Ross chuckled then froze as another series of explosions rocked the ship. One of the crew began to pray. The two men looked at each other, knowing that their life expectancy could now be measured in minutes. Both of them knew that the Chigs seemed to enjoy playing with their prey. Even now the alien ships were most likely circling the crippled Saratoga, picking off her fighters before slipping in for the kill. McQueen closed his eyes, all too clear images of exploding Hammerheads running through his mind. . .like stars in the night Vansen, Hawkes, West, Damphousse, Wang. The closest thing to children he’d ever have. Dead, all dead. . .
"Ty." Ross’s voice was low but urgent, his hand tightening where it rested on McQueen’s shoulder. McQueen opened his eyes, blinking in a sudden blaze of light. Hovering above him, apparently with no visible means of support was a bright globe of light. What the hell. . ?
Slowly, carefully, McQueen tilted his head back. There was someone towering above both he and Ross. At first, McQueen thought that another survivor had found them but then he realized that this figure was far too tall to be someone from the Saratoga. . .far too tall to even be human.
For a moment, McQueen’s brain seemed to freeze then memories of his days as a POW flooded his mind. Not again. . .he wouldn’t be a prisoner again! He reacted instinctively. Ignoring the pain that literally tore at him, his arms shot out, hands closing on a slender ankle and yanked hard. There was a deep whoop from ceiling-high and a crash as the alien hit the floor hard. McQueen twisted, trying to get to his knees, one hand scrambling for his butterfly knife. If he couldn’t kill the alien with it, he’d damn well use it on himself.
Hands grabbed his shoulders, another pair grabbed the hand holding the knife. Ross was saying something in his ear but McQueen could hear only that other, unfamiliar voice yelling "Don’tdon’tdon’t! Please don’t! We’re friends! We’re here to help!"
His eyes cleared and he found himself staring into the concerned hazel eyes of a young man. . .a young *human*. . .who was clenching his hand tightly.. He could feel Ross behind him, hands still holding his shoulders as he used his body to support McQueen’s. He tried to say something but his voice refused to cooperate. The stranger glanced to one side where the sprawled body of the alien lay.
"I thought I told you to wait for me, Hern."
"I didn’t think anyone was in here." A deep, oddly-accented voice spoke up from floor-level. "Ohhhhhh, look at the pretty stars."
"Coming." Scraping noises as the alien rolled over and crawled over toward them. Now that McQueen’s eyes had finally adjusted to the new infusion of light, he could see that this alien was definitely not a Chig. Rather then looking like an insect, this one looked more like a. . .like a wolf. A humanoid wolf. He paused to grin at McQueen, showing an array of sharp, white teeth. "Strong." He patted McQueen’s shoulder gently then shook a slender finger at him. "Don’t do that again. Doesn’t that hurt?."
"Hurt. . ?" McQueen followed the alien’s eyes to the hand he was propping himself up with. It was covered with cuts and blood. "Now that you mentioned it, yes." He let himself collapse back against Ross, fresh waves of pain cascading over him.
"Who are you?" Ross asked as he took the knife from McQueen and flipped it close, slipping it into a pocket.
A piece of the ceiling fell dangerously close and the young man flinched. "How about we leave explanations until we’re someplace less likely to fall on top of us. Rathorn comes to mind." The last sentence was muttered.
"I can’t believe you said that, Quinn. I thought you said you’d rather face the Shekitu then another rathorn." The alien was examining McQueen’s wounds with a critical eye.
"Rathorns I can deal with. So they eat humans. I can live with that."
"Or not." The man agreed. A sudden burst of sound came from an odd device mounted on the alien’s shoulder and then a series of alien words. "Trekven’s forgotten her English again. What’s she say, Hern?"
Hern was listening with a deep frown. "The ship is getting dangerously unstable. The other shuttles are ready." Without pre-ample, he slipped his arms under McQueen, picking him up as easily as an adult human would a child. The InVitro hissed with pain, for the first time realizing the extent of his injuries. "We have to go. Now."
"Oh, joy. Come on." Quinn stood, grabbing for the floating light-globe before running from the bridge. Ross directed the others to following him, noting with a sort of detached amusement that Finnigan still carried the ship’s cat, wrapped securely in a blanket and tucked under her arm. He took the rear, running next to the tall alien.
Ignoring the deck buckling under his feet and debris raining down onto them, Quinn ran through the darkened corridors, taking a turn here and there until they reached the outer hull of the ship. There, ahead of them, was a gaping hole cut jaggedly in the wall. Quinn stopped short of it and waved the survivors forward.
"Get in! Hurry!"
Finnegan didn’t pause, just flung herself through the hole. The others followed. As Ross dove through the hole, he heard a shout behind him and whirled just in time to steady Hern as he leapt into the shuttle. The alien spun to set McQueen against the wall then dropped next to him, reaching for a hold set in the wall. Quinn was the last one in, tossing the light globe to float above them before turning to close the hatch. The next moment, the shuttle was falling away from the dying ship, tumbling Quinn to the floor. Hern grabbed a flailing arm and yanked him close enough to the wall to grab a couple holds of his own.
