Julian Bashir shook his head and waited for the shock of impact to subside. Everything considered, he thought, he was lucky. A fall from such a height could have easily left him incapacitated. As far as he could tell, he was still alive and alert. No broken bones, although a backpack full of hard, sharp medical instruments was not the best thing to have cushioned his landing.
Perhaps he ought to have been more worried about the loose stones that had tumbled down after him. One had collided with the back of his shoulder, another glanced off his right hand temple. He was close to certain they would both leave painful bruises, but again - whatever damage there was appeared to have been minimal. Again, he was lucky.
Head throbbing like an aftershock, he leaned against the stone, and looked up as his vision gradually cleared. There wasn't a lot to see - just a thin shaft of light peering through a narrow hole at the roof of the cave. Dust still tumbled lightly from its edge, giving the beam a strangely muddy cast. A narrow array of stars twinkled mockingly, far above him, where the sky was already turning to the dim royal blue of dusk.
Their best chance was to get a message out to the nearest human colony. Or, failing that, to any one of those gleaming points of light. But how long it would take - how lucky they would be - even he was unable to calculate with any certainty.
Below him, there was a groan. Weak and pitiful. So quiet he almost missed it. Ezri.
Julian winced as he levered himself to the edge of the platform, but at least he could now see where she was lying. Even with nothing but twilight to guide him, even with the distance between her position and his own, he could already see that she was far too pale.
Getting close enough to help her was a terribly daunting task, but essential for both their sakes. Cautiously, all four limbs now tense and trembling, he inched all the way down the steep incline. Pain stabbed deep into his shoulder. There was going to be a bruise. He could already feel it beginning to swell.
"Hold still," he told her as soon as he was back on solid ground. She opened her eyes a little way, and they barely focused on his face.
"It seems that you - or should I say, we - both took a little fall." It hurt him to speak too much, but he couldn't keep himself from scolding. "Somebody decided to take a short cut across the valley."
"I don't remember you objecting."
Her voice was weak, but at least she'd found the energy to respond to his quips. Julian chose to take that as a good sign. After all, he thought. You need all the good signs you can get right now.
"Hold still," he said again. Lifting the carry bag gingerly from around his shoulders, he flinched at the sharp and sudden pain. Ezri noticed.
"Are you all right?"
"It's nothing." Nothing that he couldn't work his way through, in any case. But she was still watching him - the tension in his face, the care he took in every movement, his reluctance to use his own right arm. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously, but she made no further attempt to press the issue.
"Well, I suppose it could have been worse," she commented, also forcing her voice to the surface. There was pain in every word. "You could have been off to one of those medical conferences of yours."
"Oh, Ha, Ha."
Much of what he'd initially thought to pack had spilled from the bag as he fell. Several items were snagged on rocks further down, where he was unlikely to reach them without a lot of sophisticated climbing equipment. But at least the sharp-edged medkit was still where he'd stashed it. It had come open as well, spilling many of its contents. He rummaged for the supplies he needed, taking whatever he could find, and set the rest to one side.
Lights flashed across the surface of his tricorder, which he turned towards Ezri. Her uncertain gaze was fixed upon the bulky grey device. "What's the verdict, Doctor?"
"Both your legs are broken," he replied. "Although not all the way through." There was evidence of internal injuries, and several of the delicate connections between Ezri and her symbiont had also sustained some damage. He said nothing about the worst of what he saw in the display. "The good news is, they ought to be relatively easy to set. The bad news is, it's going to hurt."
She nodded, grimacing slightly. "Then let's do it."
To say that the cavern was bitter cold with the arrival of sunset could scarcely have done justice to the bone-numbing chill, that seemed at times to emanate off the very walls. Working quickly, occasionally pinching his numb, white fingers, Julian set his torch on the ground next to a tiny portable emergency beacon. The light it cast was dim, but it was the best he could find, and with luck it would have to be enough.
