For Disclaimers See Part One
This is the revised version and chapters sizes may vary to what was posted before.
Three years later.
Rachel slammed into the bulkhead as another torpedo impacted against the ship's shields. Attacks like this had become a frequent occurrence over the last six months.
When the invasion force had first entered this section of space, the Confederation more than held their own, pushing back the fleet of ships that blasted their way through the outer planetary stations, leaving behind nothing but devastation. Refugees flocked out of the region in any form of transport they managed to get their hands on.
Then the invaders unveiled a strategy that staggered the defenders. While the Confederation had been concentrating on the enormous fleet heading towards them, small hit squads of vessels penetrated the inner defences and all but destroyed the command structure that held the Confederation together. From then on, the once orderly defence of Confederation space turned into chaos. Worlds had quickly fallen to the invaders as false commands were issued to the Confederation fleet, sending them into well-organised ambushes. The great Confederation fleet was now nothing more than a ragtag band of ships.
Rachel had counted herself lucky to be assigned to Sue Rodgers' ship, Kingdom. Unlike many of her counterparts, including her senior Sykes, Sue hadn't followed the bogus command orders. They made little sense and, as she said in her ship-wide announcement, were tantamount to a suicide order. For those who had followed without question, they were. Sue held back Kingdom and her fighter escorts and when the ambush was sprung, they were far enough away to avoid capture.
The disaster left Sue as the most senior surviving officer. It was obvious to her that there was no way that the Confederation could survive in its current state. So she played a game of hit and run, using her ship and its escorts to raid the invaders' forces. Their small band liberated many of the Confederation's smaller ships and they built up a formidable raiding group. But nothing they did could save the Confederation. Sue, along with the commanders of the other ships, decided to make a run for it; to where, nobody was quite sure.
Another shuddering jolt rippled through the decks of Kingdom, throwing the doctor into the bulkheads again.
Crewmembers ran through corridors, closing the airtight doors behind them, sealing off the various compartments of the ship. Current spacecraft design didn't differ much from that used by the seafaring nations of old earth for naval vessels. All ships were compartmentalised; each compartment had the ability to run independently from the rest of the ship. If one area were breached, the airtight seals would prevent the rest of the ship from decompressing.
When she first stepped aboard a military vessel, it had taken Rachel ages to get used to opening and closing all the doors and hatches, depending on what security state the ship was in. But in the three years since the start of the war, she'd been in enough firefights to realise the system worked. And was, in some ways, better than the force fields that were used. Because all members of the crew were responsible for the closure of whatever hatch or door they used, their own welfare depended on their closing and securing everything. That way, if the forcefields failed, the doors and hatches would hold, protecting the crew from the bleak coldness of space.
Before the next blast hit the ship, Rachel managed to pull herself into her sickbay. "Evening guys," she said as she slammed the door behind her. "How we doing?"
The chief steward looked up from the desk and smiled at her. "'Evening, Doc. All first aid parties are assembled in their stations. No casualties have been reported, as yet."
Rachel liked the chief; he was an old hand at battle and had been her right hand since she'd been brought onboard. Being a military doctor was nothing like working as a civilian doctor. Their whole triage system was screwed around the wrong way as far as she was concerned. The chief had soon pointed out the error of her ways. She had insisted on trying to save a young gunner rather than attend to the engineer who had been brought in with minor injuries compared to her patient. The power had gone shortly after they had started work on the gunner. Rachel had been cursing everybody until the chief pointed out that if she fixed up the engineer he could then fix the power.
It had rather shaken Rachel to learn that the ship came first in all instances, not the crew. After all, there was no point in saving the crew if the ship were lost in the battle. It had been a hard lesson to learn but she had learnt it, knowing that many of the patients who had died could have been saved if they had not been passed over for treatment in favour of the less seriously injured. It caused her nightmares to think that her skills meant little if she weren't allowed to use them. But war didn't discriminate, and she knew that the doctors on the other side of the divide had the same decisions to make.
"In that case, whose turn is it to get the coffee?" Rachel settled herself down on one of the sickbay bunks and waited. Sometimes they were lucky and it was no more than a minor skirmish; other times it was full-out battle which persisted for hours, and a few times for days, with little break. Another blast rocked the ship but the power seemed to have diminished from the previous ones that had hit.
Two hours, several coffees and a biscuit stash later, the ship stood down from action stations. Numerous minor injuries were reported throughout the ship but none of them required Rachel's attention. Her first aid teams were experienced enough to handle the non-serious trauma without having to consult her. She also had two medical assistants who stationed themselves around the ship in times of emergency. The two medics had dealt with just about every type of trauma injury at one time or another, and had managed well without a doctor before Rachel had arrived onboard to help them.
The blonde-haired doctor looked down at her watch, trying to decide whether to go up into officer country and the wardroom for food, or to stay below and start on the mountains of paperwork that was always created when the ship went to action stations. The paperwork won out, eventually, over her desire to retreat to the calm of the wardroom.
Besides, the chief steward would send food down for her if she didnt appear for the post-action station feed and, knowing that her two staff would also most probably miss out on their meal, he would no doubt provide for them as well. Decision made, she programmed the dispenser for coffee and rummaged around in her cabinet for her secret chocolate hoard, which she knew her staff would appreciate before they dug into the paperwork.
Several minutes went by before Rachel heard the clatter of equipment being stacked outside the door and the colourful cursing that Carrie Walker was prone to, if annoyed. Carrie was her senior medic and hadn't been in the fleet long before the outbreak of war. She had a natural aptitude, a quick-witted mind and a thirst to learn which propelled her into the top ten percent of her class and upward on the promotion ladder.
Rachel was at a loss as to why she had limited herself to being a medic, when surely she would have been suited for med school. But the young woman laughed off her persistent question, saying she was more suited to working the frontline than sitting in a classroom for two years and more.
Rachel had to admit that she would have been totally lost without Carrie's drive and expertise. The woman just didn't know how to give up and would, quite literally, work until she dropped. Many of the crew owed their lives to her dedication.
Another expletive echoed through the door, followed by a deep broguish laugh that came from her second medic, Mike Lord. Mike wasn't even out of his teens. The young Irish lad had been taken onboard when Kingdom and its escort ran a rescue mission into the Chronos system which was left ransacked, with most of the population dead or dying in the invaders' wake. Carrie had taken the redheaded youngster under her wing when she found him cradling his sister's body, with the rest of his family lying dead around him.
Almost always by each other's side, the two constantly bickered like siblings. It didn't matter how bad the situation was; if you were anywhere near Carrie and Mike in a firefight, you would still hear them arguing about the most inane topics.
Rachel poured three coffees and placed them on her desk, before walking to the door and opening it. "You two going to stand there arguing all evening or are you coming in?" she asked as she stooped to pick up some of the Resus equipment Carrie had stacked outside the door. Two grimy faces turned and grinned at her. "What the hell have you two been up to?"
Carrie laughed, picked up the rest of the equipment and hustled through the door. "Ask junior over there."
Rachel turned to Mike and raised an eyebrow. "Well?" Her voice held more than a slight amount of curiosity.
The youngster dropped his head sheepishly, a red glow rising from his neck up into his face. "Ah, Mike, you look so cute when you blush." Carrie had poked her head back out of the door and was laughing at Mike's predicament.
Beneath the grime, Mike's face coloured even more. "Come on, boss!" he whined, looking intently at Rachel. "You can't let her pick on me like this."
"Mike! You are six foot four and built like a tank. Carrie doesn't even reach your shoulders and you could bench-press her twice over. She couldn't pick on you if she tried." It was Mike's turn to raise his eyebrow this time, and Rachel turned to look at Carrie. "On second thought..."
"Hey, it wasn't me who fell in the waste garbage chute and couldn't get out, now was it?"
"And you got filthy how, exactly?" Rachel was even more curious now.
"Ah well," said Mike as he stepped into the sickbay. "That was my stroke of genius. You see, if I'd fallen in by myself, I'd never hear the end of it. But how many of the crew are gonna rib me if Carrie ended up in there as well? So I pulled her in with me."
