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[GZG] [GZG Fiction] Only The Dead Are Sure of Rest

From: <Beth.Fulton@c...>
Date: Sun, 21 Jan 2007 13:59:01 +1100
Subject: [GZG] [GZG Fiction] Only The Dead Are Sure of Rest

Only The Dead Are Sure of Rest

Looking about the cavernous bay there was nothing to do but wait. The
emptiness was palpable. There were 972 newly made beds, with new
blankets. One deck lower there was a sparklingly bright, well scrubbed
and sanitised fully equipped operating room; cutting edge equipment
lining the walls and on every surface. The latest bio-regen growth labs
located a stone's throw down the hall; vats of synthetic skin already
approaching maturity. Synthetic blood in self chilling bags sitting
stacked in a storage room. For those constrained by religious beliefs
there was even canisters marked "Whole Blood". Stockpiles of drugs and
large bales of old style synthetic fake skin rubbery bandages were
stored in a series of pull down easy access storage bins. All was ready.

Unlike the clearly marked hospital ships of previous conflicts, this
airship was painted with dull two-tone camouflage, white below blending
to rusty regolith matching red above. Also unlike previous hospital
ships this one carried plenty of protection - an armed marine guard and
on-board batteries of large bore guns with a smattering of machine guns.

Besides the marines there were thirty six combat trained nurses and
nineteen medic qualified orderlies. They had been drawn originally from
the land-based hospitals back in the main bases. All had front line
experience and close quarter combat certifications. This war threw up
many surprises, not the least of which was that while these people had
trained for stable field hospitals, they found themselves deployed on
this airship ready to move out across the dark waters of the Binzert

The nurses and orderlies, supplemented by some of the stores staff and a
troop of cleaning bots, had worked day and night for a week to prepare
the ship to receive wounded. Everything had been scrubbed with
disinfectant, beds were made, supplies brought aboard and stowed in
clearly marked colour coded locations. Now with that task complete their
only duty was to wait for clearance to depart. They were headed for the
Tokalau coast, where they would begin ferrying the most heavily wounded
back to the rear bases. The casevac methods, based around VTOL
extractions, used for the past two hundred years overwhelmed by the
sheer magnitude of this new war.

Fully aware of what lies before them, the medical staff still can't
rest. Nervous anticipation has gotten the better of them. Instead they
go on working, inventing menial tasks and make work to keep their hands
and minds busy during these final drawn out hours. The only exceptions
are two tired, but still cheery girls in their twenties who have holed
up in the tea room and chatting gaily about music, dances and
sweethearts while they paint their nails with garish colours. 

One of the ship's flight officers, Dale Jupp, who was a Merchant Marine
prior to the war, piloting long haul freighter traffic to the rim
colonies, comes in to grab a coffee. He looked tired when he pushed
through the door, but the sight of the nail polish sees him burst out
laughing. Rich belly laughs that do him a world of good. In an impish
moment of impulsive release he even consents to having his nails done,
though he insists it be his toenails only. He comments he'd much prefer
to be escorting the girls to a dance somewhere they could all flash
their nails rather than be heading for a hospital run. As the he holds
out his toes to let the nurses pass judgement, the taller of the two
nurses declares she is glad to be going where she is. "Don't ya all know
just how happy them little old boys will be when we arrive?" 

"Yeah I guess" the officer concedes, under the pressure of her imploring
gaze. Not long after he is called back to the bridge, donning his shoes
and grabbing a cup to take with him. He'd only been gone ten seconds
before he was back for two doughnuts and another capped cup. "Better
grab one something for the big guy or he'll have my head" volunteered
Dale, flashing a smile and juggling his load out the swing door. This
created a new wave of giggles amongst the nurses.

About an hour later the other nurses and the orderlies began to drift
in. Soon the tea room was jumping with chatter, laughter and bodies
bustling about warming up prepackaged meals. Noticing that one of the
nurses Karen Brede hadn't claimed a tray, her best friend on board
Sunhee leaned over and asked "Not eating then Karen?"

"No, well not the box dinners. I swung by the markets on the way here.
Want a King's fruit?"

"Would I ever!" exclaimed Sunhee swiping the proffered fruit from
Karen's hand, pushing her feet from the foot stool and taking it as his
seat. "How on Earth did you get these aboard with the weight

"Ask again in three shifts when I'm out of clean washing" Karen grinned.

"Ooooo" Sunhee replied before taking another bite of his fruit, purply
blue juice dribbling down his chin, despite his best efforts.

