The One by JaneLebak
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The One
by Jane Lebak, 10/98 and 7/99

 

"So that's the story," Mark finished, standing uniformed in the cockpit of the Phoenix before the monitor on which Chief Anderson surveyed the team. Princess, Tiny and Jason stood at his side; Keyop sat at the control panel behind them, but still in view of the monitor. "We checked out the target site and found no evidence of Spectran activity. The indigenous population never learned of our presence, and we're certain this position is secure. You can inform Colonel Cronus that this site is not being prepared for an offensive strike against Riga as he feared."

Tiny snickered. "Other than a lame Swallow, we might as well not have come here."

Jason said, "Some might have said he was always lame."

"It's your jokes that are lame," Keyop snapped from his seat behind them.

Anderson's eyes flicked only minutely on the monitor, but he'd probably shifted his glance to Keyop. "How is the leg?"

Keyop shrugged. "Doesn't hurt."

The Chief nodded. Maybe he'd noted Keyop's sullen pallor or the beginnings of a scarlet flush on his cheeks. "You really should be more careful. That kind of injury can incapacitate the team."

Princess said quickly, "It was only a fluke the trap didn't get me first."

Anderson nodded. "I understand. Princess, you treated him in the field?"

"I removed the barbs that had been imbedded in the leg and stopped the bleeding."

"And stitched me up." A few strands of hair had fallen across Keyop's forehead.

Jason folded his arms and glared darkly. "Why is this suit bullet-proof, but barbed wire can cut it?"

"I'll have to evaluate the damage to the suit, but my guess is that barbs have a more piercing action than bullets do, even though bullets are obviously faster and stronger."

Keyop rubbed his eyes. "So stay away from armor-piercing bullets, is what you're saying."

"Basically. Okay, team, I think it's time to call this mission closed. Return home."

Mark and Tiny ran through the preflight checklist, then lifted the Phoenix off the dark, jungle surface of the unnamed planet (called only LK15-4). Keyop excused himself from the cockpit for a few minutes, and Princess and Jason performed minor housekeeping routines on the Phoenix, cycling the oxygen tanks, checking various systems for functionality, and reviewing a few standard procedures.

When Jason moved over to Keyop's console, he asked, "What's the procedure for life support check?"

"Here--" Princess came to stand beside him, then typed a few commands. "What's his password?"

Nobody knew. "Try the name of every video game you can think of," Tiny said. Instead, Princess called for Keyop over the communicator.

After a minute, Princess called again. Jason said, "Where is he?--it's not like this is the QE2."

"I'm coming," Keyop muttered as he shuffled through the door at the rear of the cabin.

Princess and Mark turned to him simultaneously, and both froze. Keyop's previous pallor had worsened, but the flush of his cheeks had intensified so he looked as if he'd been slapped twice. Making his way to the control panel, Keyop listed a little to one side, and he eased himself into Princess' chair.

"What's wrong?" Mark was up beside him in an instant.

"I'm not feeling real good--"

"I can see that. Give me specifics."

Keyop closed his eyes, shook his head. "I'm cold. It's hard to think straight."

Mark worked Keyop's helmet off. His brown hair glistened with sweat. "This isn't good. Jason, go get the first aid kit."

Keyop's "I'm fine" went totally disregarded as Jason left the cockpit. Princess had moved to Keyop's side. "Are you in pain?" she asked.

"No. It's nothing. What did you want?"

Tiny looked around from the pilot's chair, squinted, then put on a little extra speed.

Mark had a hand on Keyop's shoulder, but now he stripped off his gloves. "Damn it, you're hot."

Keyop's eyes didn't look focused. "It's cold here...your hands are cold..."

"Because you're burning up, you idiot. Jason--" he'd just reentered the cockpit, "--give me the thermometer."

"We don't have one," Princess said. "Remember? The fiery phoenix burst that first mercury-bulb thermometer, and we found out afterward that even on the digital ones the transducers got completely warped. They're not accurate to within ten degrees any longer."

"Damn." Mark rested his palm against Keyop's forehead again, then tried his neck, then got pushed aside. "Keyop, get out of birdstyle. You know you're not supposed to stay uniformed if you've got a fever."

Keyop shook his head, and Mark grabbed his wrist and tugged at the band. "Princess," he added, "get the Chief on the monitor again."

With a snap, the wristband yielded, and Keyop sat in the cockpit in jeans and a t-shirt He rubbed at his wrist. "That hurt."

"You should have taken it off yourself. Stay still." Mark turned back to the monitor where Chief Anderson awaited. After giving a quick summary, Mark said, "He's really, really hot."

Anderson said, "Come home as fast as you can. Keyop, go lie down. Drink plenty of water. Do anything you can to get that fever under control."

Princess said, "Could it be an infection from the puncture wound?"

Anderson nodded.

In one of the sleeping quarters behind the cockpit, Keyop dropped onto a cot and immediately curled into a ball. Princess grabbed him a blanket, and after a minute, he asked for another. He'd started shivering violently, and he kept his jaw locked tight. He breathed shallowly, rapidly.

