This is the final edited product for Chapter One.
Thanks for reading
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The hospital was now completely isolated by the savage winter storm howling madly outside, the steady stream of the sick or injured had finally stopped. The treated, where possible, had been sent home. Nora knew that once the roads were open again, the pace would quickly become hectic.
With all the patients evacuated and surgeries cancelled, the only work had been storm related injuries and far too many at that. Thank goodness the ED staff follow-up had shown that all of them had made it safely back home.
Nora pulled her sweater closer to ward off the chill as she walked down the hallway. "What a shift, I just don't understand how so much misery can be packed into so few hours," she thought, "a Charge Nurse sees everything, I suppose". Glancing at her small but smart wristwatch, a tiny sigh escaped her lips. "Fifteen hours. At least I have a hot shower and a soft bed waiting for me…" she paused; a light shone into the hallway from what should have been an empty ICU suite.
Peeking in the open door, she was surprised to see two figures, one standing, the other sitting, bent over, head in hands. Nora couldn't really tell who the man sitting next to the bed might be, but the one standing was a stranger. She could see he was tall - six foot or more, she guessed. Whipcord lean, clad in somewhat baggy greenish brown overalls, he bent over what should be an empty bed fussing with something.
Nora glanced to the side and was stunned to see the tiny figure of a little girl on the bed. The stranger smoothed out the bed sheets and then, with a gesture of tenderness, he brushed the hair out of the girls face. She was surprised at his obvious gentleness toward the tiny child. As he turned, Nora ducked into the adjacent doorway, remaining unseen. The man walked away, silent, brushing away tears as he headed down the corridor. When the stranger disappeared around the corner, she looked back to the ICU room to see who the other man might be.
Hello?" she called. The person looked up, unseeing. It was Doctor Walker, one of the few practitioners here old enough to have white hair. "Dr Walker, can I help you with anything?" she asked.
"Nora, is that you? I’m sorry, just making one last stop to visit my patient before the folks from mortuary services come along." His face was haggard, with lines deeply etched around his eyes. His exhaustion was almost palatable.
Stripped of all the wires, tubes and other life support items normally found on Intensive Care patients, the child lay covered by a thin white sheet. Pale in the harsh actinic glow of the overhead lights, Nora guessed the little girl could not have been over eight years old, maybe younger. The little face was devoid of expression, as though the child was sleeping peacefully. Nora knew better. Buried with her work in the emergency room, Nora had not even been aware of this patient.
She touched Dr Walker’s shoulder, "I didn’t see her come in. Do you care to talk about her?" His pain radiated like fire in the dark.
The sigh was soul deep, "You wouldn’t have seen her, Nora. She came directly to ICU. She was with the older gentleman that the Air Force Para-rescue team brought in earlier this evening. The crew came in directly from the helipad; they almost didn't make it down. It was a miracle the pilot even made it here, the storm was so bad at that point."
"It was that bad?" Her question was at a whisper.
"Yes. The earlier snow," record-setting levels remained from the last storm, "had blocked the roads out to their farm. The Air Force was able to send one of their Ospreys and a medical team who were in the area for training to transport a reported heart attack patient." Dr Walker stopped, drawing a deep breath. "Look, the crew is down in ambulance bay two, why don’t you talk with them? I need to get some sleep before the next causality wave hits. I’m just about out now."
"Why don't I walk with you to the dorm area? It’s on the way and I think you could use a little company." As tired as she felt, Nora was worried the doctor might collapse before he got to his room. "I’ll go talk with the aircrew after that." She held out her hand, "You'll feel better after a nap and a shower." The hallway led to a compact dormitory area often used by late shift staff. She ensured Dr Walker made it unto his room, and then walking further, she soon found herself at the entrance to the ambulance hub.
Designed to be both energy efficient and self-contained, the hospital featured a state of the art ambulance dock and heliport. These were the only such facilities for several hundred miles in this largely rural area. Surrounded by farms and small towns, villages really, the hospital was the only source for medical care for thousands of local citizens. Nora had fallen in love with the facility, the friendly staff, and surrounding area from the beginning. Shaking off this random stream of thoughts, she opened the heavy steel fire door leading to the vehicle bay area.
Each of the four bays held a modern ambulance, each a small emergency room in actuality. The nearest two bays were empty. Their crews and the vehicles now stranded some distance from the hospital, hostage to a combination of foul weather and massive amounts of drifted snow. The crews were safe in a pair of small town volunteer fire stations. The far side of the open area revealed six men in same baggy greenish brown overalls she had seen earlier - all of them were sitting around a gurney, playing cards of all things. As she entered, they all looked up.
"Hello," she said walking over to the group, "my name is Nora Richmond. I’m the night shift ER Charge Nurse. I don’t think we’ve had a chance to meet."
