It was, in fact, quite a nice day despite being late in the afternoon, but Surgeon-Lieutenant Gray wasn't interested in that. She made her way down the steps in front of the military hospital in a dark mood. Getting to the bottom, she took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. She couldn't remember the last time she had properly slept, but knew it must have been a long time ago. It had been several days since the last of the evacuation fleet had delivered the survivors of the Badlanding nightmare into the relative calm of the planet Pelsinor, the nearest Imperial world outside the warzone and which could be plausibly described as a safe place to reconstitute the ragged remnants of the army. Most of them had been deposited in the main city of Tranquillity, rendering its name temporarily very ironic. The sudden arrival of nearly a third of a million soldiers had thrown the city into turmoil, and even days later the military authorities were only just starting to patch things together and reform units that had become dispersed. The city's military hospital was the first destination for the majority of the wounded evacuees and Gray, as one of the remaining medical officers, had been quartered there. She hadn't left since, and it had taken the personal intervention of the Surgeon-General himself to persuade her to step away from the patients and outside. Pelsinor Plaza, the grand name for the rather modest square outside the hospital, was a scene as busy as any other public place in Tranquillity at the moment, with piles of supplies scattered around at random, forcing the passing traffic into chaotic swirls of carts and people. Soldiers and spacers milled around, some marching smartly in their units, others being herded by their officers and NCOs, others still standing or lying listlessly around the edge of the scene, content to wait for someone to come and find them. Gray began picking her way through the crowds towards the centre of the square, where a small low-walled garden promised at least some respite from the mayhem. Gray stepped over a sleeping soldier propped up against a pillar at one of the garden gates and looked around. The garden's green grass had been trampled almost completely flat, but it offered a modicum of peace and quiet and Gray forced herself to relax slightly. There was a certain amount of through-traffic as people used the garden as a short-cut from one side of the plaza to the other, but at least it could only come from one of four directions instead of the mad swirl outside. The centre of the garden was dominated by a large stone monument, oriented to face the hospital, and Gray saw a familiar figure standing near it, gazing up at it. It was a slender, grey-furred felinid carrying a laslock rifle over one shoulder and a backpack over the other. Her red coat did not immediately mark her out as any different from the rest of the surviving Imperial troops, but the round black hat she had under her other arm said that she was a Royal Marine. Gray found herself unexpected cheered at the sight of her, and she began making her way through the crowds towards her.
Private Ko was lost in thought as she looked at the monument. It was, even she would admit, impressive. It was carved from the honey-coloured stone that the local area seemed to specialise in and boasted a three-sided central obelisk fully thirty feet tall. At each point on the base stood a statue of an Imperial soldier, rifles held at the ready as if frozen in time and ready to defend the obelisk. It was clear that the sides had once been the mountings for great bronze plaques, but now they were bare with only the bolt holes to tell what had once been there. Ko guessed that the plaques had carried names of the fallen heroes that this city had sent off to die in the Empire's service, and it occurred to her that the removal of the plaques suggested that, even if the city fathers had used small letters, there had been too many names for the monument to bear. She shook her head sadly and turned to go, almost bowling over a white-coated medical officer.
"Sorry, ma'am," Ko said automatically, reaching up to touch her raven-dark forelock. A moment of silence caused her to look around at the officer and recognition dawned.
"Surgeon-lieutenant! I'm sorry, ma'am, I hadn't seen you there." Ko straightened up instinctively. It had been a genuine apology, not just a formality. There were few officers as welcome to her eyes as the young doctor.
Gray shrugged, already writing on her trademark notepad. She held it up.
I THOUGHT IT WAS YOU. WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?
"Oh, just surviving, ma'am," said Ko. "I've been wondering about you, though. I thought they corralled all the medics for hospital work?"
Gray snorted. THE SURGEON-GENERAL ORDERED ME TO LEAVE TO RECUPERATE, she wrote.
"How long were you on duty, ma'am, if I can ask?"
Gray tapped her pen thoughtfully. WHAT DAY IS THIS?
"Oh, it's the ninth day of hang on, ma'am. You been on duty for long enough to lose track of that? Ever since we got here?" Ko looked at her with some concern.