Mark came in behind her, and she left the room as he settled himself on a chair beside Keyop's cot. "The Chief wants you to take some ibuprofen to get the fever down at least a little."

"I took some already--two, I think--"

"When?"

"I don't know--" Keyop closed his eyes. The shivering intensified. "I just don't know."

"Well, take some more. It's not going to kill you this once."

Momentarily, Princess returned to the room with another blanket. "I warmed this one up for you," she said, tucking it around Keyop's shoulders.

"You warmed it up?" Mark said.

"In the microwave." Princess pulled out the first aid kit. "Keyop, honey, I know you're cold, but give me your arm. I'm going to put in a heparin lock and start an antibiotic IV."

Keyop complied, teeth still locked, body still trembling. First she took his pulse and found it well into triple digits. Mark watched as Princess swabbed the crook of Keyop's arm with iodine, then expertly inserted a needle into one of the veins. He nodded appreciatively. "You do that well."

"Keyop's got good veins for this. In training I had to do a guy whose veins rolled away every time a needle got close. It's good for evolution, sure, but it was hell to pass the practical on that guy."

Mark chuckled, then looked at Keyop and stopped. Princess did the same.

"So--did he just fall asleep or did he pass out?"

"I have no idea." Mark shook Keyop's shoulder. "Keyop--Keyop, answer me."

"Oh, no." Princess worked at hooking up the IV tube. "Mark, please see if Tiny can get us home any faster. I don't know how bad this is going to get."

It was just a simple mission, Mark thought as he stepped out into the hallway. From a technologically underdeveloped planet, Rigan spy satellites had detected radio waves they thought indicated a Spectran outpost. Cronus had asked Chief Anderson for help, so the team had stopped there on the way home from another uninspiring mission. They prowled the jungle long enough to determine the radio signal had come from a mining robot that had malfunctioned and sailed a billion miles or so off course, then crashed into this planet where it erratically tried to report home with a badly damaged radio. No Spectran activity. No interstellar ballistic missiles would be launched from here. They could return.

But what a beautiful planet. Totally unpolluted, the air had shimmered over the five team members like a canopy. Toward nightfall, the liquid rush of sunset had struck them all with wonder, and the slightly fluorescent leaves of the tree crowns had reflected the light like a thousand gold coins suspended in the sky. Wherever they stepped, the detritus lining the floor of the forest emitted a sweet odor like peaches or raspberries. A lagoon with blue-black water had sent fingers of streamlets in every direction, and in the shallower spots they had seen tiny fish with wing-like fins leaping from the water and taking to the air for several feet before splashing down once more.

While returning to the Phoenix, Princess and Keyop had happened on a village populated by the indigenous people, and they had carefully tracked their way around the village rather than be spotted. In making that extra mile or so hike, one of them had set off a hunting trap used by the natives. The barbed-wire trap had narrowly missed Princess, but it gashed Keyop in the upper right thigh. The injury hadn't looked serious even though it had done damage to the birdstyle, and after Princess had taken care to remove as much of the barb as she could right there in the field, they had resumed their hike. The wound hadn't opened again, and Keyop had appeared fine until after liftoff.

Mark stopped again before the monitor, then stood quietly. Their tenth mission? Their fifteenth? He'd lost track a little while ago, not very long after they'd lost Don, when they'd realized this war was going to take them far longer to win than anyone had anticipated. They had too many enemies. They didn't always have enough friends. Certainly not friends willing to chance Spectra's wrath if they helped--overtly helped- G-Force.

Mark said, "Tiny, increase speed as much as we can."

"I've already done that."

His pulse raced. "How long to Earth?"

"Eight hours."

Mark shook his head. "Correct course for Riga. Jason, get me Colonel Cronus on the monitor."

Neither of his teammates spoke, but both complied. Mark waited a few minutes for Cronus's image to appear on the monitor.

"He's not exactly the person I'd want to count on," Jason said.

"He's saved my life once," Mark said, "and all our lives at least one other time. I know he's difficult to deal with, but we have to now. Riga's a quarter the distance Earth is."

After Mark explained the situation, Cronus issued explicit instructions to prevent Spectra's blockade around the Riga system from spotting the incoming craft. He gave them the frequency of a Rigan Air Force homing beacon they could use to find their way once in Rigan airspace. As usual, the red-suited man kept most of his voice stern and uninflected, even when he ended a sentence with "my friend". The two words made Mark burn. The tinge of an accent in Cronus' otherwise impeccable English made him tend to drawl some words and hurry others. As Mark listened, he felt himself fighting to say as little as possible. Cronus--a great pilot, a keen analytical mind, but how irritating sometimes. Just seeing his face on the monitor put a knot in Mark's stomach. How often had the man gloated at him? "You're a little boy," Cronus had said the first time they met. "You pilot like a boy, and you fight like a boy. But maybe this war will make a man of you."

