Glowworm-class Transport Tranquility, Bridge
January 18, 3400, 1300 Hours, Planetary Local Time
They were clear. They were finally clear. The gunners stopped shooting around ten minutes after Gav ditched the ork fighter- maybe they were running low on ammo, maybe they’d lost track of him. Captain Tamrin didn’t know, didn’t care. The very minute he knew he was clear, that those damn plasma shells stopped going off overhead, he gave the order.
“Punch it, Gavin. I want some clear sky for a change.”
Gavin did. He spun the engines from level flight to vertical takeoff, building altitude, and then speed. Glowworm’s
turbofans could only take her so high and so fast, of course... but that was high enough to light off the space drive comfortably enough. The faint glow of sublight magnetogravitics shone from the engine compartment as they coasted for orbit.
Gavin still felt that wall of ice in his head, the pilot’s reflexes. Those reflexes drove him like a puppet- he knew what he had
to do, even though he wanted to be down in the infirmary with Olivia more than he wanted to breathe. He couldn’t stop, not yet. He checked the dials. Air... looked like they’d sprung a leak somewhere, but it was manageable. Fuel... not so good, but quick mental math made it sound like they still had a margin of error. Sum it up. Think
, make yourself use your brain even when it’s screaming. Stay level. He’d gotten them into orbit now; Nguyen’s World didn’t have much of a spacemobile force and what there was was usually out playing hide and seek with the orks in the asteroid belt, so they’d have a few minutes before having to leg it.
He turned to John. “We should have just enough to hit a fuel station. We’ll need to do some patching up. Hope we got paid today.”
The captain was looking a question at him. Good a time as any to ask. He can take us out of the system. Won’t be that hard; firing up the hyperdrive and “second star to the right and straight on till morning” is all we really need for the moment. Autopilot should be able to take care of the rest.
“I’ve got the course programmed, should be easy flying from here.”
“Captain? I’d like you to take the helm, please. I... I need to go down to the infirmary.”
John just nodded and flipped the switches to bring his control board up. Gavin was shaking as he rose from his seat and rushed down the corridor.
Gavin didn’t even take a look through the window on his way down the stairs; his only thought was to be
there, personally, not through a sheet of glass. Taking the stairs two at a time and hauling on the railing to help him round the corners, he leapt into the lounge... and saw what he really should have expected to see. His wife, unconscious on the infirmary bed in front of him. There was an oxygen mask over her face- and he thanked all the gods of space that the captain did
keep up the medical supplies, even though it was expensive.
Konrad had heard the commotion outside. When Gavin rounded the corner, the young doctor stepped away from Dobson’s body and in front of the door. In a quiet voice with more authority than Gav would have credited him with, he said. “She’s stable, she was secured during the bouncing around earlier. The diagnosis is promising, but she can’t be disturbed now.”
“Disturbed? She’s my wife!
“So don’t hurt her. If you want to sit outside that’s all right.”
Gav faltered. “How...how bad is it?”
“I’ll have to operate. I’ll need an assistant and a stable operating platform for that; I can’t do it while we’re bouncing around. You’re down here. Who’s flying the ship? Will we be steady from now on?”
“John.” The questions helped drag him back from the edge of panic. “We’re out of atmosphere and no one is shooting at us; we should have clear sailing soon. Who are you go... who’s going to help you?”
it be?”Who do I trust with this?
He didn’t know a damn thing about medicine, and he knew he couldn’t hold himself steady like this. If not him, who? John?
John was... nothing if not steady. He took a deep breath.
“Do you know if he has any medical experience at all? From the war, maybe?”
“I... from the stories, I think so. Olivia vouched for... she... she would want him handling this.”
Konrad nodded. His voice was soft, quiet, still calming. “All right. Can you go get him? Can you handle the ship while he’s down here? I’ll have to walk him through a lot of things. It will take a while. Hours.”
He swallowed. “I can. But will she be all right?
” He’d be blaming himself for the rest of his life if she didn’t pull out of this strong like she was before. He knew damn well there was nothing he could have done. That was going to make it worse.
“I’ve gotten a good look at the wound now.” The way he said it sounded odd somehow, but it didn’t matter now. I’ll need to extract fragments from her chest; a few have gotten into the lung. I can get them all out, and I’m... cautiously optimistic about being able to do it with minimal damage to the surrounding tissue. You’ve got surprisingly good equipment here, so I think I can do it with reasonable safety. Recovery time will be several weeks, but I expect near
full recovery of lung capacity.”
