With excerpts from the private journal of Oksana Arkadyevna Vernadskaya, M.D.
Translated from Russian
Sunday, 24 Sep 2519
Mid Bulk Freighter Space Otter
En route to Harvest
15:37 hrs, ship’s time
I have to hurry. They’ll kill him if I don’t give them a viable alternative. God, I thought I was done with this …
Thursday, 11 Jul 2509; 12:00
It wasn’t my proper name. That told me who it was before I’d turned around to see the Commandant standing in my infirmary. It was the height of summer and I was a wet mess from the heat and humidity. Everyone on my side of the wire was struck by it and the infirmary was full of prisoners overcome by the weather. The last of our reusable ice packs failed yesterday afternoon. There would be no more until the next shipment arrived. The patient before me was prostrate but not, thank God, from heat stroke. He would recover with minimal drain on our meager resources. I gauged the Commandant’s mood as I recorded my patient’s vitals. Could I worm extra supplies out of him? Perhaps. When he used that tone of voice, it meant he needed something off-record that he could only get from me. There was leverage in that. So I bit back my usual retort over his alteration of my name and merely followed him out.
“Get your kit.”
Whatever he wanted me for, I prayed it would be quick. I was loath to leave my patients for long. I gave instructions for their care to my lone assistant (a fellow prisoner who’d been a farrier before the war) got my bag, and resolutely stepped outside. The sun was a sledgehammer and the air was stifling. So were the looks some of the prisoners shot my way as we crossed the yard, their thoughts writ large: Traitor. Whore.
I bore it. Chin up. Eyes forward.
The walk to the Alliance side of the camp was short. Thanks to the disapprobation, it felt longer. On the way I noted the details: inmates’ clothing going ragged and unwashed, broken tools courting injury. Morale was worsening as the months continued without reliable supplies. Fights had become common as people fought over food. Cigarettes and alcohol were running low. The black market economy that ran on them felt the squeeze. Shankings were on the rise. I cut a glance at the Commandant. His uniform was sharply pressed but I could see signs of wear. Though he was clean, he no longer smelled of lavender. His head was bare and I could see the sweat glistening through his regulation-short blonde hair. No lice. We’d been spared that, thanks to supplements built into the food. I resisted checking his hands for his manicure. The guards at the gate looked less well-groomed, their boots duller, their faces shadowed with stubble. No doubt more was hidden under their helmets and armor. I forced myself to stop cataloguing. There was no point in it. We were at the far end of a long supply line and the fortunes of war were not kind to it at the moment. Everyone suffered the lack.
We passed inside the main building without trouble.
The AC still worked. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I tipped my head back and my eyelids fluttered in bliss. The artificial chill made the gooseflesh rise on my bare arms and my nipples grew hard under my wet shirt. The guards were in for a treat. I let them look. They’d get nothing more out of me. The Commandant had made the boundaries clear. I squared my shoulders and opened my eyes and gave him a pointed look. He answered it.
He chose a door to the left of the guard station and I recognized it as the one for the brig. Dread made my stomach heavy and fear began to trill in my chest. I preceded him into the corridor beyond and kept my face blank. He took my elbow in a firm grip and led me to the last cell on the right. A guard came to attention and at a silent signal from his superior, opened the door. The Commandant’s grip tightened.
“Inside,” he said.
He pulled her bag from her shoulder as he pushed her in and slammed the door. The Commandant looked through a small viewport and said in a hard, low voice, “You have not been forthcoming with the requested information. Be prepared to be here for some time until you give us what you know. That being said, everyone will be of use.”
Turning sharply, the Commandant walked briskly away, leaving the large guard standing near the cell. Looking in, the guard smiled viciously and slammed the view port closed, the lights going dark at the same time.
The slam of the door took me by surprise and for one insane instant I thought I’d been shot. Common sense asserted itself a second later when I heard the Commandant speak behind me. This wasn’t a joke. This was real. I was in trouble. The clack of the lock and the darkness confirmed it. Moving carefully, I put my back to the nearest wall and sat. I stared into the black, got a grip, and started to think.
Information. Wars ran on it. When I was captured, I’d already earned the reputation for treating patients without regard to sides. It made me useful wherever I went. It also made me a target. The Commandant was not an idiot. He knew I would have information from my Independent patients. I wasn’t an idiot either. Aiding and abetting the enemy is treason, punishable by death. Once the Commandant had decided he’d gotten everything out of me, I’d be executed. To survive, I had to say nothing.