Well that would certainly explain Carrie's cursing earlier. These two are just like a pair of kids, but I guess Mike has a point. Nobody is going to try to make fun of Carrie for this not if they want their lives intact, anyway. Rachel was trying hard not to laugh at Carrie's indignant expression.
"See what I let him get away with, boss? And he says I'm picking on him. I ask you, is that picking on him, or what?"
Food arrived as Rachel had suspected it might and the Chief steward had sent enough for all of the medical staff.
Rachel and Carrie dealt with the majority of the paperwork. Mike restocked equipment packs and checked the reports from the first aid stations, making sure that replacement stock was ordered for them. Individual first-aiders would then collect the stock from the stores department and replace it in the stations for the next alert.
Nearly four hours after the alert stand down, Rachel finally left sickbay and slowly made her way up through the bowels of the ship to officer country. She popped her head into the wardroom but nobody was about. Either they were on watch or they were in their bunks, recovering from the action earlier in the day, which was exactly where she was heading. She left the wardroom and climbed up the stairway to the next deck, knowing that her bed was but a few feet away when a voice brought her out of her thoughts. She turned and saw Sue Rodgers striding towards her.
"Skipper, still up? I thought you would have retired by now. Didn't you have the long morning, last night?" The redhead was now by Rachel's side. "Hey, nice bruise. What happened?"
"Teach me to duck next time the con decides to blow up," she replied.
"There a lot of damage up there?"
"Nope, not really. We came out of it pretty good, all things considered. Actually, I was looking for you. Can you spare me some time?"
"Sure, I can. Is everything okay?" Rachel was a little surprised that Rodgers had searched her out. They had spent some time serving on the same expedition force but they hadn't really known each other.
"Yeah, everything is as fine as it can be; but I'd like to ask your opinion on something. Let's go to my dayroom." Sue turned and walked back the way she had come.
Raising her eyebrows, Rachel followed the tall captain. Her dayroom? Cool! I haven't seen inside it yet and I heard she has real coffee. Wonder if I can convince her we need one?
The room was deceptively small; Rachel had always imagined it was bigger. Still, it was big enough to have comfortable seats, a dining table that would seat 10, and an entertainment console as well as the obligatory bunk and shower cubicles.
"Please, take a seat. Can I offer you a drink? Tea? Coffee?" Sue sprawled into one of the seats and clicked on the intercom.
Rachel smiled and her mouth started watering at the thought of a real ground coffee. "I'd kill for a coffee, thanks."
Sue smirked. She knew her coffee was a much sought after luxury and was damn hard to come by. But Sue had learnt very early in her career that if you wanted decent coffee you had to bring your own. "I'll have my steward put a pot on." She gave instructions into the intercom and waited for the affirmative. "The casualty reports for this action were light," said Sue, wanting to make conversation until the coffee arrived.
"Yes, the lightest we've suffered for some time, not even a fracture. Just scrapes and bruises for the teams to practise on, and a few burns. But nothing that required intervention from the medics or myself." The door to the captain's pantry opened and a young steward, whom Rachel recognised from one of her first aid teams, entered with a tray of coffee.
Sue looked up and motioned for her steward to put the coffee on the table next to her. The young man placed the tray then quickly poured the captain her coffee. Then he handed one to Rachel, already knowing her preferences for cream and sugar. Rachel sipped the hot brew and savoured its taste before turning her attention back to her captain. "So, what is it that you wanted to talk to me about?"
Sue sat contemplating what she was going to tell the doctor. By military standards she was about to break all the regulations by disclosing this information, but the young woman had views she needed to consider before decisions could be made.
"We are losing badly; we are outnumbered by five to one. Earth has been compromised and the outer colonies have been destroyed. We are in a first-contact situation that the old movie flicks used to harp on about. We have tried everything to communicate with these people but they either don't understand or refuse to negotiate; we honestly don't know which. We have few options left, and most of the surviving council favours retreating and regrouping. That, of course, opens up the debate of where do we go."
Sue watched to see if Rachel understood the gravity of what was being said. "No planets in the inner systems are suitable. They don't give us enough space between the invading forces and us. So that leaves the outer rim. We have several choices there and you've set foot on everyone of them." She put her coffee down and leant forward, resting her elbows on her knees. "I'd like you to tell me about these planets and help me make the decision on which one we should head for."
"That's quite a responsibility. How many do we have to choose from?" Rachel's mind hadn't quite wrapped itself around the enormity of the problem they faced. She realised that the majority of the decision would rest on Sue's shoulders. As far as anybody knew, she was the senior surviving military commander and her word would hold a lot of weight with those who were left from the council.
"Not many. We've come up with four. I have the charts and surveys for you to go over. What I need from you are the projections for survival on them and whether they are viable or not. I can worry about whether they are compatible to the military aspects we are looking for."
"Okay, I can do that. When do you want me to start?"
"I hate to ask this because you must be just as exhausted as the rest of us, but I need it as soon as possible. We don't have much time to come to a decision."
"If you can let me take the files, I can study them tonight and give you the information tomorrow."
"Thank you, Rachel. I appreciate your help and I don't think I need to tell you that this must remain strictly confidential. The decision to inform everyone will be made once we know what we are going to do."
"I understand. I'll meet you for breakfast in the morning and we can discuss my findings then." Rachel picked up the files Sue had placed in front of her and stood.
"Great. We'll eat here more privacy to talk and I'm sure my steward will be able to provide breakfast for us both." Sue stood and escorted Rachel to the door.
Rachel stepped through the door but turned before Sue could close it. "You owe me a lot of coffee for this. You do realise that, don't you?"
Sue grinned back at her. "And there was me thinking you, a doctor, would be above bribery."
"Never, where real coffee is concerned. I'll see you in the morning. Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Rachel. See if you can get a little sleep as well." Rachel nodded and left.
Despite Sue's parting comment, Rachel found it hard to sleep that night. She opened all of the files, remembering each of the expeditions and the pro's and con's of each of them. All of them had major health problems against them and she wasn't sure what she was going to tell Sue at breakfast. She threw the last of the files on the pile she'd created on the floor and flopped back onto her bunk, frustration getting the better of her.
If I had a choice, I wouldn't pick any of them. Considering climate changes, airborne/vector borne disease, water and air quality we might as well give up now. At least it would save us the trouble of travelling half way across the galaxy to die. There has to be somewhere better we could go to, but where?
She closed her eyes, trying to sort through the jumble of information on the various planets and moons she'd been to. One scene kept repeating itself in her mind: rainforests. She bolted upright, just missing hitting her head on the bunk above. Her face split into a smile; all she had to do now was convince Sue she was right.
Sue's dayroom the next morning looked like Rachel's cabin had the night before. Files and papers scattered the deck around the low coffee table where the two women were sitting. They'd been poring over the files for most of the workday but hadn't gotten very far in making any sort of decision. Sue had good reasons for wanting to use particular systems, and Rachel had good reasons for not. They'd come to an impasse, which, in truth, was what Rachel had been hoping for.
"Okay," said the doctor, putting down the file she was holding. "None of these come up to requirements. So, what about one we haven't got in this group?"
Sue rubbed her hands over weary eyes and looked at Rachel. "These are all that came up on the database."
"I know. I checked, and the database holds all of the planets surveyed by the expedition forces; that is it holds all the completed surveys. But I was thinking about this last night. These invaders have raided many of our outposts. They'll have had access to the outposts' computers and the database is accessible from every one of them. They'd eventually be able to figure out where we'd headed. But what if we went to somewhere that wasn't on the database? They can't follow something that isn't there, can they? The planet I have in mind may be a little further out than you'd wanted it but you know it very well. And although we hadn't finished the expedition, we hadn't run across anything that would cause us that much concern."
Sue studied Rachel's face, marvelling at the thought that had obviously been put into the little speech. "You've made some good points and I think I know the system your speaking of. And you're right, it is further out on the rim than we would like, but it has a few other things going for it. There might be repercussions, though, from going to a world we don't have a complete survey on."
