The War in Iraq sets the backdrop for this tale of two lost souls who find each other and a measure of happiness amidst the violence and insanity around them. Captain Lacey Stephens is a disillusioned flight surgeon who wants nothing more than to escape the nightmare her life has become.
Chief Warrant Officer Mackenzie Papadopoulos is an ace helicopter pilot seeking action and danger, who gets assigned to Lacey's medical unit. When the two meet, sparks fly and they strike up a fast friendship that quickly turns into so much more, as war wages around them and the action heats up to dangerous proportions.
Disclaimers: This story contains sex, violence, adult language and adult content. If you are under 18 or relations between two women are illegal where you live, please move on.
Note: This story is purely fiction. Liberties were taken in order to move the storyline forward and develop the characters
Feedback: Please!!! This is my first non-XWP story post, so I'm very interested to know what you think. Please send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you “liked” it or “hated” it, please elaborate so I can improve. Thanks much and happy reading!
Iraq – 2005
It was hot—again. Not much change from the day before, or even the day before that. In mid-April the temps had already reached a balmy 100 degrees. Balmy wasn't really a word one could use to describe the climate of Iraq , but hot just didn't cut it, either. Sweltering? Maybe. Stifling? Definitely. Blistering? Always. But simply hot? That word seemed too benign to give the sweltering heat any real impact.
Captain Lacey Stephens stepped out of her sparse quarters into the bright sunlight of another cloudless day and felt the dry air hit her slender, five-foot four-inch frame like a blow dryer set on overdrive. She scowled as she checked the blond braid tucked beneath her cap to make sure none of the errant locks that usually escaped during the course of the day had done so already. She felt the moisture gathering at her hairline and sighed. Even before she had donned her light-weight, buff-colored fatigues she'd been sweating. It was only 0630 and the temps were already in the mid-80s. Despite the heat, though, the camp was bustling with early-morning activity.
Soldiers from the 150 th Medical Evacuation Unit were busy in various activities. A few were heading to the mess tent. Some were refitting the ten working Black Hawk helicopters for their daily trek into the desert, a journey that would soon take place only at night, as the temps peaked in the 120s during the day. Still others were taking care of the many casualties in the three smaller medical facilities and the one hospital. Whatever their destination, they carried themselves in an orderly, military fashion born of hours of intense training and discipline.
Maintenance crews in their grease-stained buff overalls moved from one aircraft to the next with precision and determination. Parts were checked and re-checked to be sure the wind, sand and heat had not degraded them or caused any unexpected problems. Electrical systems were calibrated and re-calibrated to safeguard against catastrophic failures. Parts were cleaned with solvents and re-greased to remove the ever-present sand that seemed to permeate every nook and cranny of the delicate machinery.
Nurses, doctors and field medics came and went from the main hospital, emptying bed pans, disposing of medical waste, and tending to the casualties who would soon be transported to far off Germany , before being shipped back to the States for their final recovery.
Supply clerks took care of the many supply needs that hit their desks every day. Anything from tongue depressors to Black Hawk engines had to pass through mounds of red tape before being distributed where the need was greatest. Some considered it a cake job, but those in Supply knew the real truth – there were no cake jobs in the military.
Mail delivery, vehicle transportation, and food service were a few of the other areas of expertise needed for this command center to run smoothly and in perfect military precision. It was all very daunting, if one chose to dwell on it. Fortunately, no one but the company commander and his staff had the time.
It was a 24/7/365 job to keep everything running with military precision and there was never a dull moment in the desert just fifty miles south of Bagdad . Hardly a moment passed to just sit and contemplate or wonder why one had chosen to join the military in the first place. No, to question one's place in this war would undermine the authority of those higher up the chain-of-command – the ones responsible for making the decisions. That just wasn't done. So, the commanders made sure those beneath them were kept busy ─ very busy.
A baby-faced sergeant stepped up in front of Lacey and saluted. She returned the salute unconsciously, just as she had done a hundred times before. She didn't much care for the protocols or the pomp and circumstance of her rank, but the benefits of being a doctor – actually a surgeon – far outweighed her sense of propriety. Medicine was her life and was the one thing that gave her a sense of purpose. It was also the one thing keeping her from going insane in this place so far from everything she had ever known.
“Here's the flight plan for today, Cap'n,” Sergeant Hector Gonzales regarded her casually, handing over a plain manila envelope.
Lacey's familiarity with the staff was something that endeared her to them, despite her aloofness. She knew many of their names and always greeted them with a smile, unless she was in one of her more somber moods. Today, however, was a good day. The smile she flashed the young sergeant made her appear much younger than her thirty years.
“How's it going today, Sergeant Gonzales?” Lacey inquired, her smile reaching sea-green eyes in a rare display of sincere joy. “You keeping yourself busy?”
“Same as always, ma'am,” he returned her grin. “Never a dull moment.”
Lacey took the offered envelope and opened it. She pulled out the single sheet that contained her team's orders for the day, scanned them without actually reading them and handed them back to the sergeant. The document was pretty much the same as it had been every day since her arrival in the desert.
“Carry on, Sergeant,” she said, with another crisp salute. “Try to stay out of this heat, will ya? Doctor's orders.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he smirked. “I'll tell the Colonel you said so, ma'am.”
“You do that,” she smirked back with a teasing gleam. “I'm sure he'd love to hear that I'm giving his staff orders.”
Gonzales hid a grin as he saluted, then turned on his heel and headed for the flight line just as he had for the past three months. There was time enough later for pleasantries. For now, he had work to do and not much time to do it.
Lacey watched him go and shook her head with a smirk. Gonzales was one of the few people she interacted with on a daily basis. They were on friendly terms, but Lacey couldn't say it went much beyond that. She didn't have many friends and mostly kept to herself whenever possible. It wasn't easy being an officer in a world of non-coms─non-commissioned officers─but Lacey tried not to dwell on it, much.
She turned her steps toward the mess tent and a much anticipated cup of coffee. It wasn't the best coffee she'd ever had, but it was more palatable than the stale water and offered enough kick to get the blood pumping.
Coffee was a staple, especially in a place that was completely alcohol-free, and as such was treated with as much dignity and respect as the compound's highest ranking officer. Not. Actually, it tasted like old socks and smelled as bad as the boys' high school locker room back home. The coffee's only saving grace was that it could probably wake the dead, even on the hottest day.
Lacey entered the mess tent and headed directly for two large metallic coffee dispensers, bypassing the mess line entirely. The line for coffee was smaller so she took her place at the back and patiently waited her turn.
As she stood there, she unconsciously surveyed her surroundings, taking in the various individuals all dressed in the same buff-colored camouflage attire. She tried to tune out the activity around her, only half-listening to conversations that ranged from the oppressive heat to speculation about what was happening Stateside. Though she was surrounded by people, she felt very alone. The thought was fleeting as she stepped up and filled her cup.
Her first sip of the inky brown/black brew sent a jolt of caffeine through her that jumpstarted her brain cells enough to clear the cobwebs. She tried not to smell or taste it as she took another swallow, letting the brew chase away her gloomy thoughts and the depression that was settling in again.
“Ah,” she sighed, making her way to a small table in a far corner.
She sat down in the quiet corner, but was quickly surrounded by people of similar rank. As her companions basically ignored her, the loneliness returned full-force and not even the coffee could dispel her somber mood. She wondered briefly how she could be surrounded by so many people, yet feel like she was the only one in the room.
“Hey, Cap'n,” a young female lieutenant – Morris by her embroidered nametag – said cheerfully. “How's it going this morning?”
“Perfect, Lieutenant,” Lacey answered with a pleasant smile. “You?”
“Can't complain,” the perky lieutenant replied with a bright smile, eating her breakfast of reconstituted eggs and overcooked bacon with gusto. “I have a couple days of R&R coming up, so things are definitely looking up.”
“Yeah,” Lacey replied, trying to stay focused on the conversation. “I'm supposed to take a few days off myself, but I'm not sure how that'll go. It would be great to just sit and soak in a nice hot tub of clean water for a change. I don't know about you, but I've had enough of this damned sand to last me a lifetime.” She absently scratched her ribs. “I have sand in places no sand was ever meant to go.”
“I hear ya there, Cap'n,” Morris replied, between bites of eggs. “I'm grittier than my grandpa before he died at the tender age of ninety-six.”
Both women chuckled silently at the joke. Lacey realized she liked the spunky lieutenant and was getting used to spending her chow time in the younger woman's company. Unfortunately, there was always work to be done and neither woman had much time to do more than pass along brief pleasantries.
“Well, Lieutenant,” Lacey said, finishing off the last of her coffee and standing to leave. “It's been a pleasure, as always. I'll see ya around.”
The lieutenant, as always, made to stand, but Lacey waved her off. This was one of those places where standing on ceremony was just plain stupid. Everyone, despite their rank, had to eat. Because this was the only mess tent in the entire compound it just didn't pay to adhere to military protocol.
Lacey made her way to the far side of the tent and deposited her empty cup in a dish tub. As she exited, she donned her hat and unconsciously saluted three NCOs, two warrant officers, a private and six corporals. It had taken her only a few days in the desert to get used to life in the field, but now it was second nature to her. As she made her way to the flight line, she was intercepted by Gonzalez. He saluted and she returned the salute.
“Back again, Gonzales?” Lacey said with a raised brow. “Is it my winning personality?”
“Colonel Farrell wants to see you, ma'am,” Gonzales said without ceremony.
“Did the Colonel happen to mention why?” Lacey answered with a slightly raised brow. “We have a flight schedule to keep this morning, Sergeant.” She glanced at her watch to emphasize her point.
“No, ma'am,” Gonzales answered, slowing his pace slightly to adjust to her smaller gait.
Gonzales was a genial guy when he wasn't running errands and carrying out the Colonel's orders. She liked him, but didn't have the urge to take their congenial working relationship any further. Lacey knew she didn't have the most approachable personality and often wondered when that had changed. She'd been quite popular in high school and even in medical school, but that wasn't the case anymore.
She glanced over at her companion and saw that he was waiting for her answer. She stifled the urge to sigh out loud and girded herself for what was to come.
“Well, then, Sergeant Gonzales,” Lacey acknowledged. “Let's not keep the Colonel waiting. We both know how he gets when that happens.”
“Must have been a really good cup of Joe this morning, ma'am,” Gonzales commented, noticing the slight spring to her step.
“No,” she forced a smile, not missing a beat. “Just not willing to let this heat get the better of me today.”
“Ah,” he conceded. “You have some R&R coming up, ma'am?”
“One can only hope, Sergeant,” she answered. “One can only hope. You think I can get you to scare up a tub of clean water for me in the next day or two?”
The look of doubt he gave her was answer enough.
“Well, it was worth a try,” Lacey shrugged. “I'll try to keep that thought in the back of my mind as the end of my tour creeps closer. Give me something to look forward to.”
They reached the buff-colored trailer, unremarkable in the midst of several other structures of similar design. The only distinguishing feature that set this outbuilding apart from the others was a well-used saddle set on a saw horse just outside the entrance. It was an oddity, to be sure, but one that everyone had attributed to one of the eccentricities of their commanding officer.
The man loved horses and would have made a great military cavalryman, if only he'd been born a hundred years earlier. Unfortunately, he hadn't. So, he compensated by placing a token of his affection outside the building he occupied.
Lacey and Gonzales entered the outer reception area and were “greeted” by the Commander's clerk, Lieutenant Dix. She was a middle-aged woman, with short-cropped hair and no-nonsense attitude that could put the most seasoned soldier in his place. She was seated at a worn desk piled high with manila envelopes. She glanced up as Lacey approached.
“Captain Stephens reporting as ordered,” Lacey stated, not intimidated in the least by the lieutenant.
“I'll let him know you're here, Captain Stephens,” the clerk said, stepping around her desk and disappearing into the inner office area beyond.
Lacey didn't have much time to wait. Before she knew it the lieutenant was back and returned to her seat behind the desk.
“Go right in, ma'am,” she said, returning her attention to the mound of paperwork that was stacked in front of her.
Lacey braced herself and squared her shoulders, then proceeded into the office's interior with sure steps. She stopped in front of the CO's desk, stood at attention and waited.
“Captain Stephens reporting as ordered, sir,” she said, remaining at perfect attention with eyes forward, chin up and back straight.
She didn't look at the various plaques that littered the walls, nor did she see the statuary – mostly equestrian – that graced the shelves, along with a few tattered books. She had been in that office enough times to know what was there, right down to the well-worn oak desk that was the Commander's pride and joy.
“At ease, Captain,” Colonel Farrell said casually. “Please, take a seat. It's too damned hot to be standing on ceremony.”
Although Tom Farrell was a career military man, he wasn't always a by-the-book commander. He would often invite his officers to join him for quiet time in his tent, or he would socialize with the enlisted personnel in the recreation tent. More than once Lacey had found herself “smoking” a cigar and enjoying an ice cold beverage, while listening intently to him talk about his wife or his family or his life back home on his ranch in Tennessee .
She liked him as both a friend and a commander. They shared a mutual respect for the finer things in life, which had only almost crossed the line once. Even after that brief incident, they'd worked out their differences and kept their friendship intact.
Lacey took a seat in one of two office chairs in front of the Colonel's desk. Only then did she sense another presence in the room.
“Captain Lacey,” the Colonel said, as if on cue. “Meet your new pilot.”
Lacey turned to stare up into a pair of sky blue eyes that were intently fixed on her. The eyes emerged from the shadows to reveal a beautiful woman of almost Amazonian height, with dark hair pulled back in a French braid. The sleeves of the pilot's tan jump suit were rolled up to the elbows, revealing tanned, muscular arms that spoke of someone who prided herself on staying fit. The thought crossed Lacey's mind that the woman was better suited to starring in a Hollywood blockbuster than flying military aircraft in the desert.
“Chief Warrant Officer Mackenzie Papadopoulos,” Farrell continued the introduction. “This is my top flight surgeon, Captain Lacey Stephens.”
Lacey stood up to shake hands with the pilot and felt dwarfed by the woman's size. Papadopoulos was definitely more than six feet tall and very intimidating, despite her slender frame. Despite the woman's physical attributes, however, Lacey felt a strange sense of comfort in the woman's presence.
“It's a pleasure to meet you, Chief,” Lacey smiled, shaking the proffered hand that was considerably larger than her own. For some strange reason she wanted to hear the woman speak, although she couldn't understand the reason behind it.
“Please, call me Mac, Captain,” the pilot's voice was low and melodic, which caused an unfamiliar tingle to chase down Lacey's spine. “And the pleasure is mine. I've heard a lot about you and your work here.”
Lacey blushed slightly, a little embarrassed by the words and by the reaction they caused to her traitorous body. She could still feel a residual tingle race up her back and wanted nothing more than to turn tail and leave the room.
“Just doing my job,” Lacey shrugged, letting a modest smile play at the corner of her lips. Compliments about how she did her job always seemed to make her feel slightly uncomfortable, because she considered it her duty to do the best she could to help those in her care. It wasn't something she gave much thought to.
“Sir,” Lacey reluctantly tore her gaze from those mesmerizing eyes and turned back to the Colonel. “May I ask what happened to Mr. Jankowski? I wasn't aware of a change in his status.”
“Mr. Jankowski was transferred to Camp Anaconda last night,” the Colonel answered matter-of-factly. “His orders came in at the last minute. I know he was disappointed that he couldn't say goodbye to you in person, so he asked me to do it for him.”
CW2 Ollie Jankowski had been Lacey's pilot for the last three months, and she was disappointed to lose him. They'd spent many a night going over their flights from the previous day and had discovered a mutual fondness for mint chocolate chip ice cream, which they occasionally shared after a long day in the field.
“I'm sorry to hear that, sir,” Lacey answered behind a mask of indifference. “I'll have to email him when I get the chance. Is there anything else, sir?”
“No, that'll be all,” he answered. “You're both dismissed.”
Both women snapped to attention in unison.
“Yes, sir,” they answered in unison.
Both women turned on their heels and marched from the trailer without a word. After several paces in the hot sun, though, Lacey's temper let loose and she started grumbling to herself. Mac glanced at her in silence, but continued walking along side the shorter woman. The grumbling continued until Lacey was actually grinding her teeth.
“Son of a bitch, damned military and its asinine rules and friggin' regulations,” her words finally started making sense. She kicked a small rock out of her way with enough force to send it sailing several yards away then winced a bit.
“You okay?” Mac finally spoke.
“Yeah,” Lacey replied with a heavy sigh. “The whole thing just kinda threw my equilibrium off for a second there.” She looked up and met concerned blue eyes gazing back at her. “Sorry. I don't usually react like that to the stuff that happens around here. Didn't mean to freak you out or anything.”
Mac shrugged. “Not a problem. I understand.”
They continued walking in companionable silence. Mac figured the woman next to her needed some time to get used to her and, well, if truth be told she needed time to think, as well. They had arrived only just that morning after a twelve hour flight from Germany and she was still trying to figure out what happened. Her orders had changed so suddenly from the weekly supply runs in Afghanistan to a medical unit here in Iraq that she felt a little disoriented by the abrupt change.
Mac's gaze took in the clean rows of barracks laid out before her. The place was much different than she'd thought it would be. There were plenty of stories about Iraq circulating, and she had heard her share during her tour in Afghanistan , but nothing could prepare her for this place. Then again, nothing could prepare her for meeting the woman next to her. They had just met and already she felt as if they had been friends all their lives.
“So, where were you stationed last?” Lacey asked, breaking the silence.
“ Afghanistan ,” Mac answered easily, putting on a pair of regulation sun glasses to cut down on the intense desert glare. “We did supply runs for the troops up there. It was a fairly easy gig.”
“Hm,” Lacey turned her gaze on her companion. “Not so much here.”
“How so?” Mac eyed the woman next to her who was trying to appear casual.
“The days and nights are long,” Lacey continued with a shrug. “We don't get many breaks, especially when the fighting is heavy. We do a lot of caravan support, not to mention the troop escorts and occasional downed aircraft.”
“Uh huh,” Mac uttered.
“Not very glamorous, that's for sure,” Lacey grumbled.
“That's good,” Mac commented. “I'm not very fond of glamour. If I was, I'd be doing stunt work in Hollywood .”
Lacey glanced sideways. “ Hollywood ?”
Mac smirked. “I have a cousin who does stunt flying for movies and TV. He makes decent money and gets to do a lot of flying.” She gazed out at the desert beyond the compound. “Of course, there's always the lull period.”
“Yeah,” Mac continued. “The time in between jobs. Sometimes he can go an entire year without being called to do anything. Of course, those times are pretty rare.”
Lacey stopped walking and turned toward her companion with a confused look.
“What?” Mac asked.
“Are you serious? Or are you just yankin' my chain?” Lacey resumed walking. “I've never had such a ridiculous conversation before.” She shook her head in mild exasperation.
“Just passing the time with idle chit chat, Captain,” Mac returned with a shrug.
They continued on toward the flight line in silence. Mac didn't know what to make of the shorter doctor, and Lacey was too confused by the turn the conversation had taken to say anything. She mentally chastised herself for getting caught up in the benign banter, then realized it was the first truly interesting—if strange—conversation she'd had in a while.
She didn't usually say too much when it came to meeting new people and was shy and slightly reserved until she got to know someone. But the woman walking—or towering, rather—next to her just put her at ease and she wasn't afraid to speak her peace.
“Couldn't do it,” Mac's voice suddenly broke the uncomfortably lengthy silence that stretched between them.
“Fly for any of those Hollywood types,” Mac chuckled wryly, showing off perfect white teeth. “I have a real problem with authority.”
Lacey looked up into shaded lenses and imagined the blue eyes laughing back at her, then saw the quick rise and fall of the woman's shoulders as she chuckled.
“You're making fun of me,” the doctor stated with a frown.
“No,” Mac responded thoughtfully. “Just teasing you a bit. You looked like you needed it.”
“Hm,” Lacey uttered and nodded absently.
They continued on in silence from there. Lacey tried to come to terms with the sudden change in personnel, knowing how the Army worked and all. She hated when things like this happened. It irked her, because she liked and respected Jankowski. He was a friend and she had very few of those. Now he was gone. No goodbye. No farewell hug. He was just—gone.
Her thoughts drifted back to the woman walking next to her and she realized maybe this wasn't such a bad thing after all. It would be an interesting adjustment, considering she had never been assigned to work with a woman pilot before. The thought made her glance toward the object of her musings.
“So,” Lacey said, then immediately clammed up.
“So?” Mac responded, when she realized the smaller woman was not going to say more.
Lacey stopped walking and turned toward her companion again. Two pairs of shaded eyes locked, despite the difference in height.
“You don't think this is even slightly weird?” Lacey asked, hands on her hips in a mild show of irritation.
“What?” Mac was at a loss. She was still trying to come to terms with her own change in venue, not to mention the fact that she was now a medical pilot, with a flight surgeon to keep track of.
“This,” Lacey said, waving a hand between the two of them. “You, me—two women paired up together by the Army to fly missions? It's just...”
“Weird?” Mac finished Lacey's sentence with a smirk, crossing her arms over her chest. She realized the doctor was more than just a little flustered by the change. “Or would you prefer ‘ironic'? I personally like that one better. Puts a definite spin on the whole integration thing.”
“Exactly,” Lacey said with a knowing smile. “I feel like we just stepped into an episode of the Twilight Zone or something.”
“Yeah, me, too,” Mac answered, resuming her trek. “I love that show, by the way. I think it's still on at night.”
“ Nick at Nite ,” Lacey added absently. “Yeah, I used to catch it on the TV in the lounge at college sometimes. Rod Serling had one twisted mind.”
“Gene was a genius,” Mac said casually.
“Roddenbury,” Mac answered. “You know, the guy who created Star Trek , the original TV series? Made me want to be an astronaut and fly all over the damned galaxy. After I watched an episode, I would just lie outside on the front lawn and gaze up at the stars for hours. I could almost imagine being up there, soaring through the galaxies alongside Captain Kirk, getting feedback from Spock—Bones cracking inappropriate jokes. Hm.”
“So,” Lacey continued. “What happened to that dream? I mean, you're not exactly an astronaut.”
Mac rubbed her fingers together. “Needed the cash, instead. It's not easy being the sister of a rancher.”
“So you joined the military?” Lacey chuckled. “Boy, were you sold a bill of goods. Hate to burst your bubble, Mac, but I don't think anyone ever got rich in the military.”
“No,” Mac shrugged. “Guess I'll have to take it up with my recruiter when I get home.”
“Me, too,” Lacey chuckled. “They should be held accountable for their false advertising claims. Then again, who goes through all that schooling to become a doctor just to join the Army?”
They glanced at each other and burst out laughing as they continued meandering toward the flight line. They finally reached the row of Black Hawk helicopters. Suddenly Mac veered off as Lacey kept on walking, until she realized she was walking toward an aircraft that was no longer there.
Lacey stopped in mid-stride and just stood there with hands on her hips, staring off toward the empty desert. What the hell had just happened? She didn't quite know. In the space of half an hour her entire world had been turned on its ear, and she felt really off-balance for it. She was never off-balance.
