The screams blasting over the comms rooted Imoen to the deck. Her blood froze in her veins and her chest tightened, making it impossible to breathe. There was no mistaking the pain in Jaheira’s or her brother’s screams. They were in trouble, deep trouble. Weapons fire still echoed from forward in the compartment, but things were going to hell in a handbasket and doing it quickly.
Her eyes locked on Valygar’s. He had come back to his feet, his head and shoulders barely sticking out of the breach in the conduit. He returned her look, trying to convey some sense of confidence in his dark eyes despite how pale his face seemed under his faceplate.
Pressing her left hand against her helmet to press the receiver closer to her ear, she called out, “Bran!? Jaheira!? Anyone!? What the frell is going on!? Bran? Branny? Please, someone report!”
A tight, clipped voice replied. “Fentan here. We are under attack. The… thing has returned. Jaheira is down. The captain… the captain is with her.”
“What is your status, Fentan?” Valygar replied with more calm than he could possibly feel.
“There! Twenty degrees to starboard!” Mazzy shouted.
“Ya Hey! Boo! Larry! Get it!! The sneaky tricksie Evil is dodgy! Evil shouldn’t dodge its buttkickings!”
“Our status,” Mazzy replied after the roar of minibarrel and distruptor drowned out the channel for a moment. “Is grim. I am starting to run out of ammunition. I am unsure of Minsc’s status. Not that it seems to matter. We are only buying time. Recommend you continue evac.”
“No! We aren’t leaving people behind! Bran! Bran!! Answer me you bufflehead!!!” Imoen shouted. Suddenly she felt a hand on her shoulder. It was Valygar, his usual calm face grim.
Softly he said, “We have our orders.”
“I am not leaving my brother behind!” she shouted back at him tearfully. “I won’t.”
“They are buying us time with their lives,” Valygar replied, his voice still whisper soft and the threat of tears behind his lashes. He wrapped his arms around her. “Would you dishonor that?”
Imoen punched him in the chest with both fists. “This isn’t the stupid Fleet! Those aren’t soldiers, they’re my… they’re our family. I’m not running away and leaving them to die! Nuh uh. No way.”
“Very well,” Valygar said, a small, sad smile cracking his grim visage. “We go back.”
“Yeah… ” she said softly herself. “Let’s… let’s do it.”
“And Valygar?” Imoen said, her voice trembling. “There’s something I have to say… while we have the chance…”
“You don’t have to,” he said softly.
“No. I do. Might be the last chance…” She sniffed and flipped up her faceplate. Eyes bright, she into Valygar’s dark eyes. “We have our differences, there are times I just want to kick you or dye your hair pink because of how frustrating…”
“I noticed,” he interrupted with a slight smile.
“Stop interrupting me! I’m trying to have a big emotional moment here and you go being all snarky! There’s a way these moments are supposed to go! You never see Thomas Theisman interrupting Honor Harrington in one of those dramatic trivids, do you?”
“No. But I’m better looking than Theisman,” he quipped as he lifted his faceplate.
“Grrr….” Imoen growled. “Here I am trying to tell you that I love you, and you go being glib! Of all the inconsiderate, annoying, frustrating…”
Valygar inconsiderately interrupted her again, but this time with a kiss. The kiss lingered a long moment as his hands wrapped softly around Imoen’s head. “My apologies,” he said, breaking the kiss and flashing a bright smile.
Imoen blinked, cheeks flushing. “Apology accepted.”
“Now, we have some pointless heroics to engage in, do we not?”
“Yeah. Right. Yeah.” She shook her head, still looking a little stunned. “Aerie? You stay behind us, okay?”
There was no response.
Both turned to look at where the doctor had been standing. The only trace of her was her light Mk III pulse rifle lying on the deck.
The screams. So many screams. They battered at her, clawed at her, trying to drag her down. So much pain, so much agony. A cacophony of voices begging for release, for freedom from centuries bound to an alien will, forced into torturous servitude. Compelled to drag more into the same service, the same soul slavery.
The screams sounded louder now in her skull. The dark alien will battered her shields with those screams, trying to overwhelm her. It wanted her broken, prostrate, yielding. Whispered promises of quick and painless death snaked their way through the cracks in her defenses. No servitude, just nothingness. All she had to do was surrender, lower her shields and it would be over in an instant. Just a flash of pain and then everything that was and had ever been Aerie Av’lina would cease to be.