He worked me over for three days, moving steadily from soft interrogation to torture. I refused to talk. The Commandant wasn’t a wasteful man. Despite everything he’d done to me, he’d left my hands and my eyes alone. I had value as a doctor. He threw me behind the wire with the prisoners with the injunction to treat them.
Treat them I did. Meds in the rations took care of most diseases and body vermin but there were ills the pharmaceuticals couldn’t prevent. Fractures. Lacerations. Contusions. Fevers. Coughs and colds. There were injuries of a nastier origin as well. Men and women had to share the same prison, with predictable results. I tended the victims as best I could but the fallout wasn’t isolated to the patient. It rippled through the population in the form of reprisals. Fights. Stabbings. Worse. Rape wasn’t the only trigger. Theft, hoarding, trespass—they all carried repercussions. It wasn’t long before I had to petition the Commandant for more supplies. It was the moment he’d been waiting for. From that point on, he and I started our dance, leveraging what we could out of each other. So far, I’d managed to stay on the black side of the ledger but I suspected that was about to change.
The darkness was complete. The AC grew colder, making me shiver. I rose to my feet, put my hand on the wall, and paced the perimeter. I had to finesse it. Too little movement would fail to warm me. Too much would raise a sweat to chill me. Through it all, I had to stay calm, to stay alert despite the darkness, and be ready to exploit any advantage that came my way. Following the walls I found no bunk or sink. I smelled the sharp sting of the chemical latrine before I stepped in it. A blessing. Once I came around to the door again, I retraced my steps to the far corner to fix the details in my head. Ten paces to a side, making a ten by ten foot cell. I had it to myself, with only my thoughts for company.
My world now, for as long as the Commandant saw fit.
I had no way to mark the time. My watch had been taken long ago. Though I was in the middle of a prison camp and surrounded by a garrison, no sound save that of dripping water reached me. As time went on, thirst set in and the liquid whisper was torture. I had to give the Commandant his due: he appreciated the subtleties.
After thirst, boredom was the worst. I kept it at bay as best I could. I didn’t dare worry about my patients. It would only cause mental stress I could ill afford. Instead, I visualized medical illustrations in excruciating detail, starting with the muscular-skeletal system and meticulously labeling the parts, before moving deeper into the body once I was done. When I ran out of anatomical subjects, I switched to trauma, triage, and surgery. Pharmaceuticals came next, then toxicology. Forensics was an engrossing topic, leading to multiple diversions into related fields.
Somewhere during my mental exercise, a slot at the bottom of the door opened and light flooded in. The sound made me jump and after all the time in the dark, the bright light made my eyes water in pain. Shadows dimmed the light and something came through with a scrape. Blinking tears, I hauled myself up to investigate.
Bread. Hollowed out to hold what looked like soup. Sitting on a bare metal tray. No water. No utensils, of course. I took it up, the tray slid back, and the hatch slid shut, plunging me into darkness again.
Eat quick. That bread won’t hold the soup for long.
Trying not to dwell on how filthy my hands were, I drank the soup before devouring the bread. It was poor stuff, standard rations stretched out to the breaking point and no better than what my fellow prisoners were getting. Nevertheless, the soup was liquid I needed and the bread filled my stomach. I could only hope the Commandant hadn’t drugged it. It made for an interesting hour as I remained alert for any ill effects to kick in and I finished up my mental review of poisons while I waited.
I don’t know how much time had passed when I exhausted my medical knowledge and had moved on to building my dream clinic. I’d slept at some point but it was hard to tell. Eyes open or closed, the darkness remained the same. I was steadily becoming unhinged from time and even my body’s cues of thirst and eliminations were unreliable yardsticks. I had to believe that the Commandant had no intention of killing me. It made no sense. I was still useful as a doctor. Even the slim cost of the cell space and the bread was a waste when set against a single bullet to the head, and as I said, the Commandant was not a wasteful man.
The door opened and as before, the sound hit me like a gunshot. The light was blinding. I couldn’t see the hands that dragged me up and hauled me out. My immersion in the AC magnified the warmth outside and to my shame I shivered as the heat sank in. I was given a moment to adjust and I managed to straighten. A chronometer on the wall told me I’d been in the dark three days. I shut my eyes and set my jaw as the knowledge sank in. I opened them again as another hand took my arm and I recognized who it was by touch alone.
“Come with me,” the Commandant said.
