Steve Johnson

1618 Caroline St.                                                                          4050 Words

Fredericksburg, VA 22401                                                                    16     Pages              




                                                            Steve Johnson


            "Nurse! Nurse! This one's going!"

            Gail Bond rushed across the cavernous hangar. Humid heat plastered her hair into thick ropes that fell in her eyes, despite the green sweatband she wore. Her olive-drab tennies made slap-slap noises on the concrete floor.

            Even before she saw the orderly waving at her, she smelled it: a dry, sour effluvium, like rusty lemons or spoiled motor oil. It was the smell of oxygenated silicone blood, souring in the air.

            The lump lying on the litter was tiny. Three bumps clustered around the pillow. The Klorth's fourth limb poked out from under the sheets, stiff and black as a gorged leech.

            Gail ducked around an orderly, whipped the sheet aside and gagged. The Klorth's wattled hide was awash in violet blood.

            "You must save him," said a Klorth officer she hadn't noticed before. The alien was a meter-three tall, decked out in dress Republican Army regalia. By the rows of decorations on his sash, he was an important Klorth indeed.

            Gail shoved him out of the way without a second thought. When men were dying there wasn't time to be polite to the living.

            The little alien squeaked in outrage.

            "You must save him!" he said. "He is my uncle's favorite tone singer!"

            "Sponge," she said, not to the officer but to the orderly standing there with his mouth open. He was a Yark, a vulpine biped from Tau Ceti. Lots of Yarks served in the Alien Legion.

            Gail slapped the orderly lightly across the ears. There wasn't time to be gentle with the help, either.

            "Wake up, Sharuk. I need fifty cc's pentachlor, stat."

            The tone of command snapped Sharuk out of his fugue. He stopped looking at the blood, dropped to all sixes, and bounded off between the rows of cots.

            The Klorth on the table wheezed like a ruptured bagpipe.

            "My ... unworthy flesh ... has troubled you, Lieutenant," he said. "We have always been bleeders, my line and I. Perhaps ... perhaps you will see fit to ... withhold your drugs for an hour or two, so I may expiate your ... sacrifice with my pain ..."

            She didn't want to hear it. She could keep the tears from her voice when they were screaming, but when they started being so damn noble, she felt her control tearing. And without control, Gail Bond was nothing.

            "You're going to be all right," she said, quickly. She thought she might have spoken too fast. Firmer, louder, she said,

            "No one goes without on my ward, understand?"

            Sharuk was back, the injector quivering in his hand. She checked it --Sharuk was bright, but you just never knew -- seemed okay.

            She tapped the thick aluminum blade twice, wiped a patch of the Klorth's soaked back clean, and thrust the injector blade firmly up between two dermal plates. The injector thumped with release of its compressed-air charge.

            "You ... ohh, you are too kind, Lieutenant," hissed the Klorth as it faded into sleep. The fluids staining its hide were turning clear as they dried.

            "He will live, yes?" the Klorth officer wanted to know.

            "He'll sleep ...," she said. She looked him over for the first time.

            "Colonel," she added. "He's going to lose the whole hide, though. He'll have to be in an abiotic environment till it regrows; six months, maybe more."

            Gail never promised anybody their buddy would live. She didn't dare get that one wrong, not even once.

            The Klorth's eyes filmed with greenish salt.

            "Sorry he'll miss the campaign, Colonel," she said. "Don't worry; the war will still be here when he gets back."

            "I am not sorry," said the Klorth. "I am happy. My uncle would hate for anything to happen to Neeldink."

            He knelt, softening his lower limbs to semi-rigidity, and kissed the bloody wounded Klorth on the snout. Gail turned away.

            Sharuk offered her a clean towel. She wiped at her soaking locks, cleaning off the worst of the alien blood.

            "Tak, Sharuk. Sorry about before," she said.

            "Tak you, Nurse Gail. I was completely at fault. I just never saw --"

            "Saw one of them hit that bad?" she said.

            He nodded vigorously.

            "It was like he was melting," he said.

            "Their skin can dry out if the silicone balance drops," she said. "Their bodies are tougher than ours, but not as supple. Blood gets squeezed out of their capillaries by the weight of their flesh."

            "Ya. But so much ---!"