It was tempting, so very tempting. No more screams, no more pain. Just peace. She could feel her defenses flagging and fading. There was no escape, no way out. Their escape was trading one death trap for another. If they did manage to fight free, death would claim them in the heat of fusion fed fire or the ice of the Void. So why continue to fight? Why not get it over with now? It seemed the wisest course, the easiest path.
And then two more screams joined the chorus of the damned. Two very familiar voices. Jaheira and Bran, both in great pain. She could feel their pain beating against her. Perhaps she was doomed. Perhaps death would claim them all and resistance was futile.
But these were her friends. She could not let them suffer, not while she still had some strength in this frail cage of flesh. Tossing her rifle aside as the useless detritus it was, she took off running. Running forward. To her friends. And the Enemy.
“Look Boo! There is the Dark Man! Quick! Blast him!” Minsc shouted, swinging Larry around. He pressed Larry’s trigger and fired, but the Dark Man dodged it. Deck plating steamed and boiled instead of Evil.
“This punk is starting to boil my coils!” Larry groused at another miss. “Tell him to stand still so I can blast him good and proper!!”
Sliding along the rail to try and draw a bead on the elusive Dark Man, Minsc admonished, “Evil is often Sneaky, Larry. That is why when we see it, we must thump it as hard as we can! There! There!” He brought up Larry’s emitter. “Fierce Mazzy! Coming your side, 20 degrees starboard! Let us smite it between us!”
Beam and flechettes converged at the point, clipping the Dark Man in shoulder and leg. It stumbled and lurched into the darkness. “This Evil is stubborn! It refuses to stay smited! Evil shouldn’t be like this, right Boo?”
The squeak from his shoulder spoke of great frustration, something he shared with his noble and mighty hamster friend. Larry groaned electronically in agreement. “No kidding. This is getting tiring. And I’m starting to run out of juice. How’m I gonna make things go splat if I’m out of splatting juice, eh?”
“Larry is right! We need to make every shot count Boo! We need Larry if we’re going to turn Dark Man into bite sized Foe chunks before the bombs turn us into bite sized Hero chunks.”
Boo squeaked in agreement and Minsc let loose another disruptor blast, the dark blue beginning to lighten.
There was just so much blood. It pumped from the deep tears in her suit, pouring through shredded armor and fabric. Desperate, he tried to staunch the flow, clamping his right hand over the horrific wounds to her left arm. But still the blood found its way out, running over his gauntleted hand to dribble down onto the deck below. But at least he managed to slow the torrent, buying both of them a few more moments.
Furiously, he scrabbled for the spilled contents of Jaheira’s medkit as voices yelled over the comms. He ignored them, the medkit was too important. Its contents were her only hope, and that hope hung by the tiniest of threads. Finally, his fingers caught on the strap. With a heave, he yanked it close. Ripping it open, he quested desperately for some of the pressure bandages, knocking injectors and ampoules about in his desperate search.
“Where the hells are they? Goddamnit, I don’t need anti burn meds, I need bandages!” he shouted, tossing aside another ampoule. Finally, he found a package. Ripping it open, he unfurled the strong, absorbent synthetic.
“Alright baby, I found them. I found ‘em. Now, just stick with me, okay? Just stick with me!” he pleaded as he wound the bandage around the wreck of her upper arm. Grabbing the tie offs, he dogged the bandage down ruthlessly. A single soft grunt escaped her lips as the pain of his attempts to stop her from bleeding to death reached down into her unconsciousness.
“Sorry baby,” he apologized, tying off the bandage. “But gotta stop the bleeding, right? First things first, right? That’s what you always say,” he continued, his voice trembling as he searched her unconscious face for any other sign. “And stopping the bleeding, that’s the first thing…”
The bandage tied off and quickly reddening, he yanked the mess of a kit over to him. “Now… we need… what the hell do we need? Frell… anti shock meds… painkiller? Or is it the blood expanders? Gotta be the blood expanders, right? That’s it?” he asked her as he furiously tore through the kit. “Just… which one are they? This one?” he asked, picking up a silver package with a long tube. “Come on baby, I need you to help me, I’m no medic.”
“Let me then,” a soft voice sounded in his ear as a hand touched his shoulder.
He turned in shock, staring up unblinkingly at the face of his ship’s doctor. Who he’d ordered to abandon ship. “Doc? What the hell are you doing here?”
