Disclaimer: I have loved them all my life, and they are not mine.

Warning: This chapter contains medical descriptions of extensive injuries. I tried not to be gratuitously graphic, but I don't want to accidentally upset anyone.

The People He Sees

Chapter 1: Puri

The first Starfleet officer he treats is the one he replaces.

It's not supposed to be like this. They're on a simple mission of mercy, a routine rescue cruise to a highly civilized planet. That's what they're prepped for. They have everything they could possibly need short of a touch-healer to deal with crushing, pressure wounds, damaged limbs, and simple mental distress.

And they have plenty of those troubles, all right. But he's also got burns, electrical burns, oxygen deprivation, smoke inhalation, partial decompression, and mental snappage. Which isn't the proper word, but it's a damn better fit than any of the technical bologna he's going to be writing in charts later. If there is a later.

They're just cadets, damn it. He's only been through three years of Academy. There are supposed to be officers here, telling them what to do, ensuring everything stays organized. Instead he's the one shouting orders and keeping things running as best as he can.

It's been five years since his last stint in the ER. His wife hated it whenever he took a shift, said it made him morose and melancholic and impossible to talk to. He was always good at it, though. Even when he hated it, he was good at the job. And at least here, with these kids dying under his hands, he can say it's not from their own stupidity.

His voice carries well, which is pretty much the only prerequisite to being a good ER doctor. It cuts through the cries and moans and screams of the broken and the damaged with ease, and the crew of blue-shirted medical personnel respond to it like it was the voice of God. It allows him to direct them, to keep a steady triage unit working, to organize and reorganize the bedding and priorities based on who's dying fastest and who he can actually save.

"It's Dr. Puri! Dr. Puri!"

The young man's cry brings a short, relieved pause to the scurrying medical teams, though it does nothing to quiet their patients.

McCoy can feel the relief snap, fatigue and despair taking its place as people actually manage to localize the shouting man and the hideous burden he's carrying.

The boys on either end of the stretcher can't be more than twenty-four, eyes wide and round in their heads as they stare around blankly. Their uniforms are so drenched in blood it takes him a moment to decide that they actually do belong to the medical staff.

"Everyone keep working! We've got more incoming wounded, less open beds with every minute, and I'm sure the last thing Dr. Puri wants is for us to be sitting around like little lost puggles when he comes around. Move it!"

The barked command has the desired effect, stirring everyone once more into motion. Trotting over to the boys with the stretcher, he looks down at his mentor—

And knows that Dr. Puri isn't going to be worrying about their work ever again. Deep puncture wounds riddle the man's form. Half of his body is covered in third degree full-thickness burns. Yellow fluid coats the stretcher, soaks what remains of his uniform. Pink foam coats his lower face, bloody and thick. His right eye is oddly malformed, exopthalmic like a hamster's, pupil wide, almost obscuring the pale blue iris. His left eye is simply missing.

Burns and partial decompression. Space sucking at him, drawing for him, dragging him who knows how far before the emergency response barrier contained the vacuum. The oxygen rushing by fanning the flames on his uniform higher before the lack of air finally drowned the fire. Lungs struggling to function in the absence or near-absence of atmosphere, collapsing, churning into a bloody foam to choke a man alive—

He swallows hard. He can't think about it. He can't process it now. Later, when it's all done, he can sit down and shake and drink and maybe even cry, because it's the death that perhaps scares him the most. Maybe Jim will even sit with him and listen, and not despise him for needing that time to fall apart.

For now he's the force that's holding the medical bay together. They're a group of babies far out of their league, scared and overwhelmed by their trial by fire. The two techs holding Puri's stretcher are still staring at him, and he can't tell from their blank faces how many seconds have passed. Hopefully not many, because every second he wastes is another life or two lost, and that's not an idea he can stand.

There's no way Puri is alive, but he does a quick scan and then checks for a femoral and jugular pulse anyway. Never abandon good medicine in an emergency. Be fast, be efficient, but be sure.

"Set the stretcher with the other bodies. Then go see if you can help anyone else get here, all right?" He claps the closest boy on the shoulder, resisting the urge to wince at the wet sucking sound it makes or the sticky ooze of blood that seeps out onto his hand.

The two kids straighten and nod. Their eyes are still large, their minds still largely missing, unable to face the nightmare they've been dropped into without warning. They follow his instructions, though.

They all follow his instructions, which is why it's ridiculous when Spock calls down to tell him that he's inherited Puri's job. Of course he's inherited it. Nobody else would want it, and certainly none of the rest of them are ready for it. They're still cadets, for God's sake, still kids, and nobody told them that this was what space was really like. Nobody sat them down and made them imagine it—the terror of dying in vacuum; the horror of bleeding and bleeding and no one around to pull you to sick bay; the grating, unbearable torture of sound that surrounds a medical bay in the midst of an emergency. They can't sedate all the screamers because they don't have enough people to monitor even the ones they're putting under for treatment, and he'll be damned if he'll lose someone due to poor anesthetic maintenance.

He can live with the sound. He can live with the horrors flowing by under his hand. He's seen a lot of them before, in his mind's eye, his cursed imagination having made him intimately familiar with every new way of dying they taught him. So he can keep working, and as long as he keeps working, they keep following him.

And for now, striving to pull order and life out of chaos and death, that's all he needs.