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The Empty Horizon

By Featherwench

 

"…Okay, sound off. Who's not dead?" Jedar managed to keep the slight wobble out of his voice, but it was an effort.

"I'm debating that last part."

"What's wrong, Cutter?" Jedar couldn't tear his eyes away from the hunter drone staring him down, laser-cannon aimed straight at his forehead … and not moving.

"Think I cracked a rib, maybe." The hacker's voice was breathless, tight with pain.

Jedar winced, still eyeing the menacing red robot. "Marshall? Sierra, Ranger?"

"Aye, lad."

"Still sucking down air." Ranger sounded rather subdued for once.

"I'm fine." Sierra's voice was shaken. "What in the universe happened?"

Jedar hesitated for an instant, then drew his energy saber, lunged forward along the inside of the drone's outstretched arm, and flicked his wrist, neatly slicing the drone's head from its shoulders.

The robot never moved once.

What in the hell?

"It's like it got a hard reboot," Cutter said, puzzled in spite of the pain he was in. "It stopped processing orders."

Jedar turned to survey the damages. The hunter drone had surprised them, and its first shot had crumbled the nearby stone wall, pinning Cutter beneath an edge. The other three had been luckier, through there was a nasty gash along the back of Ranger's left hand, and Sierra looked like she was limping.

"Can we dig him out?" Sierra asked. "I'd rather not move him until I know we're not going to break anything else."

" 'Preciate that," Cutter managed dryly.

"Marshall?" Jedar tapped the older drake on the shoulder gently; he seemed to be covered in dust, but otherwise unhurt. "What is it?"

The older drake was staring at some point on the horizon, intent, and Jedar had to grab his shoulder and shake it before Marshall blinked and turned to face him. "Marshall. You okay?"

"Cutter has the right of it, I believe," the silver feathered drake finally said, his Lyrian accent mangling the words with a slight burr. "What d'ye see, lad?"

Jedar glanced back at Cutter, irritated, then swallowed the snappish answer that rose to mind. "See? I'm sorry, what am I looking for?"

"The Master Tower," Marshall said calmly. "I don't see it, d'you?"

Ice shot down Jedar’s spine, and he swallowed, eyes scanning the horizon frantically.

"Tis there." Marshall turned him slightly. "See that cloud? Not an explosion, to my way of thinking. It looks more like exhaust. Do ye see it?"

"Bloody hell," Jedar whispered. "It took off? Why? Why would the Saurians come here, raze our cities to ashes, and just leave?"

Marshall shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine, Jedar."

"You old men wanna stop stargazing and lend a hand?" Ranger called.

Marshall turned to walk back to where Cutter lay, and Jedar eyed the horizon one last time before following him. "How is he?"

"Still very much awake, Stormwing, so I'd appreciate it if you didn't discuss me in the third person. When I'm dead, I'll let you know." Cutter still sounded pained, but he managed a tight grin. "What was that you were saying about the Master Tower?"

"Work," Sierra said curtly. "Work and talk. We don't want to stick around here."

The two drakes began moving the last few chunks of wall off of the hacker. The wall had crumbled into small enough pieces that it hadn't simply crushed the hacker when it fell, and Jedar sighed in relief. "It's a shame, Andrews, but I think you just might make it after all."

Cutter snorted, amused, then hissed in pain. "…No laughing, please."

"Sorry."

"What was that about the Master Tower?" Cutter repeated, and Marshall tossed the last chunk of crumbling brick and mortar aside.

"Tis gone, lad. Looks like it flew away."

"Gone?" Ranger sounded disbelieving. "The hell it is."

Sierra glanced at him, then began gently moving her hands down Cutter's chest. "…I'm going to need an x-ray before I want you moving around. Guys, anything we can use as a stretcher?"

"Oh no. No stretcher. I am not getting carried back to the Lair," the hacker snapped, but his voice was a bit fainter than it had been when he'd last spoke.

"Cutter, shut up and let the nice doctor take care of you," Ranger said cheerfully. "Damn. The thing's gone, all right," he added, peering off into the distance. "You sure it didn't just explode?"

"Much as I'd like to believe such a thing, no. The cloud shape would be different, y'see?" Marshall nodded towards the empty horizon. "There's the color, too. Exhaust from a ship's engines is white; an explosion would have black, heavy smoke."

"That would explain the drone, then," Cutter said quietly, flinching as Sierra's fingers tested his ribs. "As far as I've heard, the Saurians only had the one Master Tower, and it broadcast instructions to the rest of the control towers. That's why it didn't shoot us. Orders from above suddenly stopped, and it's got no autonomous functions."