As a flight surgeon, Captain Lacey Stephens was the model of composure. Everyone looked to her for direction, especially during those times when it counted most. She knew the answers. She gave the orders. Colonel Farrell relied on her to be in charge during missions.
The Army counted on her to be strong and had trained her to be in charge. It was her responsibility to be the one in complete control, even when things were at their worst. She wasn't fond of the responsibility that had been placed on her shoulders, especially when it came to the mounds of paperwork she had to tackle. But Lacey knew she had earned the respect of those under her command.
Mac stepped up behind her. “You gonna just stand out here and let the sun fry your brain, Captain?”
Lacey turned toward the voice of a woman she barely knew, but who seemed as familiar to her as if she had known the pilot for years. She looked up at Mac and merely nodded.
“Guess I was just trying to put some order into this cesspool of chaotic crap,” Lacey quipped. “I'm not a big fan of change.”
“Me either,” Mac replied with a shrug. “Sometimes, though, we get thrown a curveball and we just have to swing with all we've got. Can't worry about whether or not we'll make contact or how far the ball will go.”
“Hm, baseball metaphors this early in the morning, Chief?” Lacey smirked. “I can see we're gonna be in for an interesting ride, if that's how we're going to start our days together.”
“Beats the alternative,” Mac answered with a wry smirk.
“I could start quoting lines from Star Trek movies,” she watched as Lacey winced at her words. “Beam me up, Scottie.” She added with a wry chuckle.
“Oh, please,” the doctor rolled her eyes as she scanned the distant horizon. “I was never a fan of cheese. Give me something I can really sink my teeth into.”
“More of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, huh?” Mac prodded and got another wince from her companion. “Okay, CSI ? ER ? Please don't tell me you watch Grey's Anatomy . That one is just too uck for my tastes. Are they? Aren't they? Is this one straight? Will they? Ugh! Give me a break.”
“To answer your questions, no, no and absolutely not,” Lacey answered. “I don't watch TV, even when I have time. Give me a good book—a decent mystery or a fantasy/adventure novel—and I'm set for days. I just finished a real nail-biter from a fairly new author, named Goodkind. He has an interesting take on the whole realm of the mystical and magical. He even threw in a few good characters into the mix.”
“I'll have to remember that name, ma'am,” Mac shook her head at the woman standing confidently next to her. Lacey Stephens was definitely an interesting person and one Mac felt was worth getting to know better. “You'll have to tell me what he wrote, so I can see if it's worth reading.”
It was the “ma'am” that got her. Lacey suddenly felt really stupid standing out there in the middle of the flight line talking to a complete stranger about such trivial things as TV shows and favorite pastimes. They didn't even know each other. Mac was a pilot and she a doctor. They had absolutely nothing in common, except that they were both stuck in the middle of nowhere and were going to share a ride in a helicopter from that point forward. They were two very different people from two very different worlds brought together by a war that Lacey no longer wanted a part of.
They silently made their way back toward the aircraft in companionable silence, each lost in their own thoughts.
“If it's any consolation, I think we'll get along just fine, Mac,” Lacey said when they reached Mac's helicopter. “Maybe we'll even find something in common, one of these days.”
“Maybe I'll eventually succeed in converting you to the world of sci-fi/fantasy TV shows,” Mac smirked as she opened the pilot's side door to the aircraft.
“Oh, don't get your hopes up there, Chief,” Lacey teased. “Captain Kirk and his cronies just aren't up my alley.”
“Hmm, maybe not,” Mac said as she climbed into the cockpit and adjusted the seat. “So, I guess I'll just have to delve into the world of murder mysteries for a change. Can't get good reception over here, anyway.”
“Stranger things have happened,” Lacey smirked. “Is it time to meet the rest of the crew, you think?”
Lacey noticed Mac's full name emblazoned on the door panel and was a little surprised at how long it was. Her expression mirrored her surprise and didn't go unnoticed by her companion.
“Your family Greek?” Lacey asked.
“My father's side, yes, ma'am,” Mac answered with a shrug. “He's a third generation American. His grandfather was a soldier in the Greek army during World War II. Came to America after the war, and we've served in the military ever since.”
“Any brothers or sisters?” Lacey probed further, knowing full well she was being nosey and not caring in the least. She usually didn't engage people in open conversation like this, but figured what the hell.
“Two brothers,” Mac answered amiably.
Mac wasn't used to answering questions about her family. That was one reason she loved military life so much. Military personnel usually kept their personal lives and career lives separate. Apparently, that wasn't the case with this particular captain.
“And they're serving in the military, too?” Lacey continued, ignoring the obvious signs that she was delving into waters best left uncharted.
This particular pilot, Lacey realized, was going to be a tough nut to crack. Not like Ollie, who at the first sign of friendship had opened up like a fresh can of sardines and spilled his entire life story during one night at the Officer's Club. No, Lacey decided, Mac Papadopoulos—the name was certainly a mouthful—was going to be a bit of a challenge.
“My older brother, Ben, is a veterinarian in Wyoming ,” Mac replied, starting her pre-flight check of the aircraft in an effort to dismiss her companion. “He's married and has kids.”
“And your other brother?” Lacey continued.
Mac met Lacey's intent gaze and smiled sadly, but remained quiet. She stood and faced the captain at her full six foot two inch height, not so much to intimidate the woman as to get her to back off.
“I'm sorry, ma'am,” Mac said. “But I have work to do. So, if you don't mind, I'd rather not discuss my personal life. Don't you have a pre-flight check of your own to do before we head out?”
Lacey knew she'd overstepped her bounds. She had no idea why she felt compelled to poke her nose in where it didn't belong, but there was just something about the pilot that made her want to know more. But she also knew when to back off and this was definitely one of those times.
“Sorry, Mac,” Lacey apologized as she turned and walked back into the hangar.
She hoped she hadn't offended the woman with her questions. With as many years as she had in the military, she was definitely not intimidated by anyone, least of all her new female pilot. Even their height difference didn't bother her. But, then again, she could take a hint, and she did have a job to do.
“Hey, Tiny,” Lacey greeted her favorite crew chief as she entered the hangar. “How's it going today?”
Tiny was a big man who stood more than six feet tall, with a girth to match his height. Despite his size, however, he was the best mechanic who worked on the medical Black Hawks of the 150 th . He absently wiped his greasy hands on an equally greasy rag as he stepped up to Lacey and leaned in conspiratorially.
“To tell you the truth, Doc,” Tiny confided. “We got us a big problem.” He glanced around to be sure they weren't being overheard and Lacey almost laughed at his absurd behavior.
“Oh, yeah?” Lacey decided to play along. She leaned in close and lowered her voice. “What problem is that?” She straightened with a smirk and plunged her hands in her pants pockets.
Tiny steered Lacey over to a small office set towards the back of the hangar. She followed him in and shut the door behind her. There was an air of seriousness to Tiny's demeanor that only meant one thing. He was about to give her the scoop on their newest arrivals.
“Did you hear the latest?” Tiny continued in a voice barely above a whisper.
“What? That Ollie was sent to Anaconda, and we now have a new team to break in?” She answered with a knowing smile. “Yeah, I heard.”
“Okay, so you already know,” he said, crestfallen that he wasn't the one to pass along this particular tidbit of information. “Have you met the newbies yet?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. At least one of them, that is,” she said, taking a seat in one of the scruffy metal chairs in front of a well-worn desk piled high with what she assumed was mechanical junk. “Papadopoulos and I walked over here from Colonel Farrell's office just a few minutes ago.”
“So, you know all about... well, you know,” Tiny said, lowering his voice again.
“What, Tiny?” Lacey asked with a tired shrug. “What is it I'm supposed to know? What earth-shattering bit of gossip is so important that you pulled me in here instead of letting me do my job? Is it that our new pilot is reckless? That she doesn't play by the rules? What? By the way, could you sit down? Between you and Mac, all this craning is giving me a neck ache.” She rubbed her neck to emphasize her point and glared up at the man. “Sheesh! Is everyone around me suddenly more than six feet tall?”
Sheepishly, the mechanic sat down in the chair behind the desk and continued to “clean” the grease off his hands. Despite his size, he was the gentlest of souls. Lacey knew he could also be quite dense at times.
“Well, at least you know she's a she,” he said bluntly.
“And?” Lacey continued. “I'm a ‘she,' as you so eloquently put it, and that's never been a problem before. So, what gives, Tiny? Spit it out.”
“Well,” he hesitated. Lacey would have found it endearing, if she hadn't just been insulted by his comment. “It's just that... Well, you know... We've never had a female Pilot in Command here before. What if…what if she don't pass muster? There, I said it,” he finished by throwing the dirty rag in a corner and propping his booted feet up on a corner of the desk.
Lacey couldn't believe her ears. The Armed Forces had been integrated for how long now? It wasn't unheard of for women to serve in combat situations anymore, nor for them to die in those combat situations. But here was one of her own men expressing his concern over the fact that their new pilot was a woman.
“Uh, Tiny,” Lacey gave him her best disgusted scowl. “You are aware that you're talking to a woman. Right? I also happen to be your superior—apparently in more ways than one.” She added the last with a wry eye roll.
He had the grace to look slightly abashed at her words.
“Yeah, but...” he said, then realized what he was saying. “Uh, yeah… I guess this would be where I get back to work, then.”
He stood awkwardly and trudged over to the office door. If he hadn't been such a large man he would have bolted from the room in his haste to escape the awkward situation. Lacey just sat there rolling her eyes and shaking her head at the absurdity of the discussion.
“I work with morons,” she whispered under her breath. She never heard the person slip in behind her.
“Speak for yourself, Captain,” Mac said, entering the office and leaning casually against the door jam.
Lacey jumped in surprise and turned to find Mac smirking at her from the doorway. It was all she could do not to fall all over herself with apologies, but she had learned that lesson the hard way.
“Uh, sorry,” Lacey said. “I wasn't talking about… Oh, for Christ's sake, never mind. What can I do for you, Chi—I mean, Mac.”
Mac motioned over her shoulder. “The helo's ready whenever you are, ma'am.”
“And the crew?” Lacey asked.
“They're waiting for us onboard,” Mac replied. “We'll see you at the aircraft in, say,” she glanced at her watch, “five minutes?”
Lacey nodded. “I'll be there, just as soon as I grab some stuff. Thanks.”
Mac left without further ado and headed back out toward the flight line. Lacey remained seated for a few more seconds, shaking her head in consternation and collecting her thoughts. It had been years since she'd felt so off-balance and acted like a new recruit. She wasn't sure what was affecting her more, the change in personnel or one individual in particular.
“So much for making a good impression,” she whispered under her breath and quickly checked to be sure no one else had snuck up behind her. “You really need to stop talking to yourself, Lac,” she continued with a sigh. “Someone's gonna think you need a psych eval. Good grief.”
She left the office and headed straight for the medical cabinet on the other side of the hangar. She quickly filled a large tan duffle with the necessary medical supplies, including a few vials of morphine and several syringes, a half-dozen bandage packs, some splints and a few other items.
She then stepped up to a footlocker with her name on it next to the med cabinet. She made quick work of the combination lock, then opened the locker and took out her medical bag. She double-checked the contents of the bag and, satisfied that it contained what she needed, tucked it under one arm and hoisted the duffle to her other shoulder.
As she turned, she almost collided with Tiny's bulk.
“Shit!” Lacey exclaimed. “Tiny! Don't do that, you big oaf! Jeez!” She punched his shoulder and suddenly found herself off balance. “Whoa!”
“S-sorry, Cap'n,” Tiny apologized. He reached out and grabbed Lacey's slim shoulders to steady her, then quickly let go when he realized what he'd just done. “I just wanted to…” he stopped abruptly.
“It's okay, Tiny,” Lacey waved him off. “I understand.”
“You do?” Tiny asked. “I mean, you do…ma'am?”
Lacey almost smiled as she gently set her load on the floor and stood patiently to face the giant standing sheepishly before her. She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him with one of her best military glares, but inside she was laughing her ass off.
He was a good man and one hell of a mechanic, but when it came to women Tiny didn't know his head from a hole in the ground. He was as clueless as the day was long, but that was fine. It was something that Lacey found refreshing in the sea of male testosterone she was forced to endure on a daily basis.
“I know I've been here long enough for all you guys to stop thinking of me as—well, as a woman,” Lacey shrugged, hoping to lay his poor, befuddled mind to rest enough that he could get back to work. “Besides,” she decided to cut him some slack and gave him one of her rare smiles, then watched as he slowly relaxed, “you're one of the few people in this place who gets me, really gets who I am. You,” she cleared her throat, put a hand on his grease-stained arm and looked sincerely into his hazel eyes. “You understand that I just want to be like everyone else, and I appreciate that.”
“Actually, ma'am,” Tiny interrupted. “All the guys pretty much think of you as one of us, especially… uh, well, me.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “You're not like the others, Captain Stephens. You don't stand on ceremony and you have…” he stopped and cleared his own throat uncomfortably. “You care a lot about everyone, especially your patients, and that makes you extra special, ma'am. I'm proud to work with you and not a bit ashamed to admit it, ma'am.”
“Okaaaay,” Lacey drew the word out, feeling a little uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was taking. “Boy, this is awkward. I had no idea you guys felt that way about me, least of all you, Tiny. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's really flattering and all, but, well… I'm your superior and, well… “
“Oh, no, ma'am,” Tiny interrupted again. “You're gettin' it all wrong. I mean, I like you and all, but it's strictly professional. I think you're a really great doctor, and you really care about us and all your patients. That makes you aces in my book.” He paused to get his bearings and run a greasy hand through his short-cropped hair. “I guess what I'm really tryin' to say is, I've come to admire you as more than just my superior… or even a woman. You're really special to us here, and you do a really great job out there in the field with the wounded. The guys and me are real proud of what you do.”
Now it was Lacey's turn to blush, and she did, all the way to her hairline. “Well, thanks, Tiny. I think you guys do a fantastic job of keeping us in the air, considering the conditions you're forced to work under. I'm really proud to be a part of this team, knowing how important our job here is. But, just remember we're all part of the same team, no matter who we are, where we come from or what gender we are. We all have a job to do and sometimes we have to say goodbye to one team member in order to welcome another.” She paused to let her words sink in, then gave him an extra moment until she saw his eyes light up. “Did that make sense, Tiny?”
Tiny nodded and smiled. “Perfect sense, ma'am,” he said. “I won't let it happen again, I promise.”
“I'll hold you to that, Tiny,” Lacey smiled in return then playfully punched his arm again. “Now make sure the other guys know the score, will ya? I really don't want to have to repeat this discussion with anyone else. Nor do I want to have to report anyone to the Colonel.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Tiny said, nodding his understanding.
Lacey grabbed up her med bag and hoisted the duffle to her shoulder.
“You want me to carry something to the chopper for you, ma'am?” Tiny asked chivalrously.
“Just get the hell out of my way, Chief,” Lacey growled with a slight half-smile to take the edge off the harsh words.
Fortunately, Tiny wasn't so dense that he couldn't pick up on the teasing in her voice. He saluted smartly and stepped out of her way.
“Ma'am, yes, ma'am!” He said, finishing the mock-salute and standing there at attention as she walked past him.
“At ease, soldier,” Lacey said, shaking her head at his absurdity as she made her way across the hangar floor.
Before she'd completely left the hangar, several mechanics made a point of stopping what they were doing to stand at attention and give her their own mock-salutes, most of which were performed with greasy rags in hand. Lacey merely rolled her eyes and kept walking, shaking her head at their antics.
“Morons,” she whispered affectionately as she emerged from the hangar into the blisteringly hot sunshine. She rather enjoyed the playful atmosphere she had created with the people she worked with. Never a dull moment.
The activity outside was bustling, despite the ever-increasing heat of the day. Fuel trucks moved from one aircraft to the next, pilots did last-minute pre-flight checks to be sure everything was in working order, crew chiefs did their own checks and made last-minute adjustments to various systems, and weapons specialists checked and re-checked their ammunition and weapons to be sure they were in proper working order. To an outsider the scene might look chaotic and unorganized, but to those who were used to it, which Lacey certainly was, it was a well-oiled machine.
“Hey, Captain!” A pilot hailed her from the cockpit of his Black Hawk, where he was writing on a clipboard in his lap.
“Hey yourself, Jeffers!” Lacey called back. “You buzzing the border today?”
“You betcha,” CW3 Anthony Jeffers replied with a grin. “Picked up six refugees and a load of goats yesterday.”
“Go figure,” Lacey said, holding her nose. “Did you happen to clean your bird out afterwards? It smells like shit.”
She moved along the row of nearly-identical aircraft, nodding to the various crew members and personnel who passed her until she finally reached the Black Hawk she recognized from her earlier trek. She walked right up to the open crew compartment and threw her duffle inside.
“Ow!” A female voice exclaimed from inside the aircraft.
A buff-colored hat appeared and turned up to reveal the face of a young woman.
“Watch it, will ya?” The young woman barked, then pulled up short, her eyes going wide when she saw the captain's insignia on Lacey's flight suit. “Oh, sorry, ma'am,” the young woman apologized quickly.
“It's okay, Private,” Lacey said. “Actually, I should apologize for hitting you with that duffle. I didn't realize there was anyone inside.”
The Private jumped down from the aircraft and saluted, waiting until Lacey had returned the salute before lowering her arm.
“You must be our flight surgeon, ma'am,” the young Private said brightly, extending her hand. “I'm Private Jesse Simmons, your field medic.”
“Nice to meet you, Simmons,” Lacey said, shaking hands with the energetic woman.
“The pleasure's mine, Captain,” Simmons said. “I've heard a lot about you and look forward to working closely with you. I'll just go ahead and stow our gear for the flight, if that's all right with you, ma'am?”
“That would be great, Private,” Lacey replied, handing over her medical bag to the Private's outstretched hands.
After grabbing the smaller bag, Simmons jumped back up inside the aircraft and stowed both bags. Just then, another soldier—this one a sergeant—approached the aircraft. Seeing Lacey, he quickly saluted, then jumped inside the aircraft without a word. Simmons took that moment to poke her head back out.
“That's O'Leary, ma'am,” Simmons supplied quietly, with a conspiratorial wink. “He's our gunner and a man of very few words.”
“I can see that,” Lacey answered, hopping up to sit on the floor of the aircraft and swinging her legs up inside.
She moved to a bench toward the tail section and sat down. Sergeant Patrick O'Leary was seated on the bench across from her, his attention on the M-240 machine gun he was cleaning.
It was Lacey's experience that the best way to break the ice with someone like the sergeant was to talk to them about what they knew best. Unfortunately, she knew very little about weaponry and wasn't a big fan of violence. It definitely made her life in the military challenging at times.
“That's a nice gun you have there, Sergeant,” Lacey began conversationally.
O'Leary appeared to ignore the comment and continued polishing the weapon without looking up. His short-cropped head was bare, revealing a smattering of gray mixed in with his dark brown hair. Lacey decided on another tactic.
“How long have you been serving in Iraq ?” She asked a bit louder, just in case he was a little hard of hearing, which wasn't uncommon for aircraft gunners.
Lacey's tactic worked, somewhat. The Sergeant looked up briefly, his slate-gray eyes meeting hers, before returning his attention to his task without uttering a word.
“Okay, then,” Lacey said, slapping her hands against her legs in frustration. “Guess that answers that.” This last was said under her breath as she moved to a jump seat just behind the cockpit.
Lacey sat quietly, observing the activity around her. She was used to being the only one who had nothing to do during the pre-flight preparations. So she turned her mind to other things. Unfortunately, these lulls also seemed to call up unwanted thoughts and images that the doctor just didn't want to deal with. Closing her eyes against her mind's wanderings, Lacey tried to dispel the unwelcome depression that was dropping over her.
During her three months in the desert she had seen enough of the war to last a lifetime. Three months of death, destruction and barbarism that went a long way toward tipping the scales on her formerly optimistic view of humanity.
Just last week she was the only doctor on-scene at a brutal multiple truck bombing that took the lives of more than twenty Americans and injured a dozen more. The convoy of semis and military vehicles had been traveling along a stretch of Hell's Highway—a nickname the road had more than earned over the past several years—when they passed a cluster of seemingly innocent civilian vehicles parked along the side of the road.
As one of the military command Humvees pulled up next to a parked truck, the truck closest to them blew up, sending a hail of deadly shrapnel in all directions. A daisy chain of detonators blew each consecutive truck at that point, which sent even more of the molten shrapnel along the convoy and tore through the semis as if they were paper.
When Lacey arrived via chopper, there were bodies – both living and dead –everywhere. The smoke was so thick and acrid that one could barely see, much less breathe. She tied a bandana around her face, but the smoke just seeped past the thin cloth and coated her lungs, bringing on a hoarse cough and giving her a severe case of laryngitis that lasted for days afterward. A raspy cough still bothered her from time to time.
She tried to save as many of the men as possible, but working in the field was a challenge unto itself. With the help of several medics, Lacey managed to triage and get a third of the more severe cases transported immediately. The rest had to wait for ground transport, which arrived several hours later. The road itself was closed for days, both to determine the exact cause of the multiple explosions and for immense cleanup operation that followed.
Lacey still had nightmares of severed limbs and screaming men, which just added to her already disturbing nightmares involving the war. She often wondered if she would ever get a decent night's sleep again. She also wondered how much longer she would be able to hold onto the thin shred of sanity she still had left.
“You okay, Doc?” Mac's voice nearly made Lacey jump out of her seat. “Sorry, didn't mean to scare you like that.”
“I'm fine, Mac,” Lacey answered, her heart thumping wildly in her chest. “Are we on schedule?”
“Yep,” Mac answered. “I just have a few more checks to do before we get underway.”
Mac keyed the mic on the toggle in front of her and did a quick radio check, while Lacey grabbed the helmet hanging next to her head and put it on. The tan helmet was the one she always used and she briefly wondered how it ended up on board. Then she dismissed the thought as she realized Mac's crew was probably as efficient as her old crew had been.
“Copy that,” Mac's voice range through Lacey's helmet like soft velvet. “Seven-two-niner ready for taxi to helipad one-zero-six. Radio check complete. Over and out.”
Just then the aircraft rocked and swayed as Simmons and two others climbed aboard.
“Here you go, Captain,” Simmons said, handing Lacey a flak jacket that was her exact size.
Lacey took the vest-like garment and put it on. She zipped up the flak jacket and finished strapping on her helmet, which dwarfed her small head considerably. Then she took a pair of aviation sun glasses from a pocket in her flight suit and put them on to complete the ensemble. She knew she looked like an absurd dress-up doll, with all that gear on, but she also knew just how necessary it all was and didn't mind at all.
“You must be Cap'n Stephens,” a baby-faced young sergeant extended his hand toward her. “I'm Sergeant Jorge Jimenez, Crew Chief of this bucket of bolts.”
Lacey shook the man's hand and returned the smile he gave her. “Nice to meet you, Sergeant.”
