"State your name for the record," Abby was told, and she did:
If there had been a jury, they might have murmured. 'Baldwin' was the kind of family that didn't get to court often, at least not as a defendant. But there was no jury - only a panel of hard-faced officers, playing both judge and jury for the military hearing, and two well-suited military lawyers - the best that money could buy.
She should have felt safe – one of them was on her side and the other had probably been bought off, and she was securely home with the Alliance again.
I didn't notice how it quieted down until the barrel of a gun poked me in the shoulder. “Hands up,” the voice behind me said. I'd missed another damned retreat.
I raised one, but kept the other on Hans' chest, most of my weight on it. “I lift up the other one and Hans bleeds out right here,” I said back with more bluster than I felt.
A shot cracked past my ear. Hans gave one convulsion beneath my hand.
“That make the choice any easier for you, alliance scum?”
I raised the other hand. It was hard to feel sorry for Hans; I knew he hadn't had much more than a sliver-fine chance, and that only if evacuation ships had been there to take him somewhere clean within a few hours. I didn't look up, just watched in tired fascination while the last dark blood seeped out of Hans. I felt guilty for remembering what a jerk he'd been.
“It's a medic!” a second voice exclaimed.
“Yeah, figured that out already, braincase,” the first voice replied. “Seein' as she's medicking a soldier and has the patch on and all.”
The blood on my hand started to itch as it dried.
“You one of those bleeding heart medics that'll patch up any old wounded, or you one of those uptight pricks who answer only to the alliance?”
There was only one way to answer that when you've got a rifle drilling a hole in your shoulder blade, even if I hadn't been a bleeding heart a full three days out of boot camp. “I'll stitch 'em,” I said, imitating the rim dialect the best I could. “But I've got no supplies left.” Fat lot of good even the best supplies would make on most of the wounds of this battlefield. Whole organ transplants and tissue regeneration shells would be needed for most of them. Barring that, at least major blood transfusions. Mostly all I could do was try to hold the blood inside and hope that it would be over soon.
I'd been hoping that for nearly two weeks now.
The march to their camp was grueling. They argued whether or not to cuff my hands, whether or not to blindfold me, whether or not to take my knife. They finally took my knife, and left me otherwise free.
"You were unrestrained?"
The military lawyer's voice was like silk, the insinuation muffled in layers of smoothness.
Before Abby's own lawyer could jump to her defense, Abby snapped, "There were two of them, sir, and they did have a gun at my back." The prosecutor eased back, and the shark her father had hired smiled. It was a careful, close-mouth smile and Abby wondered if it was something they taught in law classes; don't show teeth, or you'll make your clients nervous.
She missed real smiles. Harry had a real smile, gapped teeth and all. And good luck keeping Mouse from smiling - that kid would smile at a bug in his coffee. Marion's smiles were rare, but when you earned one, you appreciated it.
There were no real smiles here, in this sterile room full of suits and veiled accusations.
She was still for a moment, letting the sting of grief pass by, and the prosecutor prompted, "And then?"
Abby bit back the sharp response she wanted to give him and shrugged. It didn't really matter what she said. Like most of the Alliance, this was only a pretty veneer on a case that had already been decided by money. "I stitched them up."
Her lawyer tried to catch her eye to prompt her to be more cooperative.
Abby scowled without meeting his glance. "The Alliance had temporarily withdrawn, I guess, because it was quiet for a few weeks. They were in bad shape, so I patched them up the best I was able with what I had."
"Did you use Alliance supplies for this?"
"There wasn't much left in the way of Alliance supplies," Abby said honestly, exactly as she'd been coached. "I had some tools with me and we made due with what there was."
"Did you try to escape?"
Escape didn't even occur to me for nearly a week, there was simply too much to do. It took nearly that long to realize that most of the general squalor was not due to the war.
If our under-supplied Alliance outpost had been poorly stocked, it was nothing compared to the shacks the Independents held. Their infirmary was a grocery store with boarded up windows. The water supply for it was a rusted hand pump in an area that must have once served as a little deli. Most of the beds were no more than rolls of blankets that smelled as if they hadn't been washed since well before the war had started. There was a leaning outhouse out back that had been hit by some debris from an aircraft that had been shot down just at the outskirts of town and littered partway down several streets. Shiny bits of curved fuselage still jutted proudly from several roofs.
The ground troops had never actually advanced this far, I realized, washing my hands at the sink and trying to visualize the few maps that I'd seen of the area. It had been under air fire, perhaps, but casual strafes, not as a concentrated target. I couldn't be surprised - it certainly didn't look like a center of an organized resistance.