Jedar considered the information. "…That's a really stupid way to run a war."

"No one said the Saurians were smart," Ranger pointed out dryly. "Just really well funded."

"Guess so." Sierra sounded absent, brushing herself off as she stood. "I'd really be happier if we carried him back. I think he's just got a few cracked ribs, but until I know for sure, he could really end up hurting himself just walking back."

Ranger sighed. "Babe, I don't think we're gonna find much of anything that'll serve as a stretcher." The con artist peeled off his jacket, winced, then began taking his shirt off.

"Ranger, put it back on." Sierra sounded mildly amused, and the blue-haired drake leered at her teasingly before pulling a long navaha switchblade from his jeans pocket and flicking it open.

"Bandages." The con artist began slicing his shirt into neat strips, nodding towards the young doctor. "Or did you think I didn't notice that ankle, Doc?"

Sierra rewarded him with a slight smile. "Your hand, too."

"Hey, can someone grab the drone's head?" Cutter asked. "I can probably run a diagnostic on it, figure out exactly what happened."

"No." Marshall's voice was firm. "Absolutely not."

"We need to know what's going on," the hacker insisted. "The more information we have, the better — "

"No," Marshall repeated. "Ye'll not be bringing that thing back to the Lair. We've no guarantee that the Master Tower is gone for good, and no way to be telling if the machine's got some tracking device planted in it. We canna bring it back, d'ye understand?"

"But — "

"Cutter, he's got a point," Jedar interrupted hastily, heading off the argument before it could start. "So do you. We should gather as much information as we can, but we can't risk trouble on our own doorstep. If you need data once you're back on your feet, I'll gladly help you find it, okay?"

The hacker subsided, and Ranger put his blade away, shrugging his jacket back on and handing the shredded green fabric to Sierra. "So what, now that the main ship's gone, are the Saurians just gonna pack in it, you think?"

"I don't know," Marshall said grimly. "But the mere absence of the Master Tower might be enough to tip things in Puckworld's favor. Tis going to be messy though, no doubt."

"How so?" Sierra tugged her left boot off and gave a soft grunt of pain, and Ranger jerked his own bandage tight, kneeling where she sat.

"Lemme wrap it, babe."

"I'm fine."

"C'mon, you can order me around, tell me what to do," the con artist kidded, gently prying the strips of cloth from her fingers. "What'd you do, sprain it?"

"Feels like it." Sierra wiggled her toes and yelped. "… Bad sprain, yeah."

Jedar exchanged looks with Marshall. The Lair was easily several kilometers from where they'd been headed, and walking back was going to be ugly with two people who shouldn't be walking anywhere at the moment.

"Lass, why don't you and Ranger wait here with Cutter?" Marshall suggested quietly. "The convoy we were going to hit isn't far from here, and we can drive back in one of the vehicles. Tis going to be the best solution for Cutter, I think."

"Will people please stop talking about me like I'm dead?" the hacker said, irritated. "Hey — Jedar. Take my key slicer, you'll want it if you're gonna get one of those six wheeled hulks moving again."

Jedar nodded. "Which pouch?"

"Left side." Cutter started to reach for it, then clearly thought the better of it, the pain starting to take its toll on him.

Jedar crouched next to him, eyeing his friend. "Seriously, how bad?" he said quietly.

"I'll live, but I won't enjoy the experience," Cutter replied, managing a grin that looked more like a wince. "My old friend is just going to have to wait on me hand and foot for a few weeks, I suspect."

"Since when did you have any friends?" Jedar grinned at him as he fished through Cutter's belt pouches. "Ah — this one?"

"That'd be the one. Slap it over the retina scanner and it'll do the rest. Just don't lose that, it's expensive, and I'm not likely to lay hands on another any time soon."

"Fair enough." Jedar pocketed the small electronic lockpick, and stood. "Marshall?"

"Aye, let's be off then." The older drake gave Ranger a concerned look, the other drake still wrapping Sierra's ankle, then sighed. "Let's hurry. If the Saurians’ command structure is truly gone, then the streets are going to get rather dangerous for a while."

"You think so?" Jedar asked, following Marshall down the bombed out street full of crumbling buildings. "Anything's better than a Puckworld with a Master Tower still on it."

"Agreed, lad. But why did it leave, and when might it return?" Marshall said soberly. "To my understanding, the capital was razed in the initial strafing runs of the planet. I'm sure there are some vestiges of the planetary governor and his officials left, but enough to resume command? I don't know."

"You're talking anarchy."