            "How long have you been in the Legion, Sharuk?"

            "Six months, subjective. Four months training on Hirasu, then here."

            "You'll see a lot worse before you go home," she said. "Even a Klorth has more blood in him than you'd think possible. And as for us carbon types ..."

            She broke off. Captured in the doors of the hangar was a man's silhouette.

            She met him more than halfway. Her arms went around him and felt the velcro piping of his flight suit. The kiss more than blotted out the cheers from some of the patients; well, hell, let 'em look. Chance McCune was the only thing she allowed to pierce the armor of her self-control, because it felt nothing but good. If it ever went wrong -- but she wasn't ever, ever going to go there.

            "Chance!" she exclaimed when they broke. Her tone was hearty enough to fool him, and if he was, she would be too.

            "What's the occasion?"

            McCune grinned a lopsided grin.

            "Ran into this professor type up at Ladat," he said. He indicated a small man with a bionic eye.

            "He wants to be the next Margaret Mead of Klorth. I was heading down to the big city anyway, so I said I'd run him over to you. He didn't know about my ulterior motive," he said, patting her fatigues where they were tightest.

            "Is ulterior the word you're looking for?" she said, grinning back. "Welcome, professor. Gail Bond."

            "Yes, well, I'm hardly a professor, really," said the little man. His camera eye blinked as fast as the real one. "Name's Hoyt Douglass. Out of Frisby, on Sunbelt, don'ch'know. I hear you've got a handle on the language hereabouts, Miss Bond."

            "It's not too hard; half of it's assimilated American," she said. "I get done at six. Can I meet you two somewhere?"

            "Sorry, m'love," said McCune. "Got a troop insertion at seventeen-hundred, up in the hills. Can't say where, of course, mostly because I haven't the slightest eye-dee."

            "Oh, fine. Who does?" she said.

            "Him, for one," said McCune. He pointed at the alien colonel whose uncle liked Neeldink's singing.

            The Klorth wiggled over to stand beside McCune. His blunt turtle-like head barely topped McCune's hip.

            "So, sky driver. We get plenty Royalists today, hehh?" he said.

            "Yeah, Colonel. I'll get you there," McCune said easily.

            The Colonel thumped McCune a comradely flipper on the leg, and waddled out into the wan sunshine beyond the hangar.

            "Afraid I got to scoot, Gay," McCune said. "Ol' Slikdink there's getting a whole battalion of one-oh-nine artillery by morning, courtesy of his pals at HQ and some hard flying by me. But tomorrow for sure, right?"

            "Sure, Chance. Don't be surprised if I hold you to that by setting your slick on fire," she said.

            "Just as long as I'm not in it! Ciao, Gay. See you in the winner's circle, Doc."

            "But I'm not really a --" said Douglass, but McCune was already swaggering out the door.

            Douglass gave Gail an apologetic little shrug.

            "Well," he said. "I, uh, thought you might help me with some of the terms I encounted in the marketplace at Ladat, or know someone who could. For instance, why do they say "cocoa" for "to woo a lady?" I didn't even know we imported chocolate here."

            Gail grimaced. But then, Douglass hadn't seen Klorth in a caffeine rage.

            "We don't," she said. "It comes from 'Co-Cola'; they used to advertise like mad here, 'til we found out what caffeine does to Klorthi metabolism. Worse than whiskey for the Indians ..."

            She spotted her reflection in a doctor's speculum. There were purple hairs in among the reddish-bronze. She looked spattered-on, sloppy, out of control.

            "Crat!" she snapped. She seized a scissors from a tray and snipped the offending hairs off near the roots. Nobody saw, except Douglass, and for some reason he didn't seem to count.

            Douglass followed her out of the hangar. A wash of red sunshine hit them, bright but not warm. Iota Persei was too far, too dim to produce much heat.

            She leaned on the corrugated metal wall of the hospital-hangar. Behind her were six identical buildings, each with a different function; before her, the endless prairie, and the faint sound of thunder in the hills.

            "Is their blood poisonous?" Douglass asked suddenly.

            "Huh? No ... oh. No. I just don't want it on me," she said. Shakily, she lit a native stoga. She blew white smoke that tasted of nutmeg. Biting her teeth controlled the shakes.