He'd mended Ezri's legs as best he could, and strapped them together although he was silently continuing to curse the bare terrain around them. It had not provided him with anything to use as a splint. But at least he'd thought to pack a lightweight silver thermal blanket in the midst of all his travel supplies. Spreading this over the length of her body, he'd weighted it down with a row of stones at either side. If only the osteo-regenerator he usually carried had remained where it was supposed to be, instead of being one of the first items to tumble into the abyss.
She was in pain, too. Trying to hide it, but Julian was too keen an observer to have missed the signs. "Time for sleep," he'd told her.
She'd looked his way and spoken - half groaned - through tightly clenched teeth. "When are you going to sleep?"
"Later. You first."
There was a small, flat heater in the corner of his backpack. He pulled it out and set it on the ground at Ezri's side. Whatever heat it cast would dissipate quickly in such a broad, open space, and he knew that he would have to keep it close to her if she was to benefit from its warmth. Julian felt bad about having to sedate her, but she needed the rest. So did he. But it wasn't going to come tonight.
He watched until it started to glow, soft and red. He was shivering too, now biting his fingers to help his blood to flow, and longed above all else to lie down at the other side of their meagre heat source, and possibly even find the sleep that Ezri had insisted he should take. But this was too important. They had to get a signal out if they were even to have a hope of rescue.
It was cold in the cave. With cold - at least there was a chance to stay awake.
His protesting knuckles were starting to fail when he noticed Ezri stir beneath the covers. "How do you feel?" he asked, stroking her hair.
"Like I've been asleep for days." Her voice was a little stronger. That was good, at least. "How long's it been?"
"About three hours." He rifled around in his pack again, and pulled out two slender brown and silver packages sealed in foil.
"Breakfast, Milady," he joked, pulling it open and handing it to her. "And afterwards, perhaps Madam would care to peruse our dessert menu?"
"Well," said Ezri. "That's service for you. Although I rather wish we'd thought to request a room with a view."
Julian leant back against the wall, and laughed softly as he opened his own rations. "Next time, that'll be our top priority."
"So you're planning on there being a next time, then?"
A quiet smile crept across Julian's mouth. That's the trouble with this universe, he thought, although he did not say so out loud. It always leaves us room for next times.
It was supposed to have been simple routine. Nothing that had not ever been done before. A medium sized colony at the edge of the former Demilitarised Zone had requested assistance in establishing their new medical facility. Julian had been eager to help. And, he had to confess, even more eager to get away from the station and spend some quality time alone with Ezri.
At least their runabout had touched down safely this time. They'd certainly lost enough of those in the past seven years. But with such a high level of magnetic interference in the planet's ionosphere, transporting to the surface had never been an option. And the colonists had barely enough level ground for their own small shuttles to land upon. So Julian and Ezri had agreed to steer the runabout into a clearing just four or five kilometres from the edge of the settlement. An easy day's hike, or so they'd thought.
They should have gone around the valley. Their attention should not have been so focused on the colours and greenery of the surrounding jungle. And he should have realised that the place was unstable long before the brittle ground began to crack beneath their feet.
He frowned, and realised that he'd been staring at the same cluster of stones for over five minutes. He hadn't even noticed his mind wander. But I suppose that's what happens when you stay awake all night, he thought, rubbing his aching head with the ball of one hand.
"Julian!" It was Ezri. Her voice was soft, breathy, and there was panic behind it. Then he remembered.
He turned towards her and staggered to his feet, a little too quickly. For a moment the entire cave was spinning. Feeling slightly off balance, he half-stumbled over to where Ezri was lying. "What's wrong?" His own voice had not yet had time to strengthen, it seemed, and came out hoarse and muffled.
She was shivering. "I can't feel my legs."
The dark rows of spots along her temples were far too pronounced against the intense near-white of her skin. Fear clenched like a fist around his heart. We have to get out of here. And quickly. "It's all right," he forced himself to reassure her. "I'll move the heat a little closer."
"Julian if there's something you're not telling me I want to know." Somewhere, she had found the strength to scold him.
