Leonard McCoy inhaled the antiseptic scent of the twentieth century hospital corridor, a blue, paper surgical mask dangled from his fingers by its thin elastic band. Dressed in hospitals scrubs, he ambled casually down the hall, trying to look like he belonged here. The doctor's worried frown belied his casual posture as he looked about for a BellComm, or the dark ages equivalent of one. Even a blackboard with Chekov's name on it would be a reassuring sight right now.
"God damned time travel," he muttered sourly. It seemed to him that they were just digging themselves in deeper and deeper. Oh sure, they knew how to find the whales now, but the woman at his side had no damn business knowing what she knew, and Chekov could be dying right this very--
A low moan pierced his preoccupation, and he paused, glancing into a room where the door was ajar. The patient looked to be in her early twenties, her pallor and expression more heartrending than any diagnosis. McCoy had been a physician long enough to recognize a terminal patient, and this poor child was terminal.
"Do you have my shot?" the girl whispered weakly.
"Right here, honey," a sympathetic feminine voice murmured. There was a rustle of covers, then a silent pause. The nurse straightened up, and replaced the cap of an old-fashioned hypodermic needle. "There, that should help. I wish I could do more."
"There's nothing more to do," the young girl replied gently.
McCoy froze, all color draining from his face.
"Sweet Jesus!" Nurse Carter breathed, nearly colliding with McCoy as he stalled in the doorway to Main Engineering. McCoy felt the hackles on the back of his neck rise as he gaped in horror at the carnage. "Dear God, there's pieces..."
"Go get Paul," McCoy interrupted through gritted teeth. "Have him scrounge together some crewmen from security to help us dig through the rubble in here. You can help us best by setting up triage in Sickbay.
"I...I would rather stay here with--"
"Don't argue with me, damn it!" McCoy snapped. "That's an order."
McCoy whirled to face his chief nurse. She was a baby, really. Twenty-two years old, too young to have to look at something like this. His expression softened and his voice dropped to a harsh paternal whisper. "Go on, Annabelle. And tell the captain..." he glanced back at what remained of Engineering and winced. "Tell him it looks bad."
Carter gulped and nodded.
Picking his way through the debris-strewn deck, McCoy made his way to the first body. Dead. The next was dead too. So was the next. Not really enough left of that poor devil to call it a body. As McCoy turned him over, the sickening smell of melted plastic and burned flesh merged together to create a new, God awful stench, and McCoy made a conscious effort to breath through his mouth. Poised on his haunches beside the shrapnel riddled corpse, the physician let his eyes travel about the room, looking for some sign of life.
There! To his far left, and half buried beneath an upturned chair, a woman's chest was rising and falling!
McCoy scrambled over the now twisted rail to the upper level of the impulse deck, and tossed the heavy chair aside. He hadn't been aboard the Pegasus long enough to know more than a handful of the crew by name, and this ensign was no exception, but like Carter, she was young. McCoy winced empathetically as she writhed beneath his feather-light touch.
"Hold still, darlin'," McCoy drawled gently as he pulled her legs free from the console. "You've got coolant burns, and a couple of broken ribs. We'll get you to Sickbay in just a few minutes."
"Hurts to breath," the ensign whispered in a harsh rasp.
McCoy nodded, carefully brushing the charred ends of her hair back from her temple to get a better look at the laceration on her forehead. "That's the ribs."
He pulled a hypo from his emergency kit and pressed it against her arm with a faint hiss of sound. The ensign's eyes fluttered open and McCoy looked into soft brown eyes, lashless now, as even her eyebrows had been singed in the explosion. "You're the new doctor, aren't you?"
"Leonard McCoy," he supplied, waving to the security team who had just entered the room with an antigrav stretcher.
"How did you find me in the dark, sir?"
McCoy's stomach muscles tightened as he took a good look at the ensign's eyes and realized that they were staring sightlessly. She couldn't see.
"What's your name, darlin'?" he asked gently as the security team made their way toward them.
"Ensign Wentworth," she croaked.
"Your name, child. What does your mamma call you?"