She knelt down next to him, her attention solely focused on her patient. “Saving Jaheira’s life, if I can.” She sucked in a sharp breath as she waved her scanner over the left sleeve of Jaheira’s suit and armor. “The damage is critical, Bran. Both veins and the artery are severed, as are the nerve fibers. And nearly 9 cm of the humerus is… gone.” She clamped Bran’s hand over Jaheira’s shoulder while she pulled out her medkit and started pulling out tools.
“I ordered you... you and Im and Valygar off the ship. You all should be hitting space now. Why did you disobey my orders?” Bran shouted, still in shock from the events of the last few minutes.
“I am aware of that fact, but a Healer’s duty is to preserve life and ease pain, no matter what the cost, Captain,” Aerie said quickly and tightly. “But I am needed here and now. Jaheira’s left arm… Captain…” She put a hand on his shoulder. “If we were in a medbay, I could save it. But I must amputate if we are to save her.”
“Amputate?” Bran said, voice trembling and face ashen.
“Yes. There is not enough of the arm to bind back together. With her unconscious, I need your permission.”
“Captain. Bran… you must choose.”
“I… I…” Bran rocked back on his heels, his mind reeling. Things were out of control. All of his plans, failing. His crew, his love… It was too much. An enemy that couldn’t be killed. Friends he couldn’t save.
“Bran,” Aerie said softly. He felt her hand on his shoulder. The touch was gentle but reassuring. As he turned to her, he could see her concern, her fear in her eyes. Fear that he knew she could see in his. And yet there was no judgment there, just understanding. As he looked into her ice blue eyes, he could feel his fear and anguish draining from him.
He knew what he had to do.
He swallowed hard as his stomach sank through the floor. “Do it.”
She nodded. “Understood. Now, I must attend my duties, and sir… you are in the way.”
“Do… do all you can for her,” he said, knowing a dismissal when he heard one.
Regret and failure still burning in him, he pulled away. Scooping up his fallen weapon, he turned his attention back to the fight raging around him. “Status report!”
“Minsc and Boo and Fierce Mazzy are trying to stomp the Dark Man with our Boots of Righteousness, but it is slippery and quick! It is faster than an ice ferret after eating a bag of hot peppers!”
Blinking, he heard Fentan clarify, “Minsc is being colorful but correct. The Enemy is proving extremely maneuverable. It appears smaller as well. Neither of us has scored a direct since the first exchange, however we have wounded it. It continues to dodge around and under the gantryway.”
“Well, maybe a few more gun hands will even things out a bit, eh Branny?”
“Imoen? What the hell?” Bran turned to his right to see Imoen and Valygar hurrying forward to their defensive position. “Does anyone listen to my orders anymore?”
“Anymore? When did we start?” Imoen quipped with affected humor as she drew close. Pulling up next to him, her eyes flew to Jaheira and Aerie. That sassy smile crumbled as she asked softly. “Bran… is she?”
“The thing got her. She’s hurt bad… but the Doc’s with her. She’s going to be okay,” Bran lied.
Imoen smiled softly and briefly hugged him. “Course she is. She’s too tough to die. Plus, no way Death shows up for her. She’d dress him down for his shoddily run operation. And you know how prickly anthropomorphic representations can be.”
“Definitely,” Bran said with a hint of a smile. “Just take Lady Luck.”
“Prefer not to. She and I are not on speaking terms,” Imoen said, flipping off the safety of her Krobler.
“That reminds me, you still owe me 200 credits from last week’s poker game,” Valygar handily observed.
“I’m good for it,” Imoen replied. “Provided I don’t get eaten.”
“Then, shall we smite the Enemy?” Fentan observed dryly.
“Right. I’ll take the center. Imoen, backup Fentan. Valygar take my left. Let’s drop this bastard.”
Imoen nodded and moved to the right. As Valygar moved to the left, Bran reached out and grabbed him by the bicep. Softly but insistently, he said, “V. I ordered them off. I was counting on you to get my sister out of here.”
“Sir,” Valygar said, the pain in his eyes evident. “I did what I could. But she would not leave you behind to play hero. Did you expect different?”
“No,” he said sadly. “But I had to try.”
Valygar shrugged and flipped off the safeties on his Katanas. “Of course. But you know, it’s just like old times. First in, last out.”
Bran recognized the old Blackguard mantra used in the grimmest of situations. Cracking a wide smile he did not feel, he shouldered his Bladesinger and gave the age old reply. “Who’s leaving?”
Valygar nodded once and Bran returned it. The two old companions took up their positions at the rail. “Now all we have to do is hit the…”
With a sudden, short shriek, the gantry collapsed under them.