“Have you met the rest of the crew, ma'am?” He continued cordially. “That's our gunner, Sergeant O'Leary,” he leaned in conspiratorially. “He's a man of few words, but one hell of a gunner and someone you definitely want on your side in a fire fight.”
“The Sergeant and I met already,” Lacey said with a knowing smile.
Just then, Simmons scooted in next to Jimenez.
“And this little lady is our medic, Private Simmons,” Jimenez grinned.
“Who are you calling little, Jimenez?” Simmons punched him playfully on the arm. “I can kick your butt any day, Chief, and we both know it.”
“Ow, girl!” He feigned an injury, rubbing gingerly at his “sore” arm. “Watch it. I still have to keep this damned piece of…” he suddenly realized who was sitting across from him. “Uh, tin can in the air, you know. It doesn't stay up there without a lot of TLC. And for that I need two good arms.”
“This damned ‘tin can' only stays in the air for one reason,” Simmons teased, after miming quotes. “And it's not you, Chief.”
“Hey!” Mac called into her mic from the cockpit. “Who's calling my aircraft a tin can? Watch it or I'll dump your asses in the middle of the desert and make you all walk back to base in this damned heat.”
“I don't think you want the Doc, here, getting the wrong impression on her first flight with us, Mac,” Simmons snickered.
“Yeah,” Jimenez chimed in. “Maybe you should save those threats for the second or third flight. That way she can be a little better prepared.” He winked at the doctor and grinned.
“That threat wasn't meant for the good doctor, Chief,” Mac growled in all their ears.
Everyone but O'Leary chuckled, while the gunner focused his attention on attaching a sling that would allow him to hang out either side of the aircraft and return fire when necessary. He was checking the straps and buckles to be sure they were in working order.
Lacey noticed the contraption and cringed inwardly at the irony. They were aboard a medical aircraft, on a mission of mercy, and they needed a gunner to protect them from enemy fire. She just shook her head and went back to listening to the banter inside her helmet. She knew that if she gave too much thought to the realities of this war, she might just end up in a psych ward that much faster.
“Don't you think so, Captain?” Simmons' voice intruded loudly on Lacey's musings.
“I'm sorry, Private,” Lacey said, looking up. “What do I think about what?”
“Oh, never mind,” Simmons replied with a nonchalant wave of her hand. “Not important, ma'am.”
The mood in the aircraft became suddenly somber and business-like as the sixth and final member of the crew climbed into the seat next to Mac. Lieutenant Michael Donaldson had been flying as a member of Mac's crew for six months. He was a no-nonsense, by-the-book military officer who firmly believed in the war and everything they were doing in Iraq and Afghanistan .
Fortunately, there wasn't a single member of the crew who took Donaldson seriously, Mac included. She was in charge of those aboard her aircraft, and if they wanted to blow off steam by teasing each other or playing little practical jokes on each other, who was she to stop them? Besides, she was one of the prime culprits when it came to practical jokes, as they all had learned on many an occasion.
Lacey noticed the sudden change in mood, but decided not to comment on it. The mics were open to everyone, so asking a question of one crew member would be heard by all. She decided to sit and wait until a good opportunity presented itself or until they were away from the aircraft, whichever came first. She did, however, notice that the mood had changed as soon as the co-pilot had climbed into his seat.
“Now that we have everyone on board,” Mac's voice sounded very formal to even Lacey's ears. “I'd like to take this opportunity to introduce you all to our newest team member, Captain Stephens. She'll be our flight surgeon from here on out. Captain, I'm sure you've met everyone except my copilot, L-T Donaldson, here.”
“Nice to meet you, Lieutenant,” Lacey said politely.
Donaldson reached a gloved hand back and shook Lacey's.
“Sorry I wasn't here earlier to properly greet you, Captain,” Donaldson said with just a hint of snobbish professionalism in his tone. “I was taking care of some important business with the Colonel.” He glanced pointedly at the rest of the crew before returning his attention to the cockpit.
Someone made a kissing noise in their mic that was followed by several snickers and sniggers.
“Yes, well,” Donaldson continued, scowling. “I look forward to working with you, Captain Stephens. I've heard a great deal about your professionalism. The Colonel speaks very highly of you, as well.”
More kissing noises and snickers followed those words.
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Lacey just rolled her eyes at those around her. “I'm looking forward to getting acquainted with all of you over the next few days. “
“Time to get this show on the road, boys and girls,” Mac's voice broke in. “Everyone take your seats. It's time to put your tray tables and seat backs in their full and upright positions. And don't forget to buckle your seat belts. It's gonna be a bumpy ride.”
Just then, the aircraft was jostled slightly as the tow arm of the tow motor was hooked up. The ground crew made quick work of getting the aircraft unhooked from the fuel and other umbilicals, before the tow motor pulled the aircraft from its designated tie down spot on the tarmac.
Lacey knew the drill and quickly harnessed herself into her seat, while the rest of the crew did the same. Once her harness was secure, she grabbed hold of the handle next to her and held on.
Sergeants Jimenez and O'Leary quickly shut the cargo doors on either side of the aircraft, so the sand that blew up when the rotors started didn't get inside the aircraft. Neither spoke as they returned to their seats and strapped themselves in for take-off.
The tow motor stopped in the middle of a large, sandy clearing and the driver quickly unhooked the arm, then drove back toward the hangar with a salute and wave.
Mac flipped several switches, set the throttles and started the engines, while Donaldson got verbal clearance for the flight. Soon the rotors were whirling and it wasn't long before the bird was in the air.
“Everyone okay back there?” Mac's voice sounded in their helmets once they were airborne.
The noise level in the back of the aircraft was tolerable, because the doors were still closed. Rather than speak, however, everyone just gave a thumbs-up sign.
“We're good, Mac,” Jimenez answered for the team. “What's our ETA to the convoy?”
“ETA ten minutes, Chief,” Mac answered. “Go ahead and open the doors.”
Both Jimenez and O'Leary got up and pulled the two side doors open. A blast of sweltering air filled the compartment and the noise level increased exponentially. O'Leary hooked himself into the sling with Jimenez's help and they both sat ready to protect the aircraft. While Jimenez sat with his M-16 in his lap, O'Leary moved from one door to the other, checking the ground for potential threats.
Despite the fact that the aircraft was marked with a newly painted red cross on a white square, there were always potential threats. The insurgents were known to shoot at any moving target, ignoring the symbols that distinguished a rescue aircraft from its hostile counterpart. It was a risk that everyone aboard was willing to take in order to do the job they had signed up for.
Lacey hated the war. She found the entire concept utterly ridiculous and wasteful. The idea of using human beings and costly resources to pound one's point home just didn't make a bit of sense, especially now that there were other alternatives – diplomacy and embargoes to name just two. The risk of human loss and permanent injury was so high that Lacey couldn't see how the end could justify the means.
When she took the Hippocratic Oath she had sworn to protect and heal those in her care. Unfortunately, in the military being a doctor came secondary to being an officer. As a captain in the U.S. Army she also had to know how to fire a weapon and defend not only herself, but her comrades in arms.
Lacey had learned long ago that the benefits of her presence in the midst of a war far outweighed her ideals. Her patients needed her, and she needed to know that she was making a difference. So, here she was, despite the risk to her own life, and despite the fact that she had made a personal commitment not to take a life.
Of course, when the chips were down, Lacey had no idea what she would really be capable of. Could she kill someone? Or would she let the enemy kill her, instead? Only time and circumstances would tell. So far she hadn't had to test her ideals.
“Convoy just ahead,” Mac's voice interrupted Lacey's musings. “Everyone prepare for landing.”
O'Leary unhooked himself from his sling with relative ease and strapped himself back in a seat. The aircraft descended to ground level and touched down near the lead vehicle so smoothly it was as if they hadn't been in the air at all. Lacey silently praised the pilot for her skill. She'd flown enough times to know that there were some pilots talented enough not to bounce their crew all over the cargo hold during a field landing. For some it was a matter of pride. There were also those who never gave it a thought.
Lacey and Simmons, who were the only two scheduled to meet the convoy, jumped from the aircraft as it touched down. Simmons followed close behind Lacey, the medical duffle slung over one shoulder. When they were clear of the aircraft, Mac saluted them from the cockpit and the aircraft returned to the air. Lacey watched it climb into the sky and noticed two arms waving to them from the cargo compartment. She returned the wave briefly, then turned toward the slowly progressing convoy.
She and Simmons approached the lead vehicle, which had pulled to the side of the road at their arrival. The two women saluted as a major jumped from the Humvee to greet them. The major returned their salute as he approached.
“Captain Stephens and Private Simmons reporting as ordered, sir,” Lacey said, remaining at attention for a respectful moment.
“At ease, Captain,” Major Kevin Johnson ordered in a tone that was tempered with a welcome half smile. “We're glad you both could join us for the trip.”
“Glad to be here, sir,” Lacey answered with a professional air.
She and Kevin went back a ways. As a matter of fact, they'd both attended OCS together and it was only because of a fluke that Kevin had been promoted over Lacey. When all was said and done, he had been in the right place at the right time. It also helped that he was a man with combat experience.
Although Lacey had been disappointed at the time, she couldn't begrudge Kevin his promotion or his position. He was well-respected, with a heart as big as Texas , where, coincidentally, they were both from.
“You might not be so glad once you've had a taste of what you're getting yourself into, Lac,” Kevin dropped the formality. “We're not just guarding a convoy of supplies, here. We're heading into one of the more dangerous sections of the city and there aren't many friendlies where we're going. Matter of fact, there've been several vehicle bombings in the last few days. Lots of casualties.”
“Sounds like a challenge, Kev,” Lacey returned with a casual shrug. “I like challenges.”
“You're sure in for a big one, then,” he smiled, then turned his attention to Simmons. “Private Simmons, you'll be riding in that truck over there.” He pointed to a canvas-covered cargo transport, three vehicles back. “Go ahead and ride up front with Corporal Jackson. He'll take good care of you.”
“Yes, sir,” Simmons answered with a quick salute before heading toward the waiting vehicle.
Lacey watched Simmons, then turned back to the man walking next to her, who was watching her with interest.
“Don't worry, Lac,” Kevin reassured. “She'll be fine. There are ten armed men in the back of that truck to protect her.”
“And who'll protect them?” Lacey asked with a knowing glint in her eye and a half-smile on her slightly chapped lips. “It's not like I don't know what happens when you mix a dozen love-starved boys with an attractive woman, Kev.”
They both smiled.
“You two been working together so long that you've become her mother hen already?” He teased.
“Actually, no,” Lacey answered, following him to the Humvee. “I just met her this morning. The Colonel was gracious enough to spring a whole new crew on me without warning. Gotta love the Army, Kev.”
“Ah, the life of a flight surgeon,” he said with a wistful smile, as he climbed into the driver's seat. “Never a dull moment.”
“By the way,” Lacey continued. “How'd you know her name?”
Kevin shrugged and gave her a wry grin. “I got the memo, early yesterday.”
She stared at him over the roof of the vehicle, a look of annoyance on her face.
“You knew and didn't tell me?” Lacey asked in irritation. “And here I thought I meant something to you.” She tempered her words with her own grin.
“Comes with being a commanding officer, Lac,” he answered with a shrug.
“Ah, the burdens of command,” she shot back sarcastically.
Lacey took the passenger seat next to him and they were off. It didn't take long for the major to catch back up to the front of the convoy, as it worked its way slowly toward the capital city.
“So,” Lacey said, deciding to distract herself from the heat by striking up a conversation with her old friend. “What can you tell me about Mackenzie Papadopoulos?”
Kevin kept his eyes on the paved road and bleak landscape ahead of them. Ah, what could he tell her?
“What would you like to know, Lac?” He asked. “I know she's a pilot, and I heard through the grapevine that she flies an 80s model Black Hawk. She was assigned to a supply transport unit in Afghanistan for a few months, before they shipped her over here. Is there anything I left out?”
“Have you ever met her?” Lacey continued. “Ever run into her during your extensive travels?” This last was said with a quirked eyebrow and a knowing smile. “Is she one of your numerous conquests?”
“Ah, come on, Lacey,” Kevin huffed exasperatedly. “You're not saying I've been with that many women, are you?”
It was an old argument and one that neither of them tired of. Lacey took up the gauntlet and just went with his lead.
“I'm not saying anything, Kev,” Lacey answered slyly. “We both know you've earned your reputation for a reason.”
She knew her old friend better than anyone. He was an attractive single man who liked women and practically everyone knew it. Rumor had it that he had slept with every female nurse and medic in the Army. Of course, rumors like that were often greatly exaggerated.
“You wound me,” Kevin grabbed his chest in mock pain. “I haven't seen anyone in quite some time.” Then he added. “At least not for a week.”
“Right, Kev,” Lacey smirked. “So, you're saying you really don't know anything about Mac?”
“Other than the normal scuttlebutt,” Kevin answered easily. “No, not really. She's a decent pilot and has more than earned her wings. She takes good care of her crew and puts up with a lot of normal military bullshit, just like the rest of us. Why are you asking about her, anyway?”
“She's my new pilot,” Lacey glanced over to see his reaction and wasn't disappointed by his raised brow. “Just met her and the crew this morning.”
“Huh, didn't see that one coming,” he commented dryly.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Lacey shot him a raised brow. “How could you know Simmons and not Mac? Huh?” He had the decency to give her a slightly abashed look and shrugged noncommittally. “Wait, I don't think I really want to know the answer to that,” she looked at him. “Do I?” He just shrugged again.
They rode in silence for a while. Lacey wanted to ask him about his relationship with Simmons, but decided ignorance was bliss in this case. She knew Kevin had a reputation for a reason and had been on the receiving end of his charms. She just couldn't reconcile his taste in women. Actually, he didn't seem to have a preference where women were concerned. She just prayed he wasn't spreading any STDs on his quest to conquer every “skirt” in the Army.
“What happened to Jankowski?” Kevin's question suddenly jerked her back to reality.
“Not sure,” she answered, her voice reflecting her disappointment. “The Colonel said he shipped out last night, but I'm thinking there was more to it than just your standard transfer. I think he was written up for disorderly conduct a few nights ago. Of course, there could have been some truth to that rumor that he was boinking several nurses and a medic.” She gave him a knowing look.
“That sounds like Jankowski, all right,” Kevin commented. “He never could stay out of a good fight and definitely couldn't lay off the ladies, excuse the pun. Then again, maybe they just sent him into combat. You never know.” He stopped and looked at her, catching her wry expression. “I did not just hear you use the word boinking , did I?” He continued in an effort to steer her clear of the subject of his own lure to the ladies.
“Wow, you are jaded, my dear Lacey,” he teased. “Whatever happened to the straight arrow, no-nonsense girl I dated a few years ago? She was so idealistic. So… pure. Her lovely mouth so clean.”
“She lost her virginity,” she dead-panned. “Besides, it was only one date.”
“One very satisfying date, might I add,” he said, returning his attention to the road ahead. “A date with fringe benefits.”
She rolled her eyes and exhaled in exasperation. “Anyway, getting back to Jankowski,” Lacey said, trying to steer the conversation back on course. “I just hope he's okay. It took us a while to get used to each other, but we were finally starting to hit it off, ya know?”
“Are you saying you two were...” Kevin eyed her.
“No,” Lacey growled. “We were just friends. Jeez, Kev, must everything be about sex with you?”
“No,” he gave her his wounded puppy look again. “I just thought… well, you haven't had a relationship since… well, you know.”
“We were not a relationship, Major ,” Lacey answered dryly. “We were a one night stand and that was it, end of story.”
“Ah, you wound me again, Lac,” Kevin feigned another injury to the heart. “I thought we had something. We were so… good together.”
“We had one night of mediocre drunken sex, Kev,” Lacey answered. “What we have now is much more meaningful, much stronger. I really value our friendship.”
Kevin smiled. “Me, too, Lac. Me, too.”
They continued on in companionable silence for a while, both lost in their own thoughts. Lacey's thoughts drifted to the conversations she'd shared with her new pilot. The familiar feeling that swept over her again was very unsettling.
“Kevin?” Lacey said, breaking the silence between them.
“Have you ever met someone you knew you'd never met before, and yet you felt like you'd known them all your life?” Lacey asked. “Like you're totally familiar with them for whatever reason?”
“Well,” Kevin began, an eyebrow hiking up underneath his helmet in thought. “I've met a couple people I thought I'd never met before, but it turned out I just didn't remember meeting them. Is that what you mean?”
“No,” Lacey said, adding a bit of sarcasm to her next words. “I'm not talking about those countless women you've had one-nighters with, Kev. I'm talking about meeting someone for the first time, someone you feel—well, I don't know—connected to. Like, before the two of you met you had no idea the person existed, then you meet and it's like you suddenly find that missing puzzle piece you never knew was missing in the first place.”
“Nope,” Kevin answered confidently. “Why? You meet someone you can't remember meeting before?”
“Kevin,” Lacey chided. “God, I swear you have a one-track mind.”
“What?” Kevin smiled innocently.
“Never mind,” Lacey sighed. “It's not important.”
“Come on, Lac,” Kevin prodded. “Who's the mystery puzzle piece? You know you can tell me anything and mum's the word. Is he tall, dark and ravishingly handsome, like me? Does he turn your insides to jelly and make your knees go weak with the merest glance in your direction? Does he ride a white steed and tilt at windmills? Or, better yet, is he a dragon slayer? Huh? Does he carry a light saber and wear all black? And breathe funny?” He imitated Darth Vader's breathing for her.
Lacey glared at Kevin and just shook her head.
“It's not that kind of puzzle, you moron,” Lacey teased. “Man, you have the most vivid imagination of anyone I know. And you watch too many movies.”
Kevin had the decency to look slightly cowed for a brief moment, then he smiled and the moment passed.
“Oh, come on, Lac,” he continued. “What's his name?”
“Just drop it, Kev,” Lacey said, suddenly serious and annoyed at the same time.
“Please,” Kevin begged, putting on his most entreating expression. “I tell you all my deepest, darkest secrets. It's your turn to share. Come on. Pretty please? With sugar and ice cream on top? Oh, and don't forget the cherry,” he waggled his eyebrows. “We can never forget the cherry.”
Lacey rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest in an effort to forestall his continued begging. She hated when the man stooped to acting like a spoiled child who was denied a favorite toy. And the cherry comments were making her slightly uncomfortable.
“Come on, Captain,” Kevin tried a different tactic. “Don't make me pull rank and order you to spill the beans.”
“Isn't that the capital city up ahead?” Lacey asked, quickly changing the subject.
“You're not gonna tell me, are you?” Kevin sighed. “Okay, fine. Then I won't tell you the really juicy news I've been saving just for you.”
“Fine with me, Major ,” Lacey threw his tactic back in his face. “What's our primary mission this time? Are we doing one of those political peace-keeping, humanitarian gigs that usually results in hurt feelings for one side or the other?”
“You know something, Lac?” Kevin commented. “I do believe you're becoming something of a cynic these days. Your time in the Army's having a bad influence on you.”
“No,” Lacey sighed. “Just the war. I hate going into these things with blinders on and coming out with my ass burned and a boatload of casualties to take care of. What the hell did I do to deserve such austere attention from the brass? Huh?”
Kevin regarded her with a measure of respect. He knew what her mission was. The fact that she nailed it on the head was a little disconcerting. He also knew just how many of these types of missions the quiet captain had been involved in over the course of the last few months.
“Buck up, soldier,” Kevin said, eyeing the sidearm at her hip. “You'd better check your weapon and be sure it's free of cobwebs. I know how much you love taking care of that thing.” He nodded toward her hip.
“It worked the last time I used it,” Lacey answered, in a slightly offended tone. She removed the military issue revolver from the holster at her hip and checked the chamber for ammunition, just to be safe. “At least, I think it did.” She mumbled the last just loud enough for Kevin to catch her comment. She then thought about what she had just said. “When was the last time I used it, anyway?”
She didn't enjoy carrying a sidearm, but knew it was necessary. She was, after all, first and foremost a military officer in the middle of a war zone. Despite the fact that her calling was as a doctor of medicine, she still had to adhere to the protocols of being a soldier. But the thing was heavy and hung on her hip in such a way that it usually got in the way.
“I really hope you're joking, Captain,” Kevin shot her a look.
“Ah, yes. I used it a few weeks ago, when I was ordered to the firing range for target practice,” Lacey grumbled, re-holstering the pistol. “I think I actually managed to pass my weapons quals—and on the very first try, too.”
“I take it the colonel noticed that you hadn't been keeping up on those,” Kevin added. He knew how much she hated violence and what it meant for her to carry the pistol at her hip.
“I have patients to take care of and a job to do,” Lacey answered in a no-nonsense tone. “I don't have time to play soldier with the rest of you, nor am I driven by an overabundance of male testosterone.”
“Ah,” Kevin mimed another shot to the heart. “Ya wound me, yet again, Lac. By the way, you do know you're in the military, right? Those bars and medals on your dress uniform aren't just there for decoration.”
“I'm reminded of it every day, Major,” Lacey answered, glancing down at her desert camouflage attire. “Believe me. I'm not exactly here for the fashionable attire. Beige does so little for my coloring,” she pretended to flip her hair in her best imitation of a southern belle. “And this flak jacket does nothing for my girlish figure. Not to mention what this helmet does for those nasty split ends.”
“Speaking of coloring ...” Kevin joked.
“Don't even go there, you moron,” Lacey answered.
The Humvee made it to the outskirts of the city and was the first to approach the city gates. A pair of armed Marines waved the vehicle to a stop just inside the gates. Kevin saluted the Marine closest to him. The young soldier returned the salute and approached the vehicle.
“Sir, ma'am,” the Marine sergeant nodded, as Kevin handed him a set of orders.
“Top of the morning to you, Sergeant,” Kevin said genially. “I hope you boys are keeping cool in this heat.”
“Yes, sir,” the Marine answered as he handed the orders back, then stepped back away from the vehicle and saluted again. “Carry on, sir, ma'am.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Kevin said, returning the salute as he drove the vehicle through the gates.
The rest of the convoy followed without stopping, as the two Marines stood at attention at their posts. Despite the dust that blew around them, they remained completely unmoving until the final vehicle had passed. Only then did they lower the gate to block anyone else from entering the city through that particular route.
Kevin's vehicle snaked through the city streets on its way toward the northeast sector. They passed burned-out civilian vehicles and buildings that had been in their current state for weeks or even months. They also passed Iraqi civilians and a few U.S. military personnel. Most of the passersby appeared to be about their daily business, whatever that might be.
No one seemed to take notice of the convoy as it passed by. Or maybe they just didn't care. The Iraqi civilians were used to the U.S. military presence in their city. Some welcomed the Americans, while others simply tolerated the armed soldiers and vehicles. Either way, it didn't matter. Americans were there, whether the Iraqis wanted the occupation or not. It was the price they had to pay for freedom and one they seemed reluctantly willing to live with.
Lacey's attention was on the scenery around her, but mostly on the few children she saw playing in the streets. She waved and smiled at a few of them, but did not receive waves or smiles, in return. Most of them ignored the tan vehicles that snaked through the streets. Those who actually stopped to stare, however, seemed to find the American trucks intimidating. A very few actually ran away or ducked inside buildings, as if to escape.