"For a while, certainly. Rebuilding our cities and the government isn't going t'be a simple thing, I fear." The older thief stopped suddenly and yanked on Jedar's arm, spinning them both behind the sheltering wall of a burned out building. "There's another one, lad."

"Drone?"

"Aye. Shooting it is a bit louder than I'd like t'be."

Jedar nodded, and quietly thumbed his saber to life. "It should be inert, like the last one, but you're right, I'd rather make sure it's not going to bother us again than leave it up to fate."

Marshall peered out from the corner quickly, then signaled an all clear, and Jedar slunk forward, hugging the crumbling wall next to him. The drone had its back to him, frozen in place, and Jedar actually dared to rap on the droid's carapace softly, saber held ready.

Nothing.

The thief sighed in relief, and neatly sliced the hunter drone in half.

"Are ye mad?"

"Had to see if it really was inert, right?" Jedar grinned, and Marshall gently smacked the back of his head as he caught up to the younger thief.

"Aye, but t'was damn foolish of ye. Try not to give me a heart attack, would ye?"

"A little jolt to the heart now and then's good for you," Jedar said cheerfully.

"I get quite enough of that from all of ye as it is," Marshall replied dryly. "The convoy that Cutter sliced the location of should be two more blocks down, assuming it's on schedule."

"That close?"

"We were delayed a bit, lad," Marshall reminded him, and Jedar winced.

"Yeah … been a banner couple of months, hasn't it?"

"Better a few bad months than to be occupied for years by the Saurians," Marshall said.

"Is it? Seems to be little difference to me." Jedar replied, a note of bitterness creeping into his usually cheerful voice. "They had more than enough firepower to raze the capital and take over the major cities. We're lucky Keltor isn't a smoking crater."

"It'll be a bit different from now on, aye, but things will be rebuilt, lad. You'd be surprised how quickly civilization starts to come back when it's not actively being ground beneath someone's boot."

"Wish we all shared that optimism," Jedar said quietly, picking his way over a toppled streetlamp. The iron pole had been snapped neatly at the base, and the shattered solar crystal at the top guttered with a faint light, still trying to light a sky that was thick with dust and dimming summer light. "Things have been getting bad, Marshall. In the Lair, I mean. Nobody's been handling the stress that well, especially the younger members."

"War changes things," the older drake replied, his richly accented voice oddly reassuring; almost fatherly. "We rebuilt before, you know. It's been a while since DuCaine's time, but we'll rebuild again."

"Wait, there it is." Jedar stopped suddenly, sidling back into the shadows of the nearby building, and Marshall followed suit. "See it?"

"Aye. T'would seem to be having some of the same problems our drone friends have been having."

"I'm counting two guards? Three vehicles?"

"Correct. They don't want to move forward without the protection of their drones," Marshall said, his eyes intent on the convoy.

"That's the least of their worries," Jedar replied grimly, unsnapping his shoulder holster. "Drop 'em from here?"

"Aye. Tis a shame not to have Zakiya along for this."

Jedar chuckled humorlessly. "A sniper's overkill. These two'll go down easily enough."

"Call it, lad."

"In three … two … one…"

Both thieves fired. The nearest guard dropped, clutching a shoulder, and Jedar swore softly, firing again. This time the shot hit center mass, and Jedar's guard crumpled to the pavement to join the other one.

"Not in a mood to show mercy today, eh?"

"Not to Saurians," Jedar said shortly. "Nice shot, by the way."

"Have to remind you young folk why you keep me around every now and then," Marshall chuckled, and the two continued through the shadows of the building towards the trucks. The dozen or so drones went down without so much as twitching in self-defense, and Jedar cracked the back of the first truck.

"I've got food and supplies in mine," he called. "No ammo, but some stuff we can use. You?"

Marshall didn't reply, and Jedar's stomach knotted. He bolted around the second truck and skidded to a halt at the sight that met him.

The older, silver feathered drake was simply standing there, the iron door to the second supply truck swung wide.

And ducks were slowly shuffling out of it, hollow eyed and gaunt.

"…DuCaine," Jedar finally managed, his mind fumbling to manage more than an oath at the moment.

"Evidently not just a supply convoy," Marshall said, moving to help one elderly looking duck down from the truck. "Gently, ma'am, there ye are."

"Marshall…"

The older drake ignored him. "Is this all of ye?"

The prisoners simply huddled by the truck as they disembarked, staring at the two drakes, and Jedar felt a momentary twinge of guilt for the clean, decent clothes he was wearing and the meal he'd had two hours ago.

