Sims had planned for a military sweep of the star system. He had not planned for a rescue of the wounded from ships on the planet and the ships in space that hadn’t attempted a landing. He had been forced to jettison weapons to make room for the injured.
Sims sat in his tiny office on the Saratoga with his medical officer. The Saratoga was a large ship and had a sophisticated hospital. Dr. Phil was one of the best medical officers in the fleet, and had staffed the base and ship to the highest standards of frontier medicine.
“Let me just spell it out for you,” Dr. Phil said, pointing at Sims with both hands. “Every bed is filled with the seriously injured.”
Sims scowled at him. Sims found that a moment of silence often brought out additional information. Dr. Phil had worked with Sims enough to know this and shut up.
“We have cargo bays. We can drop more weapons off to make room,” Sims said. Sims’ executive officer had prioritized the storage spaces for him.
Dr. Phil shook his head and began pointing with both hands again.
“That’s not the point. There’s a base on the planet for the ones who’ll last a few days. The ship is full of the ones that won’t last. Full. We need to get them to Lyman.”
Sims did not want to choose to save some and sacrifice others. He wasn’t qualified to distinguish between those who would survive and those who would be lost.
“We’ve got scouts out looking for other survivors,” Sims said.
Dr. Phil suddenly looked very angry. “Right. We don’t have any idea how many were ambushed and how many retreated. We don’t know how many we’re looking for, but we do know the ship is full.”
“The odds are still good that some poor bastard in a scout that can’t signal might be orbiting somewhere close by. A few more hours of searching might help him, too,” Sims said. He didn’t want to save only the ones who were lucky enough to have been injured in a prominent place.
Dr. Phil leaned over the desk. “That’s not it at all. It’s a question of numbers, not odds. How many went in to the battle, how many came out? We need to know that before we continue the search.”
Sims scowled at Dr. Phil, suddenly uncertain what his point was.
“You’re saying that while we’re searching, we may lose a survivor who needs to be moved to Lyman base, right?”
Dr. Phil rolled his eyes and sighed a vast, exaggerated sigh of exasperation as he sat back down. “Would you just listen for a moment?”
Sims knew Dr. Phil well enough. There was an answer to his question buried under many irrelevant points.
“It’s a yes-or-no question, Phil. Will I lose a survivor while searching?” Sims asked.
Dr. Phil sighed again. “Yes, but, that’s not the point. The point is you don’t know what you’re searching for.”
Sims could see that Dr. Phil’s passion for making his point had obscured the actual decision at issue. While passion made Phil the best medical officer in the cluster, perhaps one of the best in the entire Core Planetary Network, it also made him a bad leader from time to time. This was one of those times.
“We’ll go back,” Sims said. Phil nodded his agreement. “The odds are against finding any survivors at this point,” Sims added.
“I can’t agree,” Dr. Phil said.
Sims put his hands flat on his desk. “I thought you said we should go back?” Sims said, hoping he hadn’t missed something.
“We have to go back. That’s not the point. We agree on that,” Phil said, his hands waving in the air as he talked. “The reason is not the odds of finding any survivors, it’s the unknown number of survivors left to find. It’s a very different thing.”
Sims looked at Phil closely. “Fine,” Sims said; he saw no good result from explaining his rationale again.
“Do what you have to do,” Phil said. “I just can’t agree with you.”
Sims scowled at him, waiting for Phil to finish making his point. Sims knew he was going to put in the last word.
“It’s the right decision for the wrong reason?” Sims asked; he needed Phil’s whole-hearted support for the plan.
“You just don’t know enough,” Phil said slowly, leaning over the desk to make his point.
Drover had been treated on the hovercraft. He had been moved to a lighter with several other critically wounded and evacuated to the Saratoga. After several cardiac arrest emergencies, his condition was stabilized on the Saratoga.
The hospital section of the Lyman base was crammed with the worst cases. Those that didn’t need special procedures or special equipment were left in docking bays and cargo storage areas in makeshift hospital wards.
The Lyman base had the kind of medical equipment that made life possible for Larry Drover. His condition required constant attention from skilled professionals to prevent deterioration. He was balanced at the critical point where any complication or difficulty would be fatal. If everything went well, he would remain in that condition for months. He might, given heroic measures, improve and survive for a few more years. He would never fly again. Without tremendous luck, he would never leave Lyman base again. Had he been brought in to Henry base in this condition, he would never have passed the triage station; he would have been set aside to be made comfortable while he died.