"We really can't take you anywhere, can we" Karen laughed handing him a
napkin. Sunhee just smiled in response, dabbing at his shin and tunic

Over by the sink the chief orderly and head nurse were in deep
conversation. "... and the finalised rosters are filed under the date
they begin. The database has been activated for supply tracking and IT
has added a patient manifest global update so the bugs in the medical
cross checking should be sorted..."


"Well I checked them pretending that you, Wenju and I had come down with
The Fever and it seemed to work fine, even questioned the rate of
recovery when I posted we had pulled through. So like I said should be

"Well we go live in a few hours so bit moot really isn't..."

The tone was lighter in the corner where Hal Gras and Penny Soriano were
deep in conversation regarding Hal's recent wedding. " and then he
pronounced us married and I was so happy. I would have sworn I was the
happiest man on the planet except the tears were just coursing down
Geordie's face..."

The room was full of such conversations, each group concentrating on
what was occupying their mind at the moment.

When the dinner hour was over they prepared to pull away and head for
their landing zone on Ariza. As the mooring was cast off and the airship
began to climb into the darkening Martian sky the nurses gathered in the
two observation stations and watched the airfield and then the harbour
of Port Plenty. As they rose higher the VR fighter escort joined them,
flying down from Harper in the north across the grey waters of the Eos
Chasma. The eagle eyed on the port side of the gondola could also see a
thin stream of wet-navy supply ships hugging the northern coast of the
Chasma taking stores and replacement parts to the invading forces via
the Golfe de Capri. Meanwhile on the starboard side lights from convoys
moving between Utopia and Connacht could be picked out against the
increasingly dark Martian landscape.

Adverse winds blew the ship closer to the coastline than anticipated
just as they passed through the Binzert Channel, the conflict below
obvious as a series of bright flashes, blue and green laser fire,
crimson flames and the odd flare accompanying the barrel flash of one of
the larger mass driver tanks. The fire of the Killjoys was particularly
apparent. This continued all along the coast as the airship continued as
rapidly as possible towards Ariza. 

The winds deteriorated through the night, as did the visibility, which
put an end to the fireworks display. This didn't stop nurses drifting
back to the observation ports though whenever the conversation or coffee
pot dimmed. Consequently there was always someone staring out into the
black of the night, straining their eyes for the hint of any movement

Just after 4am there was a scream, one of those high-pitched penetrating
ones that jars you to the core. Heads snapped round and people came

"Cass what is it?" begged the first nurse through the door, putting her
arm protectively around the stunned girl. It was as if Cass was in a
trance, she was pale and wide eyed looking out the window. "Cass?"

"Get down! They're out there!"

"Who's out there?"

"Fighters! Get down! Take cover!" Cass screamed again, trying
desperately to push the crowd that was forming back out the door. 
A squadron of high flying Kra'Vak grav fighters had broken though the
escort and were buzzing the airship, spraying it with machine gun fire.
They were not able to target the ship for long, the escort and a second
flight redirected from a mission closer to ground coming up to defend
the large body of the dirigible.

Then the comm crackled into life and the apparently un-phased voice of
the chief flight officer reported "We're threat free, all bogies
despatched. Damage is minimal, barely a scratch even. The ruckus has
caused a slight delay however. New ETA is 55 minutes, so you had better
get ready people." 
This energised the nervous crew. They had solid tasks to focus on now
and it was all action. Not one witnessed the airship cross from day to
night, the weak sun struggling through the dusty smoke laden clouds
around them. As the minutes wore on though, not a few people remarked
that this seemed like the longest hour of their lives. 

Then they felt the decent begin, though by the time they were below the
clouds they were almost on top of their landing mast. The coast of Ariza
already off to their northwest. Anyone with the time or inclination to
look from the observation ports now would have noticed other hospital
airships to left and right. The dust and smoke sullying the carefully
created camouflage to leave the body of the dirigible's float a rusty
grey. Ironically this actually made them blend more effectively with the
sky behind them - a rusty grey airship against rusty grey clouds and
dusty grey-red sand. 

Hal was at the view port, a high powered pair of binoculars to his eyes,
scanning the ship off to their side. His view was full of wounded troops
lining the ports on the gondola opposite. Some sitting, some standing,
all packed solidly together. All in modern background matching cam that
had been made largely ineffectual by a coat of Martian dust. A body of
peach, apricot, orange and red men and women, the odd one here and there
with an obvious bandage wrapped around a limb, head or chest. The more
critically wounded would be in the beds within the central line of the
gondola. Only the moderately injured would be out along these side
decks. These people were bad enough they were to be evacuated from the
battlefield but not so bad triage had credited them a bed. They still
didn't make a pretty sight. Many were listless, silent and unmoving.
While there were pockets of conversation others seemed to just sit
silently, though it is hard to tell at a distance. For sure no one waved
or called to the new arrival. 