Am I a man yet? Does war always make a man out of you, or does it just insure all the boys are left dead at the end? Do men rush headlong to people who will feel superior in order to save the lives of their comrades? Or would a man just tell Keyop to stick it out the extra six hours until we could get back home?

Mark wondered to himself, Will Rigans know how to treat an Earth human, or will their medicine be geared solely toward their own kind? If they can't treat Keyop, if something happens to him--should I have just chanced it and told Tiny to hurry home even faster?

Folding his arms, Mark paced the cockpit. By now Cronus would have radioed Anderson with the news. Cronus might have ordered the hospital to be ready to accept and treat their new emergency case.

Back in the sleeping quarters behind the cockpit, Mark slipped into the darkened room to find Princess sponging Keyop's forehead and hands with tepid water. "I can't get the fever down," she whispered. "He's shivering, so that means it's still rising. If I had to take a guess," and here she stopped to dip the cloth in water again and wring it out until the last excess drip had plopped into the basin, "I'd say he's hit about a hundred and five."

"That's no good at all." Mark sat on the edge of the cot. His voice had softened to match hers in tone and volume. "I've redirected us to Riga. It'll save about six hours."

Princess nodded. "Cronus helped us?"

Mark said nothing.

"At any rate," Princess said, sponging Keyop's face again and causing him to shiver in his sleep, "I checked the wound. It's red and inflamed. I don't think there's any question a joint infection is the problem." She set the cloth back into the basin and let it float momentarily. "That has to be treated soon, though. Our antibiotics may keep it at bay, but they're not having much more effect than that."

We did everything we could, Mark thought back in the hall, halfway between the cockpit and the mock-up sick bay. MISE: mobilize, ice, splint, elevate. Maybe Princess had ice on the injury now to keep blood flow to a minimum--he didn't return to ask. He didn't make his way forward to the cockpit to check on their speed and location. For a moment, he stood in between, eyes closed.

Maybe the thermal properties of the birdstyle had made the fever worse, the way Anderson had always warned them it might. On the other hand, Keyop been out of it long enough to cool down again if he was going to.

Damn, damn, damn. There was nothing left to do but wait. Wait. Just a couple hours more. Just a few more star systems and then someone else could take over.

 

Cronus' homing beacon led them not to a major city's hospital, as Mark and the others had assumed, or even to a base hospital, but rather to a cream-colored, many-windowed installation on the coast of an island continent. The Phoenix landed in a designated spot that left its rear wheels lapped by ocean water and the front wheels in the dry. Almost as soon as Tiny had the ramp extended for boarding, five medical techs ran up with a stretcher. Princess guided them to Keyop, whom they transferred to the stretcher, blankets and all, and then whisked away. Princess and Mark followed.

As they ran the hallway behind the techs, Cronus reached out from a doorway and grabbed Mark by the forearm. "I'll bring you to him later," he drawled. "Right now, come with me."

Mark turned his head to watch the small entourage disappear at a fork in the cinder block corridor.

"They'll be all right, my friend. Now I need your help with some questions."

Mark fumed. "Do you need his insurance information?"

"We are not a health maintenance organization, here, thank goodness." Cronus gave him a tight smile. "These are healers, not profiteers, and he will be treated until he is well. I need to know what exactly happened."

This information Cronus could have gotten from anyone--anyone!, Mark told himself. From Anderson, from Princess, from himself during the more than two hours it took to make it to Riga. Why from me, and why now? Eyes smoldering, Mark followed Cronus into a small office, and only there did he realize Cronus needed the information not for himself but for a team of four doctors standing before a desk and looking over multiple charts, the sum thickness of a Manhattan Yellow Pages. Anderson had apparently transmitted Keyop's entire medical background to Riga, and the doctors had already looked over most of it.

"We need to know his respiration and pulse for the past two hours--"

"I want a sample of the implement that punctured him--"

"Tell me exactly how your operative stopped the bleeding in the first place--"

Mark took a step backward and bumped into Cronus. "Easy, there," Cronus said, and Mark couldn't tell if it was to him or the doctors. "One at a time."

A tall television screen dominated one wall of the room, giving a view into a much brighter, whiter and more sterile room that threw into high relief the dark wood and crowded furniture of this office. Book and journal-packed shelves lined the wall opposite the television. Even the windows across from Mark failed to cast enough light on the room, darkened by the three doctors and their swirling white-out of questions. There didn't seem to be enough air in the room. Cronus guided Mark towards a chair, but Mark refused to sit.

All the questions Mark answered as best he could, including niceties like the conversion factor between Rigan body temperature and Earth-human body temperature. The tremendous monitor shortly revealed the room where Keyop had been taken via closed circuit TV, and the techs (Mark supposed the equivalent of RNs and NPs and interns) fired questions at the doctors and then acted on their instructions. Keyop's body temperature registered a steady seventy-six whatevers, a measurement they converted to 105.6oF. "It's a good thing you got him here when you did," Cronus said to Mark in a voice low enough not to disturb the doctors. "Those are potentially lethal temperatures."