The cameras were good and the images were sharp despite the lack of light. The guards monitored the prisoner in rotation and the Commandant himself checked the feeds several times a day. She was holding up well, he thought. She didn’t waste her energy by screaming to be let out or banging on the door. Instead, she’d played it smart, conserving her strength, moving only to warm herself when the AC proved too cold. Occasionally he heard her whispering lists of words in what sounded like Russian, but that stopped when thirst made it too hard to talk. They fed her halfway through the second day and by the third, he judged her ready.
When the guard drew her out, the Commandant was chagrined to see her shaking but girded himself to do what had to be done. He took her arm, thrust her bag in her hands, and walked her three cells over. He kept his grip and his voice gentle, but there was no mistaking the steel beneath.
“Do your job.”
As he’d done before, he pushed her inside and observed through the door. No doubt the cameras would pick up everything but he was grateful he couldn’t see her expression when she saw what waited for her. Time enough for that later, when he reviewed the feed.
The man slumped in the chair was young, beaten and bloody. No more than twenty or twenty five, and a stranger. I knew everyone in the camp but his face was new. Someone from the outside, then. Water and a basin stood on a cart nearby. I made good use of it and the soap provided, grateful someone had thought of that detail. I spied a cup on a shelf below and in a flash some of the water went down my throat. Talking to my patient would have been impossible without it. The water was cold and after three days of going without, it was a shock to the system. I managed to keep it down. I knelt and checked the man’s pulse. He was conscious but dazed. I suspected a concussion.
“Can you hear me?” I asked him hoarsely. “What is your name?”
“Mmuh?” He blinked at me. His eyes were brown and bloodshot.
“What is your name?” I grabbed the penlight from my bag and checked his pupils: responsive and evenly matched. A blessing, but concussions could be tricky. It took several repetitions before he could answer.
“Parker,” he finally said. He straightened and grimaced. Blinked some more.
“Parker. This might hurt but I need you to sit still. Can you do that?” He focused on me and gave me a nod. I donned my stethoscope and continued the examination. Heartbeat strong. Lungs clear. No bleeding in the middle ear. No depressions met my fingers when I gently felt his skull. A good sign. Blood pressure good, likely no internal bleeding. A visual check of his bare skin beneath his shirt and trousers backed it up. Reflexes good. I made as thorough an examination as I could with my limited resources, then stowed my equipment and pondered my findings. I’d found nothing overtly life-threatening: a shiner, a broken nose, a cut lip, several cracked ribs. I grabbed the bandages and started taping him up. I had to lean into him to get the bandage around him. I smelled blood and sweat but no vomit. Another good sign. “Do you know where you are?”
“At the ass end of the universe. Locals’re a mite unfriendly.” His attention and focus had improved steadily as I’d examined him and he attempted a grin past his swollen lip. “Present company’s nice, though.”
I knew I was a filthy mess but I took the compliment in the spirit intended. Flirting and cracking jokes, his cognitive faculties seemed unimpaired. The checks were piling up in the plus column. I tied off the ends and stepped back. Extending both of my index fingers in front of me, I said, “I want you to squeeze as hard as you can.”
“You bein’ forward with me, Miss?”
“No. I am a doctor. Squeeze.”
He did as I asked. I watched closely, looking for anything out of the ordinary. It hurt him to reach out due to his ribs, but his grip was strong and even. No weakening of the extremities on either side. Check.
“Can you stand up?”
He gingerly stood. His ribs were not happy about it but he managed without assistance. His balance seemed good. Check and check.
“Are you dizzy or nauseous?” I persisted. “Have you blacked out at all?”
“I’ve been beat to shit, ma’am.” Parker threw me a quizzical look. “What d’you think?”
“That you are being a smart ass.” I disliked being rude but I didn’t have time to argue. The Commandant might yank me out of there any minute. “Answer the question.”
“In order: no, yes, and maybe. How would I know if I did?” he asked. “Ain’t no clocks in here.”
Answering multiple questions was another check in the plus column but the nausea and the maybe worried me.
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere.” He eased down into his chair.
I marched over to the door. It opened, I stepped out, and nailed the Commandant with glare.
“He has three cracked ribs and a concussion. Has he been unconscious at any time while detained?”
“Yes.” Was that regret I heard in his voice? “The Front’s moving closer. Our section’s gone hot again. If we’re to take care of everyone as needed, he will have to be forthcoming.” He shoved me back inside and delivered his parting shot through the viewport. “We are all suffering. Make sure he understands that.”
The hatch slammed shut.
“Funny guy, him,” Parker said behind me. “I can tell he’s sufferin’ mightily.”
Parker was an interrogation subject. Of course his view would be jaundiced. I turned around and let some of my desperation show. I’d been with the Commandant long enough to know what would happen if he didn’t cooperate and damned if I would lose another patient. Too many had died already.