“Near, as in high function. Not one hundred percent, she’ll probably notice the difference, and I don’t know if she’ll be running marathons afterwards, but... the long term effects should be minor, with proper after-care. Zero with extended care at a modern facility, and I’d recommend that, but minimal even working out of here, if we can pick up some things when we get to Praha. She was very lucky.”Lucky!? You son of a-
Gav clamped down on the thought. It was stupid and he knew it, even if he didn’t want to. “I... I’d better go up and get the captain, then.”
The doctor gave him a thin smile. “Thank you. I won’t be ready for him for another twenty minutes; there’s one matter I need to get out of the way...”
Captain Tamrin rounded the last corner... and saw Dobson staggering out of the infirmary, clutching a bag of ice to his heavily bandaged head. For a moment he just stood there, blinking, trying to process that. He muttered. “Didn’t he get shot in the head?”
Well, the bumbling passenger’s recovery from a case of “presumed dead” was probably a good omen. If the young techie could fix up a man who’d been shot in the head, it stood to reason he could fix up someone who’d been shot in the chest. He went into the infirmary and asked the question. “You said you needed me?”
Dr. Lakatos turned and looked at him, his face expressionless. A very painful thought ran through John’s head: Last time I was this close to him, I punched him in the face
. And now he needed
Lakatos... the doctor nodded. “Yes, captain. I’m going to need to operate on Olivia, and I’m going to need an assistant standing by. We’re a bit short on trained scrub nurses; your pilot recommended you.”
Gav had told him what he’d said up on the bridge, so that wasn’t a surprise. He squared his shoulders. “Stood by to lend a hand patching people up a time or two.”
John nodded; the doctor kept talking. “All right. Captain, I do need an assistant for this, but I need one who will follow my lead and my instructions. I don’t ask you to like that, but can you do it?”
That had to be a good question, especially from the youngster’s point of view. He took a deep breath. “Reckon I can.”
Lakatos gave him another long look, then nodded. “Thank you, captain. Let’s start by making sure we’re properly cleaned up...”
2150 Hours, Eavesdown Mean Time
1740 Hours, Planetary Local Time
“...there. That’s the last stitch. Captain, give the area another pass to clean it again, and we’ll be done.”
Working with a nurse while using extrasensory perception was not
easy. Konrad always tended to lose control over the volume and tone of his voice while working in that gray, omniscient world. He couldn’t really feel the sound of his own words, even though he was on some level aware of what had been said. He hadn’t been on the job many years, it was a constant worry that his assistants would misunderstand something he hadn’t said, couldn’t
say, clearly enough. Normally he was paired with experienced support staff who often knew what he needed to be doing as well as he did; that helped. This time was different; Captain Tamrin knew more of the basics than he’d hoped, but still needed to be coached far more than a professional would have.
Keeping himself clear-headed enough to deliver the needed instructions in professorial form for the long hours of the operation hadn’t been easy. But that was the price he paid for his abilities, and they were worth it: he could detect the fragments he needed to extract, even through intervening blood or tissue. He could tell exactly where nerves and blood vessels lay, and work around them far better than would be possible otherwise. He’d even managed to locate the few hair-thin fibers from the armor vest’s inner fabric cover itself that had been carried into the wound, and remove most of them: they probably wouldn’t have caused much trouble in the aftermath, but the patient was always better off without them.
But now he was exhausted, his mental energies drained. The effort of turning his abilities down
, of bringing himself back to the world of color and antiseptic smell and the hum of electric fans, felt like lifting a mountain. He walked Captain Tamrin through the last stages of cleanup as if in a trance. When everything was seen to at last, when he knew the patient was stable, he lurched out into the lounge and collapsed into a chair, stripping off his gloves.
“Th... thank you, Captain Tamrin. You were v... very helpful.”
“You all right, boy?” That wasn’t an insult, the way it had been night before last. It was honest concern.
“I will be.” He smiled weakly. “I just need to rest for a while. Someone needs to keep an eye on the patient though.”
“Captain, it’s been a hard...” Konrad fumbled for the words. “...harder day for you than it has for me. Is there anyone else? Just to monitor equipment and wake me if anything changes? Interface is... is simple, it just needs a pair of eyes on it. Well-chosen equipment.”
“You think Sammie could do the job?”
“All right. Will... I’ll have to leave her some instructions. Can you get her?”
“Thanks.” He slumped down, head in his hands. If he could just stop thinking
for a few minutes, the ache in his mind so much better...
Konrad managed to explain to Sammie what she needed to watch without too much trouble. When everyone else on the ship looked utterly, utterly drained, she was still fresh and happy. Maybe that was because she’d spent the last few hours calming down from the shock of the fight, but even so, he felt revitalized just from talking to her.