Mark grasped the chair and forced his trembling body to sit in it. "G-2," he radioed, "G-2, go find where Princess put the barbs she withdrew from Keyop--"

"Already did, Commander. She discarded them in the field."

"We need to know what kind of bacteria it was in order to figure out what it responds to," one of the techs said.

"I don't have it!" Mark shouted at the screen, leaping to his feet. "Princess didn't- "

Princess was already telling the tech, "I didn't think to save it. You'll have to just culture the wound itself..." while Cronus put a hand on Mark's shoulder and pulled him from the room into the hallway.

Mark gritted his teeth and glared at Cronus. "Are you satisfied? Why must you always try--"

"You asked for my help," Cronus said. "You have my entire personal staff at your command as well as the best-trained medical technicians on the planet to care for your comrade."

In the middle of trying to reply, Mark stopped breathless.

"Go back to your ship," Cronus said. "We will contact you whenever we can." The Rigan Air Force commander turned on his toes and stepped back into the room, shutting the door behind him. Mark set his teeth. Cronus might as well have said, "Go to your room, young man."

Out in the hallway, Mark looked to the right, the way he had come in, then headed left, the way they had wheeled Keyop. In his birdstyle, no one could mistake him for anyone other than the leader of G-Force, so when he found himself directionless, a nurse or an intern or some sort of employee was able to direct him to the proper wing of the base. "When you reach the windows looking out on the shore, head left," the man directed him. "But not before you pause a minute to look at the waves."

Mark had little time for the shore, although he realized he could see the Phoenix from the windows as he sprinted past them. The left turn brought him into the bright white emergency room where Princess and half a dozen medical techs surrounded Keyop on a hospital bed.

The antiseptic odor hit Mark like smelling salts. Why do I keep finding myself in hospitals? Eyes wide, staring past the brief blurring of his vision, he tried to figure out the best place to stand in terms of vantage and not getting in the way of the technicians. The Rigans had transferred Keyop to what looked like an Earth-style hospital bed, with railings, with gears and a motor beneath to manipulate the surface for comfort and accessibility. Several monitors gave continuous flashing readings over his head, and a large screen at the far wall gave a visual portal back to the office Mark had just left. The four doctors looked gargoylish in two dimensions, and as they barked orders, the entire nursing staff rushed to implement them. Two windows streamed with light. Mark could have seen the ocean from the doorway if he'd turned his head. Instead, he kept his focus on Keyop while making his way to Princess.

Putting her hand on his arm, she guided him to the far wall of the emergency room. "Everything's pretty much settled down now," she said, again in a low voice. "There's nothing really left for us to do here until they know more about what got him. The fever was still going up until a few minutes ago, but they gave him some medication to bring it down at least for a while. They're considering that it might not just be an infection but maybe a poison of some sort on the barbs."

"That's ridiculous. Who'd poison an animal he was hunting for food?"

Princess shook her head as she sat on the edge of the window sill. "This may not necessarily be poisonous to the indigenous population--the same with this bacteria. Maybe this germ wouldn't even cause a common cold to them, but in us it could be fatal because we've never been exposed to it before. There are poisons that affect animals which don't affect human beings because of our greater size and weight and our different metabolism." She squeezed Mark's hand. "All we can do now is wait, Mark. The doctors were able to pull out some fragments of metal I missed. They're analyzing those now. They've cultured the wound and soon there will be results from that too. But that takes time. I'm sorry."

Mark folded his arms. "You go back to the Phoenix. Tell Tiny to stand down. The three of you relax, but have Jason remain on watch, in case Spectra did catch our approach here and is taking advantage of it."

Princess frowned. "Yourself? We may need you in a hurry if Spectra does strike."

"I'll stay here."

"Mark--" Princess' eyes had widened. "He's unconscious. He can't hear you. It won't matter whether you're here or not. But to us onboard the ship--"

"I said--"

"And I'm saying, even if Spectra doesn't attack, he may need you later if he wakes up and is in any pain--although after all the drugs he's had pumped into him, I'm not sure what he'd be feeling--and you'll need to be at your strongest then."

Mark shook his head. "If he awakens suddenly, I'd rather he didn't find himself alone. That's it. Return to the Phoenix. Contact the Chief. I'll keep you posted."

 

As time passed, Mark found himself increasingly alone in the room. Six medical technicians became five, became three, became one, and then even that last one drifted to other patients. Keyop lay still in his bed, burning softly beneath several blankets, three different tubes transporting various fluids into his body. Nearing the bedside, Mark noted the sunken eyes, the rapid, shallow breaths. When he checked, he found the techs had inserted a different heparin lock, presumably to take their narrower tubing. A new bandage encircled Keyop's upper thigh, thick with gauze padding.

Mark threw himself into a small armchair in the corner of the room. The plastic cushion creaked gently as he rested his head against the white plaster of the wall at his back.

You really should be more careful.