Penny watched Hal carefully, concern across her face. She seemed on the
verge of saying something, but was holding back as if she didn't dare.
Then a sigh of relief from Hal released the tension.

"It's not Geordie's unit."

Just then the Sister stuck her head round the door and roused them back
to their posts. "Come on, we'll have wounded to be loaded in five." Hal
and Penny turned from the waist to look at her in acknowledgement, Hal
lowering the binoculars. Then with a nod they moved away from the
observation port back into the main ward to prepare, Hal depositing the
binoculars in their storage slot as he left.

Looking out beyond the nose of the airship into the edge of one of the
suburban domes of Ariza the pilots could see tents and a vacant lot that
had been turned into an impromptu football field. Further over a small
cluster of men were playing Bolle in a walled lane. There was also a
washing line strung between two disabled APC hulls. 

Then came the careful process of positioning in the hook-up cradle so
the autonomous mooring lines could snake out and secure the airship.
When this was complete the engines began to power down and the co-pilot
hit the switch to begin lowering the loading ramp. At the rear end of
the gondola the load master now moved into action. Signalling commands
with his hands he readied stretcher bearers both within the airship and
down on the ground. The faster they loaded the faster they could get the
wounded to the first rate hospitals back on the rear bases.

As the ramp came down the people in the loading bay where hit by a blast
of cold air and a wall of noise. The frigid wind stung the bare cheeks
of the medicos, until they couldn't tell whether the prickly tingling
was from cold or the sand whipped up the airships' manoeuvres. It made
all exposed in this way grateful that the current state of the Martian
atmosphere meant they had to wear visored goggles and snoutish
rebreathers, at least that meant half the face was protected from the
drilling cold.

The auditory assault was equally as overwhelming. The noise was truly
deafening. The whine of engines powering down on this airship steadily
being out done by the engines on the other two airships powering up.
There was also the roar of jets passing overhead; out on the landing
field there was no dome to buffer the decibels. As background to all
this were men shouting. Sergeants and quarter masters directing their
troops, who were unloading from the bellies of the big airships using
either hauler mechs and grappling walkers or dragging boxes out using
grav-enablers. Once on the ground other human chains passed the cargo
onto heavy grav-barges or lighter GEV craft, there was even the odd
wheeled or tracked truck. When full this mass of trucks and hover sleds
trundled or clanked off up the access routes. Adding to the cacophony
were ambulances, both VTOL and land craft that were bringing in the
wounded. There were also deep thuds of distant explosions and quite
incongruously dance music was floating in from a radio somewhere. 

Off to the edges of the field hovered surveillance drones, their red
slit-like sensor panels scanning the horizons and everything in between
for alien threats. The drones were of various nationalities and
heritages. There were at least three of the newer cylindrical
Confederation drones that seem to bounce slowly up and down on the spot,
their stealth fields making them hard to follow with the naked eye.
There were four old Eurasian drones, with their domed heads, rabbit-ear
like antennae and underslung laser rifles. There were even two old
drones contributed by one of the local Martian provincial defence
forces. This last type dependent on metallic balloons for lift, which
leant them a strong resemblance to comical toy elephants that had been
caught in the winds above the main body of the massed airships. Curled
around this tableau was a shroud of dust and smoke that kept the sound
bound in, the odd tendril of wind opening a break in the clouds that let
the noise seep quickly away in the thin atmosphere. Rather than a
release this added an irritating see-sawing to the volume assaulting the

All attention switched back to the task in hand once the first of the
critically wounded started to be lifted up the ramp on hoverbeds. AI's
inside the body of the beds directed these up the ramp and past the load
master, all the while beeping and whining as they monitored the soldier
close to death on their back. Behind these came those who were bad, but
not so bad they had been triaged onto one of the limited number of
auto-beds. These hoverbeds were also grav assisted, and lined with
monitoring sensors but they were man directed. This was the full time
employ of a unit of young men in full armour and rebreathers bouncing up
the ramp one on each corner, or at a push one fore and aft. Penny was on
ramp duty, tasked with doing a brief second order triage, tagging and
then directing the injured to the right bed. As she looked down at the
body on the first auto-bed it felt like her heart had fallen through to
her thighs. Her gut tightened and she felt ill. She had done this job
before; it had been years since her first training and deployment, but
nothing ever prepared her for that first body of the load, for the
almost inevitable eyeful of someone who was closer to child than man,
usually dead-white, swathed in bandages, soaked with blood or with a
yawning wound or missing limb; and they were always on the very edge of
dying, dangling on the edge of the precipice of death. Swallowing hard
Penny punched a coded 5 digit entry into a touchpad on the side of the
stretcher. That first gut wrenching sight over with she was all business
now directing auto-beds and man handled stretchers this way and that
with a flurry of arms and clipped commands.