"Of course there are risks. I'd be lying to you if I said there weren't. Truthfully, though, I don't see any other options. If we go to the Jordanian Moon we'll lose half those that colonise, because of the temperature swings. It was one of the reasons the moon was never populated in the first place. If we go to the Garcia system, we know that the airborne viruses would decimate any who survive the trip through the asteroid belt. I can go on and say similar things, to a lesser extent, against the others; but they all hold risks."
Sue pensively considered the doctor's words. The woman knew her stuff. It was a shame she was so valuable as a doctor; Sue could have used someone with her intelligence on her staff. Then again, she was Kingdom's medical officer; she was part of her staff. "I'll look over the star charts and review the system in question. If it looks viable, I'll suggest it along with the others. But as much as it may seem otherwise, this isn't my decision to make."
"I don't envy you your position, Sue, but I am glad that someone like you holds it. You won't let them stick their heads in the sand and pretend it isn't happening, and you won't let them delude themselves into thinking that there is an easy way out of this mess. I also know that you'll make sure they reach the right decision for us."
"No, and I mean it, Mike." Carrie put the last of the stores she had acquired into her personal carry sack.
"Why not?" whined Mike as he walked up behind his friend and mentor.
"You said I was ready, Carrie. You said that I should look to advance my skills."
"I wasn't going to say anything about your not being ready, Mike. But we are talking long distance SAR here, not a jaunt down the park. Besides, if we both go we leave Rachel short." The argument had been going around in circles for the last two hours, ever since the SOS from the warship Mountbatten had been picked up. The ship had been attacked and suffered severe damage but it had managed to limp into what was known as the Saltar sector, two systems away. The major problem Kingdom faced in mounting a rescue mission was that the system that separated the two warships was in enemy hands. Rather than jeopardise Kingdom and its escorts, a scout vessel with minimal crew would be dispatched to pull out the survivors from the dying ship.
"But you'll need all the help you can get." Mike was now sulking.
After his family had been killed, Carrie had pulled him up by the
scruff of his neck and made him want to live again and he'd been anxious to go on this
mission to show her how much he'd learnt since then. Now she was putting barriers in his
way to stop him from doing that.
She had a valid point; both of them going on the mission would leave Rachel short on staff here, but if things went right they'd be back in a day. Kingdom's skipper wouldn't let the operation go ahead if she thought there was any chance that Kingdom might come under attack.
"Ah hell, Mike, look." Exasperation and a little anger were showing in Carrie's voice. "Fine. You want to go, get packed; but I'm not happy about it." She slammed her pack down and stalked off.
Mike at least had the sense to let her get out of hearing before he let out a whoop of victory and punched his hand in the air. "Yes!"
Rachel was on the bridge, sitting silently by the helmsman, listening as the reports came in over the comm system. So far, everything had gone reasonably well. The small scout ship made it through the occupied zone and rendezvoused with the Mountbatten, as planned. The engineering team did a quick assessment and decided that the ship was beyond repair.
Sue made the decision to booby-trap what was left of the mighty warship. By leaving a homing signal switched to an all frequencies hail, she hoped to lure a few of the invaders in and take out their ships in the resultant explosion.
The few surviving crew of the ship were being transferred onto the scout vessel for the trip back to Kingdom. The casualty numbers had been vast. Many were beyond the skill of her two medics, needing a full hospital ship for any chance at survival.
Carrie had discreetly called Rachel on a secure frequency, provided by Sue, to ask her what to do about those who wouldn't survive the trip back. This was the part Rachel truly hated about her job. She would have found it easier if she were on the ship herself, making the decisions, and not ordering Carrie to do the job for her. At least, then, she wouldn't have the slightest doubt about whether or not she had made the right decision.
After several minutes of thought, she authorised Carrie to use a lethal amount of narcotic on those she thought appropriate. Now that the decision had been made, Rachel was awaiting the return of the rescue team, unable to leave the bustle of the bridge until she knew they were safe. Here, at least, she would know what was going on, rather than having to wait without information like the rest of the below deck crew.
Rachel was fascinated at how quiet it actually was on the bridge; she'd expected it to be noisier. However, there was little noise at all. Sue gave her orders to the deck officer who in turn repeated them to the member of crew concerned. The order was then confirmed by the crewmember by repeating it back with an "Aye, aye, ma'am."
The doctor wondered if the quiet atmosphere was ever broken. Even now, as Sue watched hostile vessels close in on the stricken Mountbatten and her rescuers, the Captain's quiet, calm demeanour wasn't touched. She'd quietly asked the communications officer to send co-ordinates of the approaching forces and to instruct the scout vessel to hasten the evacuation. Rachel's stomach, on the other hand, was tied up in knots; but she could see none of her apprehension in any of the bridge crew.
Carrie wanted off this pile of space debris that used to be called the Mountbatten, and she wanted off badly. Many times, her job brought her a great sense of achievement; other times, she wished she'd never taken up medicine as a profession. Today was one of the latter.
From a medical standpoint, this mission was a total disaster. People were going to die; not because they couldn't be saved, but because facilities that would normally be available were seven hours away; because the doctor and full medical team, who would normally attend, couldn't be found in the fleet; and because they just didn't have the time to move the most seriously injured and those who were trapped.
Mountbatten may, in fleet terms, be dead in space, but she was shaking herself to pieces as more and more of her systems failed. Some of the ship's compartments were open to the vacuum of space, making areas beyond them totally inaccessible to the rescue crews in the time they were allotted. Carrie hated to think that there were people alive in them, but in stark reality there most probably were.
Mountbatten's crew members who were trapped and couldn't be freed in the time left were the hardest to deal with; most of them weren't that seriously hurt. On her way back to the scout ship, Carrie moved through the forward compartments where the rescue team wouldn't reach. To those who were aware enough to know what was going on, she'd given the option of a lethal dose of morphine. Some refused, in the vain hope they'd survive.
In normal circumstances, the wounded would just be left in the hopes that the enemy would at least provide them some form of care. But nobody had heard that this enemy took prisoners or slaves, and it had already been decided that Mountbatten would be detonated to take out a few enemy ships.
To those who were beyond rational thought, or who were unconscious, she gave the morphine. In her own mind, Carrie knew that some people would consider what she had done as murder. But she had to believe that she was saving these souls from a lingering death; it would be several hours yet before the enemy ships arrived and Mountbatten exploded. She had to remember, too, that these were only a very small handful of people compared to the number they had rescued.
She'd managed to shield Mike from the worst of it by sending him with the salvage crew. Not that she thought he couldn't handle the task, but why should both of them suffer with the guilt that she already felt?
He'd done pretty well, identifying casualties and triaging them before the main body of the rescue team started on their search. Once the preliminary search had been completed, he returned to the clearing area in front of the docking hatch to treat the casualties as they were brought back to the rescue vessel. That was where Carrie was heading now.
They had twenty minutes left, on site, before they had to undock and head back to the Kingdom. If they stayed any longer, the enemy vessels would be able to see the scout ship on long-range scanners and, rather than head for the stricken Mountbatten, would head for them.
As soon as information about the enemy vessel had reached the rescue team, Captain Marks, who was in charge of the effort, had put them on a strict timeline, permitting no deviation. The docking hatch would automatically shut in twenty minutes and anybody who wasn't there would be left behind.
Carrie finally stepped into the cavernous cargo bay of the Mountbatten. Doubling up as a casualty clearing area and a dump for the salvage the engineering crews were taking off with them, the area was a hive of activity. Casualties and equipment were being carried through an airlock; the main bay doors had buckled in one of the attacks the Mountbatten had weathered.
Her eyes scanned the area, looking for the muscular form of her partner in crime. She spotted him, eventually, crouched down next to one of the Mountbatten's casualties. She carefully picked her way through the debris scattered on the decking, ducking occasionally as busy engineers and salvage crews scurried past her, muttering polite "excuse me's."
"Mike? How we doing?" she asked as she reached his side, smiling down at the young man he was talking to.
Mike looked up over his shoulder and grinned, taking note of Carrie's dishevelled blond locks and the smudges of dirt that crossed her face. "Doing good, Doc. Just these few to move onto the ship and we've finished."
