The closest exit is on the other side of the room, 75 feet at least and another 50 in the wrong direction. Carson is trapped where he is and can't bear to see his death as it approaches.
Boots. Boots. Someone cries, "No, please!' A shot. Boots… They are so close that Carson hears the leather uppers squeak, hears the tip-tap of the little plastic things at the ends of the shoelaces moving around. Then they stop. Carson shakes. He belches with fear. He expects the bullet to enter his head now…now… The leather creaks again as whoever is standing over him crouches down. Carson's hands are removed from his face. A hand grasps his chin and pries it up from his chest, where he's tucked it. A shot bangs some yards distant. The doctor's eyes fly open in surprise.
It is not possible. His stomach rises at the possibility of salvation when he sees who crouches before him.
"Hi," Carson says.
John Sheppard's stony expression doesn't change at all. "Hi, yourself," he says. The Colonel stands up quickly and hoists his rifle. He uses his foot to push Carson's face away from him and then Carson isn't certain but he believes that getting shot in the head isn't supposed to hurt quite as much as it does.