I should have been, Chief. I should have. You said it to Keyop, but you meant it to me. Why were Keyop and Princess off on their own to begin with? Because I sent them to check just one more thing. But I should have done that myself. I should have accepted the solution when we found it and not second-guessed myself.

That kind of injury can incapacitate the team.

And it has, Chief. I'm sorry.

Mark raised his head to the sound of approaching footsteps. The shadow of the red uniformed Cronus appeared in the doorway before the man himself, and Mark got to his feet.

"I thought I had told you, Mark, to get back to your ship."

"I can't leave my teammate alone here."

"I've vouched for this installation's safety and skill." Cronus folded his arms. "I could be offended by your lack of trust."

You, offended by me? Mark shook his head. "It's not skill or safety or trust that's at issue. It's camaraderie."

"You might serve him better by getting your rest now while you can. You might serve him better by making sure the remaining three are protected."

"Did you just speak to Princess?" Mark's eyes blazed suddenly. "I know the situation. I don't care how long until Keyop wakes up! He needs us with him, and I'm not going to run off and abandon or neglect him just because it happens to be convenient and expected, do you understand?"

Cronus shook his head. "That's the voice of youth speaking. What would wisdom say? What would your father say?"

Mark felt himself burning as hot as Keyop. "Who are you to ask that? Are you the voice of wisdom? I don't know what Chief Anderson would have me do, but I can't say for certain that would be the right choice either. All I know is that now, I'm convinced Keyop needs a familiar voice and touch right here in the room with him, so I'm not going."

A moment of silence, followed by Cronus saying, "So Chief Anderson is really your father?"

Mark couldn't read Cronus' face through his mask. "No, but he's as close as I have. I can't say what my biological father would tell me, except--"

Cronus waited on him to continue, then shrugged. "You can have it your way, then. Obviously I'm unable to coerce you into returning against your will to your own ship, and I'm certainly not going to lock you up in an effort to impose rest on you. However, it's my opinion and apparently the opinion of others you trust that you shouldn't remain here."

Mark looked toward Keyop. Cronus said, "What were you about to guess your father would have told you?"

"I don't remember much about him. He was distant." Mark shrugged. "So I guess he'd tell me to go get on home, do my job, and go back to work. To stop whining and go think about what needed to be done. Be a man. All that." Mark walked to the foot of Keyop's bed and sat on the edge. "So much for wisdom. Thank you for your concern."

Cronus nodded. "You're welcome. I'll see what arrangements may be made to make your stay more comfortable."

Don't return, then, Mark thought to Cronus' departing figure, if you care at all about my comfort.

 

After four hours, the medics determined the first antibiotic hadn't had the desired effect and increased the dosage, then mixed it with another powerful antibiotic. From time to time, Keyop stirred, mumbled indistinctly, shifted beneath the blankets, then curled tight again and returned to his shivering sleep. If possible, his leg felt even hotter to the touch than the rest of his body, and Mark could tell how swollen the limb had gotten. Through sleep and chemicals Keyop had escaped the pain he must certainly have felt otherwise.

I want to go home. Mark tended to pace the room, saying nothing, staring blankly out the window and away from his friend. I want this to be over.

Only once did Keyop seem to rouse, looking around with unfocused eyes. "Mark, it's cold," he whispered, not seeming to find him. "It's so cold." All this time, he had remained with his knees and arms clutched tight to his chest, his fists up by his shoulders. Mark moved in close and said, "You have a very high fever. We're doing everything we can to get it down." After finding Mark and hearing his voice, Keyop fell back to the pillow for a few minutes, closed his eyes, and just when Mark thought he'd fallen asleep for good, Keyop said, a phrase at time, "Then it's time to get the cat out of the sewing machine." Mark only laid a hand on Keyop's shoulder, but one of the nurses said, "Of course it's time. We'll take care of that. You get some rest," and then Keyop really did fade out again.

Analysis of the metal fragments proved inconclusive. While the techs couldn't prove the presence of a toxin, they couldn't disprove it either. "What this means," the head doctor explained to Mark, "is that we'll continue treating as if there's only the infection present, but in the meantime we'll also screen his blood for any extraneous chemicals." Apparently Keyop's white blood cells were going crazy, attacking and attacking and never subduing the enemy.

The nurses (Mark decided not to figure out their exact titles) tended to spend a lot of time in the room performing tasks Mark considered decidedly non-medical. One took great care to arrange plants around the bed. Mark could almost hear Jason laughing so hard he couldn't say "Take two Ansel Adams framed in gold and call me in the morning!" Another nurse had lit a candle that filled the room with a scent at times like cinnamon and at others like ocean water. The chief nurse quizzed Mark about Keyop's musical tastes with the final result that Jason dug up his own walkman from wherever he'd stashed it onboard the Phoenix and brought three of his tapes, all unlabeled. "Jason somehow tells these apart," Mark assured the nurse, but the nurse insisted on listening first to make certain the music didn't contain any negative, health-suppressing sensibilities. Jason stood in the corner with his arms folded, staring tolerantly.

