It’s over. It is defeated.
Those crystal-like words sang out in each of their minds, ringing out like a relieved angelic choir. They resonated in their souls and each one of them could feel the others’ smiles and taste their relief. Then, with all the dreadful suddenness of a hammer to the solar plexus, those crystalline words shattered into flinders. As one, each crewer closed their eyes and grabbed at their heads in sudden pain as Aerie severed their link, her mind overtaxed from the effort of maintaining it.
The sudden return to the constraints of the insides of their own skulls left each of them gasping and mind sore. It also left each of them with an indelible sense of loss. For a few fleeting moments, even if they had been locked in battle with an unspeakable evil, they had all been closer than any of them ever had been or ever would be again.
It was a bitter pill to swallow. To go from -being- each other to separate individuals seemed a pale reward for victory.
But it still was a reward. They were still alive. And that did mean something. Because while they might no longer be so bound together, they still were now closer than any group could be.
Still deep in shock from the power of the experience, Bran sagged exhaustedly against a bent piece of metal. Now he knew why their doctor so often seemed sad. To lose the bond that her people shared, to go from one of the many in unity to a separate individual all alone in the universe was a far more terrible fate than he could have imagined. He felt the crushing loss after just a few seconds, but to lose it after a lifetime… that was true pain.
That thought prompted his body to remind him of the abuse he’d put it through. Aches blossomed like stars, with the pain in his leg flaring brightest of them all. Cursing vociferously, he grabbed at his leg and the bar driven through it. Slapping a topical antipain pad from his medkit to the wound, he sighed in relief as the pain lessened. At least this pain was familiar.
Teeth gritted, he said over the comm, “Well, chalk one up for the good guys. How are we doing people?”
“Well enough now that we are not trapped,” Valygar said. The wiry navigator had picked his way over the rubble to where Patrick’s body lay. Bran brought Wynona up to cover him and noted Imoen doing the same thing. The navigator prodded the pile of flesh that substituted for a body with one foot. It didn’t move.
Not that he expected it to. He had felt it die when they were still all linked to Aerie. Actually, the term ‘death’ struck him is inaccurate. He doubted it could truly die as they understood it. Still, they’d bound it to Patrick’s body, and with its destruction, it too had been destroyed.
“No energy readings. No movement. Target down,” announced Valygar, slinging his Katanas. “We did it.”
“So we did,” Bran said, holstering Wynona.
“How are you, Captain?”
“Still alive, so doing pretty frelling awesome.”
“I’d second that,” Imoen sighed.
“Minsc would be better if he and Boo were not upside down.”
“I’ll get him, Branny,” Imoen said, bouncing her way through the rubble with her cutter in hand. Brilliant light flashed. “Hang on big guy, almost got you…” There was a very loud crash. “Down. Heh. Oops.”
“Minsc is down. So is Boo. But Tricksie Imoen should try not dropping Minsc on his head.”
“Sorry big fella.”
“Tricksie Imoen’s words say sorry, but her smile says she thinks it is funny.” Minsc shrugged. “Minsc cannot blame her. Boo is still giggling.”
“Minsc, can you go help Aerie get Jaheira down?” Bran asked, gritting his teeth. Waving off Valygar, he said, “And V, I’ll be fine, but go check on Mazzy, would you?” The dark skinned navigator nodded and headed off towards where Mazzy lay while Immy joined him at his side.
“I could use the help getting her down,” a surprising if exhausted voice replied.
“So it seems, if perhaps a little less of her. I am alive, if… pained. But the good doctor seems faint.”
“I… I am alright, J… Jaheira. Just tired.”
“Minsc and Boo are coming, heroic ladies! Minsc can help you both, for Minsc is strong and clever. And good at carrying things.”
“Indeed,” said Jaheira, somehow managing to sound long suffering.
Bran leaned back. “Well good.”
“And guys, hurry down. Bran needs a medic,” Imoen said concernedly.
“You’ve got a metal bar through your leg.”
“I’ve had worse.”
“You’re a loony.”
“I… I am on my w…way, Captain. Is anyone else h…hurt?”
“Mazzy,” said Valygar his voice tight.
“I…” She coughed wheezily. “Am well enough, friend Valygar.”