YES. Gray nodded simply. THERE ARE STILL PATIENTS IN NEED OF TREATMENT.
"How in all the stars have you kept yourself going? I didn't think you had any -" Ko caught herself. "Well. Any herbs left."
Gray nodded her thanks to Ko for not mentioning the turkleweed that she resorted to in extremis. THE HOSPITAL HAS QUITE AN EXTENSIVE GARDEN.
"I'm sure it does, but still...that's nearly four days." Ko shook her head. "You'd better be taking care of yourself as well, ma'am."
DO YOU DOUBT MY METHODS?
"Of course not, ma'am. I'd be the last person in the galaxy to doubt you." Ko looked away quickly and pretended to be reabsorbed in the monument. The turn of her head gave Gray a perfect view of the scar that now disfigured half of the felinid's features. She stepped closer and examined it critically. Ko sensed her gaze and turned back to her.
Gray raised her notebook again.
NOT ONE OF MY BEST, she wrote, BUT ADEQUATE UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES.
"I'm still here and breathing, ma'am. That's as much as I was hoping for in that trench." Ko smiled, getting used to the feeling in the parts of her face that no longer moved properly. Gray nodded with satisfaction.
IT WAS ALL I COULD DO.
"It's more than enough, ma'am."
Gray nodded again and looked at Ko's pack. ARE YOU MOVING OUT ALREADY?
Ko looked puzzled for a moment and then shook her head. "Oh, no, ma'am. No, I'm just carrying this because I've nowhere to put it."
To Gray's surprise, the news came as something of a relief.
YOUR BILLET DOES NOT HAVE STORAGE SPACE?
"I don't have a billet, ma'am," said Ko. "A lot of the Naval Brigade don't. Everyone whose ship survived is back on board, of course, but mine didn't. The Army already requisitioned every bit of space there was in this city and I guess the Navy is too busy putting its ships back together. I think we've fallen through the cracks, to be honest."
A flash of anger crossed Gray's face at the thought of Ko and her comrades being overlooked. WHERE ARE YOU STAYING, THEN?
"Anywhere I can find a place to lie down, ma'am," said Ko. "There's some ledges by the canal that a few of us found on the first night. We...acquired these packs and some tents from the 6th Chalcid's depot and found a vacant block to set them up on, but we got kicked out of there this morning. It hasn't been so bad once you get used to it. We've certainly had worse."
THAT'S HARDLY THE POINT. Gray snorted. I CAN WRITE TO THE QUARTERMASTER-GENERAL.
"I'm not sure even they know what the hell's going on here, ma'am," said Ko. "But thank you for the thought. I know the lads will all appreciate it."
IS EVERYONE ALL RIGHT?
"Oh, yes, ma'am. I mean, considering." Ko shrugged. "Those regimental soup kitchens cater pretty well and so long as you've got a red coat on then nobody seems to look any closer."
I AM GLAD. Gray hesitated for a moment. AND YOU?
"Can't complain, ma'am. And not just because nobody listens to a private," Ko grinned.
I AM LISTENING.
"Sorry, ma'am. Just a little joke." Ko straighted up. "I...I know you do."
She hoped she hadn't offended the prickly surgeon, but Gray merely nodded and looked back up at the monument. Ko followed her gaze.
"Did you ever think we might have ended up as a pair of names on one of those things?" said Ko, anxious to break the silence that followed "It was a close thing back there. More than once."
I CONSIDERED THE POSSIBILITY. IT IS PART OF THE JOB.
"It certainly is the way you practice it on the front line, ma'am," said Ko.
I HAD SOMEONE TO WATCH MY BACK FOR ME. Gray glanced sideways at Ko, who felt her scar tighten with a rising blush.
"Just following orders, ma'am. And how have you been since getting here? Aside from busy. Where have they got you staying? Not some ledge by the canal, I hope."
I HAVE BEEN PROVIDED WITH QUARTERS IN THE MILITARY HOSPITAL, wrote Gray. THEY ARE ADEQUATE.
"Anywhere we don't have to worry about shellfire and snipers is adequate, ma'am," said Ko. She tried to find a way to articulate her question that wouldn't suggest too personal an interest. "But they are...I mean, you're all right, too, aren't you?"