The men stood as a group. The oldest looking of the men, a relative term, as they all appeared to be well under forty, introduced himself as Major Bill Anderson. "And let me introduce the rest of the Pedro Six Two crew dogs - this character is my co-pilot, Captain Jimmy 'Wild man' Williams." Pointing to the others in turn, Bill went on, "Crew chief and flight engineer extraordinaire for us is Robert Teaman. Our lead Pararesecueman is Master Sergeant Mike "Gopher" Mulroney."
Bill now pointed to a pair of young, heavily tanned men that, for all the world, looked to Nora as though they could be twins. "This is Staff Sergeant Gary "Ace" McCloud," one of the young men nodded. "And this is Flight Lieutenant Albert Drake, on loan from Her Majesties Royal Air Force Search and Rescue Service."
"I'm pleased to meet you Ms Richmond," he said, holding out his hand. "Please, call me Al, there’s too much formality now."
So this was her mystery man, Nora took his offered hand and as she touched it, an electric shock ran up her arm. Albert’s bright blue eyes seemed to have locked onto her soul and she found herself unable to breathe. Nora now looked at him intently, one might say. "Yes", she thought, "he is six foot tall". He was maybe a hundred and sixty pounds of what appeared to be solid muscle." Besides a heavy tan, Al had short hair and was clean-shaven. "He's nothing out of the ordinary for a military man. What is it about him that affects me so?" she thought. She had to shake herself. Openly staring was not polite, to say the least.
"Forgive me for staring Al, I’m quite tired, and I’m afraid that has made me less than polite." A thin smile went with the explanation, but her pulse was still pounding.
"No problem Ma’m. We were just trying to sort out where we could all sleep as well getting some food. It will likely be late tomorrow before we can begin to dig out our bird and get back to the base." The smile he gave her at the same time caused Nora to flush so badly, she could feel the heat on her cheeks!
The men’s laughter certainly brought her back to her senses. "Well, I’m sorry nobody talked with you about that. We have a small set of dormitory rooms here for off shift staff residents, I’m sure we can find all of you a room." She went on, "I talked briefly with Dr Walker, that’s how I found out you were here. He did say I should ask about your mission."
The smiles abruptly disappeared. Bill asked, "What specifically were you interested in Nora?"
"Well, Major Anderson. Bill. The small girl you seem to have brought in with an older gentleman. Dr Walker said something about a heart attack?"
The men all glanced at one another, suddenly looking grief stricken. After a minute of strained silence, Al spoke. "Well, that's a bit of a story then, isn’t it? Is there somewhere we can get a bite to eat and talk? We have had a rather long day ourselves."
Nora shook herself again; she must be almost asleep to have missed that. "My apologies again, of course, I'm sure you would all like a hot meal as well as cot. Come along now and we’ll have this sorted out in a jiff." Pulling out her small site radio, Nora called for housekeeping to meet them in the cafeteria. "Let’s go gentlemen, dinner is on me!" With that, she whirled about and took off, trusting they could keep up. By the time she had reached the fire door, she found herself surrounded by walls of solid muscle.
They were soon sitting down for dinner. Nora had chosen a small salad and a fruit drink, the others had opted for a larger dinner of meatloaf, potatoes with a rich gravy and the vegetables. They all carried large mugs of milk, to her surprise. Rather than say anything, she let them eat; it was obvious they all were very hungry. In short order, the food disappeared. She was pleased the silence gave her the opportunity to take a long look at Lt Drake, a man who likely had many sides, more than she could guess, of that, she was certain.
"Ah, Ms Richmond, may I call you Nora?" Al's question was quiet, almost unheard in the low chatter of the other diners. He hadn't missed the deep, searching looks from Nora, if only he knew what it meant.
"Certainly Al, that would be fine," she was curious now. Rather than continue, Al turned to the others.
"Major, everyone's pretty tired. Why don't you and the others hit the rack? I'll back brief Nora and join you after a bit. Will that be OK?" The crew glanced at each other and shrugged.
"OK by me Al, we'll see you at the room. Maybe by the time you get there, the hot water will be running again." said Bill. The group laughed lightly, but was quickly gone, as though whisked away by a genie - who was really just the night shift housekeeper.
Looking at her, Al asked, "What do you want to know Nora?" It was a simple question, but she sensed there was more here than met the eye.
"Well, why don't you tell how you wound up here and the short story on your patients?" she replied. She was careful to set the question in a way that allowed Al all the leeway he might want while still letting him know what she hoped to learn. She had avoided any specific questions about the little girl, sensing somehow that this was part of the problem.
"Well the short version is we were thirty minutes into a combat search and rescue training flight when we got a call about a farmer having a heart attack. With the snow blocking the roads, the Base Commander authorized a MEDCAP transport, knowing we would get more out of that mission than the planned training scenario. The Command Post connected us with the local police dispatcher and that's when the trouble started." Al took a sip of his milk. Nora nodded, knowing she could clear up the alphabet soup of acronyms later.