“We are.” I took a step forward. “We haven’t had a supply delivery in months. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel here.”
“Not my problem.” He stretched his legs before him, crossed his arms despite his ribs, and closed his eyes. End of argument.
“As long as you are here, it is your problem.” I leaned over him and gripped his knee. “Look at me. Do you think I’m on their side? Would I be in this shape if I were? We are all suffering. I have no medicine. My patients are dying.” I knelt and begged, “Please. Help us. Help me.”
“Why should I?”
His answer was a slap in the face and it made my tone sharp.
“You realize this is a prison, yes? Filled with your own people. Every supply run you destroy is food and medicine that they need. How can you do this to them?”
“You think they’d want to live like this?” He nodded toward the door, placing the blame squarely on those just outside.
“Yes!” I snarled. “My infirmary is filled with people stabbed or beaten for what little they have. We are killing each other so we can live like this, because no one wants to die like this. If you truly believe for one minute your people would rather die, go out and offer to shoot them. You won’t have any takers. I guarantee it.”
“They knew that goin’ in. Wouldn’t’a signed up if they didn’t.”
“God, you think I only meant the soldiers?” I pushed away from him, furious that he wouldn’t see it. His obstinacy made me want to weep. “I have civilians in here with me. Everyone who wasn’t killed when this area was overrun was thrown in here. I have mothers. I have children.” It was true. A good number of my patients were under the age of majority, had never held a gun. “Help us keep the supplies coming. Help them.”
The door opened and the Commandant waved me over.
“A word, please.”
I met him on the threshold, wondering if I’d said too much or too little. The Commandant was playing it close to the chest. I hated working in the dark. If’ he would just come clean, I could get the information out of Parker with the minimum of harm. Wasn’t that the most practical solution to the impasse? Why waste time pursuing any other gambit? The one of guards carried in electrical leads and a power unit. Another followed him with a foot basin of water. The interrogation had clearly jacked to the next level.
“Don’t do this,” I said, getting right up in the Commandant’s face in my fervor. “He’s fine for now but if you shock him, he’ll seize up and slam his brain inside his skull. The secondary concussion could kill him. He can’t tell you what you want to know if he’s dead.” I saw it in his eyes the second before he motioned another guard over. A hand clamped on my shoulder hard enough to bruise. I tried to shake it off. “Don’t do it. It will kill him.”
Two hands had me now and dragged me out. I dug in my heels and tried to keep the Commandant’s eyes on me. He flicked an impassive glance past my shoulder and I knew I’d lost him. I grabbed the door jamb.
“Parker. Tell them—.” A fist plowed into my gut and I retched and spat. Before I could draw another breath, I suffered another blow that tried to exit through my back. I went down, too weak to fight them. The trip to my cell was a blur. They shut me in and turned off the lights and I went gratefully down into the dark.
I woke when the hatch scraped open and a tray slid in. The light was bright enough to make my eyes water but after so long in captivity, I could navigate the cell without needing to see. I was stiff and sore from sleeping on the bare floor and horribly thirsty. The tray held the same bread and soup but there was a bottle of water as well. I pulled the food into my lap and cracked the seal on the bottle. The water was blessedly cool and sweet, and I stifled a sob as I sipped it. I blinked back tears and resolutely capped the bottle. The best place for moisture was inside my body but there was no telling when I’d get more. If I were careful, I could make it last a day, maybe longer. There was no saving the soup, however, and I devoured it with the bread. The hatch slid shut and plunged me into darkness again. I barely noticed.
My next meal came a short while later. I had no way to mark the time but I still felt full from my last meal and my water was only half gone. Another bottle waited on the tray for me with the bread and soup. I took them up quickly and made myself eat it all. I needed the nourishment and the extra water was welcome. I finished my first bottle and saved back the second. I didn’t know when I’d get more. When my third meal arrived well before I started to feel hunger, I decided that the Commandant was playing with the timing. It was a classic interrogation technique. I couldn’t maintain my equilibrium forever on such an irregular schedule but knowing in advance helped stave off the worst effects.
I’d consumed five meals before I saw daylight again. A glance at the chronometer told me I’d lost forty-eight hours. I adjusted the clock in my head and put the dark behind me. As before, the Commandant shoved my bag into my hands and led me to Parker’s cell. The lock clacked home as I examined him, but I paid little attention to it. Parker was on the floor instead of in a chair. The floor wasn’t as clean I would like but I counted my blessings: it would make it easier to examine him if he were prone. I cut away his shirt and got to work.