She didn't blame them. Their lives had been disrupted and completely turned on-end after the U.S. had bombed the capital city. Many of them were homeless or orphaned. And the violence hadn't stopped once those initial bombings had. They lived in constant fear of shootings, car bombings and other violent threats from their countrymen, as well as from the Americans themselves.
Their childhoods had been stolen from them and no one could ever change that. It was sad and sobering at the same time. But the children were also the new hope for freedom in a land once dominated by an oppressive regime. Lacey hoped that someday those same children would thank her countrymen for the sacrifices made on their behalf. Doubtful, but still.
“You okay, Lac?” Kevin noticed her somber expression from the corner of his eye.
It took Lacey a moment to realize he was speaking to her, but then she pulled herself out of her reverie and turned her attention on him.
“Fine,” she uttered distractedly. “I was just thinking.”
“Be careful, there, Doc,” he teased with a boyish grin. “That kind of thing is dangerous in a war zone.”
She didn't take the bait. “Do you think these kids will ever be able to have normal lives again?” She asked. “Do you think they ever really knew a normal life, even before we got here?”
“What's normal?” He returned. “They didn't have it so good before, when Saddam was in power. Many of them were forced to serve in the military or worse. Some have seen things no kid was meant to see. Or they know a family member who was imprisoned and tortured by Saddam's goon squad.
“Now,” he continued. “They have us here to give their freedom back to them, but most of them probably don't even know what freedom means. At least some will have the chance to go to school and get an education. Someday, though, maybe they'll thank us for it.”
“Yeah,” Lacey smirked. “They can thank us a decade from now for making them grow up in a war zone. For stealing their childhood. For making them orphans…”
“You really know how to put a damper on a guy's good mood, ya know?”
She smiled wistfully. “Sorry.”
“It's okay,” Kevin answered with a sidelong glance in her direction. “I know these kids have it tough, and no kid should have to live in these conditions, but look at the bright side…”
“There's a bright side?”
“Yeah,” he continued with his customary boyish smirk. “They're alive and they have half a chance of making a better life for themselves and their families now that Saddam's no longer in power.”
“Yeah, I suppose you're right,” Lacey sighed, then decided to change the subject. “How much farther until we reach our destination?”
“We're about a mile out,” Kevin answered, as his expression suddenly turned serious. “This is a hot zone, so be prepared for anything.”
They had entered a very rundown section of town, where the buildings were more like piles of rubble and the streets were littered with debris and the burned-out skeletons of cars. There were also very few people on the streets.
The few who did happen to venture out were armed with automatic weapons and had scarves covering their faces. Lacey noticed a few waving their arms as the convoy passed. She even heard one man shout something in Arabic that she couldn't understand.
“Put your helmet back on and buckle up,” Kevin ordered. He then picked up a radio and clicked it once. “Heads up back there, people. This could get dicey.”
Lacey looked at Kevin with a worried frown. “Are we in danger here, Kev? Even with the big red cross painted on the front of our vehicles?”
“To these guys,” Kevin answered, keeping a watchful eye on the road ahead. “That big red cross is just another symbol of the infidels they claim we are. Kinda like the cross the crusaders wore long ago.” His eyes searched for signs of danger as he continued to navigate the littered streets. “It also makes a really good target, by the way,” he added with a wry grin.
That last statement made Lacey more nervous than she'd been in weeks. Nothing put the fear of the enemy in you like knowing you could be used as target practice. News of car bombings in the capital city was something that one heard on a daily basis. It was sobering to know that she was in the midst of that danger and much closer to losing her life than she'd been since her arrival in the desert.
“Don't they understand why we're here?” Lacey asked over the nervous lump that suddenly formed in her throat.
“They do,” Kevin answered. “Just be ready, in case they decide to change their minds about letting us do the job we came here to do. You never know what Shiite fanatic is out here ready to get a bead on an American military vehicle. Those guys are relentless when it comes to their jihad —their damned holy war.”
Lacey's eyes darted from one crumbled building to the next, all the while searching for an enemy she couldn't see, but knew was out there somewhere. At one point she thought she spotted the barrel of a surface-to-air missile launcher, but realized it was nothing more than a piece of twisted metal framing. She breathed a brief sigh of relief and went back to scanning the deserted streets again.
Several shots suddenly rang out around them, ricocheting off the outside of the humvee and the ground they passed over. Kevin just kept driving forward without slowing up. He kept a watchful eye on the road ahead with expert precision. Lacey admired his focus, as she kept her eyes on the buildings that surrounded them. She caught sight of a gunman on top of one building in particular, then lost him in the glare of the sun. More shots rang out, but Lacey couldn't tell where they were coming from.
She sent a silent prayer to heavens that they would make it through the area without incident. It was a prayer she often used when dealing with a particularly difficult patient and one that seldom yielded positive results. Just the same, she didn't know what else to do, other than hold on for dear life as Kevin maneuvered the humvee through the obstacle course ahead.
“Hold on,” Kevin shouted, as he wrenched on the steering wheel and maneuvered around the smoldering vehicle sitting in the middle of the debris-filled road, narrowly missing it by inches.
As she felt the heat through the open window, Lacey gritted her teeth against a sudden flash of fear that erupted inside her and made her stomach roil. She watched a bullet ricochet off the hood just in front of her side of the vehicle and briefly wondered if it might come through the windshield and hit her.
She knew the risks of being in combat, but that didn't mean that she was ever prepared when the danger actually dropped right into her lap. It was one thing to hear the RPGs from a distance and quite another to have them dropping from the sky on your head.
They managed to make it past the danger zone fairly quickly and the gunfire abruptly stopped. Lacey held her breath for another moment, before she finally let it out and breathed a sigh of relief. Kevin was all business as he impatiently grabbed the radio mic and lifted it to his lips.
“Everyone okay back there?” He asked.
“Roger that,” came several tinny replies.
Kevin glanced at Lacey. “You okay, Captain Stephens?”
“I'll let you know, just as soon as my heart stops trying to beat feet out of my chest and my stomach stops doing back-flips, Major,” Lacey answered with a wry grin. “Does that happen often around here?”
“Every day,” he grinned back. “Never a dull moment in our neck of the woods…or, er, desert.”
The Humvee rounded a corner and the site that greeted them was a welcome one. There were several American military vehicles parked around the only building that had not been damaged in the conflict. Armed Marines and Army National Guardsmen were posted at six-foot intervals around the perimeter, all of them watching the surrounding area with intent stares. The outside of the building was a pale shade of gray and looked to have once been a hotel.
Lacey donned her sunglasses, jumped from the vehicle and grabbed her bag from behind the seat. As she scanned the area, it occurred to her that such an obvious military presence could be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she felt moderately safe in the midst of her armed protectors.
On the other hand, having that many Americans gathered in one place posed a rather grave risk and a wonderful opportunity for the enemy to have a field day. One well-aimed SAM and it would all be over in a heartbeat. And not just for her. She shuddered at the thought.
Lacey glanced toward the mostly empty street behind them and noticed there was a lot of nothing out there. Concrete blocks had crumbled from one of the buildings and were sitting in a heap on the sidewalk. A burned-out car sat several meters away, its wreckage looking to Lacey like a skeleton left to rot in the desert sun. It was an eerie reminder that their presence wasn't welcomed by everyone.
Sea-green eyes tracked to the windows of the buildings around them, but Lacey saw only abandoned apartments and former businesses. A tattered curtain waved forlornly in what little breeze was blowing, reminding Lacey that people had once lived there—that life actually once existed there.
Kevin waved the other vehicles to park nearby and grabbed his own gear. “You coming, Captain?”
“Yes, sir,” she answered distractedly.
They walked together to the front door of the building, where Simmons awaited them with the large medical duffel. Lacey could sense the tension in the private's stance. She'd only been working with Simmons for a brief period, but knew enough about the younger woman to sense that she was as eager to be away from the danger zone as Lacey was.
“This place gives me the creeps, ma'am,” Simmons commented quietly, as Lacey stepped up next to her.
Simmons surveyed the outside of the building they were standing in front of. Her brown eyes took in the once-plush entryway that was now as battered as its surrounding counterparts. Lacey noted the lines of tension around Simmons' jaw and the stiff set to the younger woman's shoulders. Simmons was ready for anything.
“Me too, Private,” Lacey responded.
“It reminds me of one of the cemeteries back home,” Simmons continued, a brief shudder running down her spine. “All quiet and somber, like something's waiting just out of sight to pounce and scare the crap out of us.” She shuddered. “I really hate cemeteries.”
Lacey glanced sidelong at her companion. “You visit them often, Private?”
“No, ma'am,” Simmons answered, adjusting the duffle on her shoulder in an effort to appear nonchalant. “Not if I can help it.”
“Me, either,” Lacey's eyes tracked to the seemingly abandoned buildings around them. “But it's a damned good observation, Private. I just wish you weren't so right on the money about this place.”
“Yes, ma'am,” the young medic answered somberly.
“By the way, how'd you get here so fast, Simmons?” Lacey consciously changed the subject.
Simmons was not alone. There were two other medics standing off to one side, both of which were male and looked to be no older than nineteen or twenty. They also looked like a couple of lost puppies who had just found a new master to follow. Lacey noticed how protectively they were hovering near Simmons. It was no big surprise, since Simmons was attractive, in a child-like sort of way. Not a child, just not quite an adult, either.
“We were right behind you, ma'am,” Simmons shrugged. “I just hopped out with the rest of the guys.” She smiled and winked conspiratorially at her two companions. “Ma'am, meet Private Guthrie and Corporal Patterson. They're assigned to us for the duration.” Both men saluted smartly.
“Gentlemen,” Lacey nodded to them. “Shall we get this show on the road?” She said, returning her attention to the front door, where Kevin was patiently waiting in the doorway for them. “I think the Major is ready for us.”
The group entered the dismal building and was greeted by a small, stern Iraqi in a white lab coat. At first glance he looked to be in his early sixties, but upon further appraisal Lacey realized he was probably closer to thirty-five.
“Dr. Ahmad,” Kevin greeted the man, nodding in a brief show of respect. “I'd like you to meet Captain Stephens. She's a flight surgeon from the 150 th Medical Battalion. I brought her here to do those surgeries that we discussed.”
“Dr. Ahmad,” Lacey said, offering her hand to the doctor. Ahmad glanced at her hand as if she were offering him something disgusting, then proceeded to ignore her completely as Lacey shrugged off the slight.
The Iraqi glanced at Lacey, as she quickly removed her helmet to reveal her braided blond hair. He frowned and quickly returned his attention to Kevin, grabbing the Major's arm and leading him to a secluded corner of the room.
“You understand, Major,” Ahmad said in heavily-accented English. “I cannot work side-by-side with a woman.”
“You're kidding, right?” Kevin was exasperated and stood with hands on his hips. “She's one of the best doctors we have over here. You won't find a more dedicated surgeon in the U.S. Army, doctor. And your people specifically asked for a woman, remember? If you didn't notice, Captain Stephens fits the bill perfectly in that department.”
“I do not care,” Ahmad was adamant. “I am afraid it would not matter if the Captain was the only surgeon on the continent, I cannot work with her unless she is properly covered and the other,” he waved dismissively toward Simmons, “as well.”
Kevin sighed in exasperation. He knew how hard it was to work with the Iraqis, especially the ones who adhered to the conventional traditions of their religion. This guy, Kevin realized, was one of those and it was one of those situations that made Kevin want nothing more than to leave Iraq in the hands of the Iraqis.
Kevin ran a hand across his smooth jaw. “What if they both wear the proper attire?” He conceded.
Ahmad considered for a moment, his bushy black eyebrows lifting, as he considered the suggestion.
“Then I could be persuaded to accept your offer,” the Iraqi said reluctantly. “I am afraid it is a burden I must bear; however, under the circumstances—”
Kevin nearly rolled his eyes at the man's arrogance, but managed to catch himself before he did so. He knew this would probably come up, but had hoped the interim Iraqi government would somehow find a liaison that was less concerned with protocol and more concerned with his patients.
“I'm afraid the Captain won't be able to do surgery in a burqa , doctor,” Kevin said. “She'll need to wear scrubs and a mask for that.”
Ahmad considered again.
“She will be completely covered?” He asked, as if he had never performed surgery himself.
“From head to toe,” Kevin answered, deciding against calling the man out on his lack of surgical procedure.
“Then, yes, that will have to do,” Ahmad answered in that irritatingly smug way that many Iraqi men had of talking about women.
“Consider it done,” Kevin said.
The Major walked back over to Lacey and took her aside.
“Well?” Lacey asked hopefully. All she wanted to do was get to the work, but she also knew something was up. “I take it there's a catch to us being here.” She stood with her hands on her hips and challenged him with her gaze.
“Same ol', same ol',” Kevin answered, not meeting her gaze. “He wants you and Simmons to wear the burqa while you're here.”
“Oh, for Christ's sake,” Lacey rolled her eyes and rubbed her brow. “Don't tell me he's a damned fundamentalist. I have had it up to here,” she put a hand to her forehead, as if to salute, “with the damned Muslim fundamentalists and their fucking views on women.”
“Well, then go home, Captain,” Kevin shot back with a teasing gleam in his hazel eyes, as they finally met hers. “Rules are rules, Captain Stephens. You and the Private will need to stay covered at all times during this assignment. Understood?”
“What about surgery?” Lacey asked. “Is he going to insist that I wear that ridiculous getup in the OR, too?”
“No,” Kevin smiled conspiratorially. “Your scrubs will do just fine for that, Captain.”
“Thank you, sir,” Lacey answered wryly, allowing sarcasm to seep into every word. “I'm glad you two came to such a reasonable compromise, under the circumstances. I'm sure this is a terrible hardship for the good doctor. After all, I wouldn't want him to defile himself and see me collapse from heat exhaustion at a crucial moment during surgery.”
“No, we wouldn't want that,” Kevin said, waggling his eyebrows. “The Good Lord knows what affect that would have on the poor man. Carry on, Captain, I leave this in your capable hands,” he stepped back and saluted with a teasing gleam in his eye.
“Thank you, Major,” Lacey said, snapping off a quick salute. “By the way,” she continued in low tones for his ears alone. “I do believe you're enjoying this a little too much, Kev.”
“You betcha,” he answered in the same low tones and with a conspiratorial wink. “I'll have one of our men bring you the proper attire,” Kevin said loudly over his shoulder, as he proceeded to leave the building. “We should have something in one of the trucks.”
Lacey rejoined the other three, each looking to her for direction.
“Guthrie, Patterson,” Lacey said. “You two report to Ahmad and find out what he wants you to do,” she ordered.
“Yes, ma'am,” they both answered in unison and turned on their heels to head in the direction the doctor had disappeared in earlier.
“Simmons, you're with me,” Lacey continued. “We have a little detour to make before we're suitably outfitted for this assignment.”
“Ma'am?” Simmons questioned with a note of confusion in her tone.
“Just come with me, Simmons,” Lacey said. “The less you know, the better off you'll be.”
Just then, a young Private entered the building and handed Lacey a wad of clothing. He then saluted and left without a word.
Lacey took the two matching drab garments to a secluded corner of the room and handed one to Simmons, who looked down at the garment and then up at Lacey with confusion in her eyes. Lacey then proceeded to drop the robe over her head, letting the hemline fall to the floor in a puddle at her feet.
“Nice,” Lacey commented sarcastically. “I had to get the one that was made for Amazon Barbie. Very attractive and, look, even the sleeves are too long.” She put her arms out in front of her to show that her hands were completely lost inside the garment. “I look like one of those damned little Jawas from Star Wars.”
“Ma'am?” Simmons asked.
“Just put it on, Private,” Lacey ordered. “We don't have time for this right now. We need to get to work.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Simmons said, pulling the garment over her uniform.
Lacey found it ironic that the garment she gave Simmons fit the woman perfectly, despite the fact they were both nearly the same size.
“Oh, that's just great,” Lacey commented, looking from her garment to the one worn by Simmons. “It figures I gave you the one that fits.”
“Would you like to trade, ma'am?” Simmons offered, noticing the size difference and the Captain's obvious distaste for the garment.
“No, Simmons,” Lacey said, pulling the hood and veil over her face and heading in the same direction as the others. “We don't have time to sit here playing dress-up. Let's go.”
Simmons hurriedly pulled on her own hood and veil and followed the Captain. This was definitely not turning out to be her assignment of choice, she realized. She spared a quick thought to her crewmates on the Black Hawk and wondered briefly what they were doing to keep themselves busy.
Once the Black Hawk dropped off its two medical personnel near the convoy, Mac took them to a small airstrip to the north of Baghdad and landed. Her orders were to wait on the outskirts of the capital city and provide whatever support was needed for the convoy, once it reached its destination. She hated assignments like this.
Hurry up and wait. That should have been the sole mantra of the United States military, Mac grimaced as she sat in the cockpit of her bird and waited. While O'Leary cleaned his weapon, Jimenez made a few mechanical adjustments and Donaldson wrote an entry in the flight log. Mac just sat there, watching the distant horizon, as it shimmered in the heat of the day.
Her thoughts turned to her newest crew member and she wondered what the good doctor was up to at that moment. Their brief, yet witty, conversations intrigued Mac and convinced her they really might have something. There weren't many people Mac met in her extensive travels who intrigued her enough to further a relationship. Not many at all.
Mac's gaze traveled across the bleak desert landscape, but her thoughts continued to dwell on the short blond flight surgeon. How could someone who looked so young have so much experience in the military and be a doctor, as well? Mac realized that she wanted to know more about her new charge, then checked herself as the thought crossed her mind. The doctor was probably used to being in charge and giving orders, not taking them. They were equals on an equal playing field—battlefield, she amended with a smirk.
Most flight surgeons took command of their aircraft, despite the fact that the pilot was ultimately responsible for all personnel aboard. Mac couldn't help wondering, though, if that short, slip of a woman was like other flight surgeons. Would they end up coming to loggerheads, eventually? Or would they be able to form a good working relationship, where both parties did what they did best and no one argued over who was ultimately in charge?
The doctor seemed confident enough, Mac reasoned, her thoughts going back to their conversation outside the hangar. Captain Stephens could definitely hold her own in a conversation. But could she take command when the situation presented itself? That was always the question and one that often became an arguing point in this kind of situation. Mac would have to play things by ear and see if the Captain was worth her salt. Time enough later to find out how this would all play out for them, both professionally and personally.
Personally. Mac pondered that one for a moment. She wondered what the doctor was like away from work. Was she a fun-loving sort, who didn't shy away from a good time? Or was she one of those sticks in the mud, who kept mostly to herself and didn't mingle with others? Did she enjoy a good game of cards?
The questions rolled through Mac's mind, one on top of the next, until she realized she really wanted to have a good sit-down conversation with the her newest team member. She just hoped they'd eventually get the chance. One never knew in a war zone.
Mac's thoughts turned to her previous assignment – supply and personnel transport. After six months of boring runs back and forth from the Kuwaiti border to a few camps throughout Iraq , she had finally gotten up the nerve to request a more permanent assignment. Granted, women pilots were still not allowed to fly the really dangerous missions, especially those involving open combat. But that didn't mean they couldn't request to be sent to the danger zones.
Mac loved danger—thrived on it, as a matter of fact. After moving to Wyoming , she'd gone to great lengths to find her share of danger. During the summer she often borrowed her father's buckshot rifle and disappeared for days, exploring the rivers, hills and valleys of the six thousand acre stretch of land that now belonged to her brother and was situated thirty miles from Jackson , in the shadow of the Grand Tetons. Snakes, wolves, bears and coyotes, you name it, she had seen all manner of wildlife in the wilderness that surrounded her brother's ranch.
Because her brother raised beef cattle, she was often on the plains for days on end. She didn't mind being one of the cow hands who kept track of the immense herds. She'd gotten to know all of the men who worked for her brother and had spent many a night in front of the campfire with them, as they told tall tales and sang mournful songs of lost loves.
Unfortunately, like all good things, that too came to an end and she had to choose a career path in high school. Of all the things she could have done with her life, she chose to join the Army and become a helicopter pilot.
During basic training, she'd been top of her class in everything from marksmanship to basic military knowledge. She'd become squad leader, section leader and was honored with carrying her company flag during graduation.
No physical challenge was too daunting for her six-foot-two-inch frame. She could scale the walls in the obstacle course as well as, if not better than, most of her male counterparts, but she always stayed back to help those who needed the extra help. She was a team leader who demanded more from herself than she did from those around her.
As for intelligence, there was no question that Mac was one of the brightest pilots of her day. She'd passed the FAST test with a perfect score, soared through AIT with ease and made it through flight training with top marks all around. She joined the Army to see the world and get a taste of danger.
What she'd gotten, so far, were cake assignments better suited to amateur pilots. No matter how much she proved herself, she still couldn't fight the gender bias that remained alive and well in the military. It was a fact that just wasn't going to change overnight.
Mac sighed as her attention focused on the landscape outside the cockpit. Not a green hill or even a river in sight, she mused. No snowcapped mountains against a cerulean sky. There was brown as far as the eye could see. She wiped her arm across her sweaty brow and looked over at her co-pilot.
“You up for a game of cards, Donaldson?” She asked hopefully, grabbing a deck from one of the pockets of her flight suit.
“No, ma'am,” Donaldson answered.
No surprise there.
“Jimenez?” Mac called to the back of the aircraft.
“Yes, ma'am,” Jimenez said, crawling out from under the component he was working on. There was grease all over his hands and a smear of grease across one cheek.
“Never mind, Chief,” Mac said to the mechanic, as she watched him wipe his hands on a dirty rag. “How about you, O'Leary? You up for some five-card stud?”
O'Leary took a drag from the cigarette hanging from his lips and laid the immaculate weapon he had just finished assembling down on the seat next to him.
“I suppose,” O'Leary answered.
Mac jumped from the cockpit and climbed into the back of the aircraft, taking a seat across from the weapons expert. O'Leary grabbed a small empty crate from a corner and used it as a makeshift table, while Mac dealt the first hand.
“Five card stud okay by you?” Mac asked. “Deuces wild.”
O'Leary simply nodded, taking another drag from his cigarette and blowing the smoke toward the open door. He took a wad of dollar bills from his flak jacket and laid them out on the “table”. Mac pulled several bills from a pocket of her flight suit and laid them out in front of her.
“Ante up, Gunny,” Mac commanded, laying a dollar bill on the center of the table.
O'Leary put a dollar in the pot, as well, and picked up his cards, shuffled them around in his hand, then discarded three.
Mac dealt three cards from the deck and sat back to look over her own hand. She quickly discarded and took two cards, then sat there waiting for O'Leary's move.
“Your bet, Gunny,” Mac said.
O'Leary's hooded eyes squinted hard as he looked at his cards. He was a gruff looking man, with pockmarked, leathery skin that made him look older than he really was. Though he had been clean-shaven just that morning, a slight shadow had already started to grow back, giving him a weathered, almost sailor-like, appearance. He reminded Mac of an old sea dog or an experienced pirate from days of old.