Gray looked at her with amusement. YOU'RE NOT ASSIGNED TO PROTECT ME HERE, PRIVATE.
Ko shrugged. "Well, nobody's ordered me to stop, ma'am. Besides, as orders go...it wasn't a bad one to have to follow."
Gray felt a moment of uncharacteristic uncertainty and tried unsuccessfully to read the felinid's face despite the fact that their association on Badlanding was the longest period she had spent in the company of any single other person for years. She coughed and decided to change the subject.
YOU MENTIONED SOUP KITCHENS?
"Yes, ma'am," said Ko, sensing the change in conversational direction. "A lot of the regimental provisioning units have set them up. Nobody seems to know where anybody else is, so they're just feeding anyone. The local civvies have donated a pile of food, so it's better than what we had on Badlanding."
Gray nodded. It was true that the people of Pelsinor had been extremely accommodating under the circumstances. Banners bearing encouraging messages like HARD LUCK, IMPERIAL EXPEDITIONARY FORCE could still be seen around the city, which had caused some pause for thought on her part since it seemed abundantly clear to her that hard luck had definitely taken second place to criminal incompetence in fashioning the outcome of the Badlanding campaign.
THAT SOUNDS PROMISING, she commented.
"Don't you have food back at the hospital, ma'am?" asked Ko.
Gray nodded again. YES. BUT THE PATIENTS' NEEDS COME FIRST.
"Of course, ma'am. I understand." Ko shifted the strap of her pack around her shoulder and smiled to herself at the knowledge that a sentiment like that wasn't a platitude coming from Gray. The Macropodian really would let herself go hungry if it gave a patient the smallest of improved chances to recover. "Well...the Royal Artillery has a good line in potato stew going in Temperance Park."
Ko reminded herself that the Macropodian probably hadn't seen any of the city outside her hospital. "It's not far, ma'am. We could check it out...I mean, if you wanted to go. Together, I mean."
I THINK THAT WOULD BE BEST, noted Gray, looking around at the city. She turned back to Ko and nodded. PLEASE LEAD THE WAY, PRIVATE.
Ko put her hat back on and touched the brim. "Aye, ma'am. My pleasure."
They made their way across the square, Ko noting with interest that crowds that wouldn't have parted for a private like her seemed quite willing to stand aside for Gray once they saw the silver rank pins on the collar of her coat. As a result it was the Macropodian who ended up effectively leading the way. Once out of the main square they were able to walk side by side again through the city's streets, where a certain amount of normality still reigned, though the presence of the evacuated army was still very much in evidence. Coffee shops hosted small clusters of officers while taverns hosted somewhat larger clusters of common soldiers. A particularly drunken specimen of one was frogmarched out of a doorway by a couple of the local constabulary and Ko watched them go, shaking her head.
"They'll have to stitch this army back together quickly or they might not be able to do it at all," she remarked.
Gray nodded in distaste. A demoralised and disorganised army was a threat to itself and anyone around it. At least the medical staffs had been kept busy with all the casualties, but for most of the evacuees there was little to do but relocate their units. An officer and a group of attendants stood on a street corner with a drummer, calling out the name of their regiment in the hopes of attracting any stragglers. Temperance Park was accessible through a high archway of white marble, artfully carved to resemble restful trees with intertwining branches. Ko pointed to a ramshackle shed that had been built against one of the park walls out of crates, tents and most of a cart. A line of soldiers was queued up patiently in front of it and they took their place at the back of it. The kitchen had been set up near a series of tables and benches that had been pressed into service as a makeshift mess hall underneath a canvas awning. It was crowded with troops. Most of them didn't look up at the arrival of Ko and Gray, but a few of them seemed to take an interest.
"Do you have a bowl, ma'am?" Ko swung her pack off her shoulder.
Gray shook her head. Ko rummaged in her back until she found one and passed it over. Gray took it uncertainly, wary of any charity even from a comrade as familiar as Ko.
YOU NEED ONE AS WELL.
"I've got one of my own, ma'am," Ko produced it. "There were a few lying around in the Chalcid depot."