"Everyone, hang on!" Ross yelled. He was already on the ground, one arm wrapped securely around McQueen, the other grabbing a hold of his own. Next to him, both Hern and Quinn were both doing their best to cushion the wounded man.
Despite the initial rough departure, the ride quickly became smoother, allowing Ross a chance to look around. To his surprise, the light globe was still in one piece and still floating above them, giving him enough light to see. There were perhaps fifty of his people crammed into the alien shuttle, all with faces tight with fear. But they were alive and that’s what mattered.
Nearby, Quinn straightened, reaching for a cabinet bolted onto the wall. Jerking it open, he grabbed out a jar and held it up. "Listen up! I know there’s probably a lot of injuries here but we really can’t do anything until we reach the Godstalk. Spread this stuff onto any wounds, burns, bruises." He handed the jar to a nearby crewmember. "It’ll numb the pain but be sure and use the dauber. It’ll numb your fingers just as fast." He pulled a second jar from the cabinet to toss to another crewmember and was reaching for a third when Hern reached past him to pull out a flat case. The human looked surprised but before he could say anything, Hern gestured toward McQueen.
"Ahhhhh. Well, that makes this a tad easier. Gimme." He took the case from Hern. "You better check on Trevken. She’s probably forgetting her English again."
"As long as she doesn’t forget her Timnor." The alien rose and picked his way carefully across the crowded shuttle toward what Ross assumed was the cockpit. The clustered Saratoga crewmembers watched him pass with wary eyes.
Ross frowned then after a moment, he set McQueen down gently. "Hang tight, Ty. I’m going to check the others." McQueen didn’t reply and Ross looked at him in concern.
Quinn looked at him intently. "I think he’s going into shock. Big surprise. You! The one with the cat. There’s blankets in that locker behind you. Pass them out and steer one this way." He pulled a white knife from the sheath strapped to his leg and deftly sliced away the pantleg and ruined boot from McQueen’s injured leg to expose the wound, a gash that ran almost the full length of his calf. "Oh, joy." He reached for an offered blanket and spread it over the injured man.
"I’ll be right back, Ty." Gingerly, he stood, grabbing handholds to make his way around the shuttle.
With sure fingers, Quinn plucked three blue patches from the case, peeling the covering off of them and pressing one to the inside wrist of McQueen’s injured hand, another above the gash in his leg and the last on his neck, against the cardioid artery. That done, he pulled out a small item vaguely resembling a gun and a blue cartridge that he slapped into the odd gun.
"What are you doing?" Sward demanded sharply.
"Taking care of his wounds." Quinn pressed the muzzle of the gun against McQueen’s neck. There was a faint hissing sound then Quinn was dropping the gun into the case and reaching back into the cabinet to grab a rolled package.
"You said you couldn’t take care of wounds." There was suspicion in Sward’s voice.
"Can’t. . .unless you happen to have a navel on your neck."
"What do you mean by that?" McQueen asked in a surprisingly strong voice.
"You’re supposed to be going into shock." Quinn sliced open the package and unrolled the contents, a thick bandage.
"I still might. I’m seriously thinking about it. What did you mean by that?"
Quinn threw him an amused look. "Timnor medicine doesn’t work well on natural-borns but they work wonderfully with InVitros. Don’t ask me why. Feel any pain?"
McQueen frowned. "Not anymore." He admitted.
Quinn touched the patch on his leg. "Pain killers. And that injection? A little Timnor serum we called QuickHeal. Speeds up the healing process with a few very nice benefits thrown in." He pressed the bandage firmly over the gash and reached for McQueen’s injured hand. "You’ve shrapnel in your hand." He said. "Hang tight. This’ll take a minute." Deftly, he began to pluck the pieces of metal from the hand. "We’ll probably have to inject some BoneBond into that leg but it doesn’t look like anything in your hand is broken."
"Other than skin."
Quinn laughed. "Other than skin." He agreed.
"BoneBond?" Sward asked.
"Bonds broken bones together and heals them faster. But that involves injecting it right into the bone and I can’t do that here." The young man looked up as Ross approached, making his way gingerly through the packed people. "What’s the word, Commander?"
Ross started to say something then looked thoughtful. "No, I better not." He sat back down next to McQueen, eyeing him critically. "You actually look a little better."
"I feel better. The pain’s gone." McQueen made a move as if to sit up but Quinn rested a hand on his chest and held him down.
"That’s one of the problems with this pain-killer." He said to Ross. "It almost completely deadens the pain. People tend to forget they’re hurt and can hurt themselves even worse."
"Subtle hint, Colonel. Stay down." Ross added his hand to Quinn’s and McQueen reluctantly laid back down. "Other than McQueen, there doesn’t seem to be any serious injuries. A mess of minor ones though."