"Check the third truck, would ye, lad?"

The request didn't sound like a request, and Jedar nodded numbly, walking around to the last truck in line and popping the door.

Mercifully, no more half-starving prisoners met his eyes, just crates of supplies, ammo, and some food.

"It's clear," Jedar called.

"Stay with that one if ye would, then."

Jedar frowned, but swung the door shut again and secured it, then went to stand by the third truck's cab, eyeing the prisoners warily. Marshall was talking to them in a low voice, and he couldn't make out the words, but several of the older prisoners were nodding, and two of the ones that looked like they might have been Jedar's age trotted off towards the downed guards and began stripping them of their weapons and clothing.

Marshall finally patted one of the larger drakes among the group on the back and left, coming to stand next to Jedar.

"You didn't," Jedar said, resigned to what he was about to hear.

"They need it as much as we do. More, by the look of them," Marshall said mildly. "The third truck is ours, and we'll take whatever they can't carry with them, since they've no way to drive a convoy rig out of here."

"I'd argue with you, but I'm actually feeling rather fortunate at the moment," Jedar said softly, watching as the former prisoners swarmed over the first truck, suddenly fueled by hope. "Did you tell them about the Master Tower?"

"No." There was a note of regret in Marshall's voice. "It wouldn't have helped them, lad."

"To know that they're free now?"

"To know that they no longer have a common enemy to be wary of. There's no clear leader among them, and it'd be every duck for themselves if they knew they had nothing to fear but each other," the older thief said, leaning against the truck cab to watch. "Besides which, we can't be sure the Saurians are truly gone yet. We're still going to have hell's own laundry list trying to clean the last trace of them off our planet, Master Tower on the horizon or no."

"You've got a knack for organizing people."

"Most that've spent time serving in the military do, I find," Marshall said, amused. "I told them where the local resistance was hiding out. They should do all right, should they make it there."

"Not going to escort them personally?" Jedar grinned at the sour look his joke earned.

"I'm not going soft, lad. We've got our own people to worry about first. But I'm not going to be a right bastard to those who've already suffered enough."

"I'm starting to see where Duke got his idealism from," Jedar said dryly.

The two thieves waited for the last of the prisoners to vanish into the late, dusky afternoon, trudging towards the city's outskirts, and Marshall nodded. "Check the second truck for anything useful, and then help me move supplies to the third truck, lad. I'd like to be back before the sun sets."

Jedar nodded, his hand automatically moving to cover his bill in an attempt to block his nostrils. The stench wafting from the second truck made it clear the prisoners had been on the road for some time without stopping to let them out, and there were several limp, motionless bodies scattered about the truck's floor.

Jedar swallowed, the sight burning into his brain for an awful moment before he looked away.

And then he heard a weak cough, and his head snapped back around.

The cough came again, and his eyes searched the limp bodies, looking for movement.

There. That second one in.

Jedar grimaced, sucked in a full breath, and uncovered his bill, hauling himself up into the truck. The smell about knocked him over, and he gagged, grabbing a handful of the duck's clothes and dragging them towards the opening. He hopped down front the meter high truck bed and pulled the coughing duck the rest of the way out, gently setting him down in the dusty road. "Marshall? Got any water in there?"

After a moment, the older drake came around with another crate for the truck he was reloading, and hastily set the load down at the sight of the new prisoner. "One was still alive then?"

"Barely." Jedar studied the thin, scrawny drake. He looked like he couldn't possibly be a day out of high school, with matted, sweat soaked red hair and pale cream feathers, and his chest moved shallowly in between weak coughs. "You got any water?"

"No," Marshall said. "They weren't carrying any, I'm afraid."

Jedar gingerly laid a hand on the young drake's forehead. "He's really hot, Marshall."

"Aye. Likely the others knew it, and left him behind anyway," the older thief said, and Jedar sat back on his heels, still studying the kid.

"We can't just leave him to die here," Jedar finally said, wincing as he said it. "I know it's a breach of the laws, and I know I'm going to catch hell for it, but can't we at least try to save him? He's in no shape to see where he's headed, and we could keep him under close guard so he doesn't see too much."

Marshall was silent for a full minute, then chuckled softly. "I suppose so."

"What's so funny?"

"Well now, ye saved me from having to convince ye myself," Marshall said innocently. "Duke was about this age when I met him. Many o' ye were, in fact. I can't let this one go, either."

Jedar snorted, then cringed at the foul air and clamped a hand back over his bill.

Damn you, Marshall.

"Get him secured in the back and help me move the rest of these crates," Marshall said cheerfully. "Sierra will no doubt know how to fix him up."