A group of soldiers joined the line behind them, looking disorderly even by prevailing standards. The leader of the group seemed to be a large private, although there was a small lance-corporal hanging around the back. The big man finished a particularly coarse joke and, still guffawing with satisfaction, glanced at Ko and Gray. His eyes came to rest on Ko's round hat and he stepped forward.
"Hey, marine. What're you doing here?"
"Waiting in line, same as you," said Ko, not looking around.
"What for? You think you're owed some of what's here?" The private stepped forwards again. "This is an army kitchen."
Gray's sensitive nose twitched as she detected the cheap alcohol on his breath. She sighed inwardly. Away from the hospital she was starting to realise just how long it had been since she had properly rested and a confrontation was not something that she had come looking for. She cast a quick glance to Ko, aware of the felinid's combative instincts.
"I don't see them turning anyone away," Ko pointed out.
"You ain't a soldier, though," the man said. "This isn't your place to be. This is ours. Right, boys?"
There were murmurs from the men with him.
"Why should we wait behind bloody navy types to get at what's ours?" the big man went on. "You bloody swanned into Badlanding and now you think you're owed what we are?"
"We were sent to pull your nuts out of the fire, as I reckon," said Ko, turning to face him at last. "And we were there to the last to pull your nuts off the planet completely. You got something against the navy?"
Gray sighed and put a warning hand on Ko's arm. The man saw it and turned his glare to her.
"Oh, and what's this? A navy doctor, too? Fat lot of good most of your lot were, sitting in your field hospitals while we did the dying at the front."
Ko's eyes narrowed. She knew that Gray was usually impervious to the opinions of others, but the tired droop of her shoulders suggested a rare vulnerability and Ko was damned if she wouldn't stand by her. "You don't know who you're talking to there. You're addressing an officer."
"Don't care who I'm addressing if she wasn't there," the man grunted.
"She was there, you fool," snapped Ko. "She probably got closer to it than you did. There's plenty who owe her their lives...including me. So how about you back off and wait your turn?"
"She's right, Rolf," said the lance-corporal. "This ain't worth it. Not here."
"Why not? Seems to me like these two navy types just swanned in here like they always do. Trying to take our places. Trying to take our food." The private span on the ground between Gray's feet. "If they wants it, they can wait for us."
"We were here first," said Ko. She squared up to him. Gray touched her arm again, shaking her head. Ko hesitated, torn between her instinct to defend Gray and Gray's evident wish to let it go.
"Listen to your officer, marine," said the man. "She's looking out for you. More than you lot ever did for us. Now get behind us. Back of the line."
Ko said nothing. The man grunted again and moved to push Gray aside. Ko's hand closed on his wrist before he reached her.
"Don't touch her," Ko said quietly. "Don't even try it."
"Or what, marine?" The man glanced behind him. The other soldiers moved to stand around him, one or two rolling up their sleeves.
"Striking an officer is punishable by death," said Ko, pushing his hand away.
The man laughed. "I lost enough mates not to be scared of that. And you know what? The navy didn't bloody help any of 'em. No navy doctor. Not even you pretend soldiers. So say what you like, marine. 'Cos she's going to the back of the line and so are you. Unless...there's something you could do for us to convince us to let you stay?" He leered. Gray rolled her eyes.
"Back off, soldier," Ko's tone was low and threatening. "You touch her, you come through me. That's how it is."
Gray blinked in surprise and looked at her.
"Oh, right?" The private turned on Ko. "You need teaching a lesson as well? Bloody high-and-mighty navy types! You've all got it coming."
He stepped forward. Ko barred his way, shoving him back.
"Back off," she said. "I won't tell you a third time."
The man growled and looked ready to step forward again, but a voice halted him.
"What's going on here? Keep order in the line there!"
A Cragorian army officer, a captain of artillery, was walking alone the queue. He stopped and glared at them.
"Well? Answer me! Or I'll have you sent off!"
"Nothing, sir." The private stood to a semblance of attention. "Just a difference of opinion, is all."
"Something like that, sir." Ko didn't take her eyes off him.
The captain nodded. "Well, there are ways in which such things can be managed that don't include upsetting the peace here. I'll be watching you."