Carrie dragged her hand through her hair, a nervous habit she'd picked up recently. She hadn't cut it in a while and the fringe was beginning to annoy her. She motioned for Mike to follow her and walked over to the bulkhead where the traffic of busy people wasn't so bad. "How many did we get, in the end?"
"We are taking one hundred twenty-five with us," he replied quietly, knowing that there were another fifty-three on the ship, whom they had found but who wouldn't be going with them, and countless more trapped within the wreckage whom they hadn't found. One hundred and twenty-five wasn't a lot to show from a crew of approximately five hundred.
"Okay. Get your kit together and make sure your team are all on board. We only have twelve minutes before we ship out. I don't want anybody left behind because they went wandering."
"You got it," the young man replied.
"I'll see you onboard. You seen the crew chief anywhere?"
"He was over at the airlock earlier."
"Thanks, Mike. See you in a few minutes." Carrie left him to gather his team and started looking for the crew chief to hand in her report. Through a crowd of engineers who were passing the last of the salvage through the airlock, she finally spotted the red baseball cap, worn to signify the crew chief. Squeezing in between a couple of men, she managed to get his attention and handed over her report on the casualties.
"Thanks, Doc. I'll get this sent as soon as we get underway. It will give the Boss lady time to get prepared to receive them. You ready to haul out?"
"Yep. Just the last few to move onboard, but we're all finished." The sounds of running feet and yelling pulled her attention from the crew chief. She turned and saw one of the men barrelling through the cargo bay.
"Chief! Chief!" The young man skidded to a stop in front of them, panting, trying to catch his breath. "We got a problem."
"Calm down, boy," the elder chief said, putting long years of experience to use to slow the lad down. "Take a deep breath and slowly tell me what the problem is."
The youngster took several seconds of deep breaths then gasped out his message. "Bulkhead up on the bridge is breaching. Couple of the crew have been injured; think Samuels has broken his leg. Petty Officer Dean says we have about fifteen minutes, at the most, before the ship is open to vacuum and to get everybody back into the rescue ship, now."
"Are the charges all set?" the chief asked, worry tingeing his voice. The lad nodded, still bent over getting his breath. "Are P.O Dean and his crew on their way back?"
"The P.O hurt his arm when the bulkhead started to go. He sent me on ahead and is helping Samuels back." The chief nodded and then looked over at Carrie.
Carrie knew what he wanted even before he asked. "Don't worry, Chief. I'll take Mike and we'll go get them." She turned and yelled through the noise to catch Mike's attention, even as the chief started to bellow out his new orders.
Mike hurried over to Carrie when he heard her yell. The last of the casualties had been taken onboard by his team. Besides him and Carrie, none of the medical team was left on the stricken vessel. Carrie pulled him close as he arrived, so she wouldn't have to shout. Now that the chief had pushed them into overdrive, the din was rising to a crescendo.
"Mike, one of the demolition teams is down toward the bridge." She looked at her watch to confirm the time they had remaining. "We have eight minutes before the hatch closes and about ten until the hull buckles and we are open to space." Carrie was already moving toward the gangway that would lead them in the direction of the bridge. Mike followed without question, knowing that time was of the essence.
They were almost running by the time they found the remaining members of the demolition crew sprawled unconscious on the deck. Debris made moving with speed difficult, and the noise of the twisting bulkheads was deafening.
The two men were buried beneath a section of bulkhead that had come away. P.O Dean had been hit in the head, knocking him out. Samuels was out from the pain of his broken leg; a cursory examination revealed no further injury. Quickly, they hauled the metal girder from the men.
Dean was the larger of the two and Mike braced him against the bulkhead, slipped an arm between his legs and slung him onto his shoulders. He turned to see if Carrie needed a hand with the smaller Samuels, but she was already set to head back. He motioned her in front so he could keep an eye on her if she faltered but her small, compact, muscular form carried the man with relative ease.
Moving as quickly as she could, Carrie headed back for the cargo bay. They had four minutes, plenty of time. It had only taken them around two to get there. Moving at speed, however, in a confined space with a hundred and thirty pounds of dead weight on your shoulder was no easy task for the strongest of people.
Sweat poured from her brow and her breathing became laboured. She could feel the fatigue building in her legs but she refused to let them slow their pace. The beacon of light that was the cargo bay shone ahead, guiding her way, with just over a minute to go. A grin crossed her face. Okay, so they were cutting it fine, but that wasn't anything they hadn't done before.
She'd have to remember to tell Mike how well he'd done on this trip. Even if she hadn't really wanted him here, he'd been an asset to have along. She pounded into the bay, seeing a couple of the men waiting to help. They rushed forward to help, taking Samuels from her shoulders and rushing him inside. She stretched her shoulders and turned to help Mike. A bolt of panic swept through her when she didn't see his imposing form behind her.
"Shit." She ducked her head into the airlock and grabbed the crew chief. "Hit the override. Mike's in trouble and he has Dean with him." She didn't wait for his answer but turned and ran.
Mike knew he was in trouble when he saw Carrie opening the distance between them. He couldn't seem to pull the air into his lungs fast enough. Still he kept himself focussed and planted each foot in front of the other. He let Carrie go ahead, positive that it was just a mind over matter problem; that all he had to do was keep going forward. The creaking and groaning of the metal was unnerving him. Sweat poured down his face and he shifted the dead weight on his shoulders to a more comfortable position.
The high pitched scream, as metal parted and splintered, startled him. The corridor in front of him seemed to be growing smaller and he realised his escape route was collapsing around him. He pushed himself to go faster but his body wouldn't comply with the orders his brain was sending it. Bolts and rivets started to pop from their housings. A mighty screech from behind told him he was out of time.
A white burning sensation ripped through his back and he looked down, seeing a blood-covered metal stanchion protruding through his abdomen. His knees collapsed, sending him crashing to the deck, his momentum throwing the P.O he was carrying out in front of him.
Five minutes, five minutes. That was what the override would give her to find Mike and his casualty and get them back. It would be enough time. They couldn't have been that far behind her. She heard pounding footsteps behind her and knew someone, thankfully, had followed her from the shuttle.
The shaking of the Mountbatten had increased significantly, bouncing her off the bulkheads as she ran. As she entered the gangway, she knew she didn't have much time before the whole thing collapsed in on itself. She slid round the corner, narrowly missing a metal girder that was so bent out of shape that it stuck out into the corridor.
She saw Dean first, slumped on the deck. Just behind him was Mike. She glanced over her shoulder to see who had followed and saw the crew chief himself. Ignoring Dean, already knowing what was wrong with him, she went straight to Mike. Carrie was kneeling in his blood before she noticed it. Tears began to build in her eyes before she touched her friend, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Her eyes closed in relief; he had a faint pulse.
"Chief, you take Dean; I'll get Mike." She didn't listen for a reply but heard the grunts and strain as the Chief lifted the larger man. There was no way she could lift Mike, especially once she saw the metal spike that penetrated his back and abdomen. The only way she could get him out would be to drag him. She got behind him and pulled him close, slipping her arms beneath his. She reached to grab the opposite wrists so that his arms crossed, giving her something to pull against. Once she was sure she had a tight grip, she straightened up, the muscles of her arms, legs and back screaming at the punishment she was inflicting on them.
She tried to be careful and avoid causing Mike further injury and pain. But time and circumstances required quick action as Carrie backed herself and Mike toward the cargo bay. Carrie had felt fear many times before. She'd used it as a tool, knowing that while the job still held some fear for her she would be up to the task. When you lost that fear, you became complacent and mistakes crept in, endangering yourself and those around you. But the fear she felt now was unlike any other.
She didn't give two hoots about herself; Mike, though, was another matter. The first time she'd seen him lying next to his dead sister, he'd pulled on her heartstrings. She knew that, somewhere out there, her own brother and mother lay dead but she was unable to bring herself to find them; it would be too final for her. While she hadn't seen their bodies, she could still believe that, by some miracle, they could be alive.
Mike didn't have that luxury but she was determined to show him he wasn't alone. She'd made it her job to see that he got assigned to Kingdom. She pressured Rachel into letting her train him up as a medic, held him close when the memories overwhelmed him and eventually made him look at life and living instead of death. No way was some poxy ship going to take him away after all the time and effort she'd put into him. Besides, he still owed her for the garbage chute incident.