 

###

 

"Is this the last bus?" Ranger drawled sarcastically as Jedar hopped out of the transport. "Why yes, I do believe it is."

Jedar grinned tiredly. "Sorry for the wait. Commuting is hell these days."

"So I've heard," the con artist replied. "Where do you want Cutter moved? Back of the truck?"

"Actually, I need Sierra to look at a patient in the back," Jedar said apologetically. "Cutter! Think you can sit up okay?"

The hacker moved his head slightly to look at him, but didn't wave. "I'm gonna be one big bruise tomorrow anyway, a few more won't hurt."

"Speaking as the one who's got to patch you up, I beg to differ," Sierra said, but she shrugged and started towards the truck, limping badly. Ranger made an irritated sound and scooped her up in his arms amid protests from the doctor.

"Consider it self-interest, doc, if you bite the dust we're all screwed. Unless somebody knows where Tarrin is."

"No," Jedar said heavily. "No one's seen him in two months."

"Well, then." Ranger adjusted his hold on Sierra. "Guess you're stuck with me until we get you some crutches."

Sierra gave an irritated sigh. "I swear you planned this."

"That's a little too much credit, even for me," Ranger said mockingly. "Like I said, think of it as informed self-interest if it bothers you."

"It doesn't."

"Well, in that case, put your arms around my neck…" Ranger's voice faded as he carried her towards the truck, mercifully blotting out the doctor's reply.

Cutter sighed. "This is going to suck."

"Hmmm?"

"Standing up." The hacker started to move gingerly, and Jedar helped his friend stand slowly, pausing several times as Cutter's hands clenched with pain, fingers digging into Jedar's arm.

"Take it easy, we're in no hurry."

"The hell we aren't," Cutter managed. "I'd kinda like some painkillers right about now."

"I'm sorry." Jedar said, supporting the other drake as he started walking towards the transport. "I should have seen the drone. I had point, and I walked into the damn thing."

"Don't sweat it," Cutter said, his voice a mumble. "We lived through it. I don't care about the details."

"You're a better friend than I deserve," Jedar said softly, and Cutter grinned.

"Been telling you that for years, Stormwing."

"Yeah, yeah…" Jedar gently laid a hand on his back, trying to compensate for any shakiness on Cutter's part as he climbed into the truck.

"Are ye secure back there?" Marshall called, and Ranger answered him, his tone less than enthusiastic.

"Yeah, but you neglected to mention how bad the patient smells. Ow!"

"Get going, please, I need to get this guy some antibiotics like, now," Sierra's voice called back, and Cutter managed a smile.

"I think she fancies the drake."

Marshall chuckled, and Jedar slammed his door, then gave Cutter a puzzled look. "Who?"

"Ranger," the hacker said, amused. "It's obvious."

"Really?" Jedar settled back in the uncomfortable, military grade seat. "I don't think he's her type."

"Oh, I think you'd be surprised."

"I just don't see it."

"Always said you had no imagination, Stormwing," the hacker said, forcing a note of cheer into his voice, and Jedar grinned.

"Just keep insulting me, Andrews. I might think you'd died on me otherwise."

Cutter chuckled, then winced. "No laughing, seriously. Marshall, you're not going to drive this rig clear back to the Lair, are you?"

"Aye, lad, I was planning on driving right down the stairs to A level," Marshall said dryly. "I think we'll park about a block away and post a guard to make sure the truck doesn't walk off in our absence. Can ye make it that far?"

"Yeah, no sweat."

Jedar eyed him. "Cutter — "

"I'm fine. Not the worst I've been hurt. What was that they used to say in the military? Walk it off?"

"Makes me glad I never joined," Jedar said.

 

###

 

Jedar pressed the buzzer wearily, and there was a momentary silence before the rusty intercom spoke.

"Welcome back." A slightly accented female voice issued from the speaker. "You're later than we expected."

"Kalani, we need a couple pairs of hands, now. We've got four injured."

"Understood." The speaker cut off abruptly, and the door slid silently open.

Jedar shifted his arm around Sierra, letting her take the weight off her injured ankle, and stepped inside, followed by Ranger with the skinny young drake in his arms, and Cutter walking stiffly, both arms wrapped around his ribs as if he might shatter.

The door slid shut behind them, and Sierra winced. "This is going to be hell, treating this many people when I can't put any weight on this ankle…"

"Sorry, Doc," Jedar said. "We'll get you whatever help you need, and you can just bark orders."