“Hey now…,” he said, conscious but barely. “That … that was m’ best shirt.”
“You can bill me. Lie still.”
“Not like I … wanna move,” he mumbled, blearily watching me.
Burns from the leads marked his skin along with fresh lacerations. The bruises he’d sported two days ago had deepened and the fresh ones were worse, including one on his left side, extending beyond the taping over his ribs. I immediately thought one of his ribs had broken and started searching for the damage that it could do. Further examination showed it had not, thank God, punctured anything. Relieved, I pulled my stethoscope from my ears, satisfied his insides were more or less in one piece though his ribs creaked with every breath. His heartbeat was still strong. His pulse under my fingers was better than I’d hoped for, considering his appearance. As I worked I monitored him for signs of shock. His vitals and his color remained good. He was tough, I’d give him that, though I wished he weren’t half as stubborn. Had he been more tractable, he would have suffered far less damage.
“Look straight ahead.” I shone a light in his eyes, watched his pupils change. Responsive. Good. “Can you see me?”
“Yeah. Both of you.” He breathed a laugh and winced as his rib made him pay for it. “Nah, just kiddin’. I can … see fine. Just wanna … sleep a bit.”
The Commandant has restocked my bag with antibiotics, bandages, even morphine. I got Parker’s wounds dressed and his ribs taped with the new supplies. I debated using the morphine. I knew of several patients in the camp who needed it, but I had no way of knowing when I’d return to them and Parker was in front of me now. I measured a dose and injected it.
“Here’s something for the pain,” I said, watching him go limp as the drug hit his system. I kept a finger on his pulse. It remained steady. Good. No bad reaction.
“M’yeah.” Parker sighed and his eyelids fluttered. “Tha’s th’ticket … Hey, Doc … y’gotta name?”
If I gave him my name, I’d be playing right into the Commandant’s plans: establish a rapport with the subject and once I’d wormed inside, make him spill. Did I want to do that? Would it cause more harm than good? The deprivations of the past five days made it hard to think straight, to weigh my options objectively. Go with your gut. Do what feels right.
“I’m Oksana.” I smoothed his hair from his forehead, clearing his eyes. “Pleased to meet you.”
The Commandant kept me locked in with Parker for the next two days. I did what I could to improve his condition but we really were scraping the bottom of the barrel in everything. I slept on the floor but a blanket was scrounged for Parker to keep as much of the dirt off him as possible. I had water again, enough to grant a reasonable level of hygiene. As with everything of late, it wasn’t at a level I wanted but it was good enough to avoid infection.
As the time went on, Parker’s condition improved and we talked. He was cagey about his recent activity but of his life farther back, he was more forthcoming. He was a volunteer for the Independent forces, had signed up immediately after the first shots were fired. He grew up in a rural setting. He had a sweetheart back home who he hoped would still be waiting for him when he mustered out. His parents were still alive. He had siblings, of which he was the middle child. All the usual getting-to-know-you details.
I shared stories the places I’d been and the people I’d seen. My patients remained confidential. I was well aware that we were under surveillance. I knew the Commandant was still keen on finding out which Independents in the area I’d treated before. I wasn’t about to give him—or anyone—the inside track. However much I’d compromised my principles to survive this war, it was one of the few I’d managed to preserve intact.
At no time did we discuss the possibility that Parker would be exchanged for an Alliance prisoner or perhaps even manage to escape. Neither of us wanted to entertain hope for an uncertain outcome. Neither did Parker make any untoward move on me. His injuries didn’t make it impossible but nevertheless he restricted himself to mere flirting. It was a measure of how inured I’d become to abuse that I expected worse and was only dully relieved when it didn’t materialize.
We were fed at irregular hours. The food was the same as I’d received and I gave Parker most of my share. He needed the extra rations to heal. The lights blazed overhead 24/7. Parker slept better than I did. Despite my best efforts to focus, worry for my other patients made it hard to stay in the moment or rest. As I had before, I endured and waited to see what happened next.
“Sir,” came the voice at his back. The Commandant turned from the feeds and took the report the aide handed him. Marked Eyes Only. He dismissed the aide, took the report to his quarters, broke the seal, and read it.
It took ten seconds.
No matter how advanced, for some tasks technology would never trump fire. The Commandant burned the report, crushed the ashes to powder, and flushed the remains. He washed the soot off his hands and wished his misgivings were as easily shed.
I hadn’t fallen entirely asleep when our door opened and we were both ordered to our feet. Parker had spent the past two days recuperating and he actually felt well enough to fight back. He put himself between me and the guards and threw the first punch.