Al continued, "She couldn't give us any directions that made sense to us. No highway signs in the sky, you see?" Once more Nora just nodded. "The dispatcher said the man was having really bad chest pains, and was alone except for his granddaughter. The power was out all over that part of the county, so it was looking bad for us being able to find the farmhouse. We did get the major crossroads, and the dispatcher said she could have someone go outside to flash a light to signal us. In the dark, it would be easy to see."
"Was it?" she asked. Nora could not imagine how hard it would be to see a single light on the ground while flying at any altitude.
"Well, except for the snow, it might have been OK. In the back of the aircraft, we have a pair of blisters, ah, windows, that allow us to scan the ground. With Night Observation Devices, NODs, we can see very well on a clear night. By now, the wind had started to pick up and blowing snow became an issue. We crisscrossed the area for almost an hour while the weather went to hell." Al's voice had become very quiet, almost inaudible. Nora just nodded; it was becoming obvious to her just how much danger they had faced.
"I don't know how, but Wildman spotted a light flashing on the ground and the Major pulled a G-limit bank and crank, getting us nose on to the light. Landing was tricky; we couldn't see the ground by now, the snow was so thick. Major Anderson was able to hover low enough, using the jet wash to blow out a decent landing zone. Once down, the blowing snow cleared enough to see the farmhouse with the NODs. It was warmer than the surrounding area. The blowing snow had hidden it on the way in." Al was now looking away, Nora suspected the scene was again unfolding before him.
Nora sat both silent and very still, the story was amazing and Al managed to make it sound like just another nights work.
"Anyway, we got the Stokes litter and hit the farmhouse. The old man was in bad shape but still alive. We started our Advanced Cardiac Life Support routine, got him on an oxygen feed and started a Lidocaine drip. He started to pink up. So far, so good. We found a couple of extra blankets to wrap him up and got ready to transport. I called Wildman on the Mednet radio and told him we were coming out."
Al paused, shutting his eyes. "Then Wildman asked if we had the granddaughter. The pilots had called the police dispatcher to update them. The dispatcher told them the girl had gone outside to 'find the airplane for Gramps'." Al stopped talking.
Nora patted his hand. Saying nothing, she looked on. She had been here before, too many times. It was always best to allow someone to work through their pain, to let them talk as they wished.
"We took the old man out to the Osprey and put him on the heart monitor and auto-defibrillation unit. He was still out but looking much better. Then we all looked for the girl. That took another 20 minutes. We found her on the edge of the field where we landed. The snow was up to my waist in places and I never would have found her except for the flashlight"
Nora couldn't help but notice the shift from 'we' to 'I'. Al had to be hurting in ways she could not hope to fathom. His entire existence in the military as a Pararescue specialist focused on saving lives.
Al stopped, his voice just short of a sob. "She was leaning on a fencepost, holding the flashlight over her head, above the snow." Al stopped again, the pain in his voice now plain for anyone to hear.
"She had to have been hit with the rotor wash. That would have been 70 or 80 knot winds with snow. It buried her, but obviously she didn't move or drop the flashlight to protect herself." Tears now fell from his still closed eyes. "As God is my witness we had her in the bird and were airborne in less than five minutes. She was a flatline but Gary shocked her and we kept a pulse for a while. But she kept flatlining." He shook his head.
"We couldn't return to base or go to Central Hospital, the weather had us blocked. You guys were it. Bill had the engines riding on top of the redline, burning sky all the way here. Doc Walker met us on the pad and we went direct to ICU." Al looked up at her, tears now flowing freely.
"We tried everything we knew. Bill even called a couple of Coast Guard doctors that he knew were experts in hypothermia. Nothing. We finally called her at 01:23." Al's voice was now a hoarse whisper. "Her grandpa lived, he's in recovery now."
Nora had to force herself to speak. "You know Al, when I saw her there with Dr Walker;" Nora deliberately avoided the mention of seeing Al in the room, "I thought she looked like a little angel. Now I know why. She is," Nora had to pause for a breath, "an angel. Thanks for sharing that, I know it must hurt. I always hated losing a patient; the littlest ones hurt the most. I just remember this quote and you should know it as well, being in the military." Al looked up, puzzled.
Nora went on "This is my commandment: That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no one than this - that a person lay down thier life for his friends." She stood and put her hand on Al's shoulder. "Come on, time for both of us to be off to our beds."
As she walked down the corridor, Nora was sure on one thing. For the first time in a long time, she had met and was talking with a real man. A decent man, a man with the capacity to see past himself, able to care for and about others. Now, if only he was free...
The morning came too soon, but hunger drove her from any more sleep. Even though exhausted, she had slept badly. The image of Al's face was almost too much to deal with; in spite of all her experience in dealing with the loss of a patient. The look of personal loss she had seen in his face, the light touch of his hand on the face of the little girl and his tears had done something to her heart. He had taken, then melted it, completely.
Huffing to herself, Nora threw back the bedcovers and got to her feet. As she stood, the floor felt as though it was moving, just a little. Placing her hand on the wall, she muttered, "Am I that tired or hungry?" The floor rattled again. It struck her then, a small earthquake. "Boy, I must be really toasted! Back home, that wouldn't have rated a second thought." Soon after her brisk but hot shower, she was feeling like her normal self.