"We really prefer to treat the whole person," the nurse said. "You see how such a small wound affects the whole body. Then our treatment should take into account the whole body, the five senses, and even his emotional state."

Mark thought it a lot of nonsense, but he didn't blow out the candle or turn off the radio, both of which Jason did the instant the nurse left.

"When are you going to come to your senses," Jason whispered, "and bundle him up and burn the whole way home?"

"We can't." Mark turned away. "This is the best we've got, and they're doing everything they can."

"Regardless of whether it helps. Why don't we ship in a few Picassos while we're at it?" Mark couldn't help but laugh. Jason took that as an invitation to continue. "Cronus may be a decent pilot, but that doesn't make him a doctor. Talking to the Chief, you can tell he's on edge about this whole thing, but he won't give the order to come home. It's got to be you who does it."

"I'm not going to." Mark walked up alongside the bed. "Don't you understand?"

Jason sat in the space Keyop's feet didn't fill at the bottom of the bed. "But isn't it better to risk everything in order to gain everything? You're trying to conserve and lower the risk. Look around: the risk is about as high as it can get right now. Burn the whole roll at once--let's get him back to the real doctors. Right now he's in eternal limbo. I think it's better to be in either heaven or hell."

"Go back to the ship," Mark said. "They need you there. If Spectra does manage to track us to this installation, someone's got to take the ship up."

Jason said, "Then let me stay here. Or let Princess."

Mark said, "Let me. The ship's yours. Isn't that what you always want?"

Jason said, "Not really."

 

Later, Mark humored the nurses by sitting alongside the bed and reading aloud from a book of short stories that the nurses swore were "especially health-boosting", and when he ate his lunch in the room, the nurses made sure he ate only foods that would keep him in a positive state of mind. No dissolved sugars, they insisted, as in juice. Soda, curiously, he could have. He drank water instead. Rigan water tasted like liquified orchids.

The nurses massaged Keyop's arms, his head, his neck and shoulders. They offered the same to Mark, and he turned them down.

The next course of antibiotics, over in four hours, also failed to bring down the fever. Again the doctors changed medications, strengthened the dosage, and did their best to treat the fever. Until the previous medication had worn off and he'd soared right back to 106, Keyop's temperature had hovered at 102, and now it returned to that. The doctors were calling it a remittent fever.

Mark's mind endured a thousand what-ifs: what if this apparent infection hadn't come from the puncture wound at all, but from something they'd all touched or inhaled on that remote planet? What if Keyop had exposed all of them to it? What if this epidemic spread across Riga and incapacitated the planet far easier than Spectra could have? What if none of the antibiotics worked at all? What then?

Jason's option, the one Mark hadn't seriously considered before the second antibiotics failed, was to trust Keyop to stay relatively stable long enough for the Phoenix to transport him from here to home. Home--it felt so good to think that, to imagine Chief Anderson standing over the bed, looking over the chart and instantaneously finding the magical data that would set a labful of technicians working on just the panacea Keyop needed. If he closed his eyes, he could imagine it: Chief Anderson would know what to do.

Sensibly, he knew not to move Keyop, not to chance an emergency stranded somewhere between the two planets or even worse, to chance a fight with the Spectran warships that hovered at the edges of the Rigan system. His throat locked up on him, and he never mentioned the deliberations to anyone. Especially to Jason. Right now, Jason would have won.

The nurses urged Mark to get some sleep, and in his chair in the corner, Mark nodded off for a few minutes here and there during his vigil. He'd awaken any time Keyop turned or shifted or one of the nurses entered the room. The rest of the team stayed onboard the Phoenix.

Time, Mark thought. Time is the only evil here. Spectra didn't do this. Keyop didn't do this to himself. Princess is innocent. Cronus is doing his best--he may be irritating, but he's certainly not evil. No, one at a time, everything is proving neutral. Time is the only evil. The waiting. The separation. The not knowing. I think I could handle anything they threw at me if only I knew what it would be. There is no evil other than time.

And if Keyop dies--if Keyop dies, time is the only thing that keeps us apart then too, when we move forward and he stands still. But here and now--he'll always be here and now.

After ten hours, Cronus entered the room and escorted Mark into the hallway. "I'm not bringing you away from Keyop for very long," he said, "but please, come with me."

The office to which Cronus brought him to was within shouting range of Keyop's room. Mark sank into a chair by the door. "What do you want?" His hands trembled. The Rigans had told him frequently that Keyop probably registered everything that went on in the room so not to say anything negative around him. "Is it even worse than we thought?" His head ached.

Cronus poured a drink from a thick-necked flask and set it before himself, then poured a second for Mark. "I fully understand you never drink on duty--but this isn't a social drink. Consider it life-sustaining or whatever nonsense they call it."

Mark tried a smile, his first in hours. He failed. Bracing himself he said softly, "So you don't believe in all that health-enhancing business either?"