Like a building crescendo everything seemed to begin to happen more
quickly then. Six ambulances rolling in full of wounded. Each vehicle
carried six litter cases, plus as many walking wounded as could be
crowded into them. On the fifth stretcher in Penny noticed the bearer
grimacing. After despatching his injured cargo to the correct bed she
stopped his retreat with a hand on his forearm. When he looked at her
questioningly she gestured to his hands asking him to remove his gloves.
His hands were a mess, they were raw, with busted capillaries on the
flat of the back of his hand, the palm padded with blisters and the
suggestion of frost bite at the tips of two fingers. "How did you get
like this?" Penny demanded of the lad. "You are practically a hospital
case yourself"

"Lost my gloves trip before last, they got snagged on some debris in the
mud and shredded before I could get free. I couldn't just abandon the
guys to load up with out me, but it took until we got back for us to
hunt up a new pair of gloves."

"Well you won't be carrying this lot around for the rest of the day, not
without running the risk of losing a good part of your hand permanently.
Take this tag to station seven, deck 4. They'll fix you up. Take a skin
sample, grow you a new batch while they fill you with coffee, you look
had it. That and some antibiotic and pain killing shots and you'll be
back on your feet in two days."

"Two days" the boy look dismayed.

"Two days" Penny insisted firmly. "The nurses will fix you a chit for
that as well. Make the most of it, read a book, write your family, get
some sleep! Now off you go." She flicked her head in the direction of
the lift door, batting his hesitant back side lightly with her palm

Looking at the backlog of bodies mounting outside, laid out in neat rows
by the ramp's end, Penny touched her throat mike and put out a bearer
call. At times like these the ship's flight crew instantly became
volunteer stretcher-bearers. 

It didn't take long for the two pilots, navigator and three engineers to
arrive. Pairing up they started to help carry bodies up the ramp. Sunhee
also coming down to help Penny sort the wounded. 

Dale Jupp jogged down the ramp to where one of the ground staff directed
him to a litter where a man enveloped in inflated supports was panting
and shivering. Grabbing one end he looked up for a partner. No one
wanted to waste time here. There was a real sense of fierce and driven
activity. One of the engineers, Janet Underwood, stepped up and offered
to pair up with him. Dale gave a quick, but not unfriendly, nod of

"I'll take lead she volunteered" leaving the heavier steering to Dale.

"Ok let's go" Dale replied, flicking on the grav-assist panel and
hefting the stretcher up. When the panel flashed green and the
grav-enabled marker pinged to indicate it was ready they headed back up
the ramp. Penny spent under 20 seconds classifying the case and
directing them to guide him up to the main ward. 

In the centre of the gondola, for three decks, was a single vast ward.
It had double tiered bunks in rows across the grating floors separating
the decks. It made for a noisy busy space, but had been the fastest way
of building in so much bed space quickly. Dale and Janet headed for the
second tier, bed 459; the pink coating of the rails marking it as the
burns section. The orderly who intercepted them, ready to help them lift
the poor soul onto his new bed whistled through his teeth.

"Shit he must have got caught full on by a plasma hit. I hate these
ones. Too bad to be given VIP service but not so bad they're put to the
side. Makes your stomach turn. It's gonna be weeks before he's even
allowed to be conscious. Poor kid" a scowl cutting his features he
nodded off the count and they all lifted together to get the injured
soldier into his bunk as swiftly but gently as possible. Karen bustled
up then, attaching medical lines and taking a pinprick sample for the
skin growth vat. The she was off, a woman with a mission. 