Carrie almost wept with relief as she stumbled backwards into the cargo bay, Mike's extra weight nearly forcing her to her knees. She pushed downward, ignoring the pain and tearing sensation she felt in her back, forcing her legs to move faster. She could hear the guys at the airlock, screaming at her to hurry, that time was running out.
She heard the inner door not so far behind her start to close, cutting off the yells of her crew mates, but she refused to panic. Panic killed, and they still had a chance if she could get through the outer door into the airlock. The ride out wouldn't be pleasant, but it was survivable, until the ship hit cruising speed and the inner door could be released again. She fell through the doorway, feeling the closing door nudging her to the side.
Giving a mighty heave, she pulled Mike over her, trying to get his feet in. The ship would disengage even if the outer door were open; they'd both die if the door caught his legs. Seeing that she hadn't quite managed to get his feet inside, she rolled him onto his side, reached down, slid her arm underneath his knees and yanked them through just as the outer hatch slammed shut.
She didn't have time to relax. She needed to brace them, somehow, for when the ship started to move. Gathering Mike into her arms again, she wedged herself into a corner, feet braced against the bulkheads to hold them in place.
That's it, Mike. We're here; we've done it. Everything's going to be okay. She closed her eyes and pulled Mike tighter as the powerful engines that propelled the ship went into overdrive, pushing them away from the Mountbatten. As the speed was piled on, she could feel the forces trying to pry her out of the corner she'd wedged herself and Mike into. They couldn't afford a slow build up if they hoped to escape detection. A powerful jolt shook through the frame of the ship. Carrie could feel every bone in her body resisting the pull. But it was too great and they were torn out of the niche she held them in. Her last thoughts before the dark oblivion took her were, Don't worry, Mike. I've still got ya.
The crew chief waited impatiently by the airlock door until the green light flickered, informing them they had reached cruising speed. Without second thought, he hit the button to open the inner airlock hatch. The sight that greeted him wasn't pleasant; there was blood all over the place. The two medics were bunched against the outer door. Carrie still had her arms wrapped vice-like around Mike. She had a large, bleeding cut, stretching from mid forehead round past her left ear; her arms were lacerated from the pounding they had taken in the airlock. The chief quickly signalled the two first aiders inside, hoping that they weren't too late to help.
The quiet darkness of the ship was not broken as the crew swiftly moved in pursuit of their duties. The captain sat in his command chair, staring at the readings he was receiving from the various departments scanning the ship outside. He looked up as his second stood to attention by his side. Report.
The younger man, face flecked with shallow battle scars, immediately handed over the report he held, watching his captain intently as he read the information provided.
The ship is derelict?
Yes, sir. As far as we can tell it is open to space, no life signs.
There is no enemy activity? The captain raised his left hand and tugged at his greying eyebrow.
The second allowed himself a smile, already knowing that his captain would divert to scavenge the ship. His habit of pulling at his eyebrow was a dead give away and the temptation to gain favour with the high lord by bringing in such a prize would be too much to resist. "None, sir. We believe that it escaped the battle a few days ago. It obviously didnt get far.
The captain thought for a few moments before looking up to the second's face. Bring us about and set a course for the derelict. You can lead the prize crew.
The second inclined in a shallow bow. You honour me, sir, he said and about-faced, giving the order to alter course.
Sue Rodgers sat on the equally quiet but no less busy command deck of the Kingdom. All the survivors had been brought onboard and the medical crews were in the process of treating the casualties. The Kingdom was now slowly leaving the sector, their only connection to the Mountbatten a single pulse beacon.
20 seconds, maam. The Mountbatten was rigged to blow when the enemy vessel sent a salvage crew. They had managed to pinpoint the time of arrival with the last scans that the rescue shuttles had taken before they had gotten out of range. They had avoided detection by the approaching vessel and as far as the enemy knew the Mountbatten had been floating in space for days. They knew that the Mountbatten had been boarded because the beacon had increased in pace. In twenty seconds all those onboard, friend and foe, would be incinerated as the demolition charges blew.
10 seconds. Sue nodded and held her breath.
5,4,3,2,1. The beacon became a continuous tone then cut off.
Thank you, chief. Full speed ahead; get us out of this system.
Aye, aye, maam, full speed ahead.
Sue stood and tugged downwards, straightening her tunic. You have the bridge, Mr. Xavier. Ill be in my office. Her second in command, Simon Xavier, replied in the affirmative as Sue left the bridge.
It was quiet in the Kingdom's sickbay, apart from the rhythmic breathing of it occupants and the scratching of pen on paper. Rachel was bent over her desk, studying the latest casualty figures sent over from the escort of ships that surrounded the mighty battleship. They were low for a change. The small fleet of ships had kept out of much of the fighting.
Instead, they had concentrated on sending probes out into selected systems to see whether the invader fleet had made incursions into those chosen as possible retreat positions. Initial reports hadn't been good. Two systems had been breached by the enemy and another was experiencing heavy bombardment from meteors, probably from a comet or other celestial debris impacting with one of the moons.
While messages were sent out amongst the remaining ships of the fleet, trying to find some confirmation of where to head for, Rachel's work slowed down. She still had many of the casualties from the Mountbatten to look after but several of the escort ships had taken in casualties, as well, reducing her workload.
The wardroom had been converted into its secondary role of emergency sickbay and twenty of the less seriously injured were being cared for in there. Six of the more seriously injured were her companions in the sickbay. Out of the one hundred and twenty-five that had been taken off the Mountbatten, one hundred nineteen had made it back to the Kingdom. Rachel was proud of the fact that they had lost only six injured since their arrival onboard. Her pride though was blunted by the grief she felt at losing one of her team.
Her eye shifted over to the bunks as one of her patients stirred in tormented sleep and she sighed defeatedly when she realised who it was. Rachel quietly stood and walked over to the restless patient, carefully checking drip rates and monitors of the other patients as she passed. Rachel sat down when she reached the patient's bedside and gently stroked her hand over the bandaged forehead brushing away the blonde locks that had managed to escape confinement.
She had performed this task more than once, hoping to provide some comfort. Every time she did, tears welled in her eyes, threatening to pour over. With her other hand, she hurriedly wiped at them. It wouldn't do for someone to walk in, or one of her patients to wake up, and find her crying her eyes out. She'd done enough of that yesterday at the funeral. Still, she couldn't prevent her mind drawing her back into the past by two days.
Rachel stood just outside the cargo bay, adrenaline pumping through her system. 'Ten minutes just ten minutes more,' her mind kept telling her. Outside of the bay with her were two other doctors and their aid teams who had transferred over to the Kingdom to help with the casualties. Carrie's report had been sent through, but the message had been garbled, and all they really knew for sure was that there were a high number of injured to care for.
Despite Kingdom's size and the willingness of the crew to assist, Rachel had known that she and her staff wouldn't be able to effectively treat them all. Hence, she had asked the escort ships to provide assistance and many of the less seriously injured would be transferred after they had been assessed.
Now it was just a matter of waiting for the rescue ship to dock. But, as in all these types of situations, things just weren't going quickly enough for the doctor. She wasn't just anxious to care for the patients though; she wanted to see her friends and colleagues and make sure they were okay.
Carrie, she knew, would be feeling the strain right now. Her mind would be going over whether there was anything else she might have been able to do to help those who had been left on the ship. While, consciously, she would know that there was nothing else that could have been done, her subconscious would play with it for a long time yet, causing sleepless nights and allowing doubts to raise their ugly heads.
And Mike? Well, he'd been eager to go on this mission. She heard him badgering Carrie about it just a few hours before they left. She knew that Carrie would eventually crack; she couldn't seem to refuse Mike at the best of times. Still, despite his eagerness, he was sure to have qualms about what had occurred on the ship.
A loud klaxon shook her from her thoughts and faint tremors echoed through the soles of her feet. They were home. Now there would be frantic hours of hard work to keep her mind occupied, instead of the gnawing worrying she'd done while her team had been away. Flashing lights signalled the opening of the cargo bay door and Rachel stepped back as it rose away from the deck.