“You are coughing blood, Mazzy.” Heads snapped up at Valygar’s words.
“As I said. Well…” Her voice broke up in a fit of coughing. “Enough. I will die here … like my crew. And if nothing else…” Her voice crackled with another fit of coughing. “It will save me floating in that oversized suit. A small dignity.”
Minsc’s heavy footfalls returned. He lowered Jaheira down next to Bran and rushed Aerie over to Mazzy’s side. “Fierce Mazzy should not say that! Little Aerie can fix anyone!”
“I will do what I can, Minsc,” Aerie said softly as she knelt down by Valygar and Mazzy. Minsc’s strong hands surrounded her shoulders, keeping the still wobbly doctor upright.
As Aerie worked, Bran turned his head and looked over at Jaheira. Her face was bruised and bloodied and her suit a ruin. His eyes flickered to where her left sleeve dangled loose, stomach churning at the horrible sight. Unable to draw his eyes away, he felt her hand tighten on his shoulder.
He looked up and into Jaheira’s green eyes. For all the body had been battered, the fire behind those eyes burned just as bright. “I will be alright, love. Modern medicine can work miracles.”
“I know… it’s just…”
“I know.” She said it with complete and utter sincerity.
He knew she meant it. How could she not when their minds and hearts had been so linked. Yes, they’d been battling for their lives at the time, but they had been connected at the same time. Flushing and chuckling self consciously, he replied. “Yes, I suppose you do.”
“I always did.”
“So did I.”
“I know.” Her lips curled into a puffy smile. “And you look like hell.”
“I look like hell? Look who’s talking.”
“A point.” She turned her head to look at Imoen, who’d been sitting silently next to Bran. “And enough with those silly grins, child. I’ve only one good hand and I’d rather not leave my husband with a meter long chunk of metal in his leg. It will make it hard for him to dance.”
“Yes.” Jaheira replied with a slight smile and deadly serious eyes. “Do you object?”
“Well…” Bran blinked. One of these days she’d stop surprising him. But he hoped it wasn’t any time soon. “No. I mean, yes. I mean, no I don’t object and yes, I think it’s a good idea.”
As Imoen giggled uncontrollably, she shook her head. “Simple questions I ask yet answers are always so difficult.”
“What?” Bran fired back defensively. “You spring that on me and expect me to… YARRGHH!” Bran screamed as Imoen, at Jaheira’s nod, yanked the metal spear from his leg. As he pounded the wreckage around him in pain, Jaheira sprayed liquid bandage over the wounds. The analgesics in the foam eased the worst of the pain.
“That… that was dirty pool,” he accused through clenched teeth.
“Yes. But a distraction was necessary to get the metal out. So, I provided one.” She ran a hand scanner over the leg. “It will need further work, but this should control the bleeding. And the bone is intact.”
Bran massaged his left leg and flexed the foot. It still hurt, but the pain was far less severe. “I ever mention your bedside manner still leaves a lot to be desired?”
“You have. But most times I’ve convinced you of the wisdom of my methods.”
“Ack! Enough you two. No convincing! That’s just way too squicky to think about right now!” Imoen interrupted.
“The healthy exchange of ideas is disgusting, Imoen?” Jaheira asked.
“You were not talking about ideas.” She shook her head violently. “Gah! Incorrigible you two!”
“Gotta keep our spirits up, Immy.” Bran said with a chuckle.
“I’m not even touching that one.”
“That’s for the best, Imoen.”
“Gah! GAH! I’m going to check on Mazzy.” With that, she stood up and crossed over to where the others huddled around Mazzy.
“We should go check on her as well,” Jaheira said.
“I know. Can you walk?”
“My legs are fine, can you?”
He grabbed a broken piece of metal and hauled himself up, putting most of his weight on the artificial leg. “Hobbled, but I can.” He extended a hand down to Jaheira. She gripped his with her hand, allowing him to pull her up. She wrapped her arm around his back while he wrapped his over her shoulders, careful to not let his left hand get too close to what remained of her left arm.
They crossed the rubble-strewn deck with a painful slowness. Each step was carefully planned and executed as they picked their way through the debris of what had been the Helios’s engineering section. As they approached, Minsc stood and with a surprising gentleness, helped each to seats on a collapsed column. Neither released the other, both needing the other’s strength.