He slumped down on his bunk. Something of today’s events felt... wrong somehow. The ork bandits attacking the ship, the old preacher suddenly showing powerful psychic abilities... that
was it. It all came together; a spike of adrenaline rushed through his veins as he realized that he might be in terrible danger.
He still had nightmares about that day in the lobby of his apartment building, back on Alta Vista. He’d sat down in the common area to relax and read somewhere public, somewhere he wouldn’t feel like a shut-in. Then the man had sat down in front of him. Tall, wearing clothes of a military cut, with a look in his eyes that flickered between blazing certainty and bewildered confusion.
Konrad was, at best, moderately gifted as an esper. His sensory abilities were remarkable by most standards- close to plus five sigma. Only a few hundred thousand peers at his level spread across a country of a quarter trillion had been able to match his abilities- which was one of the factors that led his parents to encourage him to go into medicine; it was a popular trade for high-level sensors. In other areas his abilities were barely detectable without use of sensitive instruments, nothing like his sister’s.
He couldn’t detect detailed thoughts or participate in telepathic conversation to any real effect. But even so, he had just enough ability, and enough training, to tell when another esper was pushing at his brain, to see the general timbre of the thoughts being sent his way, especially when those thoughts were intense and repetitive. This man was radiating
confused thoughts, whispers and fragments that made little sense, with the endless echo of “It doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem right.” He’d encountered that a few times before, but only in mental patients. Standing next to a mad esper was a disturbing experience at best, more than that in this case.
Konrad hadn’t gotten the man’s name, but the weird echoing thoughts driven at him had made it all too obvious that he believed every word he was saying. He claimed to be an agent of the Foreign Intelligence Directorate, that Konrad’s assistance was needed in some kind of plan. At first, Konrad hadn’t known what to think. Just being a competent esper in Umeria had been enough to ensure he’d met a few MiniDat recruiters over the years. But they came openly and lawfully, not by surprising him in his home, or even the lobby of his home.
But what was truly disturbing was that when Konrad didn’t immediately jump on board with... whatever it was the man had been proposing, he seemed to grow more agitated. He started asking random questions, talking about how this was a critical
plan, how it was the most important decision of Konrad’s life, the one he would look back on with either pride or regret... for the rest of his life. And still more random questions- including one particularly alarming one about how surgeons never got cut on during training.
It could only be interpreted as a threat.
Konrad was, well, perhaps a bit paranoid, he’d admit that. But when an esper claiming to be a MiniDat agent came to him and started making threats sounding like “join us or die,” for a frighteningly vague definition of “us...” then being worried wasn't paranoia, it was common sense. He’d been shaken. He’d called the police, naturally. Their inquiries into the man, his real identity, and what if any connection he had with MiniDat had been stonewalled.
Three days later, the man had come back, this time finding him at work. Konrad had managed to elude him in the corridors under the hospital and make it home without being followed, but by this point he was starting to get well and truly scared
. If MiniDat was chasing him for some reason, or worse yet if some rogue cabal of MiniDat agents who had the pull to hide their activities of the police were... well, at that point, he ran out of ideas. He’d asked the police for protection, but they had denied his request, more flatly than usual from them.
The next day, the same man left a threatening call on his voice mail.
Finally, in desperation, Konrad had decided his best hope was to leave the country- to run somewhere that this sinister man wouldn’t follow. The decision had been on the spontaneous side, but he’d tried
the police, tried
enquiries at MiniDat. Finally, he’d managed to get himself on extended leave of absence and board a freighter from Persephone. From there, his plan had been to lose himself, go somewhere remote and under the radar, and take a few weeks to work out the next step.Tranquility
had seemed ideal: small, few passengers, running to a planet that was about five minutes’ jaunt from the middle of nowhere. But now, running from a borderline psychotic esper... he found another esper on board. A powerful one, with a background that, in all honesty, he couldn’t check. That was not likely to be a coincidence.
Konrad felt a spike of fear in his gut. But there was nothing for it. The old man had bought passage to Praha, same as him. He had to have some kind of an answer... how hard would he have to start running to get clear of these people? Could
he get clear of these people? How? The obvious approach was to do nothing aboard the ship, and try to run faster and hide deeper on Praha. Hopefully lose this new tail. Or... or he could try to confront him.
He blinked. Where had that idea come from? But the more he thought about it... what if he was wrong, and it was some kind of coincidence? Powerful espers joining mystic or religious societies were hardly unheard of. He had to take the chance. He felt resolve crystallizing him. Maybe at the least he could find some answers, something, anything
other than endless flight from an unknown and hostile force...