Wentworth smiled. "Gin...short for Virginia."
McCoy nodded, taking her hand and enclosing it between his own. "I found you, Gin, because it isn't dark."
"But..." Realization struck and Wentworth swallowed hard. "Oh."
"It could only be temporary," McCoy assured. "We'll know better once we get you to Sickbay. They're here to take you now. I'll be along once I've seen to some of the others."
"How many...how many made it, sir?"
McCoy looked helplessly about him and
shook his head. "Not many."
Captain Wyndham finally made his way to the makeshift sickbay ward of the Pegasus six hours later. "Len, we've got to talk."
McCoy looked up sharply. Keith Wyndham was one of the most easygoing men Leonard McCoy had ever known. He could lose six months pay in a poker game and not even break into a sweat. The tone he had just used sent a chill along McCoy's spine.
When they were alone in the cramped closet that served as McCoy's office, Wyndham leaned wearily against the physician's desk and sighed. "How bad is it?"
"Thirty-six dead, eight that ought to be by all rights and twenty more in pretty rough shape. Everyone who was on that level when the explosion occurred has developed respiratory complications--"
"Yep, and I'm treating everyone with hyronalin too. I've been getting some pretty high radiation readings on some of the survivors."
Wyndham sighed. "I know. It had to be sabotage, Len. The blast originated in the lithium crystal assembly. Even you know there's nothing in the crystal assembly to cause an explosion of that magnitude."
"If it had been in the intermix chamber, we wouldn't be standin' here doin' a post mortem on it, that's for sure," McCoy agreed. "Now that we know how, do you have any ideas on who or why?"
"Who's easy. The Orions."
"Orions." McCoy rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, they certainly have an axe to grind with the Federation for cutting into their slave trade, but why the Pegasus? Hell, Keith, we're a research vessel!"
Wyndham averted his gaze and cleared his throat. "Well, officially, yes. The Pegasus is researching the Orion Nebula..."
"I hear a but comin' on," McCoy prompted, bouncing impatiently on his toes as Wyndham refused to meet his gaze.
"Of course, the sensors on a Hermes class vessel are the most advanced in the Federation," McCoy continued slowly. "And although ostensibly those sensors are to be used for research, the temptation to use them for espionage would be mighty strong."
"Agreed," Wyndham said softly. It was an admission.
"Did you just raise my security clearance, Keith?"
The captain finally looked up, grinning sheepishly. "If they want to court-martial me, they'll have to find me first."
"And I assume from the way you said that, it's gonna take some time?"
Wyndham nodded. "The Farragut is at Rigel. That's a week for the message, and two in transit."
"Three weeks?" McCoy sounded surprised.
"We're seven hundred and fifty light-years from Earth, Len. I know this is your first deep-space assignment, but--"
McCoy's intercom whistled and Wyndham leaned over and flicked the switch. "What's the verdict, Paul?"
The exec's voice was laced with fatigue as it crackled over the intercom. "We have temporary impulse power, Captain, and I've plotted a course to Eta Orionis Fourteen."
"Good work, Mister McGriff." Wyndham relaxed visibly. "E.T.A.?"
"Six hours, sir."
"Best speed, Wyndham out."
McCoy arched a brow. "Eta Orionis Fourteen? Never heard of it."
"I'm not surprised. Most people haven't. It's a hot little class-M planet, apparently seeded by the Preservers. Nothing fancy, I believe it scores an F+ rating on the Richter scale of cultures."
McCoy frowned. "Positively medieval."
Wyndham smiled. "Reminiscent of the late twentieth century on Earth. Thank God you're a better doctor than historian, Len. We're going to evacuate."
"Those are pretty primitive conditions," McCoy argued. "I'd rather treat the crew here on the Pegasus. It may not be perfect, but it's better than--"
"Staying aboard the Pegasus isn't an option. We can't contain the radiation leak in Engineering, and the readings you've been getting down here are nothing compared to what you're going to see if we stay."
"No choice then, huh?"
Wyndham sighed. "Not if we want to survive."
McCoy nodded his head. "Then we'll prepare for evacuation."