Dale knelt by the stretcher for a moment, unclamping the grav-assist
pads. Janet folded the stretcher and headed for the stairs back to the
loading ramp, leaving the lift for the incoming wounded. Dale was only a
moment behind, stopping to make sure the grav pads were in hibernation
mode. As he headed back for the stairs, threading his way back through
the ward, he marvelled at how well the routine of the airship actually
ran. Though he conceded that it was only possible because the seven
doctors and all the nurses and orderlies were pretty much superhuman, at
least in his estimation. A few of them were in fact, nine of the
orderlies and four of the doctors being CE (cybernetically enhanced),
and another orderly and two nurses being GM. Even with these optional
extras you had to be a special kind of person to want to be around
people this badly hurt. What's more from two o'clock this afternoon,
when they were due to be loaded and departing, through until the ship
docked in Petauke the medical personnel wouldn't get more than a few
seconds break.

In the main and side wards it was common to see plasma and blood
replacements underway, the flexible tubing running up from the side of
the bunk. Spindly medical bots re-dressing wounds, examining injuries
(calling on live medical personnel for consults as required),
administering sedatives or opiates, adjusting oxygen flows, clamping
amputated limbs, spreading regen creams. This freed up the human medical
personnel for more critical cases and for the many operations that would
stretch on through the night flight back to base. Even if he had done
nothing deserving of credit, Dale was still proud of the ships' record
of having only ever had five soldiers die on board and all of those had
come aboard classed as hopeless cases. 

When he thought back later Dale found it hard to remember much about the
wounded, well in detail anyway, even when pressed. There were simply so
many of them. Between his stretch bearer duties and doing what had to be
done to fly the ship there was no time to talk. 

A deck further down medical orderly Mat Limbourn felt the same way. He
was eternally grateful for the med-bots. There was always so much to do;
it eluded him as to how people coped unaided in the past. The injured
had to be fed, as in some cases they had not eaten for a couple of days
and even if they had eaten recently they were perpetually thirsty. It
seemed to take ages to pour water or coffee from the spout of a teapot
into a barely visible mouth hidden amongst bandages, regen patches or
skin grafts. Then there was their accoutrements, damaged suit armour and
boots had to be cut off. Once settled there was the status monitoring;
medication levels and fluid flows to be watched; if indicators suddenly
plummeted (showing that the soldier in question desperately needed
attention), doctors, nurses and orderlies, working like demons
throughout the airship, had to be found and called quickly to the bunk.
Those in not so fraught conditions needed to be entertained to some
degree, even if it was as simple as unwrapping chew-bars for those who
could not use their hands. 

Despite this technological attention the wounded also talked among
themselves, keeping an eye on their buddies. They all looked out for one
another, saying things like, "Could you please give my mate over there a
drink of water," or "Miss, see that marine over there, yes the one on
the lower bunk on the end, he's in real bad shape. Could you please go
to him first?" And all through the ship, people were asking after others
by name, anxiously searching for wounded pals; wondering if they were on
board, or another airship, and how they were getting along. In most
cases answers weren't there to give, but occasionally it was possible to
pass along news, good and bad.

With such a press of bodies pushing through the medical system it was
not possible to give the individual attention typical of the modern
wards before these large scale clashes began. Even the best nurses, the
ones who in normal wards had mastered the skill of memorising a name as
they read it, tended to fall back here on knowing the wounded by their
faces and their injuries, not their names. The lists were long, the
duplicates often numerous. It was easier and usually more personal to
know them for what they were experiencing. 

Looking around Mat thought again how superbly enduring this bunch were.
He was continually amazed by the fact these people smiled when they must
be in such degrees of agony that they just wanted to curl up and sob.
Yet they took the time to make jokes when it seemed they needed every
iota of their strength just to survive the next few hours. 

Finishing up with his current charge Mat checked his wristband for the
bunk number of his next job. It was on the top deck, so he headed for
the stairs and climbed up. Striding between the bunks he quickly reached
the young lieutenant who needed his attention. Mat didn't need to look
at the monitor or call up his file to see the man had a bad chest wound.
His pasty face was white and he lay so very still, too still. Mat
reached up and brushed his fingertips over the readout panel, pulling up
a set of statistics and vibrant dynamic charts that summarised the
man's, Lieutenant Thalberg's, condition. Suddenly a hand clamed down on
Mat's arm, the Lieutenant raised himself up on one elbow and looked Mat
straight in the eye. Mat returned his steady gaze, silently asking him
what was wrong, trying to reassure him without startling him. Mat could
see the horror and pain writ large across the gentle oval face and wide
blue eyes of the young man on the bed. He was not speaking, but you
could hardly blame him. He had been wounded four days ago, while leading
a patrol. He had lain where he had fallen, amongst the remains of the
squad he was leading for two days. On the third day he'd drawn on
reserves he probably didn't even know he had and had crawled back to the
human lines, somehow dodging the sniping of Krak sharp shooters sitting
up in the dome pylons overlooking the ditch system he was in. It took
him a little while to realise he was safe now. 