Cronus shrugged. "It's a nice touch, and Rigans do so take the nice touches seriously, but I believe it overkill. On the other hand, you do need something, so please--"

Mark sampled the drink and instead of the sting of liquor found the smoothness of cream and the sweetness of honey. If there had been alcohol, Mark would have known the worst for certain. Cronus laughed at his expression. "You believed I was trying to get you drunk?" When Mark studied him momentarily, Cronus laughed again.

"Very funny." Mark's heart was pounding. Cronus had taken a long draught from his glass and then poured himself some more, so Mark deemed the drink safe and turned his attention to the Rigan colonel. "What's gone wrong now?"

"The doctors are in there now changing the medication again. I's actually something that's gone right, Mark. They've determined exactly what type of bacteria is causing the infection, and the current antibiotic isn't going to do any more good than this glass of milk. Apparently it's some monster of a bacterium, whatever criteria one uses to determine that. It laughed at all the conventional medication they threw into the petri dishes, but finally they've concocted something specifically to kill it."

Mark laughed and took a deep breath, a smile finally overtaking him. It felt like the first time he'd breathed in hours. "That's good--that's so good. How long until we know if it worked?"

"Not more than another six hours. You'll have time to finish your milk." Cronus stood from the desk and clasped his hands behind his back, pacing the room. "It's a relief. All the aromatherapy in the world wasn't going to bring that fever down if they didn't find the magic bullet first."

"Absolutely." He raised his head. "Have you spoken yet to Chief Anderson?"

"I thought I ought to tell you first, and the doctors wanted to get the new treatment started as rapidly as possible." Cronus took a deep breath. "Would you like to call him from here?"

Mark hesitated at the tone in Cronus' voice. "No--I'll have Jason do that from the Phoenix, or else you can do it yourself if you prefer." For a moment, the man looked almost hesitant, this man who commanded the Rigan Air Force and the man who consistently treated Mark like a little boy rather than a fellow armed enforcement officer. Even in trying to seem friendly and approachable, as now he so plainly wanted to make himself, the man fell short: milk? Mark half expected to find a plate of Oreos on the desk.

"I think he would prefer if the news came from one of you," Cronus said. "I've watched your vigil, and if I had thought at any point in time that you were exerting yourself beyond the bounds of common sense or otherwise endangering your comrades, I was prepared to have you removed from the room. I admit to this. But your presence and your help may have kept Keyop alive, and at least may have prevented his condition from worsening. I apologize for second guessing your judgment earlier."

Mark's eyes widened, and he drank some of the milk thoughtfully. "Do you think it helped?"

"It must have. He's fighting off a terrible infection, and with little help from us so far."

"I think he's just got generic Anderson stubbornness." Mark's head dropped. "I don't think I've done any good at all."

Cronus sat behind the desk and pressed his fingers together. "Maybe you sold your father short. You see now how difficult it is to hold a bedside vigil for only a day. Imagine the same thing dragging on for months--for months, Mark. By the time it's over, one way or the other, a man is worn to the bone."

Mark said, "I don't see how--"

"I wanted to spare you that." Cronus shook his head. "Of course, you understand that once the crisis passes, and yes, crisis is a medical term--it means a fever that suddenly drops as opposed to 'lysis' when it gradually descends--"

"I know that," Mark said. "But what you were saying about sparing me--"

Cronus waved him off. "Once the crisis passes, he's still going to need rest for a while. You definitely will have to deliver him to your own doctors once the fever breaks, but I imagine the doctors will want him hooked up to all manner of IVs in a hospital bed for a week afterward. I'll send a doctor or two with you if you think Keyop won't obey orders otherwise."

"My team knows the value of an order. You still didn't answer me." Sitting back in his chair, Mark frowned. "You lost your family?"

Cronus said, "I've experienced a lot of things, my boy. You treated Keyop just like family would--or better. I've seen some families sundered by desertion after a death. You've done all duty required of you."

Mark rolled his eyes. "Thank you." His heart pounded.

Cronus laughed. "At any rate, Keyop's room may be ready for your return now. Let's go."

As they made their way into the hall, Cronus laid a hand on Mark's shoulder. Mark involuntarily tensed at the touch, pulling away as soon as he could while they walked. A sneaked glance at Cronus told Mark nothing new. The mask on the red and black uniform hid all his face except for the tight mouth.

The nurses were finishing their work at Keyop's bedside, and Mark noted that they'd watered the green plants and laid Jason's walkman back in Keyop's hands before they re-tucked the blankets over his shoulders. The readouts on the various screens told Mark little because he didn't know the conversion factors offhand. He'd figured out the temperatures often enough that he should have known. The Rigan standard body temperature came out around 67--a straight conversion that didn't take into account their different zero points had originally led Mark to believe it was 70.8. Right now he'd paced enough, waited enough, thought enough, that he couldn't do the math any longer. He watched. He sat in the chair in the corner with Cronus standing beside him.

"If you don't mind, my friend," and Mark looked up, wondering why he really didn't mind any longer that Cronus was calling him his friend because he certainly had never wanted to be that, "if you don't mind, I've taken the liberty of ordering a second bed in the room. The personnel agree that you need your rest too."