“Parker, don’t!” I was already pulled halfway out the door. I tried to get free but the guard had too strong a grip. I called out to the three men on Parker. “Don’t hurt him. He—.”
The door swung shut as one of Parker’s guards drew back his fist and the last I saw of Parker was his expression: Do or die.
“You can’t save him.”
The Commandant was waiting for me in the corridor. He stood erect as always but something behind his expression sagged. Regret? From him? For what? For whom? Before I could say anything, he gave the guard a silent signal and I was released. The Commandant gave me a bottle of water and gently took my arm.
“Thank you for your assistance,” he said quietly as he escorted me toward my cell. “You did better than anticipated.”
“Call them off. Don’t kill him.”
“That decision is no longer in my hands. I’m sorry.”
“Damn you!” I pulled away from him and stumbled back. “If you intended to kill him all along why the hell did you take me away from my patients? How many will I find dead when I get back? I have a six-year old with a—.”
The guard behind us grabbed me by the neck and the Commandant stopped him with a word.
The guard released me and I straightened as the Commandant approached. I put my back to the wall and put my chin up. Damned if I’d face him cowering. The Commandant stopped in front of me and gently brushed my cheek with his thumb. Abuse, I expected. Tenderness? Never. His touch was feather light, stirring delicious thrills down my neck. Thoroughly undone, I struggled to breathe.
“Oksana,” he said, leaning closer. “I wish—.”
A hard blast rocked the building, sending us to the floor. He threw his arms around me and cradled my fall. I didn’t have time to register more than that before he was on his feet again.
“Code Black!” he shouted. “Lock it down! Lock it down now!”
Another resounding boom made the ground shake and I could hear the report screeching tinnily from the Commandant’s comm: They’re bombarding us! They’re—. Another boom. The Commandant shoved me at the nearest guard and turned for the command center.
“Get her to medical.”
Medical was the safest place to be, designed to withstand attack. I was having none of it. I ripped free of the guard, grabbed my bag, and ran for the nearest exit. If the Fed side of the camp was getting hit, I knew the prisoner side would be too. And they had no protection at all. I passed the Commandant and hit the door running.
Outside was utter chaos.
The ground was cratered in several places, cutting us off from the road. Our uplink dish was nothing but tatters. The vehicle shed was ablaze and as I stared, one of its reserve fuel tanks went sky high. The blast slammed me down and I curled up as the debris went everywhere. Overhead, the perimeter towers were nothing but muzzle flash as the gunners fired beyond the wire. Everywhere I looked was black and orange and red. Peering through the smoke, I saw movement and heard the stutter of returning rifle fire. I also heard the screams from the prisoner side of the wire.
God, the children…
I clawed to my feet and ran for the wire and was tackled from behind. I struggled to get free but my assailant was on top and had my arm twisted up my back. I barely felt it.
“Get inside!” The Commandant yelled, his mouth a scant inch from my ear.
“No!” I shut my eyes and threw a fistful of dirt in his face, kicked free and sprinted for the gate.
I ran. Dear God I ran. Already I could see several of the prisoner buildings were burning. Bullets strafed the ground in front of me and I dove aside, hit the ground rolling, and got back on my feet. The gate between the camps was hanging by a hinge and I got past it easily. Another mortar exploded on the Fed side of the wire and the shock wave slammed me to the dirt. I gave it a count of three and scrambled up again.
I’d made it. I was through.
Not that the wire fence would stop anything the attackers sent our way. Or whatever the prisoners threw at it either. As I entered the camp proper I saw them fighting the prison guards, clearly staging an improvised jailbreak. Shots were fired, I saw people going down, and I could not stop to help them. I had to get to my patients. Those who weren’t fighting the guards were running for the refuse pits at the far edge of the camp. They were crude and open to the sky but they were below grade and safer than the buildings during a bombardment. Prisoners were a moving river of flesh rushing for the pits and I had to push through them to get to the infirmary.
The infirmary had missed getting hit. Fire was still a real danger, as were stray bullets. I crossed the threshold to find several of the patients marshalling the evac of those still bedridden. I caught my assistant by the arm and pushed him for the end of the ward, where parents were fighting to get to their children and run, while I made my way to the most critical patients.
Somewhere in the chaos the bombardment stopped and the ground fighting began. I barely paid attention to it. I got as many to safety as I could but there were still several that could not be moved. I refused to leave them and my assistant stayed with me. We would brave the bullets and the fire with our patients. I silently gave my assistant a scalpel from my bag. If it came down to a fight, he would know how to use it. We barricaded the windows and doors with what furniture we had, hunkered down, and waited … for the fighting to stop, for the world to end, for whatever happened next.