Organized, it was, in a rim kind of way. The wounded got shuttled efficiently back here, the fit were
trained and briefed and deployed from this place. There were no ranks or titles. The leader was called Wang and I hadn't met him. From what I could discern of the talk, they managed to be quite the thorn in the Alliance's side. After two months of stitching up wounds for Alliance soldiers that were as often friendly fire and stupidity as anything, I wasn't that surprised.
This whole planet was supposed to be a cushy, out-of-the-way, no-contest outpost for the war, something that had infuriated me at first, because I smelled my own family money all over the posting. For a few months, the injuries I treated could only be classified as minor. Routine, even. The skirmishes were quick, the cleanup time generous, and nobody could really complained when the best of the equipment and most of the supplies were shuttled away with most of the troops to places that needed them more. I requested a transfer twice and was denied.
Then the Independents had shown what they were really made of, and it was better stuff than the Alliance had expected. In two surreal weeks, they had drawn out what remained of the outpost and slaughtered them in the trenches. The cries for reinforcement were answered with silence, and the requisition requests for supplies were summarily tangled in red tape.
The water ran out; I had stopped pumping the handle at some point. I'd never known shortage before and was ill equipped to handle it. I wasted bandages and drugs on soldiers too far gone to even appreciate it, and tried to save the wrong people. I would have given my hand for some of the ends of bottles of disinfectant I had so carelessly tossed a month earlier.
Marion was standing behind me, one eyebrow arched. "You look a mite tired, Doc," she said to me.
I had to try, not to laugh. Marion didn't crest 5 foot, and she was as pregnant as a woman could be. I had never seen her sleep, but she still managed to coordinate the entire Infirmary, and seemed to direct most of the settlement's government as well. She had every right to exhaustion, and I at least had finally claimed a full night of sleep. "How's the little one?" I asked. "Any contractions yet?"
After several weeks of intensive, on-the-job "training" in trauma surgery, the idea of delivering her child still scared me worse than the skull fractures and missing limbs that had flowed through the little converted grocery store.
She was the one who had insisted that I wasn't restrained after my first night with the Browncoats, and everyone had obediently followed suit. Though Harry and Mouse still followed me around as a dogged 'guard,' I had my knife again, and they had stopped pretending to point their guns at me.
Marion shook her head briskly. "He won't be along for a few more weeks," she said firmly, as she could make it true by willing it. I was half-convinced she could.
"You were fine," the lawyer told Abby at the recess. "The part about the pregnant woman was fantastic. They'll give you an honorable discharge and some psychiatric therapy and you'll be free to go."
"You were great, honey," Matthew told her silkily, stroking one of her arms. "Just a little bit more, and we can go home."
Home, for a brief, surreal moment, was the battered infirmary with boarded up windows where Marion was holding court over a strong pot of tea. Abby looked blankly at Matthew, trying to reconcile that with the shiny vinyl memory of his house. Even his touch felt fabricated.
I was getting used to the feeling of wood and dirt and air that wasn't recycled.
My job eased as the days past – those browncoats that would survive their wounds got up from their makeshift beds – some of them to hobble about on crutches - and those that wouldn't were buried in shallow graves in the rocky dirt. Their shepherd, a grizzled old man who doubled as the town butcher, said heartfelt words over them that bore little resemblance to the state funerals I had attended at home. I was surprised to be invited out to the ceremonies, and more surprised to catch myself blinking away tears that has little to do with the dust in the wind. No one said a word of blame if their brother or sister didn't survive their wounds, and most of them even thanked me for my efforts.
Harry and Mouse gave up on even the show of being guards, and I taught them how to dress a wound and stitch a cut in the most basic fashion. Harry showed me how to play cards and Marion showed me how to catch Harry cheating. I tried to put her on bedrest, but she only laughed at me. I pulled out splinters, and did more work on animals than on people.
Marion's labor was as painless as could be hoped for, and, for all of my anxiety, the baby was borne exactly according to the book, healthy and shrieking for his mother from the very start. It was a boy, just as Marion had been so convinced, even without the technology of an imager. She named him Andrew and refused to stay in bed for more than a day afterwards.
In the middle of the following week, all the troops in the village picked up and moved out for some offensive on the Alliance post. I didn't ask, and no one told me, but I could feel that the mood of the war had shifted. There was a feeling of unease in the air, and I suspected that the Alliance had reconsidered the threat that the Independents were on this planet.
It was only a night later, gunshots woke me, making tinny noises on the metal roofs.
“Doc Abby?” Mouse materialized at the curtain that offered me some modicum of privacy from the open Infirmary. “Harry says to come.”