His voice laden with weariness, Bran looked over at Aerie. “How is she, Doc?”
Aerie raised her head slowly, the answer scribed clearly on her exhaustion-pinched face. “Captain Fentan’s left humerus and clavicle are broken. S… she also has five broken ribs, two of which have punctured the lung. There is also severe internal…”
“Captain,” Mazzy interjected with a fluid-rich cough. “The simple version is that I am mortally wounded.”
“Th… that is not true. If I could get her to a working medical facility, I could save her.”
“But, my good doctor, there is no medical facility,” she reached out and patted Aerie’s knee. “It is well enough. I will die here with my crew. Die here with my Patrick. That…” she coughed violently and grimaced. “That is enough.”
“How long?” Imoen asked.
“I… I am not sure. I’ve relieved some of the pressure, slowed the bleeding. Maybe an hour. Likely less.”
“Well, at least I will not die of my wounds. A small relief,” Mazzy sighed. “I… I always wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. Now, I shall get my wish.”
Mazzy’s words sobered the others. Not just for the sangfroid with which she faced her death but the realization that they were sitting inside several hundred megatons of soon to be explosive ship. Looking over at his sister, Bran asked, “And how long do we have before Boom?”
“Fourteen minutes, twenty three seconds. Give or take a half minute due to battle damage,” Imoen replied grimly.
Bran nodded. “Alright. You need to get going.”
“Going?” Imoen exclaimed.
“You need to get of this ship. Now. You, Valygar, Minsc, Doc… your suits are intact. Get going.”
“I’m not leaving without you! I wouldn’t then, I’m not now!”
“Look, Immy… Jaheira can’t leave. Mazzy can’t. I can’t. At least you can save yourselves.”
“Before we get into a long and dramatic emotional scene complete with avowals of love, I would like to point something out,” Valygar interjected.
“Yes V?” Bran said with more annoyance than he wished.
“By my calculations, we passed the time limit for reaching minimum safe distance two minutes ago.”
Both Bran and Imoen looked at each other then at Valygar. In unison, both said, “Oh.”
Everyone else smiled.
“See, told you I wasn’t leaving you,” Imoen replied with a smile that was a mere shadow of its usual self.
“You know, I hate it when you’re right, Sis. Never more than now.”
“I know.” Tears in her eyes, she hugged him. Bran wrapped his right arm around his sister’s shoulders and hugged her back fiercely. Still buried in her brother’s hug, she quipped, “And I even knew the perfect wedding present.”
“Wedding?” Valygar asked, eyes widening slightly.
“Captain Bran and Wise Jaheira are getting married! This is great news!” From his shoulder, Boo squeaked. “And Boo is happy too. But he is sad that you will not get a honeymoon. He says that’s the best part. Minsc thinks the presents are.” With a huge grin, he hugged Aerie, who was smiling a very knowing smile.
“My congratulations to both of… you. Although my wishes for your long life and happiness may… go unanswered.”
Shaking his head, Bran replied, “Thanks guys. I know it’s a bit sudden… but you know, sometimes you have to work fast.”
“Indeed you do,” Jaheira said, smiling brightly at Bran. Then turning to Imoen, she chided softly, “Imoen, you never cease to steal others thunder, do you?”
“Hey, you leave it lying around, I’m gonna take it,” Imoen laughed. Lifting her head, she smiled very broadly at Jaheira and said with deliberate emphasis, “Sis.”
“Sis? Oh for the love of Silvanus, I had forgotten that.”
“Too late now, dear,” Bran said. “You’re stuck.”
“Blood loss. Too much blood loss left me not thinking clearly,” Jaheira groused good naturedly.
Bran smiled. “Well, too late for you now.”
“Indeed,” Jaheira said with a smile.
“Aww man, Nalia’s going to be pissed she missed all of this,” Imoen chuckled, rocking back on to her heels.
“Somehow, I don’t see her complaining overmuch,” Valygar quipped.
“Well, you know how she is, always grousing about missing out on all the fun stuff. Adventure, fun, weddings…”
“Gun fights, desperate situations, thermonuclear destruction.”
“Stop being so realistic. It’s annoying.”
“My apologies, O Pink One.”