Two weeks and five days later, Leonard McCoy slipped out of his shoes and socks and dug tired toes into the still-hot sand of Jamaka beach. He watched through his tears as Eta Orionis was partially eclipsed by one of her companion stars just inches above the horizon. Standing with his back squarely set against the mirrored scales of Jamaka's largest medical research facility, McCoy let the tears stream unchecked down his face.
He'd lost weight. The circles beneath his eyes had deepened to gray smudges because he'd missed so much sleep, but in the end it had made no damn difference. This morning the Pegasus death count had reached fifty-two. Now, as the suns set on this steamy little world, it was sixty.
McCoy's spine stiffened as Annabelle Carter's voice startled him out of his trance. "Sorry," McCoy sighed, wiping his tears with the back of his hand. "I don't know what got into me."
Carter's eyes traveled briefly over the tide-washed beach, her gaze coming to rest on a man who had snapped at her, yelled at her, and screamed at her incalculable times since their arrival on Eta Orionis. She had taken the verbal abuse calmly, ignored his fits of temper, accepted his lame apologies with dignity and grace, and had remained by his side in excess of sixteen hours a day without a word of complaint. "It's not your fault," she said simply.
McCoy turned to face her. She too, had lost weight. The winged-horse emblem on her surgical coverall was splattered with dried blood. A stray tendril of her long, copper colored hair wafted by the evening breeze, and she tucked it impatiently behind her ear when McCoy made no response.
"There was nothing more you could do," she insisted in a voice that wavered as she fought to control it. "What you've done--"
"I've done nothing," he interrupted in a tired, defeated tone. His gaze lifted to the research facility and his expression hardened. "They've got a lot of nerve calling that...hell hole a hospital. And I...." His voice broke. "I've got a lot of nerve calling myself a surgeon."
Carter's chin lifted, her dark eyes snapping with sudden anger. "Why, because you're not an expert in surgery so primitive, you studied it in a course labeled as 'The History Of Medicine?'"
"I'm a doctor, I'm supposed to save lives!"
"And you have!" Carter countered, her exhaustion and frustration making her bold enough to raise her voice to a superior officer.
"Not enough, damn it!" McCoy snapped. "Those people were my responsibility. I didn't even have to cure them, I just had to keep them alive until the Farragut arrives. I can't even do that!"
"You can't repair massive internal injuries without the right equipment. You can't treat radiation sickness without hyronalin. You can't--"
"Make a God damned difference!" McCoy shouted. "No God damned difference at all!"
There was a sudden hushed silence broken only by the sound of the surf as it lapped against the golden sand. Carter opened her mouth to speak, closed it, and then opened it again. "If by not making a difference, you mean not being able to save every life entrusted to you, not being able to cure every illness, then I guess you're right. But that isn't why I became a nurse, and I don't think that's why you became a doctor."
McCoy rubbed his fingers against the bridge of his nose, shaking his head.
"The difference," Carter continued in a softer tone, "is what you can do for them before they die. And you've made that difference."
"I don't know," McCoy sighed, his posture sagging with exhaustion. "I just don't know.
"Ensign Wentworth," Carter began and McCoy stiffened as if expecting a blow.
"No. But it won't be long. That's why I came. She's been asking for you."
McCoy nodded. "I got so tied up with that surgery..."
"You'd better hurry."
McCoy wrinkled his nose against the antiseptic scent as he strode down the brightly lit hospital corridor. There were other odors beneath that scent, unpleasant odors he didn't want to think about right now, but he had no choice. There was no way to package death in an attractive way, just as there was no way to completely hide the smells of the sick and injured in this corridor.
McCoy's steps slowed as he neared Wentworth's room. He didn't want to go in there, not tonight. But tomorrow would be too late. He stopped, his eyes widening in sudden realization. He wasn't afraid of Wentworth. He was afraid of losing Wentworth.
"Coward," he accused himself in a disgusted half whisper. "'Fraid of a poor dyin' child."