Sierra managed a tired smile. "I think I'll start the IV on the kid myself, thanks. But yes, help is something I won't turn down at the moment. Ranger and I can wait, but Cutter and the new guy need examined."

"I can wait, period, babe," Ranger interjected. "You can stitch me up once you've taken care of that ankle. Where'd you find the kid, anyway?"

Jedar was spared answering by the sound of several people hurrying up the long entranceway.

"Hey!" Nylessa was first to reach them, and took the five of them in at a glance. "Oh my god, what happened? Never mind, tell me later."

Kalani, Milantha, and Iliana were just behind, and Milantha gasped at the sight of the young drake.

"Do you know him?" Iliana asked quietly, moving to support Sierra's other shoulder and letting the doctor completely take the weight off of her ankle.

"No, but … he's so thin, poor thing," Milantha said. "Is he going to be okay?"

"I think I can get him on his feet again," Sierra said wearily. "Just help me downstairs, please."

Jedar gave Iliana a look, and scooped the doctor up gently. "Going to be far easier to carry you down them, I fear, so bear with me, Doc. Kalani, since Cutter obviously trusts you with his equipment, can you keep an eye on the door and letting people in and out? We've got a whole supply truck worth of spoils, and Marshall's guarding it at the moment."

The petite, black haired duck glanced at Cutter for a moment and nodded. "Certainly." She turned quickly and clattered back down the stairs.

"Sierra, who's going to be of the most help in the infirmary?" Jedar continued towards the stairs, the others following.

"Milantha has smaller hands, and she's helped me before. You or Ranger, in case I need brute strength for anything."

"If we've got supplies to move, do you want me to round up some hands to move 'em?" Nylessa asked, letting Cutter lean a bit on her. "And how do we find this truck?"

"Parked it a block to the south," Ranger interjected. "I can show you where it is."

"Ranger." Sierra sounded irritated. "The hand — "

" — can wait," the con artist said stubbornly. "Don't fuss about a papercut, babe."

"How about I show them where it's at, and you stay where the Doc can yell at you properly," Jedar suggested, reaching the bottom of the stairs. The small common area they'd recently carved out of old, unused rooms sat empty, and he turned left, towards the infirmary they'd created by knocking down a few walls. "Milantha, can you unfold the wheelchair for the Doc?"

The petite blond nodded and hurried ahead to open the door.

Jedar went in and gently lowered Sierra into the small wheelchair they'd acquired for emergencies, then flattened himself against the wall to make room for the parade. The infirmary had been expanded several months before the Saurians had invaded, and he could only thank Tarrin's foresight in demanding the tiny sickbay be expanded and properly equipped. The last few months had been enough of a nightmare; the old three-bed sickbay would have been hopelessly ill-equipped for the injuries it had seen recently.

Ranger settled the young drake onto a bed gingerly, and Nylessa gave Cutter a concerned look as the hacker settled onto the next one over, cringing with every movement. "Jay, you look terrible."

"I feel terrible," Cutter admitted, and Jedar felt his eyebrows rise.

If he's admitting it, he's in worse shape than I thought.

"Okay, everybody out that isn't helping me," Sierra said. "Milantha, pull Cutter and Ranger's files, please? I want to make sure neither of them's allergic to anything before I dose them both up to the eyeballs. Cutter, stay still. Ranger, take that jacket off, I'm well aware you've got another slash mid-back you've been trying to hide, and you might as well not bleed all over your precious leathers while you're waiting on me to get to you. Can you wheel Cutter's bed into the medicom room and get him set up? I'll tell you what to press for a full scan, I want bones and tissue, given that he had a wall collapse on him. Cutter, you get out of that bed and I'll break your remaining ribs — "

The door swung mercifully shut, and Jedar gave Iliana and Nylessa a look that was equal part amusement and fatigue. "Well, we know at least one of them's going to be okay. C'mon, let's see if we can't grab a few more; we can rotate who carries and who guards."

Nylessa gave him a look. "Jedar, are you okay? Seriously?"

"I'm fine."

"But you're not telling us something."

"…Later," he said tiredly. "Ask me later."

 

###

 

By the time the last crate had been moved and the transport stashed several blocks further away, night had fallen, and Jedar stifled a yawn.

The infirmary door was slightly ajar, and he pushed it open gently.

Sierra sat in her wheelchair, stitching the gash on Ranger's back closed with quick, experienced stitches. She didn't look up. "Yes?"

"Thought I'd see if you needed anything."

"Yeah, convince her to take a pain pill for that ankle," Ranger commented. "Damn stubborn, our Doc."