O'Leary shoved two dollars into the middle of the table, then squinted up at the pilot. Mac looked the man in the eye and smiled, then shoved two dollars in and added two more.
“I'll see your two and raise you two more,” she said with a satisfied grin.
O'Leary took a long drag on the almost-spent cigarette, crushed the smoldering ember under his boot, and flicked the butt out the door. He then took two more bills and slapped them onto the growing pile of money in the center of the table.
“Call,” he said flatly.
“Show me what'cha got, Gunny,” Mac said.
O'Leary laid his cards down. “Full house – nines over threes,” he said with a half-smile that made him look even more menacing.
Mac feigned disappointment, as she laid her own cards on the table. “Ah,” she sighed. “Too bad, Gunny. Four aces.”
She smiled triumphantly, as she collected her winnings and stacked them neatly on top of the other bills in her pile. They continued to play for several hours, eventually joined by Jimenez, until O'Leary finally threw his cards down in frustration.
“Fold,” he growled. “I'm out.”
Mac gathered the remainder of her winnings to her and began stuffing the bills into her pockets with a Cheshire grin.
“Well, Gunny,” she quipped. “Nice doin' business with you, that's for sure.”
“Mac,” Donaldson called from the cockpit. “There's a call for you from HQ.”
Mac finished stuffing her pockets, then slid out the side door and climbed back into the cockpit. She shoved her helmet on her head and clicked the handset on the toggle in front of her.
“ Papadopoulos, here,” she said.
She listened to the voice in her headset and nodded her understanding.
“Roger that,” she said. “We can be there in…” she looked at her watch. “Six. Over and out.”
She started flipping switches and setting knobs while her crew, sensing a mission in the works, got themselves set for another flight.
“You finished with that mess back there, Chief?” Mac called behind her.
Jimenez slid out from under an electrical box he was quickly reassembling and wiped his hands on the greasy rag he took from his pocket.
“Just finished, Mac,” he answered. “She'll work like a dream, now.”
“Good,” she said, hitting the ignition switch and starting the twin engines above them. The rotors turned. Slowly, at first, then more quickly as they gained momentum, and soon the aircraft was ready for takeoff.
No one said a word as the Black Hawk lifted off the desert floor in a cloud of dust and climbed into the cloudless blue sky.
Hotel Al Bin Hussein – Baghdad – Iraq
It was quiet. Almost too quiet. Lacey had been performing nonstop surgery for the better part of sixteen hours and was feeling the strain. She'd operated on too many patients to count, several of which had died on the table from a variety of unforseeable complications. The most recent woman's death weighed heavily on her conscience, but she girded herself for yet another surgery. It was what she did, even if it didn't get any easier and no matter how many people died while in her care. Each death just seemed to take a little piece of her , though.
The near silence was the worst. After they were shown the sparse operating room that was set aside in an abandoned wing of the building, specifically for the female patients, Lacey had commented on just how quiet it was. They were also alone – truly alone. It seemed they were the only two people in that part of the hotel, except when an orderly wheeled in another patient. There was no music, no distant conversation, nothing that indicated they weren't the only two people there.
“I hate this,” Lacey commented.
“Ma'am?” Simmons glanced up to meet Lacey's sea-green eyes.
Lacey sighed audibly and rolled her head around to stretch out tense neck muscles. “It's too damned quiet around here,” she continued. “It's like we're the only two people in the whole fucking building.”
“It is quiet, ma'am,” Simmons agreed, returning her attention to their patient. “You'd think someone would want to keep an eye on us, Captain. After all, we are here at the request of the Iraqis themselves.”
After Kevin and the rest of their escort had left, the good doctor, as Lacey sarcastically thought of him, had basically ordered her to “take care of” the few Iraqi women who came in or were brought in for treatment. Taking care of them, however, had proven difficult under the circumstances.
The surgical equipment she'd been given was outdated and in desperate need of repair, if not complete replacement. When she'd asked an Iraqi for the duffel that Simmons had brought with them, the man merely looked at her with a blank stare, turned and continued down the deserted hallway. They never saw him again – or anyone else except the orderly, for that matter.
During the past hour Lacey had been removing shrapnel from the belly of a middle-aged Iraqi woman. The surgery was not going well, due to the fact that there was so much damage and internal bleeding. Lacey couldn't tell what she was working on. Regardless, she kept at it with mindless determination.
There were no lost causes, no patients who couldn't be saved. Lacey continued to silently repeat the mantra time and time again. Even when the odds were stacked against her, she still put all her talents into saving a patient. Unfortunately, not all of them survived.
“Retract those flaps, Simmons,” Lacey ordered. “I can't see into the cavity.”
Simmons did as she was told, using a dull metal retractor to pull the mass of tissue aside so the doctor could continue working. She wasn't a nurse, but her training as a field medic had prepared her for moments like this. Being a medic gave her the chance to do some things that nurses never did, like assist a surgeon in a foreign hospital in the middle of a war zone.
“You have a boyfriend, Simmons?” Lacey asked out of the blue.
Simmons looked up with some surprise before returning her attention to their patient. “No, ma'am.”
“Oh, come on, Simmons,” Lacey prodded. “You can't tell me an attractive young woman like yourself doesn't have a whole slew of guys lined up to take you out for a night on the town,” she scoffed at her last words.
“I didn't say that, ma'am,” Simmons smirked behind her surgical mask.
Lacey glanced up at the young woman with an arched brow. “Oh, do tell.”
Simmons shrugged. “Let's just say I don't lack for companionship when I need it, ma'am.”
“Hm,” Lacey returned her attention to the task at hand. She could feel sweat beading her brow and wanted nothing more than to wipe it away before it dripped down into her eyes and blurred her vision.
Simmons noticed the doctor's discomfort and its cause. She used her free hand to grab a folded cloth and wiped the sweat from the tireless woman's brow. She admired Captain Lacey for her dedication to her patients. They had been working for hours without taking a single break. She sure needed a break, if for no other reason than to stretch her tired muscles and work the crick out of her neck. She could only imagine how much the doctor needed one, too.
A strange whistling noise caught their attention. They both stopped and looked at each other in confusion, right before all hell broke loose around them. A loud explosion rocked the room and Lacey just had time to throw her body over her patient to cover the gaping wound before debris from the ceiling rained down on them.
“Shit!” Lacey exclaimed. “What the fuck was that?”
“I don't know, but it was incredibly close,” Simmons stated the obvious.
“No shit, Private,” Lacey still lay half sprawled over the patient and watched as the last of the debris trickled down around her and caused her to sneeze.
“Sorry, ma'am,” Simmons had the grace to look slightly abashed. “I didn't mean to sound like such an idiot. I'm just not used to having mortar fire this close.”
“It's okay, Private,” Lacey said, finally able to straighten up and resume her work. “We're in a war zone and apparently no one bothered to let our friends know this building is being used as a hospital.”
“Suction,” Lacey used a wad of gauze to sop up a pool of blood around a particularly bad section of jagged tissue. “God, there's enough shrapnel in here to sink a damned battleship.”
They continued to do the best they could, despite their brief interruption. Simmons pushed more wads of gauze into the cavity, while also holding the suction device steady. She could see that the strain of all the surgeries and the sudden bomb explosion were taking their toll on both their frazzled nerves and decided to continue the conversation where they'd left off. She hoped it was a good distraction.
“What about you, ma'am?” Simmons asked.
“Me? What do you want to know, Private?” Lacey glanced up in confusion.
“Do you have a special someone in your life?” Simmons' attention was on the bleeder, so she didn't see Lacey's glance turn from confusion to annoyance.
“I…uh,” Lacey stuttered, caught off guard by the blunt question. “I'm not…I don't…” She sighed in frustration. “No.”
Simmons looked up to find Lacey shaking her head. “Ma'am?”
Lacey caught a smirk in the eyes of the younger woman.
“I'm not a one guy kinda girl,” Lacey answered with what she hoped was a nonchalant shrug. “I've had my share of meaningless s…uh…well, you get the picture.”
Simmons nodded, a knowing smile hidden behind her mask as she bowed her head to look into the chest cavity. They all knew there was a certain amount of “stuff” going on between the various officers and enlisted men and women. It was one of those unspoken things that just happened. It was also good for morale, at least that's why no one bothered to put a stop to it. Whatever happened behind closed doors – or tent flaps – was the business of those who were doing the…stuff.
Lacey's gloved hands were covered in blood, as was the gown she wore over her scrubs. There was also a smear of dried blood across her cheek from one of the patients who had bled out from an arterial hemorrhage several hours and several patients earlier.
Lacey resumed her search of the surrounding tissue, once Simmons had suctioned out the excess blood with an archaic motorized suctioning device. She'd only ever seen one of those on display in the medical library at the university she attended and had no idea what it was called.
Unfortunately, she knew that her efforts, at this point, would not be enough to save the woman. A warning buzzer sounded on one of the monitors, followed by another blaring alarm. Time was running out, and she still hadn't finished repairing the damage or removing all the metal fragments.
“ Jesus-H-Christ !” Lacey quietly exclaimed. “It's like Swiss cheese in here. What the hell…”
She removed another tiny piece of shrapnel and dumped it into the metal tray. There were already about a dozen others of varying sizes in the tray, but she paid them no mind. Her tired mind just continued to mechanically do what it had been trained to do.
“What the hell happened to this woman?” Lacey asked rhetorically, not expecting an answer.
“Someone said she was standing on a street corner, when an RPG exploded nearby,” Simmons answered in a tired voice. She looked up at the doctor and realized the woman wasn't really listening. “I overheard Dr. Ahmad talking to one of the orderlies. At least, I think the man was an orderly, ma'am.”
Lacey stopped what she was doing and just stared at Simmons for several long seconds. Her green eyes met the brown eyes of the other woman. She knew she should say something, anything, but couldn't conjure a single word to leave her tired lips. Bone-weary, her thoughts just froze until Simmons blinked and broke eye contact.
“Ma'am?” Simmons asked, looking at the doctor with concern. “Are…are you okay?”
“Uh, sorry,” Lacey returned her attention to the work at hand. She blinked tired eyes several times to clear her vision and shake loose the sandy grit that was scouring the backs of her eyeballs, then shook her head to clear the exhaustion that was threatening to settle in. “How many more surgeries does the good doctor have us scheduled for, Simmons?”
“I believe we're on for three more, ma'am,” Simmons answered, blotting Lacey's forehead again. “But I think Patterson said we could take a break after this one.”
An entire day without air conditioning, in a sweltering operating room, and they were both on their last leg. Dr. Ahmad, in his heavily accented English, had briefly explained that he could not perform the surgeries himself, for the simple reason that the patients were women. Lacey thought it odd, but kept her comments to herself. She knew enough about Islamic customs to refrain from questioning a man about anything.
“Good, because I can really use a break,” Lacey exhaled tiredly. “I feel like we've been here forever.”
“Do you want some juice, ma'am?” Simmons asked. “Major Johnson sent over some MREs and also a few cartons of orange juice, earlier.”
“Are they cold?” Lacey asked absently, dropping another piece of shrapnel into the tray.
“The MREs, ma'am?” Simmons asked.
“No, the juice,” Lacey corrected with a firm shake of her head. “Suction.”
Simmons applied suction to the area that Lacey indicated. Lacey squinted down into the cavity, then glanced over at the still-buzzing monitors. She suddenly realized the situation was beyond hopeless.
Lacey could not account for what happened next. In the blink of an eye everything around them suddenly exploded in a mass of flying concrete, metal and other debris. One moment she was staring into the bloody cavity of her patient and the next she was lying face down on the floor, surrounded by fallen rubble and thick, billowing smoke.
“Simmons!!!” Lacey yelled into the darkness. “Simmons, are you still with me?”
A cough and then Lacey felt someone grab her gloved hand. She tried to see through the gloom, but the smoke was too thick. A cough erupted from deep in her chest, followed by another and another.
“I'm here, ma'am,” Simmons coughed as well.
“Where? I can't see…”
Another cough and Simmons' face was right next to her own.
“You all right, Captain?” The private had bits of rubble in her hair, but was otherwise unharmed.
“Yeah. You, Simmons?”
“I think I'm okay, ma'am,” she answered on another cough. “That was really close.”
They both continued to lie there, as the smoke billowed thickly around them. The debris finally settled enough for them to get to their feet. Lacey looked around to find that the room they were in was relatively intact, except for one collapsed wall to their left. Their patient hadn't fared well in the blast, however.
Lacey walked over to the still-blaring monitors and flipped a master switch that quickly plunged the room into eerie silence. She ripped off her gloves and just stared at the body of the woman she had tried so valiantly to save. The woman's eyes were still taped shut and a breathing tube sat between still lips. For all intents and purposes, she could have just been sleeping. Lacey knew better, though.
“Shit!!!!” She shouted, as she flung her gloves toward the now-gaping hole in the wall. “Son of a bitch!!! ”
Simmons could do nothing but stand there and watch the doctor in silence as the emotionally spent woman took out her frustrations in a verbal tirade that lasted nearly a full minute. She couldn't blame the doctor in the least for her actions, so merely stood silently by as Lacey continued to spew every expletive she could think of into the still-smoky air. Simmons realized there were even a few expletives she had never heard before and some she never wanted to hear again, including a few directed at certain parts of the ‘good doctor's' anatomy.
As Lacey's ire began to wind down and exhaustion seeped back in, she suddenly felt the weight of the world on her shoulders. Everything that had happened that day suddenly came crashing in on her all at once, and she couldn't help but feel both physically and emotionally spent. Just like that, she suddenly dropped to the debris-ridden floor and sat there against a wall that was still somewhat intact.
The dust and smoke around her settled in silence. It was almost peaceful. Lacey closed her eyes and tried to breathe shallowly of the acrid, dusty air in order to clear her mind.
“You all right, ma'am?”
Simmons' voice seemed miles away as Lacey pictured herself anywhere but where she was. Lacey glanced up just as the private sat down next to her. A tired smile tugged at the doctor's lips.
“I've had better days, Private,” Lacey answered flatly. “Like the day I volunteered to ride in a tank, and we blew the shit out of a bunker we thought belonged to a bunch of insurgents. Turns out it was a hiding place for a bunch of orphans, instead.”
Simmons stared at the doctor in shocked silence for a moment. “Did…did they all…”
“No one home, thank God,” Lacey interrupted before the young woman could give her a horrified look. “Just some toys scattered on the floor.” She sighed again. “This war sucks.” She pinched her nose to squelch the sudden headache that was starting behind her eyes.
They sat there in the relative silence for what seemed like ages. It was closer to fifteen minutes. Neither woman wanted to move, nor did either speak.
While Lacey thought about the patient she had tried so hard to save, only to have the life ripped from her hands so unexpectedly, Simmons thoughts suddenly turned back to the conversation they were having just before the second bomb exploded.
“We have some of that juice I mentioned earlier. It's cold,” Simmons offered. “Want me to get you some, ma'am?”
“No,” Lacey answered with a determined look in her sea-green eyes. “Time to get the hell out of here, Private. We're done.”
Lacey got to her feet and walked over to the body still lying on the table. She gazed down into the body cavity, then grabbed a new pair of gloves and began digging around inside the dead woman's chest.
Simmons just sat there watching the doctor with a mixture of confusion and shock on her face, until she finally rose to her feet and walked to the other side of the table.
“Ma'am, what are you doing?” Simmons timidly asked. “She's dead, ma'am. There's nothing you can do for her now.”
“Yes, I know that, Private,” Lacey continued searching inside the cavity, her gloved hands now covered in blood and muck.
“Ma'am?” Simmons left the question hanging.
Lacey refused to meet the young woman's eyes and kept her own focused on the task at hand. “The dead can tell us a lot, Private,” she continued in a matter-of-fact tone. “You just have to listen.” She leaned close to the cavity and tilted her head slightly to one side. “Ah, gotcha,” she lifted a rather large and very sharp piece of bloody shrapnel from the cavity with the clamp in her hand and studied it closely. “It was lodged in the left ventricle and probably would have killed her anyway. It wasn't one of ours, thank the Lord.” Lacey tossed the clamp and shrapnel into a tray and stripped the bloody gloves from her hands impatiently. “Now we're done.”
Simmons didn't say a word. She could only stand there and stare at the woman she had only known since that morning. Under the circumstances she didn't blame the doctor at all for her reaction. The situation was even more shocking than her mind was able to process, but she seemed to be handling it a bit better than the doctor was at the moment. She briefly wondered if Captain Stephens was in shock or if she was in denial about the whole situation.
“Are you okay, ma'am?” Simmons asked tentatively, reaching a comforting hand to gently squeeze Lacey's shoulder.
“I'm…I think I'm just a little shaken, Private,” Lacey answered. She took a steadying breath and squared her shoulders. “Shall we let Ahmad know that we're finished here?”
The calm resolve that suddenly came over the doctor brought a concerned frown to Simmons' brow. “Are you sure, ma'am?”
Lacey merely nodded. She turned away from the body still lying open on the table and started removing her surgical scrubs. That's when her eyes met Simmons' gaze.
“Aren't... aren't you going to...” Simmons tried to get the words out, as she realized the doctor wasn't acting rationally at all. She didn't know what was going through the doctor's head at that moment, and she didn't know if she really wanted to know. Combat fatigue affected people in different ways, so she just shrugged and figured this was the doctor's way of handling the situation. Unfortunately, every instinct inside her kept screaming that the doctor's actions weren't right. “You can't just leave her like that, Captain.”
Lacey gave the body on the table a cursory glance and tried to distance her mind from the recent failure. It was a body now. A cadaver. Not a person. Not a woman. NO! Her mind screamed out in frustration, as her face mirrored a calm she certainly did not feel. There were tears threatening, but she valiantly held them at bay. Without warning, however, it hit her that this was not merely a classroom cadaver. It was a flesh and blood person who had died just moments ago.
She looked over at the dead woman's face. The breathing tube was still between the lifeless blue lips. The woman's closed eyes made it look like she was merely sleeping. Just sleeping. It was then that Lacey's mind snapped back to reality.
“Of course,” she exhaled tiredly and grabbed another pair of surgical gloves. “Let's finish this and get the hell out of here before this place falls down on our heads.” She glanced at the destruction around them and briefly wondered why no one had come to check on them, then dismissed the thought.
She pulled the gloves on and mindlessly went to work sewing the abdomen closed. She wasn't careful, nor was she thorough. After all, the patient was dead and there wasn't anything she could do to bring the already-cooling body back to life. She wasn't damned Frankenstein, after all. Nor was she God. Lacey mentally chastised herself for her failure, then checked that thought as she put the final suture in.
“I'll notify Dr. Ahmad that we're done here,” Lacey said as she ripped off her gloves, let them drop to the floor to join the other debris there and left the room. “Go ahead and find Gilbert and Sullivan. Let them know to meet us out front for pickup.”
“You mean Guthrie and Patterson, ma'am?” Simmons corrected.
“Yeah,” Lacey called over her shoulder. “Isn't that what I said?”
Simmons looked around her as she gingerly pulled a nearby blanket over the patient's body. She stripped her own gloves off and tossed them onto the surgical tray, then turned from the patient and walked towards the door. Not wishing to remain in the room by herself, Simmons headed out and down the corridor in the same direction as the doctor. Time to find the guys and finish her job.
Lacey removed her surgical gown, hat and booties, but left her scrubs on as she made her way through the rubble and back to the main floor of the makeshift hospital. She never gave a thought to her appearance or the lack of “appropriate attire” as she reached the relatively-intact main section and searched out the Iraqi doctor. She was exhausted and beyond frustration. Her headache was now in full-blown migraine mode, which always affected her temper—and not in a good way. Her mind was numb, and she just didn't want to think anymore.
She spotted Dr. Ahmad across the room, talking to an armed gunman. She stopped dead in her tracks. The men were having a heated argument in Arabic and Lacey thought twice about interrupting them. She finally decided to just plunge on ahead.
“What's the worst that can happen, eh?” She mumbled to herself as she briefly realized her life was in danger if she wasn't careful.
Lacey moved through the maze of beds in the room and noticed several additional armed men in military garb spaced throughout the room, as well as a number of male Iraqi patients. The room was filled to capacity, but Lacey just tuned it all out. She never noticed the surprised stares, exasperated looks or angry whispers that followed in her wake as the men saw how she was dressed.
By the time Lacey reached the Iraqi doctor and his companion, they were both fully aware of her approach. The armed gunman waved his gun in her direction and shouted something at the doctor that Lacey didn't understand. The Iraqi doctor's eyes registered both shock and anger, as well a hardness that seemed to permeate their yellowish-brown depths.
“What insolence is this?” Ahmad hissed angrily at Lacey, as she stepped up in front of him.
“We're done, doctor,” Lacey said, not daring to acknowledge the armed man standing only inches from her.
“Do you realize what you have done?” Ahmad hissed between clenched teeth. “Your Major ordered you to wear the proper attire. You have disobeyed that order.” He turned away from her as if the mere sight of her burned his eyes. “You have defiled me with your mere presence.”
“I don't give a flying fuck,” Lacey answered flatly as she tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “I've spent the last sixteen hours in surgery and have a roomful of dead patients to show for my efforts, all because this place isn't equipped for the type of surgery that you roped me into here. And I won't even mention the fact that two explosives went off while I was in the middle of performing a delicate surgery.” She took a step closer to him and pointed an accusing finger in his chest. A satisfactory grin played at the corners of her mouth as his eyes seemed about to jump out of his skull.
The Iraqi doctor took a step back from her. “You are crazy!!!!” He shouted, his eyes meeting the other man's and avoiding Lacey's gaze altogether.
“Take your fundamentalist ideals, your outdated equipment and shove ‘em up your ass, Ahmad!! I've had it!” She glared at the man for a moment then noticed a grin on the armed man's face behind the doctor's shoulder. “You people are pathetic,” she spat as she turned and walked away.
The Iraqi doctor was noticeably upset and turned three shades of purple in the space of a heartbeat. “How dare you speak to me in such an insolent manner!” He growled at her retreating back. “I shall report your insolence to your superiors and make sure you are severely disciplined!”
Lacey stopped dead and turned around. “Fine,” Lacey shot back without any regard for what she was doing or why. “I'll let my superiors know just how fucked up I think your setup is here. I'm sure the Iraqi government will be interested to know that you are treating and harboring insurgents, by the way.” She looked pointedly at the armed man and his cohorts. “Considering the Iraqi government is subsidizing this little operation of yours, I'm sure they'll want to launch a full investigation.” She returned her full attention to the doctor. “Oh, yes, doctor, two can play at that game.”
The man's face went scarlet as his rage mounted. “You insolent...you will never work in this country again! I promise you!”
“I don't work for you, doctor,” she snapped, no longer able to hold her temper in check, despite her precarious situation. “I work for the United States of America and am damned proud of that fact! At least we don't relegate our women to being treated as chattel, you pompous son of a bitch!”
“How dare you!” He shouted. “Get out! Get out, now !”