He turned and marched off, casting an occasional backward glance over his shoulder. A sullen silence descended over the small group as the line inched forward. A cook standing behind a steaming bronze pot emptied a large ladle into their bowls. Gray felt her stomach rumble at the smell of the vegetable mix and remembered that it had been a long time since she had last eaten as well. She nodded her thanks to the cook and turned to follow Ko, who was turning to make her way towards a shady tree, when someone trod on her tail and sent her sprawling to the ground. The private laughed nastily.
"You want to watch that tail of yours, doc. Could get you into trouble one of these days."
Ko hissed and hit him across the face with snakebite speed. The man reeled back into his mates, causing them to spill their food on the ground. There were shouts of anger and the men squared up again.
"I said to back off, didn't I?" Ko snapped, setting down her bowl and dropping her pack.
"Bloody navy!" The private threw himself forward. Ko sidestepped, tripped him up and tackled him to the ground. She gripped his collar in both hands and drove her forehead into his nose, losing her hat in the process. Gray scrambled to her feet as the soldier's friends came to his aid, swearing and cursing her.
"Lie down, you bastard!" Ko shouted. "Lie down, or you will not be getting up again!" She drove a punch into his stomach for emphasis.
"Get her, lads!" the man gasped. Ko felt hands grab at her pack and shoulders, dragging her roughly to her feet. She threw a punch and felt it connect, but she was outnumbered and took several heavy blows to her body that knocked the wind out of her lungs. Gray looked around frantically, knowing that she had to go to Ko's aid. The private got to his feet, wiping blood from his nose and glowering.
"Hold her right there," he said. "Hold her right-"
He stopped as he felt something pricking his throat. Gray had appeared behind him and had locked an arm around his neck. It wasn't a strong enough grip to cut off his air supply, but it left little doubt that it could if it wanted to, and it forced his head back into a position to expose his jugular vein which the sharp point was now tickling. Only a doctor could have been that precise. It was not, as Gray had to admit, perfect, as it occupied both her hands and thus deprived her of her usual means of communication, but sharp points always got the message across and she just had to hope that he didn't work out what the point belonged to in time. She growled in the man's ear, a primal kind of sound that prompted instinctive reactions. His eyes were wide.
"Er...or maybe...let her go, lads?"
The men holding Ko gradually released her. She shook herself free of them and recovered her hat. Gray released her captive, though somewhat reluctantly, and thrust him towards his comrades.
"We're going to walk away from here," Ko said. "Right? And you're not coming after us."
"You lot again? I warned you!" The Cragorian captain was back, waving his swagger stick. "What the hells do you think you're playing at?"
Ko put her hat back on. "Sorry, sir. The surgeon was just showing Private Rolf here her new pencil."
The officer looked at Gray's hand, which held nothing more offensive than a sharpened HB. Gray winked nastily at the private and tucked it back into the spine of her notebook.
The captain was not convinced, but couldn't prove otherwise. "Well, then. I'm not having any of you disrupting things around here any more. My men are hungry and they don't need you around."
"Right, sir." Ko picked up her bowl and pack. "We were just leaving."
The captain nodded. "Be off with you, then! And you as well, soldiers. Lance-corporal, I expect you to keep better control over your subordinates. As for you, private, go and get yourself cleaned up before you disgrace that uniform even further..."
Ko and Gray left while the officer continued berating the soldiers, making their way to a gate leading out of the park. They found a narrow bridge that arched gracefully over one of the city's canals and rested on the railing, watching a small longboat pass by underneath them. Gray felt something nudge her arm and looked up to see Ko pushing her bowl towards her. Gray raised her eyebrows and reached for her notebook.
YOU NEED IT AS WELL.
Ko shook her head. "Not as much as I reckon you do, ma'am. If you've not slept for days I'm damned sure you won't have stopped to eat properly either."
Gray nodded ruefully and accepted the bowl. THANK YOU.
Ko shrugged. "I was ordered to look out for you, ma'am."
I DON'T THINK THAT ORDER STILL APPLIES HERE, Gray wrote.
"I don't see why not, ma'am," said Ko. "Besides...do I need an order for that?"