"If you think I'm treating patients while I'm medicated, think again," Sierra said tartly. "I sent Milantha back to the Archives. To be honest, what I need help with isn't something I'd ask her to do."

"Oh?"

"The kid you brought back. He needs a sponge bath. He's filthy."

Ranger started laughing, and Sierra smacked his bare back lightly with a hand. "Stop moving! Don't you dare pull out my stitches!"

Jedar smiled, but it was forced. "Sierra, please tell me you're kidding."

"Relax. I'll wash him myself. I just need help turning him," Sierra said.

"…You can do that?"

"What, while someone's unconscious? Sure, how do you think they do it in nursing homes?" the young doctor replied. "There's not much I can do about his hair at the moment, but he'll feel better if he's clean, and crazy as that sounds, being comfortable will help his body recover faster."

"Fair enough," Jedar said, glancing at the bed where Cutter appeared to be asleep. "How's Cutter?"

"Cracked four ribs and has a slight concussion. Pretty dramatic contusions — sorry, bruises all over. "

"He'll be feeling that tomorrow, I bet."

"He will, but he's damn lucky," Sierra replied, finishing the suture. "Ranger, give me that hand next, please. He wasn't happy about staying overnight here, but I just dosed him up to the eyeballs on painkillers, and he ended up falling asleep without further argument," she added, switching back to the hacker. "Much easier to argue my case once he started feeling drowsy."

Ranger grinned cheerfully as she numbed his hand. "She's scary, isn't she, Jedar?"

"I plead the fifth," Jedar said dryly, perching on the edge of Sierra's desk. "So the kid's going to make it?"

"He's got as bad a case of bronchitis as I've ever seen, the stuff he was lying in when you found him clearly didn't help his poor lungs any, and he's really dehydrated and malnourished. I've got his fever down, I'm pushing fluids hard, and I've got a nice steady stream of heavy-duty antibiotics going in him. He'll be fine, but that's part of why I want to get him cleaned up –I want to make sure I'm not missing any injuries or other problems, and I can check him over as I clean." Sierra frowned at the neat line of stitches she'd made. "Where in the universe did you find him?"

"The convoy," Jedar admitted. "One of the trucks we found was full of prisoners. I guess they were being transported somewhere in a hurry. They obviously weren't letting them off to ah, make pit stops."

Ranger looked mournfully at his leather jacket. "Yeah, I might have to burn that thing now…"

"My heart bleeds for your jacket," Sierra said dryly, finishing the job and examining her handiwork before letting go of the con artist's hand. "You can shower, sleep, do whatever, just try to go easy on those stitches, and come back tomorrow. I want to check and make sure they're healing properly and not infected."

"Oh, I figured I'd be back anyway," Ranger said lazily, standing and retrieving his jacket. "You're going to need somebody to get things off the high shelves for a week or two, and I'd hate to pass up a chance to aggravate you."

Sierra sputtered as the drake exited the infirmary without waiting for a reply, and Jedar tried to swallow the grin that was threatening to spread across his face.

"The other prisoners just left him to die," Jedar added, deciding a change of topic was the most diplomatic thing he could hope for. "We'll have to keep him somewhat isolated, otherwise we can't let him leave again. He may not know the way here, but he could end up seeing way too many of us."

Sierra grimaced. "I'll do what I can, but he's going to need watching 24/7 if you don't trust him. It complicates things, having him here."

"I couldn't leave him to die."

"Hey, I'm not arguing. The whole 'first, do no harm' thing still applies, even to renegade doctors that patch up crooks for a living," Sierra said, amused. "Help me move him into ICU? Cutter should easily be out of here before our mystery guest wakes up, but that'll help keep him out of sight in the meantime."

"Sure." Jedar eyed the wheelchair. "How about 'Jedar, move the kid into the ICU for me' instead? Have you done anything with that ankle yet?"

Sierra sighed. "Jedar, move the kid into the ICU for me while I wrap my ankle and get some ice on it."

"And take something for it."

"It's not that big a deal."

"What happened to 'physician, heal thyself'?" Jedar quipped, and she fixed him with an exasperated look.

"Fine. When you're done, hand me the blue bottle in the top left of the drug cabinet that says 'ibuprofen' on the label."

"Yes, ma'am." Jedar found the bed's footbrake, toed it off, and rolled the bed through the scan room and into the end of the long, narrow infirmary where the ICU sat, setting the brake again.

"You hurt anywhere?"