            Douglass looked curiously at her face. She could tell she looked tired, even through expensive makeup designed to hide the fact that she was wearing makeup at all. She never knew quite how to keep her expression alert when down time finally came. How did you appear relaxed?

            "You don't like the Klorthi, do you?" Douglass said.

            Okay. If he didn't count, he didn't count. So why not?

            "That's no big secret, Doc. I mean, I'm a nurse, right? I do my job. I'll patch them up and give them last rites. I'll even hold their flippers when they're hurting. But I don't have to like the bastards."

            That was more than she meant to say. Not more than she felt, just more than she wanted to say. To anyone, ever.

            Douglass nodded.

            "They make you nervous," he said. "Because they display affection within the sexes."

            He just wasn't going to give up.

            "Crat, no," she said. "Who cares about alien sex? I hate 'em because they won't fight."

            "Most of the adult Klorthi are in the army already," Douglass said.

            "Yeah? Why don't I ever see them in here, then? You saw the ward; it's all Legionnaries, either those crazy damn Yarks or human boys so young they could practically be my --"

            She stopped short. Her mouth was living its own life again,  running away with her, and not a Klorth in sight. She was in worse shape than she figured.

            Cut it off cold. End it.

            "Sorry," she said. "You wanted a dictionary, not my life story."

            "Well, yes, I suppose. But if you need to talk --"

            "Forget it, I said. Same crat, different day," she said.

            "I think I understand how you feel," Douglass said. "But the Klorthi aren't really very good at fighting anyway. Their bodies are like rock, practically indestructible. They can't really hurt each other, you see? Fighting never made sense on Klorth until we brought them beam weapons. Even so, they can survive near-misses that would burn the legs off a man, or a woman.

            "The Republicans would never have ousted the King without our help. They never developed the institution of warfare very highly," he said.

            This was a fucked-up way for an anthropologist to look at Klorth. Most of the professors she knew were as political as rocks, except the lefties, of course. She wasn't sure where this was leading, but it wasn't going to be good.

            "So was the King so bad?" she said. Draw him out ...

            "Goodness, yes! He had those slave camps, and the tax on travellers --" Douglass said.

            "The Republic's got prison camps. And plenty of taxes."

            "That isn't the point. The King was firmly against Terran trade missions. We need the phorozine, the tin and the tungsten that Klorth can supply. Our entire economy depends on ..."

            She tuned out the rest of his speech, trying to remember where she'd heard it before. The President? No. A Senator? Which Senator?

            She blew out scented smoke. Suddenly the penny dropped.

            He was a spook.

            Some intelligence service had planted him in some university, given him a cover story and an anthro degree to make it stick. He wasn't interested in the language. Whatever his mission was, local mating slang probably wasn't it.

            So what did he want?

            "They thinking of sending regulars any time soon?" she said.

            "I beg your pardon?" Douglass said.

            "Regular Army. You know," Gail said. "Kids with moms and dads, maybe kids at home. Soldiers who have people back home who care about them. Who drive airplanes for Commercial and write letters to Congressmen. Who vote.

            "Men and women you can't spend like bullets. Human beings. Not Legionnaires."

            Douglass stroked the housing of his glass eye.

            "I doubt it, Miss Bond. If the Legion can't win this war on their own, what politician would send in the regulars? As you say, they have a whole different set of costs attached."

            "They're not expendable," she said.

            "Well, if you like. That's pretty much it," he said.

            "Yeah." She flipped her half-smoked stoga away into the red-lit scrub.


            She awoke just before midnight to the hooting of sirens and the damp smell of evening. Red lights flickered through open seams in the metal walls.

            She stumbled into her boots, threw on a smock and headed for the hangar. Sharuk slapped a pressure injector into her hand at the door.

            "What is it?" she yelled over the sirens.

            "Royals ambushed the firebase," Sharuk husked back. "Colonel Slikdink's battalion. Word is the Roys have rockets and arty of their own."

            "Bad?" she said. She wasn't in charge, technically -- no, dammit, the head nurse was in the Capital, wasn't she? Till Friday. And it wouldn't be Friday till dawn.

            It was Gail's nursing staff until and unless Charlene got back. Sharuk told her what he knew, which helped.