Gray watched her eyes for a moment to see if there was a trace of humour in them, but she saw only sincerity of a kind that she seldom saw in others. She turned to the soup for a distraction, finding that it was warm and the dull flavour of the vegetables had been enhanced with traces of solaris seed. Glad to see Gray's evident enjoyment of the simple meal, Ko gratefully eased her pack off her shoulders and rested it against the rail. Gray watched her carefully.
WERE YOU INJURED IN THAT INCIDENT?
Ko shook her head. "I've had worse from my own family, ma'am. And from the Procs, of course."
HARDLY THE POINT. Gray shook her head. YOU SHOULD LET ME EXAMINE YOU.
Ko looked away quickly. "Er...well, if you insist, ma'am..."
Gray, who was hurriedly writing PROFESSIONALLY, OF COURSE, crossed it out and wondered why she'd even thought it necessary to add it. She settled for something else.
I STILL TAKE AN INTEREST IN YOUR WELLBEING.
"I know, ma'am. I'm grateful for it." Ko smiled. "Especially right now. I think I took on a bit more than I could handle back there. They'd have had my number if you hadn't got to the big bastard."
Gray shrugged. THE ODDS NEEDED EVENING.
"With a pencil, too," said Ko. "I have to admit, that never occurred to me."
ANY SHARP POINT COULD HAVE INFLICTED A FATAL PERFORATION OF THE JUGULAR, Gray noted precisely. THE PENCIL WAS JUST WHAT I HAPPENED TO HAVE ON ME.
"Well, it did the trick as well as any bayonet ever did," Ko said. "Thank you, ma'am."
ONE GOOD TURN DESERVES ANOTHER, Gray wrote. YOU WERE ONLY FIGHTING HIM FOR ME.
"I think he'd have taken issue with me even if you hadn't been there." Ko spat into the canal. "Though where he got off with that I don't know. None of them would be alive at all if the navy hadn't gone in to get everyone off that rock."
"As for him having a go at you, ma'am, orders to protect you or not, I wasn't going to let that slide." Ko looked around at Gray. "You put yourself in harm's way to do good, ma'am. The way he was talking about you..."
HE DIDN'T KNOW ANY BETTER. Gray shrugged. AND HE WASN'T TOTALLY WITHOUT A POINT REGARDING MOST OF THE MEDICAL CORPS.
Ko, who knew Gray's opinion of many of her colleagues in white, grinned. "But he was wrong about you, ma'am. That's the point."
OF COURSE. I DON'T MEAN TO APPEAR UNGRATEFUL. Gray looked chastened at the thought. Nobody had done as much for her as Ko had done, at the cost of no small amount of risk and pain to herself. The notion of appearing insensitive to that appalled her. The thoughts of others didn't feature highly on Gray's list of priorities, but she found herself unusually concerned for Ko's feelings and she was already composing an apology in her mind when the felinid spoke.
"It's fine, ma'am." Ko saw a faintly regretful look cross the Macropodian's face as she raised the bowl to her lips again. The sun was bright in a blue sky and the bright light made Gray's short-cropped brown hair glow at the tips like a halo around her head. The light showed up her handsome features and brought out the depths in her green eyes, though they were still shaded with fatigue. Ko realised that she was starting to stare and turned her attention back to the canal before Gray noticed.
"I can think of worse places to be evacuated to, mind," she said. "I used to hear that old phrase about being as 'calm as a pond on the planet Pelsinor.' Never thought I'd actually get to see it myself."
Gray nodded. Travel was one of the benefits of a naval career, though she had little time for enjoying it herself.
WHAT WERE THE FACILITIES AT YOUR CAMPSITE LIKE?
"There were none, ma'am," said Ko. "I mean, we had the canal for water and things. There was a drain by the vacant lot. But we've been fending for ourselves."
Gray shook her head. THERE ARE AMENITIES AT THE HOSPITAL IF YOU NEED THEM.
Ko grinned. "Was that a subtle hint, ma'am?"
Gray shook her head again. A SERIOUS OFFER. SUCH THINGS ARE IMPORTANT.
"It's been a good long while I showered, ma'am." Ko looked at her uniform, which was still matted in patches with the mud of Badlanding. "I suppose...if it'd be permissable..."
OF COURSE. Gray nodded. THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE COMING AND GOING THAT NOBODY WILL NOTICE. AND I CAN VOUCH FOR YOU IF THEY DO.