There was a bunker at the perimeter of the town – nothing fancy, mostly a collection of structural trash propped up around a trench. I paused at the door before running towards it, and listened to the pattern of gunshot – two shooters in the hills, I decided, and two from the town.
“I can't work the nightscope,” Harry stage-whispered when I got there. There were a few frightened-looking villagers, including two grim-looking black women who were firing blindly into the dark hills. Marion was suspiciously absent, and I doubted she was meekly in bed. I took the gun from Harry – captured Alliance issue – and toggled the power switch. It blinked only weakly and I turned the weapon over to switch the secondary power transfer slide. The light came on, and I jammed the scope down into place and handed it back to Harry, who looked at the red light and the scope with trepidation. An enemy shot pinged somewhere close and he dropped the gun.
“Oh, for...” I picked it up, more automatically than anything, and shouldered it through the nearest gap. The nightscope illuminated the Alliance soldier that was firing down from the ridge, and I squeezed the trigger before I remembered that I was supposed to be an Alliance soldier myself.
She very carefully didn't tell them that story. She concentrated on the mundane healing she did – the birth of Andrew, and the skinned knees of the children in the settlement.
They talked about the Alliance supplies that Abby used, and about the Independent military strengths and weapons caches, and their leader – Wang.
“Did you meet Wang?”
“I was mostly in the Infirmary,” Abby said, shaking her head.
The vitals monitor at her throat was cold, and Abby resisted the urge to scratch at it. She had practiced for long hours with her lawyer to control the results that were feeding continuously to the military board, and she was confident that any flutter of her pulse would be muted in the general noise of her anxiousness at being front and center to a cold-faced Alliance tribune.
I was holding the stethoscope to Marion's chest when the raid siren sounded. “Hmm,” I tried to joke. “Your heartbeat sounds a little shrill.” Andrew fussed and took hold of my finger when I offered it. Son and mother were in perfect health – Marion was only humoring me to tolerate the inspection at all.
Harry came skidding into the Infirmary as Marion was pulling her shirt together. “Ships,” he choked. “They're coming our way. Mouse says he saw twenty of 'em break atmo just a few minutes ago.”
Another soldier that I recognized as one I'd patched up early in my stay came in. “These are the ships that mopped up Serenity Valley,” he said directly to Marion. “Finally got Shawn on the waves to confirm it.”
Without missing a button, Marion continued to reassemble herself. “We got their attention,” Marion said grimly. “Let's organize an evacuation of the village to the caves up in the hills immediately. Radio the troops to fall back to the secondary point and have Anderson change the access codes and radio channels. We'll meet the troops at the fallback point for a last stand.”
I blinked at her. “You're Wang,” I said, feeling foolish.
Marion patted my arm as if I were simple. “That's our clever doctor,” she said fondly. She hopped spryly down from the table, Andrew cradled easily in one arm.
“You should stay here,” I recovered. “The Alliance won't bomb a civilian settlement, but they'll take you out if you're bunkered with the resistance.”
Marion gave me a long look that I didn't like. “We'll tie your hands when we reach the pass and leave you there for the Alliance to pick up, Abby. You can tell them how miserable your captivity was and go back to your life.”
I froze. This was my life. There was nothing more to my life. My idyllic coreworld upbringing was some fairy tale – so distant and unreal I couldn't imagine returning to it. “I won't,” I said stubbornly. “I can't. I belong here.”
Marion sighed. “I thought you were going to say that.”
There was a shadow behind me, but I didn't turn in time, and there was a flash of pain and then darkness.
She was at gunpoint again – Alliance this time, and this time she was lying on the ground, arms restrained behind her. The demands the armored figures were making of her were completely unintelligible over the concussion sounds of the bombs that were blooming the darkening sky with roses of fire and shattered rock.
Someone helped her up, and she twisted around to watch. The entire valley was a sea of explosions, and it wasn't just the blow to her head that made her feet unsteady. She tried to pick out where the Infirmary had been, but the landmarks of the area were all different – hills leveled and new craters where fields had been. Had Marion believed her when she said the Alliance wouldn't bomb a civilian target? Had they escaped to the hills or waited in the village on the weight of her words?
Someone verified her identity over the waves – how, Abby wasn't sure, over the noise of the attack – and they cut the cords that bound her arms. She rubbed at her wrists and staggered away with them, completely bemused and dazed.
The silence was stunning when the doors to the ship slid closed behind her. The Alliance soldiers removed their helmets. “It's good to find you, Miss Baldwin,” the closest told her as he signed flimsies that were handed to him and ushered her in through the inner doors. “Your fiance will be very happy to have you home.”
'Home,' she thought. Somehow, she doubted that sterile Alliance walls could ever be a home again.