Lacey marched out of the room and continued on down a long hallway that she hoped would lead to the main lobby. She wanted nothing more to do with the doctor or his little operation. It was time to find Simmons and leave their failed mission behind them—far behind them. As she turned a corner, Lacey nearly collided with Kevin Johnson.
“Son of a…” Lacey hissed as she righted herself.
“Hey there, how're things go—” He stopped instantly, noticing the confrontational look on her haggard features and the flash of anger in Lacey's eyes. “Uh oh,” he glanced behind Lacey and his eyes widened. “What's going on here, Captain?”
Lacey, who unconsciously snapped to attention and instinctively saluted her superior, remained silent, despite the fact she was seething with unchecked anger that was threatening to erupt at any moment.
“This woman is an insult to your country, Major!” Ahmad shouted as he approached the pair. “That is what is going on! I want her disciplined for her insolence, immediately!”
Kevin noticed the lines of fatigue on Lacey's features and the unchecked temper that was broiling just beneath the surface. However, he also knew it was prudent to just nip the situation in the bud.
“Captain, dismissed,” he commanded in an uncustomarily curt tone.
Lacey finished her salute and walked past the major until she was outside the glass doors of the former hotel. Once outside, Lacey merely leaned against the building and let out a frustrated breath.
Kevin watched Lacey stride away, then returned his attention to the man standing rigidly before him. “I assure you, doctor, she didn't mean whatever she said to you. She's been working non-stop for hours and I'm sure the strain has taken its toll.”
“The relations between our two countries are tenuous at best, Major,” Ahmad said in a more subdued tone. “I would not want there to be any more misunderstandings of this nature. That woman will never return to this hospital again.” A malicious gleam entered the Iraqi doctor's eyes. “She admitted to killing several patients in her care, and their deaths are now on your hands and the hands of your government. I will be reporting this to my government just as soon as I am finished with my duties here.”
“That's a very serious accusation, doctor,” Kevin replied. He could tell the man was merely trying to discredit Lacey, but didn't know why. “I hope you have evidence to back up your claim. I know Captain Lacey, and I know she's one hell of a doctor. There's no way she would knowingly kill anyone. It's just not in her nature. She takes her job very seriously and is one of the best field surgeons we have.”
“I assure you, Major,” Ahmad added dismissively. “This incident will not go unchecked by my government. Do not send her here again.”
With that said, Ahmad dismissively turned his back on Kevin and arrogantly walked from the room. Kevin just stood there in dumbfounded shock. The assignment was supposed to have been a piece of cake, a way for the U.S. Army to show the Iraqis that they could work together for the benefit of both sides.
The Iraqis had asked for a female doctor to take care of a few female Iraqi patients. It was an easy enough request to fulfill. But now Kevin wondered exactly what had gone wrong. He removed his hat and pushed a frustrated hand through his short-cropped hair with an exasperated sigh.
“What the hell did you do this time, Lacey Stephens?” He muttered.
He made his way toward the lobby and found Lacey and Simmons sitting on a bench just outside the door, their gear piled next to them. Both women had already discarded the unattractive burqas and were wearing only their BDUs. They both stood and saluted when Kevin approached.
“At ease,” Kevin said sternly, not looking directly into either of their eyes as he walked past them toward the door. “Let's go, ladies, you have a flight to catch.”
It was pitch black outside. That was the first thing Lacey noticed while she sat outside, stewing over her confrontation with Ahmad. The second thing she noticed was that it was much cooler than it had been when they arrived. Lacey reveled in the temperature change, as she walked in the relatively still evening air.
The other thing she noticed was that the Humvee was the only vehicle in sight, and there were no longer any American soldiers guarding the area. The three of them silently stowed their gear and climbed into the Humvee without a word.
No one spoke as the vehicle snaked through the streets of Baghdad . This time, rather than heading toward the gate they had entered hours before, they took several back roads that appeared to take them deeper into the city.
Kevin kept his eyes on the road before him, his thoughts reeling with the recent events. His face was a mask of indifference and his silence spoke volumes. Lacey couldn't help the pang of guilt that tore at her. She'd screwed up and knew it. Her confrontation with the Iraqi doctor had been way out of line, no matter how hard she tried to deny it. There was just no excuse for her behavior, unless of course… No, PMS was never an excuse for a soldier in the field.
“I'm sorry, Major,” Lacey said quietly, finally breaking the uncomfortable silence. “I let my temper get the better of me. I shouldn't have let that happen, no matter what the circumstances.”
“He accused you of killing patients, Captain,” Kevin said evenly, his eyes never leaving the darkened road. “Is that true?”
“No,” Lacey answered flatly. “I didn't kill anyone.” She smirked wryly and lifted a brow. “I sure wanted to kill that stupid son of a bitch, Ahmad, though.” She glanced at Kevin and caught him glaring at her. “Sorry.”
“She tried to save them, sir,” Simmons interjected. “If you'd been there, you would have seen the conditions we had to work under. It was appalling, sir.”
“How did they die?” He prodded, clenching his jaw muscles as he tried not to look her way again.
He noticed the dark circles and the hollow look in her usually expressive eyes and just couldn't bring himself to hold her gaze for long. He knew if he did those liquid eyes would be his undoing.
“Loss of blood, poor equipment, too much shrapnel, infection, poor working conditions—you name it, we experienced it,” Lacey answered, leaning her head against the window and letting her eyes close as she finally allowed the exhaustion to seep into her mind. “I tried to save them, but it just wasn't possible. They were all hopeless cases before I laid my scalpel on them. I did my best.” She sighed heavily. “Not to mention we were bombed twice. Blew the shit out one wall of our operating room.”
“Captain Stephens is telling the truth, sir,” Simmons continued emphatically, her bond of friendship with the doctor showing itself in spades. “They gave us very little to work with and all the women were just too far gone. The explosions didn't help, either. Made things pretty dicey. The last patient actually died on the table while the captain tried to keep debris from pouring into the chest cavity.”
“Thank you, Private,” Kevin answered dismissively. His voice softened with his next words, however. “I'm glad to see the two of you made it out in one piece and are getting along.”
Lacey opened her eyes and looked in his direction. “What's that supposed to mean? I get along with everyone I work with,” she said a little more defensively than necessary.
Kevin cleared his throat and smiled. “Just teasing, Captain.”
Lacey went back to leaning her head against the cool glass. The headache that had started during that last surgery had become a full-blown migraine, and she was feeling rather nauseous. It didn't help that she hadn't eaten since very early that morning.
“You okay, Captain?” Kevin asked with a note of concern. “You seem a little green around the gills, even in this light.”
“Just fine, Major,” Lacey answered, swallowing down the bile that jumped into her throat at his concerned tone. “Just a little tired is all. Sixteen hours in surgery, culminating in two explosions does that to me, I'm afraid.”
“Did you at least take a break to eat something?” He asked. “I had MREs and orange juice delivered earlier. Were you able to get something in your stomach? Or did they make you work straight through?”
Lacey didn't answer right away. Her head was spinning now with the intensity of the migraine, which was also making her empty stomach do some first-class somersaults. Even the dim lights they passed were bothering her.
“No, sir, there wasn't time,” Simmons answered when Lacey didn't immediately respond.
Simmons' own head was aching from lack of sleep and sixteen hours of tension. She could only imagine what the captain was feeling at that particular moment. She admired the woman for all she'd done, despite the deplorable conditions. She also knew her admiration was bordering on hero worship, but couldn't help her next words.
“Neither of us had the chance to take a breather, sir.”
“That'll be all, Private,” Lacey scolded without lifting her head from the window.
Lacey's greatest fear at that moment was that she would suddenly lose control again. Tears were still threatening, but this time she was attributing her emotional turmoil to the fact that her head was about to explode.
“What happened to the MREs and juice I sent over?” Kevin continued, glancing over to see Lacey's lips set in a tight line.
“I'm sure someone enjoyed them,” Lacey answered. “Like I said, we didn't have time to stop for lunch, or dinner for that matter.”
“Private?” Kevin glanced behind his shoulder.
“Reach into that duffel back there and grab a couple MREs for you and the Captain.”
“Yes, sir,” Simmons replied, grabbing the duffel and rummaging inside. She pulled out two packs with the words Meals-Ready-To-Eat on them and handed one up front. “Here you go, ma'am.”
Lacey took the pack and ripped it open with her teeth. She didn't even bother to read the instructions on the outside of the package, having caught a glimpse of the fact that it was a pack of nachos with cheese sauce. She popped several chips into her mouth and chewed mindlessly. The crunching added to her already-pounding head and when she swallowed she immediately realized her mistake. The chips hit her empty and queasy stomach hard.
“Stop the vehicle,” she ordered, wrenching on the door handle even before the vehicle lurched to a stop.
Lacey jumped out and fell to her hands and knees in the rough sand. She threw up the few chips she'd swallowed and spent the next few miserable moments with the dry heaves, as her body continued its violent rebellion. When her head finally stopped spinning, she straightened up and took several deep, cleansing breaths.
“Here,” Kevin said, kneeling next to her and handing her a canteen and a rag.
Lacey took the canteen from his outstretched hand and swished some water around in her mouth before spitting it out. She poured water onto the rag and slapped it behind her neck, then just sat there getting her bearings. It was tough, but she finally managed to calm her breathing and get herself back under control.
“Better?” Kevin tentatively asked.
“Yeah, thanks,” she quietly answered.
“One of your killer migraines?” He continued, remembering that Lacey usually got one after a long stretch in the OR during their residency together.
“You remembered,” she smiled weakly up at him in the darkness.
“How could I forget?” He smiled in sympathy, squatting next to her and handing her a packet of pain relievers. “You threw up on me twice when we worked the same shift together. It's not exactly something a guy forgets.” He smiled in sympathy at the pathetic look she gave him.
“And you never complained once,” she smirked accepting the tablets and downing them in one gulp with a swig of water from the canteen. “Blaah,” she cringed. “There's nothing like stale metallic water to give your taste buds a lift.”
“Could be worse,” he said, helping her to her feet. “Your mouth could taste like puke.”
“Thanks heaps,” she replied sarcastically. “I'll remember that the next time you get sick and puke your guts out in my presence.”
“Well,” he smirked. “At least this time you had the decency not to do it all over me.”
“And mess up your nice, clean BDUs?” She quipped. “I couldn't do that to you again, Major. Besides, we're not dating anymore, so I no longer have that privilege.”
They returned to the vehicle and a patiently waiting Simmons. They both climbed back inside in silence.
“Are you all right, ma'am?” Simmons asked with concern.
“I'm fine, Private,” Lacey answered. “Just had a little disagreement with my dinner, is all.”
“Would you rather have mine, ma'am?” Simmons offered. “I only ate a couple bites, but I'd be more than happy to give you the rest.”
“No, thank you, Private,” Lacey answered, catching Kevin's raised-brow look, as she leaned her head against the window once again. “I'll wait and get something when we get back to camp.”
“Uh,” Kevin uttered. “About that.”
Lacey turned to him with disbelief in her tired eyes. “Oh, please don't tell me we have another assignment.”
“Your bird is picking you up just outside the city,” Kevin continued. “You'll head north a few hundred miles for a rendezvous with a patrol that was ambushed earlier this evening.”
“Jesus, Major!” Lacey exclaimed in a hiss. “Couldn't you send one of the other teams? Simmons and I are all tapped out.”
“Everyone else is busy and three of the pilots are already too far beyond their allowable flight limits,” Kevin answered, ignoring her borderline insubordination.
“We're well beyond our limits,” Lacey ground out, her stomach attempting to send the pain relievers back up for round two. She took another drink from the canteen and forced the rising bile back down with several hard swallows. “Good grief, Kev, we've been going full bore since the crack of dawn. What more does the Army want from us?”
“Your crew is well-rested and ready to go, Captain ,” Kevin answered quietly, his tone all business again in an attempt to bring their conversation back to a professional level in front of Simmons. “You'll meet up with them and fly to the rendezvous point, where you'll pick up an injured soldier and transport him back to the hospital.”
Lacey was about to protest further, but thought better of it when she saw the look in Kevin's eyes. She'd overstepped her bounds by calling him by his given name, especially in front of Simmons, and she knew it. Her bleary mind decided against arguing at that point.
“Sorry, Major,” she knew when it was time to just give in. “We'll report, as ordered.”
Her defeated tone nearly made Kevin change his mind, but he knew he had to hold firm. He was her superior, after all, and what he had said earlier was true. There just weren't any other flight teams available to take the assignment.
“I'll note your objections in my report, along with your version of what happened back at the Iraqi hospital,” he said. “If anything should come of either situation, I will make sure your butt is covered.”
“Thanks,” Lacey said quietly. “That means a lot, Major.”
The trip continued on in silence as the occupants of the Humvee remained lost in their own thoughts. The wheels ate up the miles in the darkness. Lacey briefly pondered the fact that they were in a city with so little light in it. Street lights were nonexistent, as were most of the lights in the buildings they passed.
It was eerie, especially when she knew the cities back in the States would be well-lit, including her hometown of Houston . Lacey put those thoughts to the back of her mind as the pain reliever finally kicked in…barely. The headache was still raging, but her stomach had finally settled down to the point that she didn't feel like she would lose her dignity again.
Her thoughts turned to the man sitting next to her and she wondered at his compassion. He had always been one to take care of others, including herself. That had been the one sticking point in their relationship. Well, that and the fact that he couldn't keep it in his pants. Lacey smiled wanly at the thought.
It hadn't been intentional, of course. He just wasn't the sort of guy to be content with a long-term relationship. Their breakup had been mutual, with no hard feelings on either side. But sometimes…Well, sometimes Lacey missed having someone around who would keep an eye on her.
They reached the helicopter shortly after leaving the city gates via a seldom-used checkpoint guarded by two Marines. Lacey and Simmons jumped from the Humvee, and Simmons retrieved their gear from the back. Lacey moved to the driver's side door of the Humvee.
“It was good to see you again, Kev,” she said in a loud voice to be heard over the whine of the Black Hawk's engines. “Let me know how things turn out. I'll email my written report, just as soon as I have time to sit down and type it up.”
“Good to see you, too, Lac,” he answered. “Take care of yourself, will ya?” He gave her his most charming smile and hiked his eyebrows a couple times.
“You, too, Major,” she finished, stepping away from the vehicle and saluting.
While Simmons headed for the waiting helicopter and climbed aboard, Lacey watched the Humvee disappear into the darkness. Only then did she turn toward the aircraft, ducking low as she approached it.
“Hello, boys!” Lacey shouted above the noise as she climbed aboard with a hand up from Jimenez. “Did ya'll miss me?”
“Yessiree, Captain,” Jimenez answered, closing the door behind her as she sat on a seat across from Simmons.
“Good, ‘cause I missed all of you, too,” Lacey continued, discarding the helmet she had been given earlier and donning her flight helmet, which she quickly strapped on.
Her headache was finally at a more tolerable level and she was glad to be back in the fold, so to speak. She even spared a small smile for Sergeant O'Leary and was surprised to see the man crack a reluctant smile in return.
“Everyone ready back there?” A familiar female voice asked inside Lacey's helmet. Strangely enough, the voice sent a welcome tingle through Lacey that made her feel like she was home. She wondered at the feeling, but dismissed it as exhaustion.
“I believe so, Mr. Papad—I mean, Mac,” Lacey answered into her mic as she finished buckling her harness.
“Good, then let's get this show on the road,” Mac said, pulling the chopper into the air and banking northwest. “Welcome back, Doc, Simmons.”
“Thanks, Mac,” Simmons answered, while Lacey remained silent. “It's nice to be back.”
Mac smiled, grateful to have her team together again. The day had been a long and boring one, despite the fact that they'd made an unscheduled trip to transport some much-needed medical supplies to a neighboring hospital. It had only taken three hours round-trip, and then they were back at the base with nothing to do but sit around and wait.
Mac had passed the time reading a book in the mess hall, where she found a quiet corner and a strong cup of surprisingly fresh coffee. After several hours and only a little headway into the spy novel, Mac decided to return to her quarters.
She wrote in her personal journal, which she tried to do on a regular basis. Her journal entry had consisted of a brief description of the day's events – not much excitement there – then her thoughts had turned to the two missing members of her team. After dedicating a full three paragraphs to her thoughts on the doctor, one of which had to do with the unique color of the smaller woman's eyes, Mac decided that she needed some sleep.
After turning out the lights, Mac lay there in her bed for what seemed like hours, wondering what Simmons and the doctor were doing. She finally drifted off to sleep, only to be awakened less than three hours later when the order came to meet her team members outside Baghdad and then head for another rendezvous point.
Within minutes Mac was showered, had donned her flight suit and was out on the flight line doing her pre-flight check. It took the other three a little longer, with Donaldson bringing up the rear, as usual. Mac could never figure out why Donaldson was always the last to arrive at the aircraft. He was always prompt to briefings and could always be counted on to know exactly what was going on and where. Even when they were in Afghanistan , he always seemed to know what their mission was before she did. It irked her sometimes that her second in command was such a brownnoser, but what could she do?
Mac's thoughts snapped back to the present, as she realized the Lieutenant was speaking to her.
“What was that, Lieutenant? I'm sorry. I was a little distracted,” Mac said.
“I asked if you knew when the sun would be up, so we can see where we're going,” Donaldson repeated the question with a touch of impatience.
“I think dawn is scheduled for 0518, not that it makes much difference,” Mac answered, wondering briefly why he hadn't known that particular detail. “We're in the desert, so there isn't much to see out there.”
Mac let the autopilot keep them at the correct altitude and heading, only making minor adjustments when needed. She was perfectly capable of flying on her own, but the Army had other ideas. The built-in navigational system was a new step in Army aviation and one that even her old bird had been retrofitted with not long ago. She was perfectly capable of flying in a variety of conditions and had done so on more than one occasion, but this wasn't one of those times. She was a good pilot and knew it, but she also knew when to sit back and follow orders.
“So, how're you doing back there, Captain?” Mac asked. “Everything go well with your assignment?” She waited for an answer, but was greeted with eerie silence, instead. “Captain?” She waited again with the same result. “Hey, Chief,” Mac said finally. “Is there something wrong with Captain Stephens' headset?”
Everyone in the back of the aircraft, except Lacey, shrugged at each other. They couldn't decide if they should spill the beans on the captain's present condition or not. Lacey was oblivious to everything going on around her. Simmons glanced at the other two and shook her head.
“Jimenez?” Mac prodded. “What's going on back there?”
“Nothing's wrong with the Captain's headset, Mac,” Jimenez answered with a barely-controlled snicker and looked to his comrades for support.
“Okay, I know we picked them up, so what gives?” Mac's tone showed her irritation. “Simmons, you there?”
“Present and accounted for, Mac,” Simmons reassured the pilot.
“All right you three,” There was irritation in the pilot's voice now. “Spill it. Why isn't the Captain answering the question?”
Just then, Lacey let loose a loud snore into her mic that could not be mistaken for anything other than what it was. Mac heard the sound and understanding instantly dawned in her pale eyes. Muffled snickers and chuckles confirmed her suspicions.
“Never mind,” she groused. “You could have just told me she was asleep, guys.”
“It's been a long day for both of us, Mac,” Simmons replied. “More so for the Captain, though. Her temper kinda got the best of her. I'll tell you about it later.”
“She didn't hit anyone, did she?” Mac asked, trying to imagine the five-foot six-inch doctor having a physical confrontation with anyone.
“No,” Simmons answered. “Nothing physical. Like I said, I'll tell you later.”
Both Jimenez and O'Leary were looking at Simmons with what could only be described as lustful enthusiasm. If Simmons didn't know any better, she might have thought she saw a speck of drool hanging from each of their open mouths.
“Down, boys,” she growled softly. “It's not that exciting. She just basically told an Iraqi he was an arrogant ass.”
Their disappointment was almost palpable as they realized she wasn't going to divulge any juicy details about their new flight surgeon. Lacey just continued to sleep soundly, completely unaware of the conversation around her.
The sun appeared over the eastern hills just as they neared the rendezvous point. Mac kept the aircraft low to the ground, just in case there were any unfriendly eyes watching during the early morning hours. One never knew who or what was out there watching…and waiting.
Just as her GPS signaled that they had reached their destination, she noticed a small group of vehicles in the distance. Disengaging the autopilot, Mac slowed the bird and circled the group once before searching for a good place to land.
“Over there, Chief,” Donaldson pointed to a clearing.
As Mac set the Black Hawk down, an armed American soldier approached. From the color of his fatigues, Mac could tell he was National Guard and not regular Army. The soldier stepped up to one side of the aircraft and slid the door open.
“Thank the Lord you guys made it,” he said with a relieved smile on his boyish face.
Lacey, who had been jolted awake by the sudden movement of the aircraft just prior to touch-down, jumped from the aircraft to meet the waiting soldier. She quickly shook off the last vestiges of sleep and put her mind back into business mode.
Simmons jumped down behind her, followed by O'Leary hefting his M-16 onto his shoulder.
“So, where's your injured man, Corporal?” Lacey asked, a touch of weariness still in her tone. “Take us there and we'll get him fixed up, A-SAP.”
“He's in that truck over there, ma'am,” the Corporal said, pointing toward a transport. “Sarg said we shouldn't move him until help arrives. Come on, I'll take you over.”
Lacey was still feeling the effects of the Benadryl Kevin had slipped her earlier that morning. Pain relievers, my ass, Lacey thought with a grim smile. She realized what he'd done the instant she woke up to find all eyes on her. It had been a little embarrassing to know that she'd fallen for Kevin's trick, again. It was all she could do to push the embarrassment to the back of her mind and concentrate on the task at hand.
“So, what happened to him, Corporal?” Lacey asked, as they approached the vehicle.
She felt like she was sucking on a wad of cotton, so she swallowed several times and tried to call up some saliva. What she really needed was a gallon or so of fresh water. She looked around in wry amusement at the desert landscape that surrounded them. No likely, she silently mused.
Thankfully her headache was just a dull throbbing in the back of her head. She felt slightly better for the brief nap, but the Benadryl always seemed to stay with her for a while afterward. It made her feel like she had a hangover, except without the intense headache.
“He was shot, ma'am,” the corporal answered. “We were ambushed by a group of rebels a few miles back. The private took one in the shoulder and another in the knee.”
“Was anyone else injured?” Lacey asked.
“No, ma'am, just Private Avery,” he answered. “The rest of us were pretty lucky, I guess.”
“I guess,” Lacey said. “Wasn't he wearing his flak jacket, Corporal?”
“Yes, ma'am,” the corporal answered. “But the bullet missed that altogether.”
They rounded the corner and were met by a Hispanic sergeant standing next to the truck bed. He saluted and Lacey returned the salute, then they both hopped up inside the truck, with Simmons silently bringing up the rear.
The first thing Lacey noticed in the dim interior of the truck bed was that there were far too many bodies inside for her to properly examine her patient. She knew they all meant well, but she couldn't work in crowded conditions and needed space to breathe.
“Everyone out,” Lacey ordered, as all eyes turned to her. “Now.”
“You heard the captain,” the sergeant confirmed. “Everyone out. Move it!”