She selected a warm sweater, made of merino wool, a set of old Chinos that fit her petite frame well and finally, a set of her old hiking boots. She smiled, the boots were old and well worn, but the leather was supple, fitting like a glove. She could remember how long it took to break them in, but as with many things, leather boots just got more comfortable with age and use.
As she went down the hall, she secretly hoped she would have a chance to meet the Pararescue crew and of course, Al. Entering the small but bright cafeteria, she saw that the crew was there, finishing up what looked like their breakfast.
She gave a friendly wave and went to the serving line. The cooks had her usual fare waiting, egg over easy, two very grilled and dried pork sausages, and a large helping of grits on the egg. She stopped and pulled a coffee - not her normal fare, but she needed the boost. She then headed over the table to be with her new friends. With a nod, she sat down and gave them all a smile - then noticed that two were missing.
"Good morning all - where are Bill and..." she had to think for a second, "and Mr. Teaman?"
Jimmy was the first to answer. "Well, Bill is ah, busy talking with H. Q. about our being...eeerr...grounded here. Teaman is out," he actually blushed here, "guarding the aircraft. He pulled the short straw, we'll send him in for some chow shortly."
Nora nodded, stirring some sweet cream into her coffee. "Do you often have your aircraft stolen?" she said dryly, with a lift of one eyebrow.
"Ah, no, not really. However, we do have a lot of drugs and expensive equipment inside. And before you ask, the doors don't lock and the aircraft doesn't have a set of keys. Last night we figured the storm would be a good enough deterrent. Today, it's so nice, we had to have a guard." He shrugged, as if to show there really was no way around it.
Nora's laugh tinkled in the air, like a light bell sounding in the breeze. "Indeed, Wildman. We have some armed security here. Just because Bleakerville is this far out in the sticks doesn't mean we skip taking reasonable precautions." She said this with a smile. "I must say, you look the glum bunch - is there anything I can help you with?'
The group looked at each other then, oddly, Gary looked at his watch. Al broke the strained silence.
"Actually, Nora, you can. It's bit embarrassing. We need to get to a store and procure some clothing, it may take some time to dig our aircraft free, and we would like to be able to have some clean things, shaving gear - that sort of thing. You do understand, yes?" The tension left the air with the suddenness of a popped balloon.
"Well gentlemen, this is your lucky day! My next shift is two days away and as soon as I finish up, we can be off shopping."
The military men looked at each other again - this was beginning to get positively sinister. "Seriously, this is not a problem - I understand that you want to have clean clothes. What is the big mystery here?" Their response was unexpected.
They all stood together. Al said, "Nora that would be great. Would you mind if we rounded up Bill and sorted something out for Bob to eat?"
"Silly, of course I'll wait," she said pointing to her plate, "I need to eat myself. Do you want me to take something out to Bob? Or I can ask staff to run something out - they do it all the time for the outside maintenance folks this time of year...what with snow removal and all. Does he fancy anything for breakfast?"
Al's smile was warm, "Speaking from experience, if it is hot and not moving, Bob will be happy to eat it. Throw in a large cup of hot, black coffee and he will start dancing. He is a man of simple tastes, no matter what other might say of him." He chuckled lightly at some private joke.
Once more, Nora's laugh graced the air. "Well, then off with you, Bob will have his meal - my treat!"
Al nodded, adding, "Thanks so much, Nora" then turned and walked off with the rest of the crew. It was only then that Nora noticed that each had a deadly looking carbine slung across their backs! She didn't know if she should be shocked or just assume it was normal - Al had said they carried a lot of drugs and equipment on their aircraft. "Well, nothing for me either way." she muttered. And with that, she dug into her tucker and before long was talking to the cook, a friend of some time.
"OK then Jenny, a large stack, lots of bacon and a full liter flask of your best coffee. Put that on my tab, and I'll call Jose in maintenance to ask him to drop it off, he owes me a favor or two." Jenny laughed, Nora so was outgoing and helpful nearly everyone at the hospital owed her a 'favor or two'.
That task done, Nora went looking for 'her' crew or at least Al. After asking about, she quickly tracked them to the small conference room off the main training area. She opened the door as she knocked. "Hello all, what are you up to toda...." They never saw her enter, the men were all were focused on the telephone, as though it were a live snake.
Bill was talking to the speakerphone, "Damnit Colonel, you've left us out to dry! We don't even have any ammunition for our..." Bill stopped when he saw Nora. Before he could say anything the voice on the telephone said, "I'm sorry Major, but I have my orders as well. As bad as it may get, it's better that you are out there. I'll personally see to your family. So soldier, soldier on. Out."
Their expressions stopped her cold. Grim faced and dark, they all seemed to have gotten word of a close friend's death. "Oh my! I'm so sorry. Have I interrupted something?"