A second bed was even now being wheeled into the room by two of the nurses and set up adjacent to Keyop's. Mark stood with his mind a blur. "Thank you."

Cronus had his arm on Mark's shoulder again. "I'm going to bed now myself, and as your host I couldn't do that without first assuring myself of your comfort. Stay with him as you wish."

Mark felt the world sliding away slowly--he'd been on his feet so long--and then the nurses were gone, Cronus was gone, and the lights were lowered. Outside Keyop's window, the stars and Riga's two moons reflected against the ocean water. The candle smelled of oil-black Rigan violets and pumpkin. Shortly Mark found himself stretched out on the second bed, watching Keyop sleeping backlit by the green-yellow LEDs of several machines that vigilantly monitored his heartbeat, his respiration, his temperature. They were vigilant. Mark closed his eyes. They were watching. He could rest.

 

The bed creaked unfamiliarly as he rolled over, and that finally brought Mark to rouse himself. Stretching, he heard voices fading in the hallway: Cronus lecturing someone. Light had broken on the room, and as he pushed himself up off the mattress, he noticed that in the bed beside him, Keyop was stirring, opening his eyes.

"You're awake." Mark heard the wonder and softness in his own voice, felt the smile stretching across his face, and quickly he glanced at the monitors over Keyop's head- pulse slow, blood pressure normal (the warning lights were off) and yes, temperature 71, significantly closer to healthy than any earlier readings. Although Keyop's bloodshot eyes still had dark circles, and although his hair looked doused with sweat, he seemed to Mark to be much better than yesterday.

Blinking, Keyop rolled onto his side, then winced when he pinched the needle in his arm. He sat up gingerly, pushing off the blankets. "It's hot in here."

"That's good news. You've spent the last several hours shivering." Mark grinned; he couldn't stop. "How are you feeling?"

"My head hurts a little." Keyop tugged at the headphones that had slipped around his neck while he slept. At some point during the night, his walkman must have run out of batteries, and he popped out the tape. "Aw, man, some of Jason's crappy music? I had the most vivid dreams."

Mark laughed, and Keyop settled himself on his side, making sure to keep his arm mostly straight. Just then, a nurse entered with a tray, saying, "Good morning, Keyop! It's time for your ten o'clock cookie!"

Keyop looked at the nurse with stunned, blank eyes, then nodded with raised eyebrows until she left. As soon as she'd exited the room, he said tentatively, "So I'm in the pediatric ward?"

"It's not just you. I got served milk last night, too."

"It's a good cookie, though. I'm kind of hungry." He tried the milk and made a face. "Ugh--whole milk. Like drinking rich creamery butter."

"Enough of that," the nurse said, returning bearing a tray that had a more traditional breakfast. "You need to make up the body fat and protein you burned off during your fever. You eat while I check you over." She looked at Mark. "And you--"

"I know," Mark said. "I know. I need to call home."

Mark walked into the hallway so the nurse could inspect Keyop in privacy, and at the fork in the corridor he met Colonel Cronus.

"Mark, I heard the good news."

"The fever broke." Mark felt the smile returning. "It's an incredible relief."

"Of course." Cronus flashed a smile. "I made sure to notify Chief Anderson myself as soon as his temperature dropped, about an hour after the new medication started last night. He was very pleased. There's nothing worse for a parent than having a child hurt and not being able to get to him."

I guess we're still children. Mark shrugged. "Like I said, he doesn't claim to be our father."

Cronus nodded. "He sounded like one when my call awoke him."

Mark walked to the windows and looked out on the ocean as it sent wavlets splashing up the shore and then streaming back along the sand. Relentlessly, wave followed wave. He shook his head. "I want to thank you for everything you've done for us. And to apologize for arguing with you yesterday."

Cronus' reflection approached Mark's in the window and looked out over his shoulder at the same waves. "I understand, Mark. Believe me. I'm more impressed with you now than I was before."

Mark's head lifted. "So I'm not just a boy to you any longer?"

"You're a boy." Cronus shrugged. "I had thought of you as one who acted within a team because of your inexperience, because you needed the others on missions. Frankly, I thought you used the others for backup. How easy to see yourself as the hero out to save the world with a whole supporting cast behind you doing the backbreaking work while you take the glory. I thought, like a boy, you wanted it that way, to be the one untouchable at the top. It's harder--impossibly hard, I had told myself--to fight side by side with people you care about. "

Mark smiled slowly. "Are you the hero?"

"I am. I made choices that put me here." Cronus turned to him. "The voices of wisdom said that. You can't hear wisdom yet, maybe because you are a boy as I said. If that's the case, though, then I pray you never become wise. When I said what wisdom would have dictated--well, you've proven it wrong. The doctors certainly think so, and who am I to gainsay them? What you have here surpasses wisdom."

Cronus turned and left him in the corridor. Mark waited a little longer watching the ocean, before radioing the rest of the team. It's time, he would tell them. Keyop's awake and alive, and it's time to go back home.

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