"Es ist sicher. Du ist sicher vor die unsichtbar Schrecken" called the
man from the bunk one over. Looking around the Lieutenant finally
located the voice and visibly concentrated on focusing on the man
calling to him.


"Ya. Ya. Ich bin's." replied the German, who was badly wounded in the
chest, shoulder and legs. 

The gentle-faced Lieutenant relaxed, falling back to the bed, resting
his hand on, but no longer gripping, Mat's arm. The corners of his lips
turned up in a little smile. Speaking softly, he was obviously finding
it increasingly difficult to speak, "Er ist in Todesgefahr wenn er
stirbt" Then he closed his eyes and fell silent. Mat taking this
opportunity to pull on an oxygen mask and bump his name further up the
surgery priority listing. With breathing that laboured his lungs were
obviously deteriorating faster than anticipated. A not uncommon outcome
on Mars Mat reflected. Mat looked questioningly at the man Thalberg had
identified as Klaus. "I told him he was safe now. And he told you I was
in trouble if I died" smile Klaus, wincing as he also settled back into
his bunk. 

Before Mat could pursue the conversation a bought of harsh coughing from
the bunk above drew his attention. The man on the platform was a
19-year-old Austrian. He had been in the thick of the battle in the
south for the last year, having had only six days furlough in that
entire time. He had been transferred to the north with his unit, who
were expert in infiltrating the Kra'Vak lines and setting explosive
charges to bring down infrastructure. Looking up at him Mat thought he
wouldn't last out the trip. He startled Mat by suddenly asking if he
were going to die. "Not now" Mat reassured him. Mat was not trying to be
kind; the boy's chances really were much higher now he'd spoken. Besides
it did not hurt to be decent. The Austrian opened his eyes so they were
slits and looked down diagonally at Mat. "Thankyou." Then he added, "So
many wounded men. All we want is to get home and the way is blocked. It
is tragic." A tear trickled from his half closed yes and rolled down his
cheek. Mat softly patted the boy's arm and then regretfully made his
apologies and headed for his next case. 

This one was a soldier from Oregon. Her head wound so horrible that they
had only dared move her as far as the intensive care beds on the lowest
deck, closest to the ramp. Penny and four doctors had all diagnosed her
as the sixth person to die on board. It really looked as if nothing
could be done for her, anything, no matter how minor, sure to make her
worse. Her vitals were jumping now, showing a strong recovery. Mat
adjusted the feed from a few lines and her eyes slowly opened. She made
a gesture that she was thirsty and Mat poured her a small shot of water
in a paper cup. Holding it to her lips he dribbled enough in to wet her
lips and then a little more until she nodded she'd had enough. Her grey
eyes were rimmed with black smudges and they looked distant and
unfocused. It was as if she was staring off into the far distance and
was finding it hard to come back in close. Her face was lined with
weariness and pain. That sad washed out look of someone who is at a
point where they can hurt no more. Mat asked how she felt and she
shrugged, making a so-so gesture with her hand. After checking if she
needed anything else Mat moved on again. He checked back on her a few
times during the course of the voyage. She never uttered a single word.
She asked for nothing, nor did she complain. 

The next patient was a local Martian boy, probably of French descent
based on his accent. He was only 17. He was lying on his stomach, as he
had been wounded in the back by a shell fragment. A large area of his
lower back was bandaged and there were patched cuts as far up as his
neck line. He said he used to live just outside of Orduna, working his
father's farmland and helping his brothers in their small mine. His
voice was choked, the emotion of being so close to his home again
apparent to all. The two Anglian soldiers, both far from their homes on
Albion, in the bunks either side were worried about him. They were
afraid for him, a kid in pain in this hell hole. No friends to accompany
him through recuperation. But the boy was already very much a man. He
was also very tight-lipped it turned out. After their initial
conversation Mat could hardly get anything out of him. He seemed
determined to keep his anxiety to himself, though to Mat's practiced eye
it was all too evident. As Mat quietly worked on his body he tried also
to sooth the teenager's nerves and worries. This had less than the
desired outcome though when the boy burst out "How can it be alright?!
My family was still in there when they came!" His eyes flooding with
tears, his chest began to heave as he said he did not know what had
happened to them, whether they were alive or dead, though everyone knew
what the awful truth probably was. He just wanted them back and if he
couldn't then he wanted to make them proud by being the best soldier
there was. The soldier to his left said quite earnestly that he was "...
a better soldier than plenty of men with years more experience and
training." To which the other man added "I'm sure you're parent's are
proud. No need to worry there!" Mat was worried this would set the boy
off again, but it didn't. The boy seemed comforted by the solders'
words, obviously as they had intended. His pain was still palpable, but
the worst had passed. Nevertheless Mat stayed with him as long as he
could, until his personal slave driver chimed to tell him to keep

Mat was actually scheduled for a break now, though he knew he couldn't
really take it. He stopped by the kitchen area just long enough to grab
one of the sandwich packs sitting ready in the refrigerator. His room
mate Kenny Rhodes leaving just as he arrived.