Bill was the first to speak, "No, Nora. I just finished a long call back to the base." He wrinkled his nose, as if a distinct odor had wafted by, "We won't be given any help. So we are here till we can get the bird cleared and can take off."
Nora raised an eyebrow, "Is it so very bad here? I'm sure we can find a place for you to stay until the snow is cleared, and the outside staff might just be persuaded to lend a hand."
Again, and oddly to Nora's eye, Al checked his watch. "Well, true, that - we were worried about being able to get to town and do that shopping. Are there any taxis or rental outfits nearby?"
That seemed reasonable, they must be upset for the trouble they were causing, and no doubt, the hard work ahead. Nora smiled. "Then we best be off, I'm sure the road crews have cleared the way to town and I'll ask if we can borrow one of the facilities larger trucks for the morning."
True to her word, they were all soon on their way to Bleakerville. Nora had sweet-talked one of the security guards into staying past his shift to watch the ungainly aircraft left squatting on the helipad while they did some shopping. Everyone fit into the borrowed truck as Al had asked if he could ride with her as she led the group into town.
"Well that depends" Nora said before they started, "Will you all be taking those carbines with you?" Not that it mattered, but she was curious abut why they carried them.
"Well, Nora," Gary said, "yes we will, we have to." At her puzzled look, he went on. "We signed for these when we left the base - we are responsible for them until we can return them to the armory, you see? And trust me on this; since these are fully automatic weapons, regulations require us to retain possession at all times."
The trip into town was short enough, a simple matter, less than ten miles all told, but with the recent weather, it was necessarily a slow trip. Al took the time to ask Nora a few questions.
"Nora, do you trek or camp at all? I mean you look so," she could tell he was struggling for a word, "well, so fit. I was wondering, you don't look like a runner to me."
While she was flattered that Al had noticed that she stayed in shape, it was Nora's turn to stall, looking for a good answer. "You have me there Al, I hate to run, always have. But the area around here is so beautiful, very much so in the spring and summer, that I pretty much live outdoors." At his puzzled look, she went on. "I spend a lot of time indoors, working in a pressure cooker - this may be a small hospital, but it is the only real medical care for two or three hours drive. We are swamped in the ED most days. People have no choice but to treat us as a primary care facility, and we do get some funding for that. But busy wouldn't begin to describe my regular shift. Keep in mind, I have the night shift."
She pointed out the window, "I work a three and two, two and three shift and if I work it right, I can get five days in a row off. For those five days I am out walkabout - sleeping under a small tarp in a hammock, or a tent if the weather looks really off. It is the only thing that lets me work off the pressure."
She laughed, "I'm no pioneer woman, I use all the latest gear and have permission from most of the landowners around here to camp, use their water, and if I can find anything to eat, they are happy I can enjoy it. That's the biggest reason I love working here." Turning to look at him, she went on, "Sorry to be so long winded, just happy to be out and about. And helping you fine gentlemen is just a bonus!"
Al's face turned red. "I cannot express how much this means to us. I find it fascinating you spend so much time outdoors. Have you ever had any...ummm, problems? With wildlife, I mean."
Nora shook her head. "No. There are a couple of packs of feral dogs running around in this County, but I don't worry too much about that." At his puzzled expression, she elaborated. "My grandfather was a Marine, a Grunt with five combat tours. He made damn sure his little sweet pea, as he put it, could take care of herself - and business. I carry a 357 Magnum, loaded with Corbon +P 38 Special hollow-points. So, you can see I don't worry about much. I rarely see anyone when out and about, maybe the odd farmer if I am on their property."
"I'm impressed - really. So few women spend any real time outdoors these days." Al looked at watch again. "So, do you trek with your friends at the hospital?"
Nora smiled at that question. Al was not as devious as he thought. "Yes, I do. Jenny - the cook? - and I trek together quite often, as does one of the surgical nurses. If the weather is really nice, even old doctor Walker will go walkabout with me for part of an afternoon - he is quite the avid picnicker, and very dear to all of us."
She glanced in the mirror, and then hit the blinker lever. "We are almost there. This store is fantastic. It is run, by of all people, an old Marine buddy of my grandfather. In fact, he was one of the local folks to convince me to take the job here."
Turning, they followed a short driveway, finally pulling into a parking lot that was all but empty. The store stood alone but was considerable in size. To anyone standing outside, it could have been a hardware store, a general store or a military surplus store, if one were to judge from the different goods displayed in the windows facing them.
Nora bounced out of the little coupe and as she hit the door, called over her shoulder for the group to 'Wait a bit". She disappeared inside leaving the others to themselves.
* * * * * * * * *
While she was inside, Bill mentioned the group together. "OK. We have," he looked at his watch, "two hours at best. After that, god only knows what will happen. So get in there, get your gear and get out. I have an Air Force charge card and the Commander OK'd any amount. If they will take it." He looked all around. "We don't know what is ahead, but we can handle it. Who knows, we may even get airborne and back to base," but he didn't sound like he believed that himself.