Angry with himself, he forced his feet to carry him into the darkening room. He palmed the light switch, focusing on her still white form, relaxing only after he had reassured himself by the rising and falling of her chest.
"Doctor McCoy?" Her voice was a harsh rasp.
"I heard you were askin' for me."
Wentworth bit her lip. "Nurse Carter told me about Michael. I'm sorry."
"He was a good kid," McCoy said, trying to keep from choking on the words. "They were all good kids."
"I've been thinking," Wentworth said, taking a shallow breath as he moved to her side. "My mom's gonna take this pretty hard." She coughed weakly and smiled. "She never approved of me wanting to be an engineer anyway. Said I would go off into space and get myself killed."
"Gin," McCoy sank into the chair by the bed, reaching out to take the ensign's hand. His whispered voice was a plea for her to stop taking it so calmly. He couldn't stand that, not tonight.
Wentworth clasped his hand in both of her own and smiled again. "Well, I was just wondering if you could tell her for me. I know it's a lot to ask, and that it's really the captain's job, but..."
McCoy could not control the sob that rose in his throat. Wentworth had to have heard it, but she merely tightened her hold on his hand and continued.
"But you were so nice to me the day of the explosion. Like I said, I've just been laying here thinking, and I kept remembering how gently you told me about my eyes. Anyway, I figured if Mom has to hear the news, she ought to hear it from someone who can break it to her gently."
McCoy was now crying again. He leaned over the pale form and swallowed the lump in his throat. When he spoke, his voice was a thick whisper. "If you think it'll make a difference, Darlin'. Do you have her code?"
Wentworth nodded. "It's on the table. I had nurse Carter write it down for me earlier." She shifted slightly and grimaced. "Could you call for my shot? I wouldn't let them give it to me because I didn't want to fall asleep until you came."
"Sure," McCoy breathed, disengaging one hand to call for the pain medicine. He waited until the nurse brought it, administered it himself and then dismissed the nurse with a curt nod.
"You don't have to stay," Wentworth said slowly, her speech already slightly slurring. McCoy had ordered a strong pain killer, one of the few supplies this culture could offer in abundance.
"I'll stay until you fall asleep," he insisted, clasping her hand.
Wentworth smiled. "Thanks."
"I wish I could do more."
"There's nothing more to do," Wentworth assured serenely as her fingers relaxed in his.
One hour and fifteen minutes later, McCoy watched Ensign Virginia Wentworth die peacefully in her sleep. He released her hand, straightened the covers, and dropped a kiss on her forehead. "Goodbye, Gin," he whispered hoarsely.
He rose, took the bit of paper from the bedside table and tucked it into the breast pocket of his scrubs. Without a backward glance, he left the small room and walked into the hall.
"Excuse me, but are you Doctor McCoy?"
McCoy lifted his gaze to meet the hazel eyes of an energetic looking young man who was wearing a Starfleet uniform. "Yes."
The young man held out his hand. "My name's Kirk, Lieutenant Kirk, Assistant Security Chief of the Farragut. We just arrived. What can I do?"
"Just get us out of here," McCoy responded quickly as he shook the young lieutenant's hand.
"Our sickbay is standing by," Kirk said. "Sorry we couldn't have made it here sooner."
"Might have made a difference," McCoy agreed. "But that's life."
Kirk nodded solemnly.
McCoy returned to the present, if three hundred years before he was born could be termed the present, and moved away from the open doorway. That long ago mission, his first in Starfleet, had taught him a lot about accepting the unacceptable. His friendship with Jim Kirk had taught him more about fighting the odds. Sometimes it was best to bow to the inevitable, but this... He looked down the corridor and caught a glance of Kirk's determined profile...this wasn't one of those times. There was too much at stake.
McCoy's anxiety for his injured crewmate suddenly settled into a fierce pride. Chekov had put his life on the line to make a difference. They had all launched into this half-cocked, wild-hair plan with less thought about their personal safety than the safety of those lives which hung in the balance.
Hell, that's what being in Starfleet was all about. He, Jim, and now Gillian, would just keep on doing what they had always done, the only thing anyone could do. They would try to make a difference.
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