Docking crews scurried around the new arrival. The rear section of the scout ship now sat snugly in the bay. Rachel and the rest of the assembled medical team didn't rush in, not wanting to get in the way of the docking crews who were still connecting various pipes and fibre optics to the docked ship. Instead, she nervously waited, tapping her foot till she saw the smaller cargo doors of the ship open. She signalled to those with her and they entered the bay, waiting until the doors were fully open before approaching the ship.
Immediately, the concerns of the personnel in the bay changed from securing the ship to manhandling the casualties out of the vessel to the waiting medics. The whole operation moved smoothly, with the three doctors quickly triaging and sending them on to the appropriate areas. Rachel was considering how to manage those who required surgery when a hand gently grabbed hold of her shoulder. She turned to find herself looking into the weary face of the crew chief who had run the rescue mission.
"Chief!" she yelled over the din around them, the smile of welcome falling from her face as she noted his grim expression. "What's wrong?" His hand clenched tightly on her shoulder, urging her to follow him. She signalled to one of the other doctors that she was leaving the triage line and followed the chief.
The chief positioned Rachel in front of him and guided her into the ship past the exiting patients. Rachel froze, halting as the scene unfolded in front of her. In the few minutes that the patients had been emerging, she hadn't even realised that she hadn't seen either Carrie or Mike.
The grief she felt at seeing the battered bodies before her was, she noted, an entirely emotional response to seeing friends and colleagues in such a way. It was also one she couldn't afford if she were going to be able to help them. She took a deep breath but was only partially successful in hiding the tremor in her voice as she spoke. "What happened?"
With the chief's reply, she found it easier to slip into a more professional mode and her analytical mind started to assess the injuries her two medics had sustained. She approached Mike first. One of the more advanced first aiders had set up an infusion line, trying to replace the blood the young man was losing from the abdominal wound. The doctor in her was amazed to find he still had a palpable pulse and quick inspection revealed no further significant injury, but he needed surgery immediately. She pulled her communications mike closer and rapidly began giving orders for the Emergency Operating Theatre to be set up in the wardroom. Then she grabbed the chief and told him that she needed Mike moved out now.
Next, she moved her attention to Carrie. The female medic had a wicked head wound that had obviously bled profusely, judging from the stains that coated her uniform. A check of her pupil reaction showed a perceptively slow reaction of the right pupil, indicating a severe injury. But she was breathing and there were no bleeding external injuries, from what she could see. A tactile search from head to toe made Rachel suspect that she had probably fractured both her legs, which wasn't surprising, considering Carrie had been trying to brace Mike and herself against the forces of acceleration.
She grabbed one of the returning first aiders and instructed him to set up an IV line and transport the injured Carrie to the sickbay. The other two members of the Kingdom's crew who had been injured were just being moved from the ship, but Rachel caught up with them before they disappeared into the organised chaos outside. Samuels did indeed have a fracture of the tibia, and most probably the fibula as well, but it wasn't severe. Dean, who had regained consciousness on the way home, had a slight concussion but would be well within a day or so. She smiled false reassurances when they asked after their savours, then rushed from the ship toward the wardroom.
Hours, was it hours? It seemed like days later, when Rachel finally put her back against an available bulkhead and let her legs, unable to hold her up any longer, buckle, sending her sliding to a seat on the deck. Her elbows rested on her bent knees and her head dropped into her hands, hiding her exhaustion and grief from the few crew still awake. A nudge to her shoulder soon brought her back to awareness and she tiredly lifted her head, then felt a warm mug placed in her hands. Her eyes squinted, just making out the chief steward, and she managed to smile her thanks for the warm beverage.
"Food will be here in a few minutes, but you looked as though you could use a warm drink." Rachel nodded, agreeing with his assessment. A chill had settled deep in her soul, but she knew it didn't have anything to do with temperature.
She bent her head and took a cautious sip of the warm drink, nearly choking as the burn of brandy hit her throat. The chief steward gently patted her back. "I went down and saw Carrie; the doc from the Endurance did a good job. He says she should be fine. Still need to keep a close eye on her head injury, but he's sewn her up and splinted her legs."
"Has she regained consciousness?" Rachel took a deeper drink, enjoying the feel of the beverage as it slipped down her throat and the light-headedness that the few sips of the alcohol-enriched drink had caused.
"No, not yet. I'll go down and sit with her for a while. If she wakes up, I'll tell her." The chief took a sip of his own drink and looked over at Rachel. "You going to be okay?"
Rachel nodded, unable to bring herself to voice her answer as grief once again clamped a vice over her heart. She forced herself to take a deep, shuddering breath. "There's no need to sit with Carrie. I'll be down there, shortly. I just want to make sure everyone up here is settled, first."
"With all due respect, ma'am, I think you ought to get some rest yourself. The other medical teams are in the process of shipping out. I know they have taken some of the casualties with them, but you're on your own now, at least until Carrie gets back on her feet. We can't afford for you to work till you drop, so you'll have something to eat and get yourself to bed. My guys can watch the casualties around the ship and I'll watch the sickbay. Besides, it will be better for her to hear it from me. She'll know you tried, but she'd hurt and might lash out and you don't need that, right now."
Rachel shook herself from her reverie as Carrie stirred again. Facing the woman after she'd been told that Mike had died five minutes after reaching the operating table, had to count among the hardest things she had ever done. Carrie hadn't blamed Rachel for his death; she'd blamed herself.
The young medic had broken down in Rachel's arms, sobbing, berating herself for ever allowing Mike to go with them. Nothing anybody said could ease her pain. The tough exterior she'd always shown had crumbled, leaving her defeated, and she had sunken into a depression. Still, it had only been two days. Neither of them had really had time to adjust to the loss. Rachel was desperately hoping that Carrie could pull herself out of the dark hole she had fallen into.
A light tap on the sickbay door drew Rachel's attention. With one last gentle caress she stood and quietly wove her way back through the sleeping patients to the door. The tap sounded again, just as she opened the door, and Rachel smiled a welcome to the commanding officer of the Kingdom.
"Hi, can I pull you away for a few minutes?" Sue's voice was low, respecting the need for quiet in the sickbay. Rachel glanced behind her, just to make sure all was still well, and nodded. She pulled the door to the sickbay closed and stepped away, Sue by her side.
Sue had her hands clasped behind her back, long legs gliding comfortably down the quiet deck. There were several seconds of silence before the captain spoke. "How are your patients doing?"
"Not too badly. A couple have developed low-grade fevers but that was only to be expected." Rachel knew that this wasn't really the topic that Sue wanted to talk about, but she was prepared to let the captain build up to it.
"And your medic?" Sue neatly sidestepped a busy crewmember.
"Carrie will recover eventually, but it will be some weeks before she is back on her feet and Mike's loss has hit her hard." Rachel sighed. "It will take her a lot longer to get over that. I appreciate your asking, but that isn't what you wanted to talk to me about, is it?"
Sue smiled and looked over at Rachel. "Can't keep anything from you, can I?"
"Nope. I'm the doc; it is my job to be nosy."
Sue's smile faltered and she took a deep breath. "They have made the decision as to where we are going to set up our command structure."
"I see." Rachel stopped walking and turned to face her captain, someone she was rapidly coming to think of as a friend. "I take it that they didn't think much of my recommendation?"
"Let's just say it was a cause of great debate, and your concerns weren't really addressed as much as I'd hoped they would be." Sue looked at the young doctor, seeing the disappointment on her face. "I just wanted you to know before it was posted on orders."
"Thanks, Sue. You didn't need to do that."
"Yeah, I did. You put a lot of work into this for me and I wanted you to know that I shared your doubts and thought that you came up with a more than adequate solution."
"So which one did they plump for? The Jordanian moon?"
"Yeah, how did you guess?"
"It's easier to solve the problem of a cold climate than to build an environment that can keep viruses out."
"Well, I'd better get back up to the bridge; we'll be shipping out of here in a couple of hours."
"I'll see you later in the wardroom." She saw Sue about to refute the statement. "Sue, you need downtime just like everybody else. Besides, I owe you a drink or two after all the coffee I've managed to get out of you."