            "All available slicks were called in to dustoff casualties as soon as it started. The Reps are taking a beating; we have some Legion Recon teams in hot contact as well. As soon as we offload the wounded, Company D's going in hot to reinforce."

            "We'll be seeing some of them before morning, too," she said. "Sharuk, we can't use the motor pool if Delta's staging there. Grab some of the kitchen staff and have 'em spread sterilon over the ground outside. We'll start triage right here."



            It had been a long night. It was an endless day.

            The Royalists hit Firebase Slikdink with Terran beam weapons stockpiled for months out in the hills. Most of the Klorth the slicks brought in were melted rather than wounded. Still, some of them were likely to live.            Gail sorted the casualties into three classes. One class wasn't going to die whether they got help or not. Obviously, they got it last.

            The second class was going to die and there wasn't shit-all the doctors could do about it. They, also, didn't get much attention.

            Only the casualties who would most certainly die unless a doctor saw them right away got into the ward that night. At that, she had to make choices among the wounded; there were just too many.

            When she heard Colonel Slikdink was coming in, Gail rushed out to the landing field, hoping for word of Chance. An important casualty like Slikdink would rate the best pilot around.

            She almost threw her arms around the tall man in velcro coveralls who jumped out of the pilot's saddle. Then the helmet came off, and it was a stranger.

            "Something I can help you with, Lieutenant?" said the pilot. His face was flushed from sixteen hours of antigrav in the saddle.

            "Major McCune. Have you seen him? His callsign's Slim --"

            "Slim Chance. Yeah, I know him," the pilot said. His freegee-weakened legs eased him to the ground.


            "He was okay last time I talked to him. Ma'am, I gotta get some Coke."

            She believed him. The pilot stumbled away like a drunk.

            Back to work. Never let them see you with a personal issue.

            She spotted Slikdink's fancy uniform under his bandages and headed straight for him. He had two orderlies to steer his grav litter, although he weighed so little that a ten-year-old could have done it.

            "Colonel," she said, avoiding the alien name. "You're gonna be okay. You made it this far, you're gonna make it the rest of the way."

            Slikdink's eyes were full of fear. It looked just the same on them as on us.

            "Understand?" she said. He was in shock, that was it, and after all English wasn't his native language by a long shot. He just didn't get it.

            She smiled; that, too, was universal on Klorth. He smiled back, greatly relieved.

            "Get him over there; I'll be by to do triage in a minute," she said to the orderlies. They hurried off.

            And already they were pushing another one out of the slick. As soon as it left the freegee zone inside, the litter took on its full weight. Someone hadn't switched the grav on, or else more likely it was just plain broken.

            Gail caught one end of the litter. The other end bounced on the ground.

            The casualty yeeped in fine agony. He was human.

            A Yark ducked under the litter and hit the grav. It levelled out.

            The slick was flashing red and blue lights, repelling dirt and air away from itself. Gail and the Yark backed the litter out of the minature tornado as the slick lifted into the air again.

            "Last one?" she said.

            "But of course, sir!" the Yark protested.

            She cut him a look. It never hurt to make sure.

            They slid the litter over to the triage area. As the Yark settled it down easy, Gail sprayed the visible wounds with micin antiseptic.

            This guy was teetering on the edge between Urgent and Hopeless. One arm was off above the wrist; the arm muscles, torn from their anchoring tendons at the base of the hand, had drawn back under tension, exposing long, yellow shafts of glistening bone. The bones were splintered at the ends, like a frayed rope.

            Shock and blood loss. Both could be treated. What else?

            The left side was worse. Where the right hand had been struck a violet blow, the left was hit by heat; burned, shriveled, pulled in on itself in a curve that bent the spine sideways. She checked his feet for response; none. Spinal damage was a possibility.

            Still, there wasn't anything that a very strong, very exceptional man couldn't survive. She wasn't ready to cast him on the ash heap yet.

            As long as there wasn't anything wrong with the head --

            His hair was as red as a carrot.

            She almost said his name aloud. Almost. Only habit restrained her.

            The Yark came by, peeled back the eyelids, shone a light. He chopped his muzzle downward, once, with the same meaning a human would give to a thumbs-down or a shake of the head.