"But they're patients, mostly, aren't they, ma'am?"
I CAN WRAP YOU IN BANDAGES IF THAT WOULD HELP. OR PUT YOU IN A COFFIN.
Ko chuckled. Gray's sense of humour was rarely-displayed, scalpel-sharp and, usually, pitch black.
"Thank you, ma'am. But only if you're sure," said Ko. "I mean, you were ordered to leave the hospital, right?"
FORTUNATELY, THE FACILITIES ARE NEAR OUR QUARTERS, Gray wrote. I CAN ALWAYS SAY THAT I AM RETURNING TO MY ROOM.
"You've thought of everything, ma'am," grinned Ko, admiring the doctor's cunning. "Wouldn't want to land you any lower in the Surgeon-General's opinion, though."
Gray pulled a face which, in a remarkably short space of time, conveyed a great deal about the value she placed on the Surgeon-General's opinions. Ko laughed.
"Right you are, ma'am. Whenever you're ready."
They made their way back through the city via the backstreets where the people of Tranquillity were still left more or less to their own devices. The only sight of the military presence was a convoy of commissariat wagons that had somehow got lost and ended up going the wrong way into a dead-end alley that was too narrow for the bullyadous-drawn carts to be turned around. The red-faced commissariat lieutenant in charge was engaged in a heated debate with a number of alley-dwelling shopkeepers, involving much gesticulating, waving of maps and shouting. The carts were loaded with a mix of dry supplies and tall metal canisters. Ko briefly surveyed the convoy for any opportunities to lighten its load, but the commissariat troops were keeping a close eye on it to guard against the growing crowd of civilians. Gray, much to her own surprise, was starting to enjoy the walk in the fresh air. The soup had raised her spirits, though she knew the blood sugar boost was only temporary. The narrow streets were lined with shop and stalls. Neither Ko nor Gray had any local currency, but it was a welcome return to normality after months on Badlanding. They walked close together, but an observer would have noted the extraordinary lengths they went to in order to avoid actual physical contact, even when dodging out of the path of passing traffic. The blue-tiled hospital roof was visible long before the rest of it came into sight. Ko looked up at it and nodded, genuinely impressed.
"Pretty imposing, ma'am," she said. "I guess you're using all the space in there, though?"
Gray nodded. VERY MUCH SO. I MAY HAVE EXAGGERATED WHEN I TOLD YOU THAT I HAD A ROOM.
Gray rolled her eyes. I BELIEVE IT USED TO BE A CUPBOARD. THERE IS ENOUGH SPACE ONCE THE SHELVING WAS REMOVED.
"So long as it has enough walls to hold up the roof, ma'am," said Ko. "I imagine there are a few more medics there than it was built for as well."
YOU ARE CORRECT. Gray led the way towards the end of the street. CONDITIONS ARE FAR FROM IDEAL, BUT CERTAINLY BETTER THAN WHAT YOU HAVE HAD TO ENDURE.
"I'd hardly call it 'enduring', ma'am," said Ko. "Not in comparison, anyway. At least nobody's shooting at us here."
"A cupboard'll seem like a five-star hotel now," Ko observed, hurriedly adding, "Not that I mean to be sharing it with you, ma'am."
I'VE HARDLY BEEN IN IT, said Gray, puzzled.
"Right, ma'am, but you can't keep working as hard as you have been much longer." Ko looked at her with concern. "I reckon you'll need the room more than me. I've slept rough enough nights not to worry."
TOO MANY NIGHTS.
Ko looked up in surprise at the note Gray had just passed her, but the doctor was already pushing open an iron gate in the wall ahead of them. It led into a narrow courtyard of bare stones, in permanent shade thanks to the looming bulk of the hospital above them. It was already piled high with detritus and Gray picked her way disapprovingly towards a small service door.
I APOLOGISE FOR THE ROUTE, she wrote.
"It's quite all right, ma'am," Ko followed her. "I can see why you'd not be in a hurry to use the front door."
Gray nodded appreciatively and led the way up several flights of creaking, narrow wooden steps. For all its palatial exterior, every hospital had to have working spaces and the architects had put no effort into pretending otherwise. The walls were tiled to shoulder height in an unappealing green and were whitewashed the rest of the way to the ceiling. Pipes ran in brackets along the walls, some of them wrapped in bandages like broken limbs, others dripping liquid or venting steam at the joints.