Kenny, whom was a psychologist by training and trauma counsellor by
profession before the war came to his home on Mars, spent most of his
time in the side lounges with the less badly wounded. Here he found a
collection of odd, but wonderful men and women. They screamed less and
talked more. They chatted away even when they could not see, because
they'd been blinded or had bandages wrapped securely around their
cranium. It tended to be less sentimental talk too. Less concern for
getting to see family again and more professional talk: what unit they
were from, what action they had seen, where in the order they had landed
and how, where they had been located after that, what opposition they
had met, and how and when they had been wounded. 

They spoke almost endlessly of snipers, and given every opportunity they
would break into speculation about the role of the inky purple black
Kra'Vak. There was general agreement that they did not seem to become
enraged and mindless like the others in battle. In fact they seemed to
be able to influence the others somehow. Some claimed it was via
technology, using hypnotic frequencies only they could hear. Others
thought they were telepathic, though this usually brought on derisive
laughter. Nervous derisive laughter and not a few nods. Then as that
topic seemed finally exhausted or simply because they wanted to break
the tension by moving on someone would wonder how they would ever find
their old units again once they were mended and then how soon they would
get mail. The needs of a soldier are often quite simple.

The one universal need being to find someone from a place they know,
hopefully their home town, but someplace they've holidayed will do fine
too. "Where're you from?" is the most often heard opener on the airship;
everyone's favourite way of breaking the ice. Apparently everyone has
time to look for someone who knows places they know well. These
conversations didn't usually amount to much beyond discussing local land
marks, like favourite pubs and parks, and then comparing it to the
current stretch of Martian sand and how there was no real contest. The
chopped up coast of Tokalau beat in every way imaginable by all the
swell places they'd rather be. Then some joker would make some wise
crack about them knowing a cozy little time share fox-hole not far from
the landing beaches. Nice view of the remains of Ariza, with hot and
cold running Kra'Vak, and all were welcome so long as they didn't mind
the odd mouth-, boot- and crutch full of red sandy mud.

Kenny was up to the challenge. He had always been the one with the wise
rejoinder back at high school and he had yet to be toppled from that
perch. He thanked them for their kind invitation and said that
unfortunately he had to decline as he had a few drop in guests on his
airship and that he would be forced to stay in and entertain this
evening. This gave everyone a good laugh. It was for this reason that
Kenny was well liked by everyone, he made the time pass more quickly and
helped people keep their minds off their troubles. He knew all too well
that in circumstances such as these it is all too easy to find yourself
past the point where you became overwhelmed and felt as if you were so
small and helpless that you could do nothing but drown under the weight
of this enormous, insane nightmare world. If such melancholy gripes the
injured, or even the healthy, they cease to care about anything and give
up hope. This is completely destructive of all their chances of survival
and Kenny fought it tooth and claw when ever he saw even the merest hint
of it. Encouraging laughter every way he knew how, resorting to magic
tricks and ribald jokes by turn, as the audience required. All who met
him thought him terrific company, a brave and competent man they would
look up after the war and buy a beverage of his choice.

Kenny was not a god however and even he could do nothing to stop Kra'Vak
fighters spoiling the merry atmosphere he had created. When the red
alert sounded and the airship started firing chaff out into the night
all went quiet. Every pair of eyes turned nervously to the iridescent
display out the viewports. The laser and tracer fire was eye-catching,
the twinkling as it burst in the sky almost beautiful, though no one
took any pleasure from the scene. "We've had it now," whispered one
trooper. "Now, now give those marines a chance to earn their pay"
responded the man beside him. The sides of the airship in this section
were well armoured so there was nothing more to do but watch. So they
all stood, or sat, or leaned, each as his injuries allowed and watched.
There was altogether more fire from the Kra'Vak fighters than anyone
felt comfortable with. All those whose ears were undamaged could hear
the alien planes circling; and the explosions from the fire of the
friendly VRfighters coming into joust with the Kra'Vak aircraft. Then
the airship's own defensive guns began to fire, their barrels pumping in
and out with each shot. The noise inside the gondola was deafening, as
if some mad torturer were driving ringing electro-rivets into the