There were three waves in all, each shorter than the last. Only the first wave had mortar fire. The other two were ground assaults aimed at disabling the Alliance side and getting the prisoners free. The Feds repelled the Independents after each rush. Two hours and ten minutes after the first mortar round, it was all over save the mopping up. The Alliance suffered most of the shelling but the prisoners took most of the casualties.
Communications was the first thing repaired and word of the attack was sent up the line. While that was underway, The Commandant got the recovery teams organized and went over to inspect the damage.
A good quarter of the buildings were on fire. Another quarter was damaged. A quarter to a third of the prisoners was wounded, dying, or dead, and a percentage of those were the civilians. The cries of the bereaved rose with the smoke and the buzz of flies grew louder as they settled in.
All able bodied prisoners were divided into crews. Some were assigned to put out fires, others to stretcher duty. Those who were involved in the aborted jailbreak were detained for questioning. A bunk building served as a detention block as the names and stories were sorted out. Everyone doubled up to accommodate those left without shelter. The children and their mothers were housed in the most intact buildings and guards were set to watch over them. The wounded and dying were carried to the infirmary. The dead were laid out in a temporary morgue. Water and power had to be restored, tying up more men from the Commandant’s ever-shrinking pool of personnel. For the nonce, he had water carried over in carboys and portable generators tasked to the infirmary and the detention block.
He saved the infirmary for last, knowing he’d find her there. Sure enough, he spotted her hard at work in the triage ward she’d set up outside. His gut clenched when he saw the blood on her. He relaxed when he realized it wasn’t hers. He signaled the two guards with him to stand watch and went on alone.
“Take a break. You have help. Use it.”
I’d wondered when he’d show up. I didn’t turn around but completed my exam, waving over the stretcher bearers.
“Get him inside. Left hand room.” I stepped back and turned to the Commandant. “If you want to talk, you’ll have to do it while I work.”
I followed the patient inside without waiting for a response. I had no time to puzzle out why he was here. My assistant saw us coming and cleared a path. I put my scissors to the patient’s shirt and called for a trocar and a chest tube. What I got was something a bit rougher, improvised from what we had on hand. I made it work and was rewarded with the sound of my patient’s lung inflating again. I let my assistant finish up and I moved on to the next patient.
And the next … and the next. There was no end to them and I simply kept going. I didn’t dare stop. Death would take them if I did. I refused to let that happen. I kept going through the ranks of the wounded and the dying. I saved those I could and fought for those I couldn’t. I fought as the life left them, then shoved my despair down, and moved on. By the time I got to the teen-aged boy with second and third degree burns covering most of his body, I’d run out of damned near everything. I took a deep breath and inventoried what I had left.
“You might need this.”
I’d forgotten the Commandant. I turned and saw him standing there with his sleeves rolled up. He’d clearly been working hard alongside me yet somehow he managed to look crisply turned-out. Then I saw the package he held. I opened it to find fresh meds. Much like the tender moment in the brig, this latest gesture floored me. I managed not to drop them but administered the doses to the patients who needed them most. For several, they arrived too late. I stood stricken as they wrapped the child up in a sheet and took her body to the morgue. The look her mother gave me was terrible. Anger I could have understood. Grief, even. But sympathy? For me? How was that remotely possible?
The moans from the wounded rose above the murmurs of those I’d drafted to help them. The infirmary reeked of blood and worse. I looked down and saw I was covered in it. I would probably kill more patients with infection than I managed to save. What the hell was I doing here? Why did I even try? Anger blazed through me then and found a target in the uniformed man standing next to me.
“Get out,” I snarled. I shoved him hard, leaving blood and gore on his tunic. “Take your damned war with you.” I drew my hand back and he caught my wrist before I could slap him.
“Don’t,” he said, something flickering in his eyes, there and gone in an instant.
“Goddamn you, get out!” Screaming now, I turned my anger loose. I rained blows and invective on him until I could no longer stand from sobbing. I cried then, cried for the child I couldn’t save, for the mother who would bury her, for every broken thing I couldn’t fix. If I raged hard enough, if I fought hard enough, I could make it stop. I could make it stop.
Please God make it stop.
And for once, He did.
She crashed hard. He caught her as she fell. There was no question of leaving her in the blood and dirt. The Commandant carried her out and had her installed in the infirmary on his side of the wire. He left her in capable hands and retreated to his quarters, there to draft his reports on the recovery efforts and perhaps, just perhaps, find the least damning way to justify what he’d just done.