“Right,” Imoen replied with a roll of her eyes. “Even with the chance of being turned into so many disassociated atoms, I still think Nalia would want to be here.”
“Even with her occasional lapses, I doubt it. She is capable of reason.”
Slow, small smiles crept over the rest of the crew’s faces as the two of them continued their bickering. Bran had always posited that even Armageddon wouldn’t stop two of them. Casting a look over at the reactors that soon would be going supercritical, it looked like he was right on that one. He leaned over and whispered to Jaheira. “You owe me fifty credits.”
“Once again I pay the price for being wisdom’s champion.”
Bran chuckled as Imoen gasped. “Capable of reason? Oh! You’re implying I’m incapable of reason, aren’t you? Aren’t you?”
“I made no such statement.” Valygar said with a small smile.
“That’s what implying means, bufflehead!”
“Yeah, you dunderface! So, you’re saying I’m unreasonable? Just some impulsive, wild, uncontrolled ditz?”
“I have said no such thing.”
“You implied it!”
“Fine. I’ll show you impulsive and unreasonable!” With that, Imoen grabbed Valygar by the back of the helmet and kissed him. Thoroughly.
“And you owe me two hundred credits,” Jaheira whispered back as Imoen bent Valygar’s head backwards.
Bran chuckled. “So I do.”
Imoen released Valygar and crossed her arms. She looked back at him sternly, eyebrow arched and arms crossed over her chest. “Well?”
“Men!” Imoen huffed. “Sometimes I wonder why I bother.”
The others broke into laughter, even Mazzy, who quickly sputtered into a coughing fit. Aerie knelt next to her and gave her a quick injection, which eased the fit. Face still lined with pain, Mazzy smiled. “They are exceptionally confusing, Imoen.” The smile faded as her eyes flitted over to where the still form of what had once been Patrick lay. The darkness lifted and the smile returned. “But worth it.”
Imoen smiled. “I guess. Even this one.” She thumbed at Valygar.
“Possibly even that one.”
The spurred another round of laughter. Wiping at his eyes, Bran chuckled, “You know, you might be right, Im. Nalia probably would have wanted to be here… if for no other reason than to see you do that.”
Imoen flushed. “Um… well… Bran!”
“Minsc is confused as to why Cute Nalia would want to see that. Boo says he will explain later. But Minsc is wondering when. There is not much later left.”
“You know, Pink One, you are almost the color of your … Nalia?”
“My Nalia? What the heck are you talking about bufflehead? We’re just friends! Just friends! No matter what you might want to think!”
“Quiet!” Valygar hissed harshly.
“But…” Imoen looked hurt.
Valygar didn’t even look, hunching forward and pressing a hand to his helmet. “Come again.”
“I was saying...”
“Not you Imoen! I think I have Nalia.”
“Enough! The signal is weak.” He typed rapidly on his wristcomp. “I’m clearing it up. Patching it through to common channel.”
The signal was weak and crackly, but the voice was definitely Nalia’s. “Valygar! Come back. Your signal’s weak and there’s tremendous interference. What’s your situation?”
“Nalia?” Bran cut in.
At her reply, a whoop of pure joy went up from the crew. Just hearing Nalia’s voice sent a surge of hope crashing through him. Wide grins cracked faces as the chance of rescue went from dim thought to blazing reality. Giddy from relief, Bran chuckled a reply, “Yes I am. Reading you five by five. What’s your location?”
“Inbound, twenty four thousand kilometers aft of the Helios. I had a little issue with the natives. I mean, what the hell was that? I mean, they didn’t show up on the bioscanners.”
“I know. The ship had, I repeat had a zombie problem.”
“Zombies? Like in the horror vids?”
“Yes and no. Look, I’ll explain it all once we’re onboard, but we kinda need evac now.”
“On my way. Oh, and Captain, you might want to be quick about it. I’m getting some frightening readings from the Helios’s reactor cores. They look like they’re building to supercritical. Estimate eleven minutes until detonation. And Captain… I’m reading your signal as from inside Main Engineering?”
“Correct,” Bran replied as he checked his chronometer readings. Based on their own predictions, they still had twelve minutes. Must have been the battle damage. “We’re in Main Engineering now. We’re the ones behind the runaway reactors.”