"Okay, you win. I'll meet you in the wardroom after we get underway." She smiled again, then turned and walked away. Rachel stood and watched her retreating form then made her own way back to the sickbay.
Conditions in the small shuttle from the Blazen were cramped. It was vastly overloaded, according to every regulation the pilot knew, but when the skipper's admin officer had come up to him and told him to pack it to the brim, he wasn't going to argue with her.
He hadn't been stationed on the Blazen for long, but he'd soon heard of the officer's volatile temper and what had happened to the last person that had crossed her; garbage detail just wasn't his style, especially the type of garbage he was thinking of. So he filled the shuttle with as many of the civilians as he could, noticing that the other shuttlecraft were doing the same. They'd been out of the battle zone for several days and were totally unprepared for the mass evacuation that had been forced onto them.
The Jordanian system was supposed to be their safe haven, but it had rapidly turned into a nightmare. The Blazen had already been caught up in the well-laid ambush that had been set. Spotted on sensors, Blazen hadn't been able to run. By removing all non-essential personnel from the ship, the captain had hopefully ensured the survival of some of them. He had evacuated all civilian personnel from the ship with instruction to head for the Galilee system.
The Galilee system was unique in the fact that it had to be traversed at sub-light speeds due to the large asteroid belt that lay within it. The shuttles that made it to the system would lie in wait, and try to get the attention of any passing friendly vessels. This way the evacuees would find a new haven and the ships would be warned off from the trap into which they were heading. At least, that was the theory behind the plan; but of course, as the fates would decree, nothing ever went according to plan.
A hand touched his shoulder and he looked up to his co-pilot's face. "Everything okay back there?"
"As okay as we could expect it to be. They're just grouchy at being cooped up for so long; tempers are starting to fray somewhat." Lisa Delgado slipped into her padded flight seat and relaxed. "How are we doing?"
"Better than I expected. Fuel cells are holding up good; food and water are a little low but we're carrying so many that's to be expected."
"What about the other shuttles?"
"Same as us. Phil and Jen took over point this morning. Simon and James are bringing up the rear and, if our luck holds, we should arrive in Galilee system by this evening. Then all we have to do is pray that someone friendly comes through it."
They'd only been two hours away from Blazen when Phil and Jen had experienced trouble with their star drive. Rather than leave the shuttle and its occupants behind, Marcus and Lisa had volunteered to hang back with them, just in case anything else went wrong. Simon and James had slowed down and joined them, to provide an extra set of eyes and expertise, should it be needed. As a result, it took them ten days to get to the Galilee system instead of the four they were expecting.
The civilians they were carrying didn't understand the true implications of leaving one shuttle and its fifty passengers and crew behind, and they vocalised loudly at the delay. Lisa snappishly pointed out to them that the Blazen had no doubt sacrificed itself to get them all away safely. And she'd be damned if she were going to let a bunch of selfish idiots cause the deaths of fifty more, just because they were uncomfortable. Of course, she also threatened to space the main protagonists and had gone so far as to push one into the airlock when he dared her to. Marcus had then offered to work in the crew section for the day to let the situation cool before Lisa went back in there again.
Now they were less than ten hours away from the system where, hopefully, they would meet up with the other five shuttles that had left the Blazen.
Rachel was bored. She'd been in the sickbay for so long she was beginning to think that she lived there. She hadn't realised how much of the workload Carrie and Mike had taken off of her. Now she was in the sickbay from morning till night, and sometimes even through the night. Sick parade had been an eye opener. She hadn't considered the number of patients who came through the books each day even though she had looked over the book each evening to sign it.
Still, most of her patients had been removed to their own accommodations. The only one who remained was Carrie. The medic had improved over the last couple of days; as far as Rachel could tell the fractures in her legs were knitting as well as could be expected. With the rest she had been getting, her head injury was resolving nicely with very little complication. She was still tormented by headaches and nausea, though, if she sat up for too long.
Her mental state was better than Rachel had expected it to be. There were tears, occasionally, and she still blamed herself to some extent; but she was determined to get back on her feet to help Rachel. She had started to help out with the vast amounts of paperwork the sickbay generated. But she was nowhere near well enough to take on patients, despite the cryptic comments that she spouted in between visitors to the bay.
Now, though, she was asleep, snuggled warmly in her bunk, oblivious to all that surrounded her. Rachel was envious and wished she could do that in the middle of the day. At least it was quiet today.
Kingdom was now en route to the Jordanian system. Once there, they should meet up with the remaining ships of the fleet. Kingdom would be one of the last ships to arrive, since it had to cross enemy territory and nearly half the galaxy. Rachel hoped that they would have already set up a command post, complete with hospital and supply depot. Then she'd be able to get Carrie's head and legs scanned, and she wanted several of her other patients checked over with better equipment than she held.
The shrill ringing of the telephone echoed loudly in the bay and Rachel quickly reached across and lifted it from its cradle, hoping it hadn't disturbed Carrie. "Sickbay. Bradley here." Static crackled over the line then the smooth masculine voice of Sue's first officer was heard.
"Hi, Doc. Skipper says to tell you that we may have a few customers for you, shortly."
"What? Why?" Rachel's voice rose in pitch.
"When we decelerated to get through the asteroid field we had a few blips on the scans. Turns out they are shuttlecraft from the Blazen. The skipper is going to make a crew-wide announcement when she has all the details, but she wanted to give you a heads up."
"Have you had any communication from the shuttles?"
"Only to confirm who they are " Static prevented Rachel from hearing what he said next.
"Did they mention any casualties?" Rachel asked as the static once again cleared.
"No, but a couple of the shuttles have had a few problems."
"Okay. I'll get my stuff together. How long before we pick them up?"
"Another hour or so. Thanks, Doc. I'll see you at the docking bay."
"Yep. I'll see you there."
Great. Just when I get the last lot sorted out, I get a load more. Who the heck have I annoyed recently to deserve this?
Rachel stood grimly outside of the cargo bay with her first aid teams at the ready. This was becoming a habit, and very shortly she decided that she would have the sickbay moved and set up here to save on time and energy. The first shuttle had already docked and thankfully held no casualties. She was going to stay for this one, then head back to the bay. If they needed her they could Comm her, but she wasn't standing around waiting while she had work back at the sickbay to finish.
The doors opened again onto the organised chaos of the cargo bay and she stepped in, eyes immediately searching out the loadmaster. When she caught his eye, she raised an inquiring eyebrow. He just grinned and smiled; no casualties on this one, either. She turned to her first aid team and told them to check everyone out. If anybody needed to be seen, send them her way; otherwise, she'd be in the sickbay if needed. With one last glance at the newly docked shuttle, she left. Had she waited just a few minutes more, she would have seen the familiar face of Lisa Delgado exit from the shuttle.
Lisa stood outside the grey gunmetal door, listening intently, trying to find out whether anybody resided behind it.
When she had stepped out of the godforsaken shuttle that she had been stuck on for the last eighteen days, shed been grateful to find herself on such a large ship. After a while, the close confines of the shuttle were enough to drive even the toughest of personalities a little stir crazy. A large ship would give her the space she needed to get some semblance of balance back. Shed be able to walk for as long as she liked without going around in circles, seeing the same faces every twenty feet or so.
With so many personnel on the vessel, there was also a faint chance that there would be someone onboard that she knew. She hadnt really expected to find anybody, but the thought that there might, just somewhere, be someone was enough to cheer her up. So, when shed been discussing where the officers would be bunking down and had been assigned her quarters, she was startled to find herself staring at a familiar name. Which is how she came to be standing outside the sickbay doors, wondering whether the doc had anybody in with her. She couldnt hear much through the door, but if she were disturbing anything Rachel would just ask her to come back later.
Taking the bit between her teeth she knocked, feeling slightly nervous as she did. It had been a long time since shed seen Rachel; the expedition team had split up shortly after arriving in Confederation space. Each of the members had been sent to areas where their skills were thought to be more valuable.