Just then Kenny was called to help a deafened man in the mezzanine floor
above, who had become disoriented in the confusion of the attack. There
was no room to push through to the main stairwell so he slipped up the
emergency ladder instead, clambering up like an inept monkey. Fixated on
his task he missed all but the reflected backwash of the blaze of the
two Kra'Vak planes dropping like fiery stones from the heavens. One
plunged into the icy waters of the Channel, while the other slammed into
the beach sliding below the airship's path. Both consumed by ravenous
fireballs. The one onshore leaving a huge bonfire that lit up the shore
around it, while the floating debris of the other broke up quickly into
a maze of small flaming pieces.   

It was easy for Kenny to locate the man in distress. He was the only one
making a sound. Shouting out enquiries about what was going on,
thrashing around trying to see for himself when he failed to get any
semblance of an answer. Kenny could see why the man had been frightened.
The wounded men around him were still and silent with wide frightened
eyes. Kenny tried to explain, but the man was profoundly deaf, his
auditory nerves damaged by a blast that clipped his head. Eventually
Kenny calmed him down, writing out an explanation on a roll of
flexi-sheet he had wadded up in his pocket from a game of squares
earlier in the day.

Back in the main ward, where their were no windows to let in views of
the outside world, the medical personnel tranquilly continued at their
work; ignoring the external pandemonium and handing out confidence with
their bed side ministrations. And through all this streamed the cleaning
bots, which really were completely indifferent to the Kra'Vak attack.
They tidied away and disposed of piles of bloody clothing that had been
cut off and discarded in the nearest available corner. They cleared up
spare coffee cups and chew bar wrappers that littered the decks. 

As relative calm returned to the main ward, the noise level burbled back
to what passed for normal. Wounded groaned in their sleep; the disturbed
called out; and between those who couldn't sleep there was a steady hum
of conversation. Behind this was an auditory mural painted by the many
pieces of medical equipment along the walls and built into the beds, as
well as the different kinds of bots gliding about. 

As the night wore on the wounded looked better and better. Modern
medicine being capable of patching up the human body quite rapidly; at
least to a serviceable degree. It would still take weeks to months for
some to fully recover, if they ever did. Those that didn't had the
option of CE implants and retraining. The human machine may be delicate,
but it is built well (if somewhat illogically in parts) and if given
half a chance it will survive extraordinary levels of damage. 

The ship had crossed the Channel by dawn and had almost reached the
western shore of the Golfe de Capri. There was a little cheer that wound
its way through the airship as the coast came into sight. The
yellowy-green tinge of the xerophylic alpine grasses, and other
groundcover, that still covered the Tenasserim Peninsular strikingly
different to the harsh reds of the main battle zone. Everyone's mood
lightened. This new mood could be heard in the voices of the wounded,
their tones had brightened and sharpened. Even more encouragingly they
had begun making dates with one another for when they would be on
convalescent leave in Petauke. 

Ambulance companies were waiting at the airfield as the airship came
into its mooring. Before the wounded began to be unloaded the Captain
and chief medical officer came down and spoke to the officers in charge.
Ground staff and airship crew shared gossip while they waited for the
order to unload. The head nurse came out and wearily collapsed onto the
bottom of the loading ramp, using it as an impromptu seat. Elbows on
knees and with upper body sagging she smiled an exhausted smile and
stated, "We'll do it better next time." She wasn't challenging the
efforts of her staff, she wasn't criticising them in anyway. Her tone
made it infinitely clear that she was making a commitment to the

At last the crew had clearance to begin off loading. Watching the first
wounded floating off the ramp in their auto-beds the chief medical
officer announced, with a heavy note of relief, "Made it." After
standing and watching a few more beds slide down to the ambulances he
turned and headed back into the body of the airship. There was work to
be done. They had to restock their supplies; cycle the bots; clean the
ship; make the beds with fresh linen; grab what sleep they could; and
message their loved ones, if time permitted. Then they would go back to
Ariza again. It was likely they would not go via Port Plenty for a
while, so it would be straight back into the thick of it. Though
scuttlebutt already had it they would actually head for Rosado not Ariza
this time. All that remained to be seen, this trip was done. They had
done their job again. Over a 1000 more wounded were back where they
could be cared for safely. They had made it. 

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