“Oh. Okay.” The surprise in Nalia’s voice rang loud and clear. “Right.” There was a moment’s pause. “Do you think you can reach T Deck, Section 30? There appears to be an intact airlock there.”
Bran looked at Valygar and Imoen. Both were consulting their wristcomps and displays. Both looked grim. “Nalia, we’ve got wounded and that’s a long haul, especially on our time frame. Can you get closer?”
“I’ve got another one that looks promising. Q deck, starboard…”
“No go on that one. Too much damage between there and here.” The blazing smiles faded into ashen embers.
“Then it’s got to be T Deck. The starboard side gantry was the only one equipped with cutters, and no way I’m getting through that armor with a handtorch.”
“Minsc and Larry could punch through the hull!” Minsc boomed helpfully.
“Too great a chance to blow the gantry,” Jaheira countered.
“The starboard side gantry isn’t the only thing with burners.” Valygar interjected, his head snapping up.
Bran snapped his fingers. “You’re right. The Big E! Started life a troop shuttle. Still has the burners on the aft hatch. V-Man, you’re a genius!”
“Indeed.” Valygar nodded and grinned. “Nalia, you can use the Nav console to remotely pilot…”
“You may be a genius, Valygar, but I did build most of this ship. As soon as you mentioned it, I had preflight underway. She’s a bit low on fuel, no time to fix that. Passing you coordinates now.”
There were a few chuckles at Valygar’s expense as the navigator nodded. “Understood. I have the coordinates.”
“And Nalia, keep those drives nice and toasty, would you?” Bran added. “I’d prefer not to be rescued to be blown up.”
“Of course.” Her voice then took on a lighter air, parroting some official announcement. “Now, would you please repair to the port side of the ship for immediate debarking. Please remember to check your immediate area for any personal belongings and thank you for flying NaliaAir.”
“Well, you heard the lady.” Bran said, getting to his feet with a groan. “We’ve got a few sections to cover and not all that much time, so let’s get moving.”
“M…Minsc, you’ll need to h…help moving Mazzy. She won’t be able to w…walk on her own.”
“That is unnecessary,” coughed Mazzy. “I intend to stay behind. I will die here, with my crew. With my Patrick. It is best this way, I would only slow you down and time is of the essence.”
“B…but you don’t need to die,” Aerie looked up at Bran, eyes imploring. “Captain, Bran… she doesn’t need to die. I can heal her.”
He felt Jaheira’s good arm tighten around him as he looked down at Mazzy lying on the broken deck. She looked back her face serene but her dark eyes pleading for him to accede to her wishes. He understood her reasons, and knew that they were only cloaked in self sacrifice. She’d lost her crew, lost Patrick. He knew how she felt, having felt those losses before, but he also knew how she felt. The pain and the guilt at being the only one to survive. She shared the same horrible burden as Captain Vico, a captain to outlive her entire crew. And now she wanted to follow Captain Vico’s example.
He could let her. He could let her play the role she’d chosen, to sacrifice herself for the good of others. Thing is, the role was not the reason. She just wanted to die. She didn’t want to carry the guilt and pain any longer, and this seemed the easiest, the noblest way to do it.
If it had just been the two of them, he would have let her.
However, it was not just the two of them. The rest of his crew knew the pain she was in, had felt it when they were joined. His crew was a family and now Mazzy was part of it. You don’t leave family behind, not even when they want to. So, as much as he commiserated, he had no choice. She’d have to come along.
He also was too tired for some flowery debate or drawn out drama. Time was of the essence and survival trumped poetry. Nodding to Minsc, he said simply. “Doc’s right. Minsc, pick up Mazzy. We’re out of here.”
The massive gunner knelt down and scooped Mazzy into his arms as the others headed for the exit with Imoen at the lead. She protested loudly, demanding, “Put me down! Put me down you big lummox!”
“Minsc understands that Fierce Mazzy is worried, but Captain Bran is always right. And soon, Little Aerie will have you all patched up so we can do much more heroing! Hooray!”
As Minsc followed the others, Mazzy groused, “Your Captain has no sense of proper drama.”
“Captain Bran says he doesn’t need one. He has Imoen, which is more than enough for any sane person. Boo thinks he’s right.”