And without warning, he felt suddenly, unbearably tired. "Your body's going into shock," he found himself explaining in a strangely distant, level voice. "Most likely from the cold. Not to mention loss of fluid. We have to get you to a proper medical facility. Or…"
"Or I'll die," she finished for him.
Reluctantly, he nodded.
"Thank you," she said.
He looked towards her. There were tears in his eyes, threatening to escape onto his cheeks, but he no longer had the energy to wipe them away. "For what?"
"For the truth."
By evening, Ezri had fallen asleep again, and Julian's inner anxiety had grown still further. He'd moved their only heat source closer to her, just as he'd promised, but she was growing increasingly pale. It wasn't enough. He'd seen more colour on the faces of dead Cardassians. He was tired. Agitated. Couldn't concentrate. But even then, there had to be one thing more that he could do.
His head just felt numb where a throbbing bruise had formed. His shoulder still hurt, but he pushed through the pain and crawled around her until he reached the opposite side. Lowering himself gingerly down onto the rock, he wriggled up close to her, and wrapped his body as tightly as he dared around her own. It would be of little use, he reflected, not even sure that he had enough body heat to offer. But if a few extra minutes could mean the difference between their rescue and losing her, he would do everything he could to give them both those extra minutes.
Julian began to stir early on the following morning, barely even aware that he had slept. His pulse was uncomfortable at one side of his head, and he rubbed it irritably as he rose on aching joints. Where am I?
He turned, glancing about him and feeling more than a little disoriented. A rough stone wall extended up one side. But when he turned around, he found only a black and distant void. And then his right foot came down on nothing.
Woken by a surge of adrenaline, he forced his weight back and away from the sudden drop in front of him. The cliff face was no more than two steps away. He leant against it, supporting himself with his left hand, and winced as he inched his way back down to the floor.
Careful, he scolded. He would stay where he was. Just for a moment. Best not move at all. Wait for the unsteady, groggy feeling of sleep to subside. He wondered briefly how long it had been.
There were noises from above, the muffled sound of footsteps. And voices. Down here, he tried to shout, but discovered that his mouth refused to form the words.
Faces appeared at the cavern's jagged entrance. "This way!" yelled a voice, as somebody beckoned. "I see them!"
A rope dropped. Before long, a shadow, clad in black, abseiled gracefully downward from the precipice. "Thank God." Julian could barely contain his joy. The stranger cast him an encouraging smile and knelt over Ezri, feeling for a pulse at the base of her neck.
"Jones to Anovich." The man spoke into a communicator attached around his wrist, and was answered by a slightly detached voice without any of the expected echoes. He flipped open a scanning device and quietly adjusted its settings. "I've got wounded down here, Harry. Better bring those stretchers. We're going to have to winch them up if the transports don't work. And tell Christof to stand by with a medical team."
"I can help," said Julian. "I'm a doctor…"
"Not in that condition, you can't." Jones cast him a stern glare, which barely left room for argument. But where there was even the slightest bit of room to argue, Julian had never had any trouble finding it.
"Extensive bruising, exhaustion, hypothermia, hairline fractures to your skull and shoulder blade, possibly even a concussion… It's a wonder you're still lucid." Putting away his tricorder, Jones wrapped a thermal blanket tightly around Julian's shoulders, and pressed a hypospray to his neck. The people above him were already lowering a stretcher. Must have been for Ezri.
"Your turn," Jones said to Julian, and helped him settle into position.
With the blanket still wrapped around his chest and shoulders, they strapped him to the stretcher and began to haul him towards the opening. Bundled tight as a baby in swaddling clothes, soothed by the gentle upward motion, Julian thought about the words that their rescuers had spoken to him.
Ezri was going to live. He'd given her those extra minutes, and she was going to be fine. But at the same time, it seemed, having a patient to care for had kept him focused and alert - when he would not have been so otherwise. No longer able to resist the weight of his own eyelids, he wondered if in some strange way she had not been the one to save him, every bit as much as he had her.