Gary coughed, "Uh, what if they won't take your plastic? I don't have checks - or anything, for that matter. I mean, all we have is our Remain Over Night kits, and a RON kit isn't much."
Bill's answer was cold. "Well, McCloud, I guess we'll just have to count on our stellar skills with those and our Escape and Evasion kits to prevail with, eh?"
"Gentlemen, there is no issue. I can cover it." The men all looked at Al. "It seems that I am not only handy, as it turns out, I'm fairly well to do - please, don't sweat it. We're covered." His small chuckle couldn't entirely hide his embarrassment. Nora saved the day by walking out just then.
The man with her was a sight. Short and powerfully built - he looked like five miles of bad road. Very, very bad road. His smile did seem out of place. "Nora tells me you fine gentlemen find a need to do some shopping here and cannot leave your arms. Care to explain?"
Nora slapped his arm. "Steve don't be such a beast. Let me introduce them all. Then you can eat them." They both laughed loudly at what had to be a long running and private joke. Nora quickly went through the introductions, pointing to each in turn. As it turned out, while Steve Wahpaha looked the part a fierce warrior he was, seemingly, a kind and wonderful soul.
"You are very welcome in my establishment. All I ask is that you clear and lock open your weapons. OK? Just so my other customers can be comfortable. I have no doubt you all can handle those carbines better than most."
Bill grimaced - "That won't be hard sir, we don't even have any magazines."
"It's Steve, OK Major? We don't stand much on formality and if Nora says you are good, then that's enough for me. Now, let's get going." He turned, and with Nora on his arm, they went inside the store.
Entering the building, they found the area to be both bright and organized. Once inside, they met another group - obviously store employees. Steve was short and to the point. "These folks will help you, one on one. No sense in wasting time you don't have." At the started glances, he continued. "I understand you have a shitpotload of snow to move and not too much time. So get what you need. Ah, who can I talk with about your carbines?
Teaman stepped forward, "I'll take this, and you guys get going." At that, the group broke up heading for different parts of the building, each talking with their 'guide' as they went. Bob quickly sorted out what questions Steve posed, allowing him to examine his weapon and then Bob was off with his guide.
When the aircrew was out of earshot, Steve exploded - "Goddamn Nora, you're right. Those boys have a cloud of bad karma sitting on their asses like I haven't seen in years and years. What the hell is going on? Being dumped by their higher is just...unfair."
"I don't know Steve. Al asked if I could camp and shoot. He thought he was subtle, but I could read through it - this goes past concerned. I can only guess bad. Maybe bad moon bad?" she whispered. It was both mysterious and scary at the same time. "What are you going to do?"
Steve scrunched his face. "I am going to make some calls and get some intel. In the meantime, go find your man and stick to him. I've got work to do. And remember, no matter how bad it gets, we can always go out to Martha's place." The reference to his long deceased wife caused Nora to flinch. Steve pulled her arm away, turned her around, "Go get your man. And don't roll those pretty blue eyes at me. I saw how you two were looking at each other. Go!" He slapped her butt to enforce the command, and then turned to his office.
The first call went through; the phone just rang and rang. After several minutes, Steve hung up and hit redial. He got the same result. "Damn it" he muttered. The next call went though, but he had a long wait filled with buzzes and clicks - finally a machine answered. The machine didn't ask for a message, all it played was the old rock tune; Bad Moon Rising. At that, Steve cursed, loudly.
Sticking his head out of the office door, he called over his oldest employee, Jake "The Snake" Weinstien. "Snake, get your ragged old ass over here!"
"S'up Sergeant Major?" Jake was no fool, Steve only used that voice when something was cracking. And it must cracking bad. The last time he heard him this gruff was just before they had left for Phu Cat - a very, very long time ago.
"Snake, I want you to pull and set up six sets of field gear. Full up. Recon. Cat 4, cold weather. Each gets nine mags, the full med kit and a basha. Throw in any gear you would want in a shitstorm. I'll be filling the mags and other stuff. Put the gear in a cart and bring it up here. In this case, time matters. So, haul ass!" Steve marveled at just how fast Jake could get around on his new set of high-tech pegs. He shook his head - work was waiting.
By the time Jake had returned with the gear, Steve had finished filling the stacks of magazines. They stuffed the pouches on the field gear, then set it all in a cardboard box. Jake offered a small observation - "Looks like you are getting someone ready for a serious old-school world of hurt Boss."
Steve was short and to the point. "Dunno Snake. Maybe and maybe not. We'll talk about that later. You just get the crew checked out, this gear is a 'loan'. I don't want it on the books, just in case tomorrow comes in all bright and shiny, eh?"
"Got it." Jake was off, as Steve placed the rest of the gear in another box. At the check out Jake found the crew busy stuffing Carhart gear and all sorts of socks and drawers into to smaller, easy to move boxes. Everything was all but done - record time, all finished in less than 90 minutes. The total was considerable.
"How do you folks want to pay for this?"
Bill silently offered up his blue and white Government credit card - and Jake had to shake his head. "Sorry, we've had those before. Our bank won't take them. Anything else?"