"We can take care of those when we dock." Quinn drew the blanket over the wounded leg.
"Listen. . .whatever your name is. . ." Sward started.
"Quinn. Michael Quinn. And you?
"Jessica Sward. I was on the Saratoga representing Aerotech. How soon can we contact Earth?"
"You’ll have to talk to the Timnor about that. I doubt it’ll be soon. The Timnor have their own plans and Earth doesn’t quite figure into them yet."
"And we do?"
"In a way, yes. Look, it’s a very long story and I think we might be docking soon. Ah, yes, there’s Hern waving confirmation now. Excuse me." Quinn stood, grasping a handhold to steady himself. "Listen up, everyone! We’re going to be docking in just a minute. There are still shuttles coming in so we have to unload and move quickly. When we dock, get out fast. Someone will be taking names. Give it to them and go to where they direct you, which will either be a large, empty cargo hold or a gym or something similar. Those are the only places big enough to hold everyone."
The shuttle lurched and thumped then rose smoothly. Quinn quickly squatted, taking McQueen’s arm and drawing it across his shoulder. Ross took McQueen’s other arm. Together they helped the man up. "Think you can make it?" Quinn asked.
"As long as it isn’t far."
The hatch swung and the three men made their way through it. They were now in a large shuttle bay. A Timnor stood next to the hatch, what appeared to be a mini-computer in his hands. His voice was lighter then Hern’s as he spoke. "Names?"
"Glen Ross. T.C. McQueen." The Timnor’s fingers flew over the keyboard.
Quinn held out his hand. "Give me a spare compt." The Timnor looked startled and Quinn gestured toward Ross. "Commander."
"Ahhh. . ." The Timnor unattached a second compt from his belt and handed it to Quinn before turning to briskly ask Sward her name.
"Come on." Quinn guided them through the shuttle bay, across a corridor and into a large room already half-filled with people. The floor was covered with padding and along the walls were neat piles of blankets and mats. Quinn let go of McQueen long enough to unroll a mat and turned to help Ross lower him onto it, leaning him back against a stack of blankets.
"Here." The young man handed the compt to Ross, who was surprised to note its keys were marked with English letters. "The Timnor are adding every survivors name to it. Last name alphabetical. This number. . ." He pointed at a number in the right-hand corner. Even as they watched, it jumped up several digits. ". . .is the number of survivors. Besides the name, it’ll have the name of the ship they’re on. A red star means they’re in the MedCenter. As soon as things settle down, I’ll be back with a more detailed explanation of what’s going on. And with some BoneBond." With that, Quinn jumped to his feet and hurried out the door, passing a bemused Finnegan, still carrying the ship’s cat.
"They insisted on Jester’s name, too, sir." She said to the commander as she made her way to a nearby nest of blankets.
"Why not?" McQueen reached for the compt. Ross relinquished it without protest. "He’s a member of the crew." Balancing the compt on his lap, the man began to type in names, eyes sharpening with concentration. "Damn. Damndamndamn." There was a touch of anguish in his voice and Ross guessed at the reason.
"Easy, Ty." He rested a calming hand on his friend’s shoulder.
"Is something wrong?" Hern hunkered down next to them.
Ross glanced at the intent In-Vitro. "Colonel McQueen’s squad was out in their Hammerheads."
"Ahhhhh." Hern reached out to pluck the compt from McQueen’s hands. The man looked startled but before he could protest or even to try and snatch it back, the Timnor continued in a thoughtful tone. "There is a way to set up search parameters and. . .here." His fingers flew over the keys, tapping the ones he wanted with a flick of an ivory claw. "That’ll do it." He handed the compt back to McQueen. "Type in each of your children’s last name and hit return after each. You’ll get everyone with that last name but it’s easier to quick-program. When you’ve got all of them in, just hit this button." He pointed a claw at a triangle-shaped button. "That’s the end button. And if you will excuse me. . ."
McQueen held onto the compt, staring after the Timnor with surprised eyes. His. . .children? Why would the Timnor assume that? But hadn’t he been thinking of them that way not twenty minutes ago? Shaking off his reverie, he began to punch in names, barely acknowledging Ross when he said he was going to do a walk-about. It was a pain doing it with just one hand but he persisted until, at last, the names of his nine squad members had been entered. . .the five core members and the four new members. He hit the end button.
Immediately, the screen flashed red and McQueen almost dropped the compt in surprise as the view screen flipped down the list to a highlighted name. WOLFE, TRISTRAM, it read. His mind was blanked for a long moment then he remembered. One of the newest of the 58th. A short woman with a tendency to be smart-mouthed and tactless but she could fly anything blind and was remarkably calm under pressure. After a moment, the screen stopped blinking though the name stayed highlighted.
"McQueen!" The voice was sharp and the colonel looked up in surprise. Sward was sitting next to him, a decidedly displeased look on her face. "I’d like to use that. . .thing." She reached for the compt.
end beginning two