Lisa had been relatively surprised to find herself assigned to a flight position. It had been years since shed graduated from the airforce flight school. She was faintly amazed that anybody remembered shed been through it. At least they had enough sense not to put her into a combat position. Though she had been trained on fighters, technology had advanced enough that she was totally unfamiliar with the craft now.
But she had been given back her commission and assigned to a courier vessel where she had stayed until its mother ship had been blown to smithereens. It had been given a docking berth with Blazen after that, where she had been content to let the younger, less experienced, pilots take the first seat while she supervised and sat in the second pilot's seat.
She had tried to keep in touch with her few friends; Rachel had been the last one she had lost touch with. Communications easily went astray across the vast distances they travelled. Messages always seemed to be playing catch up, as various people moved from ship to ship, and ships moved from sector to sector. And as things began to look more ominous for the Confederation, things like writing to your friends got lost amongst other, more pressing, responsibilities.
She was pretty sure Rachel would be pleased to see her, though she didnt know what shed think about having to share her cabin. A faint voice yelled at her, through the door, to come in and Lisa quickly pushed it open and entered. Her initial impression, despite the voice that had called her, was that the sickbay was empty. The desk that she assumed was Rachels was covered in pieces of paper, but the chair by its side was empty. The treatment area was also bereft of people. A frown crossed Lisas face and she was about to leave, when an unfamiliar voice was heard.
"Can I help you?" The voice came from behind the door and Lisa peeked around it to the ward area. There was only one bed occupied at this time, and Lisa assumed that whoever was in it had been the one to grant entrance to the bay.
"Hi," said Lisa as she stepped fully into the bay, letting the door close behind her. "I was looking for Dr. Bradley; she around?" The blond-haired patient pushed herself up onto her elbows and smiled. Lisa felt her face automatically crease into a smile in reply.
"She just popped out. Shell be back in a few minutes if you want to wait. But I might be able to help if it doesnt require me to get out of bed." The bed-bound woman raised her eyebrow.
"No, thats fine. Ill wait. It is more of a social call than anything else," replied Lisa.
"In that case, make yourself comfortable. You should be able to find mugs for coffee in the treatment area if you want one." Lisa heard the faintly desperate tones in the womans voice and chuckled.
"I take it youve been here a while if youre that desperate for a coffee." She was unable to hide her amusement as the blond flopped back down onto the bed and moaned.
"Too long, way too long. But honestly, there should be coffee over there if you want."
Lisa smiled again. "Sure. How do you take yours?"
"Cream, no sweetener, thanks."
Lisa made her way into the treatment area and spotted the dispenser and mugs, then busied herself making the hot drink. Within a few minutes she was walking into the ward area, coffee in hand. "Here," she said, placing the mug into the womans hands. She sat down in the chair next to her bunk, taking a sip of the aromatic brew.
"Thanks. Ive been dying for one for the last hour."
"Dont you have a call system, or something, so you can get help if you need it?"
"Oh yeah, but it wouldnt be right to have the doc tearing down here thinking somethings wrong when all I want is a coffee. Besides, she should be back soon so I wouldnt have had to wait much longer. Im Carrie, Rachels medic." Carrie thrust her hand toward Lisa.
"Lisa Delgado." Lisa clasped the medics hand, feeling a warm strength in her grip. She fought down her curiosity at how the woman came to be lying in her own sickbay. Somehow, she sensed that to ask would bring back bad memories and she didn't want to start a new friendship off on such a bad footing.
"So, are you and the doc pals?"
"Yeah, we served on the expedition force together before the war started. Thought she might like to know she is having to share her cabin before she crashes in there and finds somebody else in there with her."
"Oh, I dont know. I doubt shed kick you out if she found you in her bed. I know I wouldnt." Carrie stopped, shocked, hardly believing what she had just said. Oh my god, please tell me I didnt say that out loud. Carrie could already feel the blush travelling across her face.
It was all Lisa could do to prevent herself from choking on the sip of coffee shed just taken. She looked over at the young woman who had just spoken, seeing the shock on her face and the blush that was rapidly covering it, and wondered whether hers was doing the same. Nothing like a little flattery to kick start the day. I wonder if she meant it?
Please, please, please let the ground open up and swallow me whole. Carrie wasnt sure what to do; should she apologise? Not that I wasnt telling the truth. Maybe if I dont say anything we can pretend I never said it.
Lisa remained silent, perversely amused at watching her new friend squirm and wondering whether she ought to put her out of her misery by saying something. Oh yeah, and just how do you plan to respond to that little bombshell? Youve known her, what, all of ten minutes. Not that she isnt cute, especially when she blushes.
It was at that moment that Rachel decided to make her return to the sickbay, the door opening before either Carrie or Lisa could say anything to each other about the remark.
Rachel pushed open the sickbay door with a little more vigour than she had intended. She was annoyed about various things, but mainly that a five minute trip to get a file from her cabin had turned into "Lets ask the Doc 20 questions" by whomever she had met on her way there. Then to find out that theyd moved somebody into her cabin, without telling her, just pissed her off even more. Not that she minded sharing her cabin, just that she would like to have been told about it before she went charging in. It took her several seconds to realise Carrie was not alone in the bay, then several more before she realised who it was.
"Lisa!" Rachel almost threw herself across the distance separating her from her friend, unaware of the awkward situation she had interrupted. "Oh, my gosh, what are you doing here?" She wrapped Lisa in her arms and hugged her tightly.
If Carrie could have gotten up and kissed Rachel at that moment, she would have. But how would landing a smacker on her doc look, after she had just made a pass at a total stranger? She was kind of curious to see how Lisa would have handled the situation, but had to admit the doc's timely entrance might have saved her from making an embarrassing situation worse. Using Rachels appearance as the distraction she needed, she put her half-finished coffee on the floor and hid beneath the covers of her bunk.
"Rach," Lisa said as she was enveloped into the doctor's arms, "I came in on one of Blazen's shuttles and I thought you might like to know who your new roomy is."
"None other. Sorry to barge in on you like that, but rooms are scarce at the inn these days."
"Yeah, I know. Weve taken on a lot of extra personnel from various ships and a load more refugees that they were carrying. But as soon as we get to the Jordanian moon, things should be better."
"I hate to disappoint you, Rach, but the Jordanian moon is out. Most of the fleet was hit by an ambush set up there." Carrie drew the sheet off of her head, disbelief at Lisa's words clearly showing on her face. An icy chill wrapped around her heart as she considered the possibilities that such devastation to the fleet would mean.
In the back of her mind, Rachel had known that there must have been something wrong for them to be picking up shuttles this far from any of the previously inhabited systems and stations. But she had thought it more likely that they were survivors from a ship that hadnt been able to navigate the asteroid belt. To think that the five shuttles they had picked up could conceivably be the only survivors from the ships that had gone to the Jordanian moon for safety was terrifying.
"But, Lisa," Rachel let go of her friend and sat in a nearby chair, "that was nearly all that was left of the fleet." Pictures kaleidoscoped through her mind, battering her senses. Doctors, medics, techs, friends. All gone.
Lisa crouched down, looking into Rachel's horror-filled eyes. At least her time on the shuttle had allowed her to adjust somewhat to what she was breaking to Rachel and her medic. "Yeah, I know things arent looking too good for us. The only reason we got away was because the commander on the Blazen shipped us all out and went on a kamikaze run to prevent any of them from following us. Very few got out alive. We came this way and hid out in the asteroid belt. We knew anybody coming from that side of the sector would have to slow down to get through it, and we could then hitch a lift and warn them off. Kingdom's the only ship we've seen." Lisa's eyes shifted away as this distressing knowledge struck all three women.
Rachels heart was hammering and she turned to Carrie, who was dreadfully pale and staring up at the ceiling. Rachel lifted her hand to brush away a lone tear that had escaped her eyes then turned back to Lisa as she continued.
"Im interested to see what your skipper decides to do. It would be suicide to try to go in and get anybody out of there, but where else can we go?"
"You remember Sue Rodgers?" Lisa nodded. "Well, shes the skipper still." Rachel was interrupted as the all-hands pipe was heard echoing through the ship. "Guess were about to find out what shes going to do."
Continued - Part 3
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