Al stepped up and handed Jake a black AMEX credit card. Jake looked up sharply, you just didn't see these cards this far out in the sticks. '"I'm really sorry, but can I see some ID? Sadly, I must ask for these, you understand?"
"Not a problem, if you didn't ask, I would be worried. Here." The name on his military ID matched the name on the card and so Jake swiped it. He stared intently at the electronic readout, then pushed a couple of buttons.
The transaction took just seconds. Jake looked up - "All good. May I ask a question?"
Al shrugged, "Certainly, but I get to choose to answer."
Jake smiled as he handed back the card, "I thought Royals didn't do their own shopping. May we have permission to at least say you shopped here?" The expression on everyone's face was a symphony of surprise, shock, wonderment and in Nora's case, astonishment.
The smile offered by Al was small but genuine. "Yes, you may - but please, nothing in print, you do understand?"
"More than the others might, I fought with some Royal Marines in the Ashau Valley - back in the day. It will be more for bragging rights, Your Highness..."
Al cut off the rest of what might have been said - "Well, then, that's all good - shall we get this gear loaded now?" He was out the door with two boxes, with the rest following seconds later. Nora went to find Steve and to thank him for all the help. She found him in his office.
"Steve, everyone is all but loaded up, we'll be gone in a bit. I wanted to thank you for all the help..." The look on Steve's face stopped her cold. "Are you all right?" Her concern was genuine, at his age and with his underlying medical conditions, Nora was convinced that Steve was on borrowed time.
"Sit down, sweet pea," he pointed to a chair, "And listen up. I made my calls. Whatever is going on, it's as bad as I can imagine and unfortunately, I have a very good imagination." He slammed his fist on the desk, "What I don't have is any specifics." He wasn't angry really, just badly frustrated.
He shrugged, "No matter, what will be, will be." He turned and picked up a small rifle. "I had this made for your birthday, but I'm giving it to you now. I always worry that while you are tramping around out in the boondocks you'll get across some pack of nastiness. Here."
The rifle weighed almost nothing. At her puzzled look, he went on.
"This is a 22 magnum, semi-auto. Carbon fiber stock, carbon fiber barrel, titanium trigger group - it's the lightest, strongest thing I could come up with for you. The stock collapses; this scabbard holds the rifle and two spare mags." He held up his hand, "Stop, I know what you are going to say. This weighs less than half of that monster hand cannon your grandpa gave you. If you run into a pack of dogs, you will want the extra firepower." He leaned forward, almost to her face. "Saying no is not an option." He almost growled the last, a favorite tactic of her grandfather. It also meant he was deadly serious.
"I also want you to have this." He pulled out a knife, oddly shaped. "Had this made for you as well - the fellow said he made the blade from some kind of exotic metal - supposed to be nearly bullet-proof. I couldn't break it and I tried. So as you wander about, you can at least have a good sharp knife to clean a meal."
"Thank you, Steve. This is just... Words fail me. You and Martha have always looked out for me, how can I say thank you?"
"Simple," he handed her the weapons and scabbard, "this will fit the ski pocket in your ruck - I checked. All I ask is that you carry the damn things!" He smiled, "That and a kiss for an old man."
Nora gave him a hug strong enough to make him grunt and as she kissed his cheek said, "I'll put this in my ruck after I drop off Al, I promise. It will go with me everywhere from now on."
Steve gave her a small squeeze. "Thank you, Nora. I just sometimes feel so...helpless. So much bad goes on and I can't be there..."
Nora placed her finger on his hand. "I'm a big girl now. You and grandpa raised me and showed me how to take of myself. Trust that I learned what is needed, and don't worry. Please."
At that point, Al stuck his head in the door "Shall we be off then?"
They stood and as they left, Steve pressed a box into her hand. "That's a Basic Load. Load your magazines, and then put the weapon in your ruck with a spare box of ammo. OK?"
Nora had to laugh. "You just don't quit, do you? Yes, I will. Honest. Now we have to
be off, there is snow to move and airplanes to free." As she walked off, she tucked the knife into the small of her back. It fit perfectly, as if it was made for just that space.
As the last of the truck doors slammed, Steve walked up to the window where Bill sat. He started quietly - "There is a box back there that Jake loaded. I gave you each nine full magazines with hollow points and an extra case of ammo. There is field gear, food and some other items Jake thought you could use. If I'm not wrong, none of you has been back in-country for more than a couple months. I don't know what is going on," he held up a finger, "I know you can't say. I have my own sources; I can only hope I have given you enough to get past whatever is ahead." He held out his hand, "If it all turns out to be all shiny unicorns next week, just ship the gear back - it's all off the books, you know? Godspeed."
Bill could only blink. He held his hand out. "My pleasure was to meet you Sergeant Major Wahpaha, may you have fair winds and following seas." At that, the truck backed up and left. Steve walked over to Nora's auto.