            He tugged the litter over to the second group, the Hopeless. Gail didn't let go.


            Her teeth hurt. She felt a headache building down the back of her neck. It was as if she were operating her body by remote control. She saw her hands take the light from the Yark, look into the eyes and see what wasn't there. One pupil was a pinpoint, one obscenely huge. Neither one responded to the light.

            His eyes were as blue as ever.

            She didn't give the light back to the Yark. She didn't let go of the litter.

            The Yark gave up and moved on. Somewhere behind her, a boy screamed for his mother, over and over.

            People moved purposefully around her. Some of them were looking at her. She felt the front edge of one of her teeth start to splinter.

            Keep moving. Stay focused. Stay professional.

            She wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Klorth blood stung them, but the pain was good. It helped her focus on physical things, material things. Like her headache, and the knot in her stomach, and the light in her hand.

            Next case. The Colonel from the firebase. Little guy, liked his singer. He was so proud of Chance this morning. Chance calling him Ol' Slikdink.

            She fought it, lost it, and there were tears all over her cheeks, and she was a little girl again, and her Daddy was mad at her for being weak. For being a girl.

            In front of a fucking Klorth.

            She flipped the light away, dug out scissors from her pocket and started cutting the Colonel's bandages away. He waved at her, flapping his flippers, but he wasn't getting in the way. Good. She wasn't going to have to sedate him unless he panicked. Sedation could be bad, could turn shock into trauma and trauma into --

            Chance! Chance!

            The bandages tore, clean across. She held them in her hands.

            The Colonel's uniform was undamaged. There was no blood on his body. He smiled tenatively, raising his flippers as if to shrug.

            She felt her tears shrivel up in her eyes. They burned like blood.

            "There's nothing wrong with you!"

            "I can walk," Slikdink said quickly. "Where is the duty officer?"

            What did you do, she said, her voice shaking. Dyou put these bandages on yourself? Dyou call Chance into a hot zone to pick your worthless ass out of the fire? Did you, you fucking k-k-k---?

            She couldn't say another word. Slikdink looked to the left, trying to catch someone's eye. He started edging away from her.

            She found the sedative in her pocket automatically.

            She punched it into his side with enough force to bruise her knuckles. The injector slipped easily through his silk uniform blouse, through tender skin, under the ribs. It thumped, driving enough drugs into his blood to knock him out in seconds.

            Slikdink's eyes fluttered and closed.

            "Put him over there," said Gail to the orderlies. She pointed out the section reserved for the lightly injured, the ones who were sure to pull through.

            Beyond them were the Hopeless, Chance among them.

            "No," she said then. "Put him with the second group. Over there. I'll get to him later."

            She motioned in Chance's general direction. They took Slikdink away.

            Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving. Eyes on the work. Mind on the job.

            And then, when it's all over ...

            She ran back to the hangar, where another set of patients was arriving. She tried to wipe her hands on her smock, but that, too, was tacky with purplish blood.


            Douglass caught up with her around dusk, next to one of the Legion slicks.

            "I hear you're taking Colonel Slikdink back to the capital," he said.

            Gail looked at the inert alien and refused to meet Douglass' eyes.

            "That's right," she said flatly. "Any objection?"

            "No, no. I just wonder, y'see, if he's well enough to travel? He's quite well connected politically, you know."

            "Meaning there'll be hell to pay if he dies?"

            "Um ... yes ... more or less."

            "Don't worry," she said. "Nothing gonna hurt him any more."

            She zipped up her velcro flight suit and boarded the slick. A pair of Yarks handed Slikdink's litter up to her, into zero-gee. She struggled with the straps of her parachute.

            "We ready to rock, El Tee?" said the pilot.

            "Just a second ..."

            "Uh, Miss Bond?" said Douglass. "Doesn't, uh, doesn't the Colonel get a parachute, too?"

            He looked to the Yarks for support, but got cold eyes over cold, wet muzzles. The slick began to buzz as its antigrav came to full power. Blue and red lights turned Douglass' face into a flickering devil mask.

            Gail stuck herself to the wall of the slick. The litter jittered like mad between the open doors.

            "What for?" she said. "It'll just break his fall."

            The slick lifted in a roar of noise and dust.