Six soldiers with weapons and gear scrambled from the back end of the vehicle, leaving Lacey, Simmons and the sergeant alone with the private, who was lying on a makeshift stretcher. He had a large, bloody bandage covering one shoulder and another wrapped around a knee.
“How're ya doin', Private?” The sergeant asked, grabbing the young man's hand.
“Hangin' in there, Sarg,” Avery answered between gritted teeth.
“This is Captain Lacey,” the sergeant nodded in Lacey's direction. “She's here to take care of you and get you all patched up.”
“Captain,” Avery tried to sit up, but Lacey pushed him back down.
“Easy there, Private,” Lacey said quietly, with a note of command in her voice. “Let me have a look at you first, before you get up and join your buddies out there.” She smiled down at the young man then pulled her stethoscope from the bag that Simmons handed her. “I'm going to take a listen here, so just relax. Okay?”
Avery nodded once, then looked to the sergeant for confirmation.
“You do as she says, Private,” the Sarg ordered. “I'll be right outside if you need me.” He moved to the opening and slipped through without another word.
“There, that wasn't so bad now, was it?” Lacey said, wrapping the stethoscope around her neck and holding the young man's wrist to check his pulse. “Start an IV,” she said to Simmons.
“Yes, ma'am,” Simmons said, reaching into the bag and pulling out an IV kit.
“Are you allergic to any medications, Private?” Lacey continued her examination. “Morphine? Latex? Antibiotics? Anything you can think of?”
“No, ma'am,” Avery answered with a brisk shake of his head.
Lacey put on a pair of latex gloves, then took a syringe and bottle from her bag and filled the syringe. She carefully injected the meds into his arm, emptying the syringe of its contents before pulling the needle out.
“I've given you some morphine for the pain,” she said. “Where are you from, Private?”
“M-Mississippi, ma'am,” Avery stammered.
Lacey decided he was breathing a bit too fast and shallow for his own good, so she called up her best bedside manner. She knew she had to calm him down and the only way to do that was to get his mind off his injuries.
“Family?” She asked with a warm smile.
“I got me two brothers and a sister, ma'am,” he answered. “My folks still live in the house I grew up in.”
“Where abouts in Mississippi ?” Lacey prodded further.
“A little ways outside Pine Grove, in Lamar County ,” he answered, grimacing when her gloved fingers found a particularly sore spot. “You ever been to Mississippi , ma'am?”
“No, can't say that I have,” Lacey answered. “I hear it's nice, though. How long have you been in the service, Private?”
“It'll be two years this July, ma'am,” he beamed, despite the pain. “My daddy's real proud, since I'm the first in my family to make it this far.”
Simmons handed her the IV bag and she hooked it to the side of the truck.
“Keep Private Avery company for a while, Simmons,” Lacey said. “I'll be right outside if you need me.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Simmons replied, then turned her attention to the young private and took one of his hands in hers with a sympathetic smile.
Lacey slid to the tailgate and jumped down from the truck, squinting in the bright glare of the early morning sunlight as she emerged from the truck bed.
“Sergeant,” Lacey called to the man who was talking with one of his men.
“Ma'am,” the Sarg answered expectantly, moving to stand in front of her.
“Well, the good news is the bullet in his shoulder didn't hit anything vital,” Lacey said matter-of-factly. “We should be able to remove it with no problem. He'll just need a few weeks to recover and should regain the full use of his arm once he's had time to recuperate. I'm not so sure about the leg, though. We'll do our best to stabilize him and then we'll ship him to Ramstein once we're at the base. He may need some reconstructive surgery and that will have to be done when they ship him back to the States. Otherwise, Private Avery should be fine.”
“That's good to hear, ma'am,” the sergeant answered with a satisfied grin.
“If you'll have one of your men help Sergeant O'Leary, we'll get Avery to the helo and evac him to the hospital, right away,” Lacey continued.
“I'll do it personally, ma'am,” the sergeant answered, handing her his M-16 and climbing up into the truck. He grabbed the head of the stretcher and waited for O'Leary to move Avery's stretcher to the end of the gate. Both men then lifted the injured private down carefully.
Just then, a nearby explosion rocked the ground beneath them and rained dirt, sand and grit down on all of them. All hell broke loose as soldiers scrambled for cover and bullets ricocheted from several directions. Lacey urged the two sergeants to continue toward the Black Hawk with their precious cargo.
“Move it, men!” She shouted above the din of the return fire. She was carrying O'Leary's M-16 over one shoulder and Simmons was next to her, carrying the medical bag.
An explosion in front of them stopped them all in their tracks, this one between the small group and the helicopter.
“Shit!” Lacey exclaimed, bending over her patient to keep the debris from falling on him. “Pull back! Pull back!” She shouted, as they retreated back toward the vehicles.
“Shit!” Mac exclaimed as an explosion rocked the aircraft. “We need to get this bird in the air! Hang on back there, Chief!”
Mac pulled back hard on the stick, gunned the engine and took off in a hurry, leaving Lacey, Simmons, and the others to return to the cover of one of the vehicles. The pilot steered the aircraft until it was a safe distance away, so they could survey the situation and call for assistance.
“Alpha-six-charlie-one-seven-niner to base, one-seven-niner to base,” she called into the small black mouth piece in front of her lips.
“ Go ahead, one-seven-niner ,” a calm voice returned.
“We're at the rendezvous point, but are taking heavy enemy fire and are unable to complete pick-up!” She shouted. “Request immediate assistance! I repeat, request immediate assistance!”
“ Roger that, one-seven-niner ,” the voice continued. “ Hold position and wait for assistance .”
“Roger. One-seven-niner out,” Mac replied, as she glanced over at Donaldson.
“You heard him, Mac,” Donaldson somehow knew what was on her mind. “They want us to hold position and wait for assistance. Please don't do anything stupid. Please?”
Mac rolled her eyes and sighed. She knew they didn't have the fire power to defend the aircraft against whatever the enemy was firing at them. But she didn't want to just sit there and wait, either. Her people were back there. she hated sitting helplessly by, as half her crew faced enemy fire.
Back at the convoy, the small group huddled behind a transport. The sergeant—Burke, by the name tag on his BDUs—was trading gunfire with the enemy, as were the rest of the members of his team.
Lacey took her sidearm from the holster at her hip and was holding it at the ready as she stood guard over her patient. The pistol felt awkward in her hand, its weight something she wasn't used to. She glared at the weapon before returning her full attention to her patient.
“How're you doing, Private Avery?” Lacey asked the injured young man. “You okay?”
“Just fine, ma'am,” he smiled, in a haze of morphine-induced relief. “Wish I could get right back in there with the rest of my team, though.”
Lacey smiled down at him, before turning her attention to Simmons, who looked a little green around the gills. “How about you, Simmons? How are you holding up?”
Simmons looked at her with wide eyes, “Not exactly what I imagined I'd be doing today, ma'am, especially after so little sleep.”
“Do you know how to use one of these?” Lacey indicated the pistol in her hand.
“Yes, ma'am,” Simmons nodded, looking a little hesitant. “I've been trained in small weapons fire. Was one of the top marksmen in my class at Ft. Hood , according to my CO.”
“Here, take it,” Lacey said, handing the pistol over to the pensive young woman.
“Ma'am?” Simmons hesitantly took the weapon.
“I don't shoot people, Private,” Lacey said flatly. “If it comes to that, I expect you to make sure Private Avery here is protected. Understood?”
“Y-yes, ma'am,” Simmons answered, taking the pistol and holding it at the ready, but still staying behind the protective cover of the truck. “By the way, ma'am,” Simmons continued. “You have a cut on your cheek.”
Lacey swiped a hand against the indicated cheek. Her fingers came away with blood on them, but not enough to worry her. She frowned in annoyance.
“I didn't even feel it,” Lacey commented. “Is it deep?”
Simmons quickly examined the cut, which she decided was a little more than just a cut.
“Maybe a centimeter deep, ma'am,” she answered. “Here, let me grab something for it.”
“No, Private,” Lacey waved her off, then rummaged inside her medical bag and came up with some gauze and a small package of butterfly bandages. “You just keep us covered and keep your head down. I don't need another casualty to add to our short list.”
Lacey shoved the gauze against the wound and applied pressure. With one hand holding the gauze, she quickly opened the package of butterflies and handed one over to Simmons. The private quickly taped the small wound closed and returned her attention to the wounded man in front of her. After several moments Lacey finally took the gauze from the butterflied wound and tossed it away. She hoped it wasn't bleeding anymore and would just close back up.
“What happened, ma'am?” Avery asked, noticing the new addition to Lacey's cheek.
“A little scratch,” she answered, checking his wound to be sure it hadn't started bleeding again. “Compliments of our friends out there. They're such wonderful people,” she grumbled the last and smirked wryly at the Private. “Makes me want to write home about all the warm and friendly hospitality we're receiving over here.”
“Don't it, though?” He grinned, sharing in her private joke. “Can't wait to show this to the girls back home. They'll go all mushy over me being a wounded war hero and all.”
The noisy gun battle continued all around them, with men shouting and firing in several different directions. The sergeant, who had moved to the front of the truck and was firing over the hood, shouted something at one of his men, then ducked inside the cab of the vehicle and emerged with a radio.
“Patrol fifteen to base, come in!” He shouted.
“Go ahead, patrol fifteen,” a metallic voice crackled through the radio.
“Base, we have a situation here,” the man continued. “We're pinned down under heavy enemy fire.”
“ Roger that, patrol fifteen,” the voice answered. “ Your chopper already radioed in the situation, and help is on the way.”
Lacey heard the exchange and scanned the distant horizon. She almost completely forgot about the helicopter during all the excitement. She silently wondered where Mac was and what she was doing.
Mac was still waiting at a safe distance from the scene of the battle, her mind warring with her own good sense. After what seemed like hours, she decided to throw caution to the wind.
“Chief,” she called into her mic.
“Yeah, Mac?” Jimenez answered.
“Pull out the big gun and strap yourself in,” she ordered. “We're heading back.”
“Yes, ma'am!” Jimenez cheered into his mic. “Let's go kick some insurgent ass!”
It took less than a minute for him to secure the harness and strap himself in with the M-240 at the ready. Both side doors were open and would allow him a clear shot, either way. His adrenaline was pumping and he was ready for action.
“All set, Mac,” he called excitedly. “Let's go show those assholes what we're made of!”
Mac glanced at Donaldson, who was frowning back at her. She could see that he was about to protest, as usual, and he didn't disappoint.
“They ordered us to—”
“I know what they ordered us to do, Lieutenant,” Mac interrupted. “But those are our people back there, and I'm not about to let them be turned into Swiss cheese. Not when we can do something about it. You're either in or out. But either way, I'm heading back there to help out.”
Her eyes met his in open challenge. Then she saw the resignation in his steely gaze right before he sighed and nodded his acquiescence to her.
“Do what you gotta do, Mac,” he said.
She pulled the chopper into the air and steered them back toward the fire fight. The chopper skimmed low over the terrain as Mac expertly maneuvered them into position.
“Damnmit, Mac!” Donaldson swore into his mic, shaking his head all the while. “I sure hope to hell you know what you're doing. I don't need a court martial on my spotless record. My career is very important to my family and me.”
She just grinned back at him with a devilish gleam in her blue eyes and steered the Black Hawk toward the smoke billowing up into a cloudless sky.
Meanwhile, several more artillery explosions in their midst had forced Lacey and her team to find different cover. She had ordered O'Leary and Simmons to carry Avery farther away from the main gun battle, which was still raging fiercely around the small group of patrol vehicles. Sgt. Burke had stayed with his men and was busy ordering them to keep up the fight.
Lacey and company found cover in a gully and were hunkering down behind a small hill. Simmons got several shots off with Lacey's pistol. O'Leary was also firing his M-16 in the general direction of the rebels and had downed two of them when they tried to storm the gully.
Suddenly, a helicopter flew overhead and the gun battle was joined by the ear-splitting sound of an M-240. O'Leary and Simmons exchanged quick, knowing looks and smiles, which did not go unnoticed by their captain.
“What?” Lacey's confusion was evident.
“I guess Mac got tired of waiting for reinforcements, ma'am,” Simmons said with a relieved smirk.
The chopper banked around and came at the rebels from behind. Loud cheers went up from the patrol group as they realized the tables were being turned in their favor with the chopper's arrival. Unfortunately, the insurgents were not deterred by the latest development and turned their fire on the passing helicopter, instead.
The Black Hawk bucked wildly, as several bullets ricocheted off its outer hull. Mac used instinct to bank and swerve in an attempt to keep them from taking any direct hits. She wasn't used to combat flying, but that didn't stop her from pretending that she was back home dodging clouds in her smaller chopper. As they flew over the rebel position Jimenez kept a constant barrage going from the M-240.
In the meantime, several more explosions rocked the ground around the patrol vehicles as the rebels put everything they had into a full-on assault.
Mac scanned the area for the grenade or rocket launcher the rebels were using to fire on the patrol. Her eyes tracked the horizon and searched for something that would give her an idea where the enemy weapon was located.
“Do you see anything?” She asked Donaldson.
“No,” he answered, his gray eyes also scanning the ground below. “They must have it concealed beneath a camouflage tarp or they're hiding in a wash. Can't get a bead on where it is.”
“Keep your eyes peeled,” Mac said. “If we can take out that gun, we can give our guys a real fighting chance down there.”
They both continued scanning for the weapon in question, while Jimenez continued to fire on the rebels on the ground. He was having a blast firing the big gun, which he seldom got the chance to do. It was O'Leary's baby and one that was not shared often.
“Yee- haaaa! ” Jimenez exclaimed as three rebels dropped to the ground beneath him. “Chiiii-yaaaaa!!!!”
On the ground, the soldiers in the patrol were doing their best to keep the insurgents at bay, while also protecting their fallen man and his medical escort. They weren't having much success, as the rebels kept closing in, despite Jimenez' best efforts to take down as many as possible.
“We're sitting ducks here,” Lacey said, noticing how much closer the insurgents were to their current position. “We need to move again.”
“And where do you suggest we go, ma'am?” O'Leary groused, looking skeptically at her. “There ain't much cover around here, unless we move back to the trucks.”
Lacey looked behind them and scanned the area for a better place to hide. O'Leary was right, there just wasn't anywhere for them to go. She cautiously lifted her helmeted head over the rim of the wash and looked toward the trucks. They were too far away.
“We're cut off from the others,” she said to no one in particular. “We'll never get back over there now. Any suggestions?”
O'Leary and Simmons exchanged brief, skeptical looks. They both knew they were pinned down with nowhere to go.
“I think we just sit tight, ma'am,” O'Leary finally suggested. “Help's bound to come, sooner or later.”
Just then, they all turned at a yell from behind them. Simmons saw the rebel first as he cleared the gully and charged down on them. Her hands shook as she fired once. The single bullet pierced his forehead, right between his eyes. He fell forward into the dirt. Dead. Simmons could do nothing more than stare down at the body, her mind suddenly a complete blank and her body unable to move.
O'Leary picked up the fallen rebel's weapon and grabbed an extra clip from the body. As he moved back to them, he glanced at Simmons with a proud glint in his eyes.
“Nice shot, Private. AK-47,” O'Leary said holding up the enemy weapon. “Here, ma'am.” He handed his M-16 to Lacey, who caught it in mid-air.
“And what do you expect me to do with this, Sergeant?” Lacey said, wanting nothing more than to throw the thing back at him. “I'm a doctor, not a soldier.”
“There's bound to be more rebels sneaking up on our six, ma'am,” he informed her with a stern frown. “Soldier or not, ma'am, you're gonna have to shoot ‘em if they get too close. Time to put those captain's bars to the test.”
Lacey eyed the M-16 with open trepidations, as she held it at the ready. This was what she had trained for, she told herself in a silent mantra. She had to protect her patient and hoped beyond hope that she would not have to kill anyone. The naked truth of her situation came crashing in on her like a load of heavy bricks, but she just pushed all her errant thoughts away. O'Leary was right. She was a soldier, no matter how many times she tried to deny it. Her job was to protect her men and that's exactly what she would do—even if it went against every instinct she possessed.
Both O'Leary and Lacey took a peek over the lip of the ridge, watching the action beyond. They saw another of the soldiers in the patrol go down from a bullet to the chest.
“Shit!” Lacey exclaimed. “I need to get over there, Sergeant. Cover me.”
Without hesitating or waiting for his reply, she grabbed up her med bag, slung the M-16 over her shoulder and glanced at Simmons.
“Watch over Private Avery,” she ordered. Then she took off at a run towards the downed man, with O'Leary laying down a blanket of cover fire behind her.
Bullets ricocheted off the ground near her boots, but Lacey just kept her head down and continued forward. She used her OCS training to instinctively bob and weave her way towards the downed man. By some miracle of fate, Lacey managed to reach the second injured man unscathed.
Lacey threw the med bag behind the nearest truck and ran forward to grab the injured soldier. She could feel the sweat running down her back from both the heat and her exertions, but ignored her own discomfort. Once she was able to drag the soldier out of harm's way and had him propped against the side of the truck, she grabbed a wad of gauze from her bag. With surprisingly steady hands, she pushed the gauze bandage directly onto the wound just above the man's collarbone.
“Easy, soldier,” she breathed heavily, trying to catch her breath. “You're gonna be okay.” She wanted to wipe a sleeve across her brow, but knew her helmet was in the way. So, she just gritted her teeth against the sweat that ran down her face and into her eyes.
“Ma'am,” the young corporal looked up at her in utter disbelief. “Where'd you come from? I thought—”
“Shh, don't talk,” she ordered. “Save your energy.” She grabbed his hand with her own bloody hand and put it to the bandage at his neck. “Here, put as much pressure on this as you can.” She reached into the bag, pulled out another syringe and the morphine bottle, and measured out a dose. She stuck the syringe into the corporal's arm and emptied its contents. “For the pain,” she said with a slight reassuring smile at the questioning look in his eyes.
He just nodded in relief.
A bullet ricocheted near Lacey's boot, bringing her instantly back to the matter at hand. A sudden chilling realization hit her—she was right in the center of the heaviest fighting, with only an M-16 to protect her and her newest patient.
“Shit!” She cursed under her breath.
“Ma'am?” The wounded man's green eyes were a little glazed from the morphine as they met hers. “Somethin' wrong?”
“It's nothing,” she answered with a strained smile. “Just thinking of the pickle we're both in here, Corporal.”
“Pickle, ma'am?” He prodded, wondering what the woman was referring to.
If he hadn't been in so much pain, he would have thought she was an angel of mercy come to save him. As it was, though, he saw the medical insignia on her collar and the captain's bars on the other side. She was beautiful—a vision of sunshine and ocean breezes, even with the bulky helmet strapped to her head. Her next words, however, brought him back to his senses, as if he'd been doused with a glass of ice-cold water.
“We're pinned down here, soldier,” Lacey answered. “If those guys decide to come any closer…Well, let's just say, I'm not a big fan of open warfare or hand-to-hand combat.”
“We'll be fine, ma'am,” he offered, with a reassuring smile that didn't quite reach his glazed green eyes. “My guys won't let anything happen to us. They're a great bunch.”
“Thanks, Corporal,” she replied with more confidence than she felt. “I appreciate the sentiment.”
Lacey leaned against the truck with O'Leary's M-16 balanced on her knees. It had been ages since she had fired one, but she knew she could do it if it came to that. She was a soldier, after all. Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that, Lac.
“Don't forget to release the safety before you fire that weapon, ma'am,” Pitts commented, noticing her obvious discomfort with the weapon in her lap. “It won't work, otherwise.”
“I'll remember that, Corporal,” Lacey returned with a strained half-smile. “I just hope I don't have to use it at all.”
“Been a while, ma'am?” He asked a little timidly, knowing how some officers reacted when questioned about their skills, especially by someone of lower rank.
“You've no idea,” she smirked congenially, not offended in the least. “I'm a healer, not a warrior.”
“Six years ago I was flipping burgers at my dad's McDonalds franchise,” he continued. “I just hope I don't have to go back to that again. I hate smelling like grease all the time. It gets under your skin and you can't get rid of it, no matter how many showers you take.”
“Yeah, kinda like blood,” Lacey mused distractedly. “No matter how hard you scrub, it stays there on your hands and just won't come off.” She glanced at the blood on her hands that were resting on the M-16 and her expression mirrored the regret in her words, until she checked herself.
Pitts watched Lacey with an odd look of confusion. “You all right, ma'am?”
Lacey adjusted her crouch and the weapon on her lap. The mid-afternoon sun was beating down on them and was probably affecting her brain. Either that or the bone-deep exhaustion was finally catching up to her again. She silently shook herself to get rid of the somber thoughts that threatened to completely wash away what sanity she still had left.
“I'm fine, Corporal,” Lacey answered finally. “Just a little tired. It's been a long couple of days.”
They sat in companionable silence for a while, each lost in their thoughts as the sounds of gunfire continued around them. The skirmish continued and the insurgents seemed to forget about them for a moment.
An occasional stray bullet would ricochet near their position, but otherwise they were eerily left alone. It made Lacey wonder for a moment, until she decided to just accept things as they were. To question their fate would only bring about something neither of them wanted to deal with.
“You mind if I smoke, ma'am?” The young corporal asked, shakily taking a pack of cigarettes from a pocket of his fatigues. “Takes the edge off and helps me relax.”
“No, go ahead,” Lacey answered, her eyes still on the area around them. “Knock yourself out.”
“Want one, ma'am?” He offered.
“No, thanks,” she said. “I don't smoke—although, I've considered taking up the habit a few times. Medically speaking, the nicotine—” She looked at the blank stare he gave her. “Never mind, it's not important. I think the heat's getting to me.”
“Smoking's a nasty habit, ma'am,” he said, as he lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. “At least that's what they constantly bombarded us with in high school. I was a graduate of D.A.R.E. myself. Didn't do much good, though. Both my brothers and my father smoke. All my friends in high school smoked, too. Guess it was just something I thought I had to do to fit in.” He shrugged and instantly regretted the move as pain shot up his neck and radiated down his arm. He took a deep drag from the cigarette and exhaled the smoke into the air. “Helps me relax a little, at least.”
Lacey nodded her understanding. She searched the landscape and listened to the gunfire surrounding them, as Pitts took another drag on his cigarette and exhaled with a contented sigh. Another bullet ricocheted off the truck bumper next to her, causing them both to instinctively duck.
Her attention focused on the landscape beyond, Lacey didn't see the rebel sneaking up behind them.
“Ma'am, look out!” The corporal's shout made her turn just in time.
She had just enough time to lift the M-16 to block the knife thrust toward her head before she swung the weapon around with all her might. Her action just missed its mark, though, as her target took a step backwards. The dark man leered at her with a mouthful of rotten and missing teeth, then he glanced at the soldier propped against the truck near her. He said something in Arabic that she didn't understand, before lunging toward her again. Another insurgent joined the first and soon Lacey was fighting for her life against two opponents.
Lacey blocked the first man's attack, then slammed the butt of the weapon into his mid-section. He remained standing, despite what she thought was a substantial blow, and swung a fist wildly in her direction. The blow connected with the side of Lacey's face and stunned her briefly.