I woke to clean sheets and a soft bed, luxuries I hadn’t enjoyed in years. Coming fully awake I saw I’d been hooked up to a nutrient drip. I lay in the recovery ward on the Alliance side of the wire. I wasn’t the only inhabitant. Six others filled the beds around me. Most were unconscious and I ran a practiced eye over them, diagnosing them out of sheer habit. A medic sat at a desk at the far end. He met my look with a nod, whispered into a comm, and walked over to check my drip. He didn’t speak and I didn’t engage him in conversation. I could see the chronometer on the wall well enough. I’d lost another day.
It was a day I could ill afford to lose and I insisted on being discharged. After several arguments with the staff, they finally released me. My clothing was returned to me—laundered, a plus—and the Commandant escorted me back to the prisoner side of the wire. He stopped me at the gate.
You’ll never save them all, memory whispered. Just the save ones you can.
I’d been six, vacationing at the beach with family and friends. During our stay, we found the shore covered by thousands of starfish stranded after a storm. No matter how many we threw back, there were always more we couldn’t save. I was devastated to see them die. One of my brother’s older friends took me aside and said those words to console me. He later moved away and our families lost touch, but his words remained.
“How did …,” I said before I realized who stood before me. I aged the boy in my memory and matched his face to the man in front of me. I checked and double checked the physical markers and there was no denying it. “David?”
“How long have you known?”
“Since the day you arrived.”
That was nearly two years ago. Knowing who he was cast everything in a different light, one I didn’t know how to handle. Insides shaking, I tried to draw a steady breath and failed. I looked aside and spoke to the landscape.
“You could have said something,” I said. My throat had gone tight. So tight.
“What could I say?”
I could only stare at the wire and shake my head. What could anyone say?
“What now?” I asked.
“The same as always. Nothing’s changed.”
That got me to turn around, head up, chin high, angry again.
“The hell it hasn’t.”
“No, it hasn’t,” he said, matching my steel with his own.
His thumb stroking my cheek was a vivid memory, painting a trail of heat everywhere he’d touched me. That’s when I understood. What choice did either of us have?
“No.” I swallowed thickly and walked through the gate, separated by barbed wire and necessity. “It hasn’t.”
Sunday, 24 Sep 2519
Mid Bulk Freighter Space Otter
En route to Harvest
17:00 hrs, ship’s time
I managed to convince the Captains to let me sedate him, citing the fact that he might have enough information to allow us to take down the pirates. For the sake of those who might otherwise fall into their hands, we had to do the right thing instead of the expedient thing and turn him over to the authorities when we made port. Malcolm Reynolds didn’t seem entirely pleased by my argument, but I pressed it anyway.
I understood how he felt. I could see that he would stop at nothing to save his crew and would do anything to keep them safe. I would have done the same for my patients. I still did, for the patient under my care. Pirate he may have been and certainly he was a proven letch, yet I could not turn him over to be cold-bloodedly murdered. It went against everything I believed in, up to and including the possibility (however slim) that he might chose to change his ways and redeem himself. I could not stand by and let someone, anyone, take that choice away from him. Everyone deserved that chance, the freedom to choose. I knew it was not a view likely to be popular with the crew I flew with, but I didn’t spend a moment worrying over it.
Apparently, Stone was willing to listen. Moreover, he was willing to enforce his decision once made. All I had to do was keep our prisoner—my patient—out of trouble. The surest way to do that was to keep him in a medically induced coma. Unable to do or say anything to make it worse for him and others, it seemed the most humane solution. Also, as a drugged patient, I could lock myself up in medbay with him to keep him safe from reprisals. I wasn’t stupid. Stone was Captain but he was only one man. The others would be free to act as they wished. If they wished to disobey a direct order, I had to be able to thwart them.
That meant I could not leave him for any length of time. Juggling what amounted to guard duty and my duties to our passengers made it hard. I rigged up an alarm to sound if his vitals slid into dangerous territory. I slept in the recovery ward with my bed shoved across the door. Anyone coming or going while I slept would have to crawl over me. I watched his monitors constantly. I took copious notes. I drank coffee to stay awake as much as possible.
It meant burning my candle at both ends. I was no stranger to it. I’d done it before, on half a dozen worlds and more, and in less salutary circumstances. With proper diligence, I would see my patient through and deliver him to the tender mercies of the Alliance.
God knew, there was little mercy left for him here.