After surgeries and weeks of rehabilitation, Natalie resumed some duties. She gave up wearing the casual battle uniform and switched to wearing a full dress uniform everywhere. She bought several, and had them professionally cleaned and pressed. With her various service decorations across her chest, she looked spectacular. In the past, she had never worn the full, formal uniform except when mandated. However, she had given intelligence and orders that had put these people in harm’s way with her only justification being preservation of the Core Planets bases in this cluster. Since she was a representative of that government, she felt that she needed to act the part.
Her ribs and lung were healing slowly. She wore a brace to allow her to heal correctly. She spent hours each day in hyperbaric microgravity treatments to allow fluids to drain and tissue to grow.
She made several official tours of the injured in the infirmary, but also made unofficial, daily visits to Drover. Even though he was unconscious for most of the first week, on two occasions, he had stirred when she took his hand. During the second week, he made a tiny bit of progress. By degrees, they changed his medications; he was awake more, and more talkative. The nursing staff used this to benchmark his progress.
Natalie pulled up the visitor’s chair and sat down next to Larry’s bed. She felt better to see some life in his face. He was still puffy from fluid balance problems. Most of his bleeding was under control, but he still needed an array of plumbing to keep fluids and nutrients going in, and drain the various infections that were beginning to develop. All the plumbing was connected to a number of devices with displays and indicators, quiet chimes and irritating alerts.
She kissed his forehead and took his hand as she slowly eased herself down onto the chair. She was finding that a few quiet minutes sitting in the infirmary with him made the rest of her struggle with General Johnson bearable. When Johnson or any of his sycophants and supporters became intolerable, she focused on the sacrifices Larry had made, and it helped her separate basic civilian security in this cluster from General Johnson’s ambitious political plans.
She was not looking when Drover’s eyes flickered open.
“Light Colonel Whiting,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
Whiting looked at him. She tried to stifle any expression. He had only spoken to her briefly and incoherently before today. She found that the incoherent mumbling took her on a traumatic jump from joy to disappointment.
“Call me Natalie,” she said, tentatively.
“Natalie,” he said with satisfaction. He waited for the machine to breathe him again and said, “You’re looking good.”
She felt happy and relieved to see him awake and alert. Her harsh expression melted away as she realized that he was coherent, awake and on the mend.
“You’re looking better,” she said. Her ribs were still in bad shape; she would be wearing a brace for weeks, and had to take pain medication to sleep. He didn’t need to know that.
“You’re a bad liar,” he said.
She nodded and looked at him, happy to see he still had some fight.
“What have I missed?” he asked as the machine breathed him.
The question struck her as odd and out of place, until she realized that he’d been unconscious for weeks. She started to chuckle, but bit it back; his coma had been punctuated by several near-death emergencies.
“That official military propaganda,” he began, but had to pause while the machine breathed him.
Natalie started to say something, but Larry held up a hand to stop her.
When the machine cycled his breathing, he continued, “is more brain dead than I am.” He grinned and coughed feebly at the end of the breath.
“Funny,” Natalie said. “That’s the best you could do?” She held up her hand to keep him quiet.
“The final body count was huge on both sides. Williams was killed, we were the only survivors from the Horicon. Dieskau’s fleet was destroyed, but he survived; he’s in the Saratoga infirmary, right now, as a POW. Johnson had his nuts and part of his left leg blown off.”
Larry patted her hand. He waved his finger in a “go on” circle.
“The squids were the big winners, you know,” she said, looking down. “We’re rethinking our strategy on the frontier. Johnson’s going back to the Home Worlds with a new plan for pacification of the frontier.”
She risked at glance at Larry. It wrenched her to think that he had been right about the frontier from the beginning. But it took his sacrifice and so many other Marines had made to prove that the frontier didn’t need military force, it only needed administration and bookkeeping.
He looked away for a moment, blinked a few times and turned back. He waited for the machine to breathe him. “I’ve asked them to unplug me.”
She rocked back against her brace for a moment, digesting this news. He seemed alert and improving, she couldn’t see why he would ask to be unplugged. He’d die in hours. She wanted to tell him that he would get better; he would get out of here; they would travel somewhere together again. At the same time, she knew that his prognosis was very bad; he was unlikely to survive. She wore her conflict on her face as a scowl.
“I can’t fly,” he whispered. “I can’t eat. I can’t even breathe.” He had to pause, waiting for the breathing cycle. “I won’t ever again. I’ve got a raging infection that the drip can’t even control.” He waited. “The painkillers aren’t working anymore.”
There wasn’t really anything else she could say. He was right. Medical heroism could give him a shallow life connected to a machine, living on a base. He was a frontier pilot, but the frontier was closed to him, now. She could see why he would be despondent.
“When?” she asked, quietly.
Drover looked at her. She’d seem him afraid, cocky, bored and angry. She wasn’t sure what he was feeling now.