"Me? No, no, I'm fine. Tired, but fine. Marshall seemed to escape unscathed as well," Jedar replied, returning to fetch the bottle. Despite her earlier protests, the doctor downed two of the pills, and he returned the bottle to its place in the cabinet, satisfied. "I may not know much about medicine, but it does occur to me you could have taken those much sooner. That's over the counter stuff, Sierra."

"Patients come first."

Jedar sighed. "So how complicated is this sponge bath thing going to be?"

"Not terribly. I'm going to cut him out of his clothes, bag them several times, and send you to the incinerator with them once we're done."

"Do we have clothes that'll fit him?" Jedar asked, amused. "He's awfully tall. The poor kid's feet are hanging off the end of the bed."

"I'm sure we can think of something. He's not going to be leaving the place any time soon, so I'm not terribly concerned about it at the moment," the doctor replied, wheeling herself towards the ICU. "Grab that basin and the stuff in it and give me a hand. It'll take ten minutes, tops."

Jedar followed her in, the doctor already scissoring through the young drake's shirt and sighing at the ribs that were painfully evident. "He's half-starved, poor thing. Milantha was right."

"He's been through a lot, clearly," Jedar agreed, and Sierra quickly snapped on a pair of gloves and began washing the young drake's feathers clean, her movements quick and efficient, the actions of someone who'd done this more than a few times.

"He's fortunate you found him when you did. Pneumonia would have been much harder to treat, and he was definitely getting there." Sierra continued washing, seemingly unperturbed by the area of the young drake's anatomy she was currently tending to, and Jedar averted his eyes, embarrassed.

After a few minutes, Sierra looked up. "Can you roll him on his side now, please?"

Jedar stepped around to the opposite side and eyed the young drake awkwardly.

"Bring that arm — no, other one — bring that arm forward a bit and just roll him towards you," Sierra ordered. "I didn't think you were the squeamish type."

"Er, no, it's just … it's a little weird, doing this for other people, isn't it?"

"If they can't do it themselves, who else is going to do it for them?" Sierra said sensibly. "I suppose at some point all naked bodies look the same."

"Ranger would be disappointed to hear that, I'm sure."

"Watch it, Stormwing, or the next time I do your yearly checkup, you're going to be a few valuable body parts lighter." Sierra grinned in spite of herself. "Well, now this guy's starting to look a bit healthier already. That dirty grey was doing him no favors. I bet that hair's pretty bright when it's not dirty, too. No signs of feather parasites, though, lucky him. I'd rather not delouse someone tonight."

Jedar swallowed. "Thanks for killing any appetite I had, Doc."

"Sorry. Professional hazard." Sierra continued cleaning, then slipped a clean sheet beneath the young drake. "Okay, roll him back? Now pull on the clean sheet … lovely, thanks." The dirty sheets went in the bag with the kid's clothing, and Jedar shook his head.

"I'd never have believed you could actually change the sheets with someone still in the bed," he commented, and Sierra tucked the young drake into a hospital gown and pulled the covers up.

"Oh, they teach us all kinds of miracles at medical school," Sierra said dryly. "You'd be amazed."

The young drake coughed, a deep, wracking sound that made the other two wince in sympathy, and his eyes fluttered open a bit, revealing a deep, startling blue.

"Hi there," Sierra said gently. "Sorry to wake you, just thought you might feel better in clean clothes. You're probably not feeling too good at the moment, huh? Go back to sleep. You've got a little buzzer here, and I'm close enough to hear it, if you need anything."

"Where…" The young drake's voice was thin, just above a whisper.

"You're safe." Jedar interjected. "I promise you. The Saurians can't get you here."

"Do you have a name we can call you by?" Sierra asked.

There was a soft mumble.

"Hmmm?"

"…Shawn. Featherstone."

"Okay, Shawn. Get some sleep, all right? Your body needs to fight off this cold you've got," Sierra ordered gently, stroking the still-dirty hair from Shawn's forehead. "There's no hurry. Just sleep."

Shawn's eyes drifted shut again, and she exchanged a look with Jedar. "Well."

"Poor kid," Jedar agreed. "I think I'm going to bed, myself. My adrenaline's gone, and I either need sleep, coffee, or a shower, not necessarily in that order."

"Mmmm. I'll get a bit of work done before I sleep," Sierra said.

"If you need somebody to spell you watching the kid — er, Shawn, just let us know," Jedar replied.

"Will do. Night, Jedar, and thank you."

"Thank you." He grinned at the tired-looking doctor and stifled another yawn as he left.

Jedar let the infirmary door click shut behind him, hesitated a moment, then headed downstairs towards his quarters, tunelessly humming a bit under his breath.

 

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