She had just finished putting all of Al's gear in the back seat and trunk. Looking up she saw Steve walking over, his limp pronounced. Slamming the lid, she smiled. "Saying goodbye again, Steve?"
"No. I'm here to tell the good left-tenant he had best protect you if he knows what is good for him." He looked straight into Al eyes - "If she gets hurt, even a little, or if you break her heart; know this. There is nowhere on this earth where you can hide that I cannot find you and have your liver on a stick! Do we understand each other?" The growl was no threat. It was a promise, the most deadly kind.
"Fully and completely, Sergeant Major. If she is hurt, it will be only because I am dead. This I can promise you - on my honor as a man and soldier."
"Good enough!" Steve stuck out his hand, and as they shook, he said, "Keep her safe and love her. She will give you joy incarnate, if you will just let her." At a whisper he added, "Be careful, she already has her eye on you, so there is no escape."
"You assume I wish to escape. She is a dream come true for me." He continued at a whisper, "I'll be sure you get an invitation to the wedding, eh?"
They were both laughing as Nora drove off, perhaps the last laughter they all would ever have.
Once back on the main road, Al looked at his watch again, then up at the sky. "Nora, how far do you live from here?"
She looked at him. "Just what do you have in mind Al? It's a little early in our relationship for all that." This said in a matter fact voice that caused Al to turn beet red.
"Oh no, please. It's not that," at her further look, he stammered on, "not that I wouldn't like to," he coughed to cover his embarrassment.
"Well then, what?"
"I was wondering if we could pick up your trekking gear. We have about 15 minutes before moonrise. That's all I can say for now. Please trust me on this for now."
Nora growled, but the stop took a very few minutes since she always cleaned and repacked her gear after every trip. She added her cold weather gear bag. They were back on the road to the hospital when Nora asked outright, "All right Al - give! Just what the in the hell is going on? Steve was acting like a cat in a room full of hungry dogs and you all have been radiating bad karma the entire morning. Please trust me enough for a clue!"
'OK Nora, stop." After she pulled off to the side of the road onto an area clear of snow and ice, she shut down the engine and then looked at Al. "Now step outside with me."
They met at the front of her auto and he turned her around to face east. Then pulled her back and wrapped his arms around her.
"Look up over there, the moon is coming up."
Nora was annoyed, "Damn it! What in the hell..."
"Stop. Just please watch. Since it is a full moon, it will be fully up in just another couple of minutes - let's try to enjoy this time together." At that, he pulled her close and took a deep breath of her scent.
Shortly thereafter Nora uttered an almost silent "Oh. My. God! What happened to the moon?"
Al was slow to answer. "That, my dearest, is the question of all time. Nobody knows. How or worse yet, by who."
As they stood huddled together, the moon continued its eternal course, bright and glowing - except for the part that was missing. No longer an orb, rather it was now a misshapen cookie, a cookie because something or someone had taken a rather large bite out of it.
"Nora, the bigger question is how everyone will react once the full facts are out. We had best be ready for the collapse of society, as we know it today. Then hope for the best. I'm now free to tell you the story, at least the little we know of it."
Nora turned and after wrapping her arms around Al, she buried her face in his cheat. Holding tight she knew he was right, nothing would be the same now - nothing. She wasn't frightened for herself, but for all the patients at the hospital. Who would care for them?
She looked up into Al's face '"We have to get back to the hospital. Please!"
As he held her close, Al could only think, "Where will we be in the coming days and weeks?" Keeping his thoughts to himself, he merely nodded; turning to release her, he squeezed her hand for reassurance. "Just remember what I said to Steve, OK?"
* * * * * * * * * Pilot was well past his Time, a situation considered by other Xytoal as at least inconsiderate, selfish even. This level of delay was simply unheard of in their culture. Pilot was unmoved, xe and xe alone would decide when xes Time was at hand, and no other could make that call. This choosing, deeply imbedded within the Xytoal culture, varied little - until Pilot.
Finally, to the relief of all, Pilot began his journey to deep space, there to release xe LifeSeeds, and so the Cycle could begin anew. The difference, unknown to other Xytoal was the destination chosen by Pilot for xe seeding. That destination, an empty part of the galaxy, an arm bereft of all known life, was perfect for a new Cycle, a Cycle for Pilot, and as such displayed a level of self that was unnatural.
The journey into the empty reaches of the spiral arm of the galaxy was completely unremarkable by Xytoal norms. The slow crawl to near superluminal speed, then the Shift into nullspace was so uneventful; the LifeShip performed all the needed tasks - something that Pilot found needful, xe may have waited too long.
The LifeShip dropped into normal space and as designed, deployed its massive breaking pods. Pilot knew that once the LifeShip had stopped, relative to the area chosen, xe could release the LifeSeeds. Then knowing the Cycle would be almost complete, a peaceful crossing of the divide was assured - knowing that xe LifeSeed would be unique in this corner of the galaxy.
Sorry for the formatting, the board doesn't see the para indents fro some reason, after a bit, I just split the paragraphs.