“Today. Tomorrow. It’s all the same,” he said.
To her, he sounded sad. She found the grief welling up inside her. She’d been prepared for his cocky defiance, or his carefully hidden fear. She could imagine his angry outbursts. She wasn’t ready for sorrow. Her eyes filled with tears, her throat closed, her nose started running.
“Guess you were right,” he said, coughing quietly.
“About what?” she said. She reached under the supply cart and took out a disposable towel to wipe her eyes and nose.
“Going back. We should have kept going forward.” She nodded. She wanted to say something comforting, but the words “we were out of options” stuck in her throat. All she could do was squeeze his hand.
“Did they find Mo?” he asked.
She couldn’t answer. She didn’t dare speak. If she opened her mouth, she would begin crying in earnest. If she started crying, she might never stop. She had so many injuries, so many losses to regret.
Drover stirred and coughed. One of the attending machines chimed. A pump began a quiet chug-chug. Some of the plumbing moved slightly. She saw a display change status, and a colored line begin to shift across a screen.
“You know,” she said, forcing her throat to open and talk, “I found your song.” He looked at her blankly. “In the archives.”
Drover grinned a tiny grin. “The Erie Canal,” he said. It was his favorite song of the collection of ancient songs he’d been listening to. He’d put the recordings on his computer back in Hudson base. It no longer seemed like something he’d done; it seemed like a story he’d heard about a pilot. He’d listened to them working routes between Hudson and Orange and then to Lyman. He’d been listening to them right up until she’d climbed into his ship with a gun.
“Low bridge everybody down,” he tried to sing. He had to wait for the machine to cycle. “Low bridge ‘cause we’re coming to a town.”
She was happy to see him doing his best to act like a cocky pilot. It was good to see some of his old life back. He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment.
“I can name a ship after—,” she started, but couldn’t finish. He throat had closed up, and tears were burning in her eyes.
“Sal?” Drover asked. With his next breath, he went on, “You’ll have a Mule Three?” She shook her head for moment. She took a big breath. She’d practiced saying this many times, but never expected to have so much trouble saying it to him. When she’d practiced, she’d been filled with pride and optimism. She was proud of him, but his sadness filled her with sorrow.
“No, I can’t do that,” she said. “Frigates commemorate someone who died in the service. You.”
Drover coughed and lay still for a moment.
“I’m not in the service,” he whispered.
“You were — you are,” she said. “Johnson ordered it. You’re a hero, you know. The real thing. Look at this.”
She reached down and picked up her brief case. She flipped open the catches and poured the contents out onto his hospital bed. It made a glittering pile of honors, ribbons and medals.
“Hold ‘em up,” Larry said. He couldn’t move himself. He could operate the control to tip the bed, but moving was too painful.
Whiting pawed through the pile of medals. She held up a silver pin. “Your comet. You’re a marine pilot. A Lieutenant.”
“Your battle ribbons, she said, lifting up a number of smaller decorations. “You have kills, you got shot down, you were in the fleet action, you were captured,” she said, holding them up one at a time. “Your medal for saving the retreat,” she said, holding up a clear box with a large medallion. “Wounded in action,” she said, spying another smaller medal lying on the bed. She held up a large box with a small medal and a card. “A commendation from General Johnson for saving Henry Base.”
Drover’s eyes were closed. She put the medals back down on his crushed chest.
“Marine funeral?” he asked.
She had to swallow several times before she could speak. “Six hand-picked soldiers,” she said. She’d tracked down New Mark and JJ to head up the honor guard.
“White gloves?” he asked.
She grabbed another disposable towel from one of the supply shelves next to his bed and blew her nose. She realized that she was too personally involved. She’d completely lost her Marine Corps edge. She was just a blubbering girl.
“All of it,” she said. “For you.”
Drover smiled. His cocky attitude started to show through the plumbing, the medication and his injuries.
“We kicked some ass, didn’t we, hon?” he asked.
“We kicked it good,” she answered.
“You and me.”
“You and me.”
Drover lay quietly for a long time. She was afraid he’d fallen asleep. She looked at the pile of medals and awards. He’d have made a good officer. He’d been a good friend.
“Give us another kiss,” he said.
She didn’t know if she angry at him or not. If he knew she’d been kissing his forehead, then he had been awake, waiting for her. Asking for a kiss made this a very different kind of relationship. She didn’t know if she could let herself have even that tiny romantic moment. What would that do to her as an officer and a Marine? Was she in love with him, or was this only pity for someone who’d given everything for her? How could she love again when love was tied to tragedy?
“It’s okay,” Larry croaked. “We’re both officers.” She couldn’t lean. She had to stand up and bend over awkwardly in her brace to give him another kiss.