"Doesn't seem to be many people about, ma'am," said Ko, looking up and down the deserted corridor.
IT IS STILL THE MIDDLE OF A SHIFT, Gray noted. WE SHOULD BE ABLE TO GET TO MY QUARTERS WITHOUT BEING QUESTIONED.
"I've heard of patients sneaking out of hospitals before," Ko said. "Never of a patient sneaking into one."
GOING THROUGH THE FRONT WOULD PUT YOU THROUGH TRIAGE, Gray pointed out.
"I'm grateful for your personal attention, then, ma'am," Ko smiled. "Again. Not that you're having to save my hide again this time."
FORTUNATELY. Gray led them up another flight of stairs. OUR QUARTERS ARE UP HERE.
It was a corridor identical to the one they had just left, as far as Ko could see, but Gray confidently opened a wooden door marked STORAGE and gestured to Ko to step inside. She did so, surveying the tiny room beyond. Shelving brackets were bolted to the stonework though the planks of the shelves themselves had been removed, and the window on the wall opposite the door was clearly more of an air vent than a means for observing the outside world. A thin mattress had been placed on the floor, occupying most of the available space, and had clearly never been slept on.
"Very nice, ma'am," said Ko politely.
IF YOU SAY SO. Gray shrugged. THE SHOWERS ARE SIX DOORS DOWN. UNFORTUNATELY THERE IS USUALLY SOMEONE THERE. AND IT WOULD BE AN UNFORTUNATE PLACE TO BE CAUGHT.
Ko hung her pack on one of the remaining wall brackets and rested her laslock in the corner. "I can well imagine, ma'am."
I CAN BRING A BASIN IN HERE.
Ko shook her head. "I can't ask you to do that, ma'am."
IT WOULD BE EASIER THAN YOU PRETENDING TO BE A DOCTOR. There was a flicker of humour in Gray's eyes. EVEN IF I LOANED YOU MY COAT. STAY HERE. I WILL BE BACK SOON.
"If you insist, ma'am..."
THAT WAS AN ORDER, PRIVATE.
Gray disappeared, still looking faintly amused. In her absence, Ko stared around the tiny room and sighed. Gray had spent so little time in this tiny room that it didn't even smell like her. There was barely a trace of her scent above the background hospital odours. She hadn't expected to see many personal effects Gray was an austere character and had, like most of the evacuees, been forced to leave belongings behind on Badlanding. The only ones she would have kept were the ones she carried on her person anyway. The door creaked open again and Gray returned, pushing a trolley on which a sizeable metal basin sloshed and steamed with hot water. Ko helped her carry it into the room.
"I really do appreciate all this, ma'am. You're sticking your neck out for me here."
Gray shrugged. Ko lifted the mattress and propped it up against the wall to allow her to push the basin across the room and into the far corner before removing her shoes. Gray watched her take off her battered red coat, following her movements closely to see any signs of difficulty or injury. Ko glanced up and caught her intense gaze, and Gray wondered for a moment if she would mistake the reason for her interest. Ko felt herself blush slightly under the scrutiny and concentrated on folding her coat away.
"Is everything all right, ma'am?"
IT SEEMS TO BE. Gray nodded. CONTINUE UNDRESSING-
There was no mistaking Ko's blush now. Gray hurriedly finished the sentence and waved the paper at her.
-I NEED TO COLLECT MY LAUNDRY ANYWAY.
Ko nodded, subsiding somewhat. "Right you are, ma'am. I won't be going anywhere."
Gray nodded, trying to stay businesslike, and left. She closed the door behind her and took a deep breath before she headed for the laundry, scolding herself for the thoughts that were flitting through her mind. Yes, she was tired, but that was no excuse. And an unexpected reunion might be justification for happiness...but these other thoughts? The more-than-medical interest she was taking in Ko's wellbeing? And there was no reason at all for a professional healer like herself to be so nervous at the thought of physically examining a patient. Ko was more than a mere patient, of course, but Gray found herself wondering precisely how much more...