As she shook her head to clear it, her second attacker's body slammed into her with enough force to send them both to the ground. The wind was knocked out of her with the second attacker's maneuver, but Lacey managed to use his momentum to her advantage and was satisfied to feel him roll clear of her.
Just then, Pitts got shakily to his feet and managed to grab the first insurgent's knife-hand in a vice grip. The man turned on Pitts, kicking his legs out from under him. Pitts fell against the truck and sank back to the ground in pain, but not before Lacey was able to regain her bearings.
She saw her opening and, using every ounce of strength she possessed, hit her original attacker from behind with the butt of the M-16. He was stunned for only a second before he turned his attentions back to her with an angry snarl. His dark eyes caught hers, and she felt a shiver of pure, unadulterated fear run down her spine at the hatred glaring back at her. She was so stunned that she hesitated for the briefest moment and suddenly everything clicked. She was fighting for her life and the life of the injured man next to her. She gathered all the anger from the previous day, all her frustrations involving the war, and let it all loose.
Lacey firmly planted her feet and gripped the M-16 with both hands, ready for the next attack. The Iraqi came directly at her, knife raised for another strike. This time, however, she was ready for him. She swung the M-16, connected with his side, then turned and cold-cocked him in the jaw, knocking his head back. The gun butt struck with enough force that Lacey heard a loud crack and watched as blood sprayed from his mouth. He stumbled back and fell to the ground, the knife falling from his hand and skittering away.
Lacey turned the barrel end of the weapon on the man, and realized he was down but not out. Despite the fact that he was bleeding profusely from his nose and mouth, and probably had a broken jaw, the man managed to spring to his feet with surprising agility. Breathing hard, he twisted his body around and caught her feet with his own, dropping her to the ground in a heap. He was on her in an instant and her terror returned full-force.
She smelled his rancid body odor and hot breath, which made her gag at the over-powering stench. His weight on top of her and the hateful look in his eyes was enough to send tremors of fear racing down her back. In that instant she realized she was no match for him. His hands were at her throat and she felt her panic rise exponentially as he squeezed the life out of her. Seconds ticked by as she desperately tried to take one final breath.
Seeing spots dancing in her vision, Lacey frantically grabbed for the hands at her throat and tried futilely to break his hold. Her world shimmered in a dazzling show of sparkling lights, and darkness closed in around her as she started to lose consciousness. For an instant she regretted not having shot the man when she had the chance, despite her ideals. She also wondered if she had even made a difference in a world that was quickly fading away in shades of gray.
Just as all hope seemed lost, however, the man suddenly toppled over and thankfully released his hold on her throat. Lacey gasped for breath and choked, as the air rushed past her bruised vocal chords and back into her starving lungs. She took several deep breaths and tried to swallow past the pain.
“You okay, ma'am?” Pitts was standing over her, the butt end of his M-16 dangling from one hand and her attacker lying unconscious beside her.
Lacey nodded slowly. “Yeah,” she croaked. “Just give me a second to catch my breath.”
She took a few more deep painful breaths and let her vision clear. Her head was pounding—whether from her recent migraine or from the blow she'd received, she didn't know. The cut on her face was also throbbing in time with her heartbeat. Other than that, she felt… alive.
“How are you doing, Corporal?” Lacey finally managed, as she got shakily to her feet and helped Pitts back to the ground behind the truck.
He slowly sank down and put his hand over the blood-soaked gauze bandage.
“Like I could really use a drink, ma'am,” he answered with a weak smirk.
“That makes two of us,” Lacey answered as she sat exhaustedly next to him. “This has not been a great day for either of us.”
Bullets flew everywhere and an occasional explosion testified to the fact that the rebels still had the use of their rocket launcher. Mac and Donaldson surveyed the ground beneath them, looking for signs of the illusive weapon, while Mac kept them just above the fray and out of harm's way.
“There!” The call came through both their headsets. “I saw something at our ten o'clock.”
Two sets of eyes, one brown and the other ice-blue, scanned the ground in the indicated area.
“I don't see anything, Chief,” Mac called into her mic.
“Just get me down there, Mac,” Jimenez replied. “I'll take care of the rest.”
Putting her trust in her crew chief's capable hands, Mac dipped the aircraft toward the designated area and took them right into harm's way, again. Gunfire strafed their undercarriage, as the rebels realized the aircraft's target and doubled their efforts to protect their toy. Mac ignored the damage to her precious chopper, once again hoping that the bullets did not penetrate any critical systems.
“There!” Jimenez yelled again. He let loose a barrage of gunfire out the left-hand door as the aircraft swooped down on the spot he had indicated earlier. “ Yeeeeehaaaaa! ”
Mac held the aircraft as steady as possible in the midst of the return fire from the ground. It was not an easy task, considering they were taking heavy fire. She knew their underbelly was going to look like Swiss cheese, and Tiny would not be a happy mechanic when he saw the damage. A stray bullet struck the glass windshield to her left and she ducked instinctively to avoid any flying debris.
“Holy shit!” She exclaimed.
“Evasive maneuver!” Donaldson shouted simultaneously.
Mac banked the aircraft hard right and felt her harness straining against her chest. She gave a brief prayer that her damned helicopter would hold together enough for them to finish the job.
“Comin' round on your right, Chief!” She yelled.
Jimenez quickly made the adjustment, throwing himself into the harness and dangling just outside the aircraft in an attempt to rain bullets down on the ground below them. His efforts proved fruitful, as something exploded violently below, sending a ball of smoke into the air just behind them.
“ Yeeehaaaa !” He shouted. “Got the sons of bitches as they were preparing to fire!”
A plume of black smoke billowed high into the cloudless sky as a testament to his success and dissipated quickly. However, at that same moment, a stray bullet hit the crew chief in the leg and he collapsed to the floor with a grunt and a loud thud.
“You okay back there, Chief?” Mac asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said through clenched teeth, not quite believing his dumb luck. “I think I'm gonna need the doc's services, though.” He grabbed his injured leg, the blood seeping through his gloved fingers.
The agonized tone of his voice definitely got the pilot's attention, as she steered the aircraft back toward friendlier territory.
“Hold on, Chief!” Mac called, hoping he wasn't hurt too badly, but mentally preparing for the worst.
Lacey saw the black smoke rising into the air just seconds after the explosion. The cheers that rose up nearby and the subsequent rallying charge that followed told her that something positive had happened. She just stayed put next to her injured patient.
“They must have destroyed the rocket launcher, ma'am,” the Corporal commented. “Sounds like our guys are taking down the rest of them now. Won't be long before we have them on the run.”
Lacey took a peek around the truck to see what was happening. Sure enough, the men from the patrol were using the destruction of the rocket launcher as a rallying point to charge the rebels and drive them back. The insurgents, in turn, were losing ground and retreating.
Just then, an Apache gunship surprised them all as it flew low overhead toward the rebel position and fired several thousand rounds at the retreating forces. Loud cheers from the American soldiers went up as the Apache drove the rebels back even farther and scattered them in several directions.
Lacey breathed an exhausted sigh of relief that the battle was finally almost over, glad she hadn't had to fire a single shot.
“How're you doing, Corporal?” She asked, more to distract herself from what was happening than anything else.
“Fine, ma'am,” he smiled. “Told ya we'd kick their asses.” He suddenly realized who he was addressing and his eyes went wide. “Sorry, ma'am.”
“Forget it,” she smiled tiredly. “Kicking ass is what we do.”
“Ma'am,” Simmons was suddenly right there next to them. “I think you forgot something,” she said sheepishly, handing over Lacey's pistol.
“Thanks, Simmons,” Lacey said, taking the weapon and impatiently shoving it back into the holster at her hip. “Let's get the corporal over to our other patient, so we're ready when our ride gets back here. I sure as hell don't want them to forget us. Not after all the fun we've had here.”
With the two of them positioned under each of his arms, they lifted the injured soldier to his feet and moved him to where Private Avery still lay.
“Hey, there, Avery,” Pitts greeted his comrade with a relieved smile.
“Hey, yourself, Pitts,” Avery answered weakly. He had lost more blood during the firefight and it showed in the grayish pallor of his skin. “Missed me, did ya?”
“How're you feeling, Private?” Lacey asked, kneeling next to her first patient and noticing the empty IV bag.
“A little sorry I missed all the action, ma'am,” he joked with a pained smile and a weak cough.
“Yeah,” she smiled back. “Well, don't be too sorry, Private. You didn't miss much.”
“Just the Captain here kicking some insurgent ass,” Pitts beamed proudly.
Lacey blushed profusely at the words. “You're the one who knocked him out for me, Corporal,” Lacey corrected. “If you hadn't hit him when you did…well…”
It was Pitts' turn to blush. “He ain't gonna be too happy when he wakes up and has to eat food through a straw, ma'am,” he chuckled. “That cracked jaw should'a taken him down completely. I ain't sorry I knocked him upside the head when he tried to choke ya to death.”
The group chuckled at his words and more than one of them had respect in their eyes for Lacey's actions.
“I'm just grateful you were there to save the day, Corporal,” Lacey patted his hand. “Count yourself among the knights in shining armor.”
A familiar Black Hawk flew slowly overhead, made a quick turn and touched down a hundred yards away. The side door opened and Donaldson jumped out.
“Well, well, well,” Lacey smiled at her team. “Guess that's our cue, people. Shall we?”
Lacey and O'Leary grabbed the stretcher, while Simmons helped Corporal Pitts to his feet and the group made their way towards the waiting aircraft. Donaldson rushed out to help Simmons with her charge, and together they got the injured soldiers into the cargo hold.
“So, how was your day, Lieutenant?” Lacey commented to Donaldson, who merely looked at her with irritation in his gray eyes. “That good, eh?”
Simmons snickered and leaned close to Lacey's ear. “He has the sense of humor of a dead fish, ma'am. It's better not to even bother.”
“Apparently,” Lacey returned. As she climbed up into the aircraft, she noticed Jimenez sitting in the back corner with a bloody bandage tied haphazardly around his thigh. “Boy, can't leave you alone for one minute, can I, Chief?”
He just grinned. “They got me after I knocked out their toy. They obviously didn't like losing the advantage.”
“No,” Lacey said, taking another long strip of cloth and wrapping it tightly over the bloody one. “I'm sure they didn't find it amusing in the least. Good job,” she smiled crookedly at him. “You might just give Gunny a run for his money.”
“Thank you, ma'am,” he said, shyly returning her smile. “I see you brought us another casualty. Didn't think one was enough, ma'am?”
“Yeah,” she said, glancing at Pitts, who was being taken care of by Simmons. “Apparently one patient just wasn't enough for me today. I had to make sure this trip was well worth the effort. And you're just the icing on the cake, Jimenez.”
“Are we ready to go, yet, doctor?” A deep female voice purred next to them. “Or are you two going to hold us up all day and keep me from getting this bird back for some much-needed repairs.”
Neither of them had seen the dark-haired pilot's approach. Jimenez had the grace to look slightly abashed, while Lacey merely turned her head toward the newcomer. Mac's voice next to her was causing unexpected shivers of a different kind to race down her spine. Fortunately, this one was a welcome feeling and made her smile inwardly. She wondered at the feeling, but chalked it up to extreme duress and exhaustion.
“We're ready when you are, Mac,” Lacey answered with a tired sigh. “I wouldn't want to be responsible for keeping this old bucket of bolts from getting back for a proper overhaul. With all the bullet holes I saw, the thing just might fall apart before we even get airborne.”
Mac, who was relieved to see the doctor in one piece, albeit a bit the worse for wear, looked as if she had just been shot by the pistol riding at the doctor's hip. Her eyes narrowed slightly to show her irritation.
“This ‘old bucket of bolts,' as you so eloquently put it, Doctor,” Mac said in a cool voice, affectionately rubbing a hand along the aircraft's frame. “She's been through a lot today and just saved your bacon. I suggest you be nice to her or there's no telling what might happen.” Then, she returned to the cockpit without another word.
Lacey was suddenly cowed, “Was it something I said?” She raised a questioning brow to those around her.
Jimenez just grinned, “She's just really attached to this old bucket of bolts,” he teased. “Don't worry, she'll get over it soon enough.”
Lacey just shrugged as she took her seat and buckled up for the ride back to base. Her thoughts strayed to the pilot. The warmth she'd felt earlier in the dark-haired woman's presence suddenly vanished. She decided that teasing the pilot about her aircraft was tantamount to being teased about her own medical abilities. At that point, Lacey decided she needed to apologize to the woman for her words. Unfortunately, now was not the time, as the aircraft lifted into the sky.
They returned to camp with no further incident. Once Mac had the helicopter safely on the ground, Lacey took charge of getting all three patients into the waiting ambulances and over to the hospital. Two of the three—Avery and Pitts—were wheeled directly into surgery.
Jimenez, however, was examined by the attending surgeon, who determined that the bullet had not damaged any vital nerves or arteries. His case was not critical, so he would have to wait to have the bullet removed.
Lacey followed all three patients into the hospital, where she was stopped by an anxiously waiting Colonel Farrell. He took one look at her, noted the dark circles under her eyes and her sagging shoulders, the cut on her cheek and the bruise to the side of her face, and decided to intervene.
“And where do you think you're going, Captain?” Farrell stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.
“To take care of my patients, sir,” Lacey tried to brush past him, but was stopped with a firm hand to her shoulder as she turned to face him. “Colonel, please…”
“You are hereby relieved of duty until further notice, Captain,” Farrell stared her down, daring her to protest. “Understood?”
Lacey was about to protest, but saw the futility of it in his gray eyes. She ran an impatient hand over her face and felt the grit there before putting both hands on her hips. “Yes, sir.”
He saw the defeat in her stance, as her head bowed before him. “This isn't a punishment, Captain,” he conceded, his voice low to soften the blow enough and to convey his concern.
Lacey met his eyes and saw the real concern shining back at her. “I'm fine, sir,” she said with a shrug. “Just a little tired from all the running around.” She rubbed the back of her neck to work out a kink that had manifested itself. “I would really like to be there for my patients, sir. Please?” Her words were more of a request than a plea.
Farrell studied his toughest surgeon for a moment, noting the slump to her shoulders and the way she was trying to work a kink from her neck. She was bone tired and had probably been through hell, at least that's what he could surmise from the brief reports he'd been given. He knew she needed rest or she would do something he would regret—something he couldn't fix with a few apologies and some charming words.
“Stephens, you need sleep, not work,” he said firmly and with finality. “Retire to your quarters or the mess or the Officer's Club, I don't care which. Just do not return to duty until you've had at least eight straight hours of sleep. That's an order, Captain.”
Lacey realized she didn't have enough energy to protest further. “Yes, sir,” she snapped to attention and threw him a quick salute before turning on her heel and walking away.
Since her mind was still annoyingly alert, Lacey decided to make a slight detour before heading back to her quarters for what she knew would be some much-needed sleep. She just hoped her side trip would allow her to unwind enough to let her mind rest.
Sitting in the mess hall with an untouched cup of coffee, Lacey stared off into space and tried to come down from the emotional high that she had been riding on for the last thirty-six hours. Her headache had returned with a vengeance once they were in the air, but she had managed to push the pain away during the flight back to base. She'd kept her attentions on the three patients and made sure they were as comfortable as possible. Now, however, the headache was pounding with renewed force.
“Penny for your thoughts,” a sultry female voice said, as Mac sat across the table from her.
Mac set a fresh, steaming mug of coffee in front of the obviously exhausted doctor and took a sip from her own mug. She spared a quick glance at the woman across from her and noticed dark circles under dull green eyes. Lacey also sported a small butterflied cut and purple bruising next to her left eye.
Mac also took note that the stray tendrils of strawberry-blond hair which had escaped from the braid during their skirmish were once again in their proper place. Mac wasn't sure, but she thought the woman must have found a moment to change her uniform, which was no longer streaked with blood and dirt.
“Ah, that's great stuff,” Mac sighed. “Nothing like good ol' American java to take care of what ails ya.”
Lacey lifted the fresh coffee to her lips and sniffed the slightly stale brew. Her first reaction was to wince at the unpalatable odor and put the cup back down on the table, untouched. But she held firm, instead, and met the ice-blue eyes across from her. Mac looked good, if a bit tired. Her flight suit was freshly laundered and her dark hair was pulled back into an impeccable French braid. But it was her eyes that caught Lacey's attention.
There was sympathy there that tugged at the doctor's heartstrings and caused her to react with humor. It had always been that way when others tried to comfort her or take care of her. She wasn't one to accept that she could rely on other people to take care of her. She was the one that gave comfort, not the other way around.
“Something funny?” Mac asked with a frown.
“No,” Lacey answered quickly to hide her embarrassment. “I was just thinking about something.”
“Care to share?”
“Don't they grow this stuff in Columbia or Mexico or somewhere?” Lacey smirked, taking a sip from her steaming mug. “Or they did about twenty years ago. I think that's how old this particular batch is, by the way.”
“Still American,” Mac shrugged, taking a sip, as she watched the woman across from her. “No matter how old it is or where it was grown. Juan Valdez may have picked the beans, but Uncle Sam ground ‘em and put ‘em in an airtight canister.”
Mac wondered briefly why Lacey was so hard to read. The woman was so uptight that you could string a guitar with all her pent up energy. Even though she was injured, she still couldn't accept that someone might care. It was enough to put Mac off, but then she realized maybe the doctor just needed a friend, someone to talk to. So, she decided to stick with it and keep trying. There was something about Lacey Stephens that pulled at long-dormant heartstrings. She wasn't one to fall head-over-heels for anyone, but that didn't stop her from caring.
Mac watched Lacey silently drink her coffee and quietly contemplate things. Mac just stared at the quiet woman across from her and noticed a look of melancholy in the doctor's eyes.
“You want to talk about it?” Mac offered, sensing the doctor probably needed to get something off her chest.
“Hm?” Lacey had forgotten that she was not alone. “I'm sorry. Didn't hear you. What did you say?”
“I asked if you want to talk about whatever it is that's bothering you,” Mac replied wryly. “You know, get it off your chest. I'm not much for giving advice, but I can be a pretty good listener. By the way, nice war wounds. You get those while you were with the caravan?”
“Yeah,” Lacey answered, absently touching the sore spot on the side of her head. For reasons unknown, she had an overwhelming urge to bare her soul to the woman sitting patiently across from her. “A bullet ricocheted off one of the trucks and a splinter sliced my cheek. That and I got into a fight,” she finished with a nonchalant shrug.
“That how you got the bump on your head?”
“Pretty much,” Lacey smirked.
“Wish I could have seen it,” Mac sipped her coffee to hide a smile. “I'll bet the other guy didn't fare as well.”
“He's probably dead,” Lacey answered blandly, her mind a thousand miles away as she stared at nothing in particular. “At least I hope he is,” she added under her breath.
Mac continued to watch the different expressions cross her companion's face. “I'm still listening,” she commented into the prolonged silence.
Lacey's eyes met Mac's as she tried to gather her thoughts into something more coherent. “I was just thinking about not being able to be there for my patients,” Lacey finally answered with a hint of disappointment in her voice. “Farrell ordered me to take a break and get some rest. I was expecting a dressing down, not a mandatory leave of absence.”
“And, yet, here you are, instead,” Mac smiled conspiratorially. “He made me do the same, by the way.”
Lacey's eyebrow quirked. “He did? Huh.” She took another sip of her coffee and realized that the brew was working to dispel some of her headache. Or was it the conversation? “Sounds like a conspiracy, if you ask me. I think the Army has it in for us.” Lacey smirked.
“Yeah.” Mac smiled in return. “So why aren't you following orders?”
“I could ask you the same,” Lacey shot back teasingly. “You don't seem like the type to sit around waiting for someone up the chain to tell you what to do, before you charge out there and rustle something up all by yourself.”
“I have my moments,” Mac shot back with a grin and a quirked brow. “But I asked you first.”
She was beginning to see some cracks in the spunky doctor's armor, despite the woman's earlier reticence. Lacey Stephens was different, somehow. She didn't have the same hard-nosed way of looking at military life as many of her counterparts did, which made her all the more intriguing.
“It takes me a while to unwind,” Lacey answered with a shrug. “I can't just go back to my quarters, climb into bed and shut it all out. Everything just keeps playing over and over until... Well, here I am.”
“Yeah, me too,” Mac confided. “I usually end up in the weight room or out running laps on the track. Physical activity usually gets my blood pumping and dispels the crap running around in my head.”
Lacey took a good look at Mac and felt a kindred spirit in the woman who looked so much her opposite. She felt a momentary pang of guilt for what she had said earlier and wanted to set things right between them.
“By the way,” Lacey said. “I'm sorry about what I said earlier about your helicopter. I didn't really mean to call it a bucket of bolts. The comment was unprofessional and uncalled for.”
“That's all right,” Mac shrugged off the apology. “Argo doesn't hold grudges and neither do I. At least, I usually don't. Anyway, don't tell her I said so,” she leaned in conspiratorially, “but she is a bucket of bolts. They just don't make ‘em like that anymore.”
“Argo?” Lacey asked.
“Yeah, I named her after my horse back home,” Mac answered easily. “She's a Palamino—the horse, not the helicopter.”
Lacey couldn't help but giggle at the absurdity. “You named your helicopter after a horse that you named after a ship from Greek mythology?”
“Something like that, yeah,” Mac answered with a good-natured grin. “Hey, it's not like I named her after a cartoon character. Or worse, a character from Star Trek or one of those cheesy cult TV shows. Although, come to think of it, I vaguely recall catching a show that was on about ten years ago which had a distorted view of Greek mythology as part of its weekly storyline. I think they even had a character named Argo, or something like that.” She waved a dismissive hand and took another drink.
“Yeah, I remember flipping through channels in the OC once and coming across that same show,” Lacey said, with a lopsided grin. She studied her companion for several moments, wondering what was really going on behind those baby blues. “So, where's home? And Papadopolus? That's Greek, isn't it?”
“ Wyoming ,” Mac answered easily. “And, yes. Asked and answered already, Captain. My mom's maiden name was Abernathy. She definitely wasn't Greek, although she loved my father very much. My dad was a second-generation American, while Mom's family was from Missouri . I think they even knew the James brothers, once upon a time.”
“Hm, interesting,” Lacey responded, genuinely engaged in this strange conversation. “And, here, the only thing interesting about my family is we've never been poor. We're blue-bloods, through and through. Generation after generation and not a beggar in the lot. We even had someone trace our lineage back to our ancestors in Greece . They came from a small village in the north. Actually, we were able to narrow it down to two sisters who survived their parents' deaths at the hands of an eastern barbarian. Our family line comes from the offspring of the older sister.” She smirked.
“And the younger sister?”
“Legend has it she was an adventurer and a storyteller who traveled with an obscure and little-known traveler whose name has been lost forever,” Lacey warmed to the subject matter. “There were a few written stories found in the ruins of Alexandria that link the storyteller to a small fishing village and our ancestor. I wish the stories had survived, but they were lost throughout the ages during one war or another.”
“So, how do you know they even existed?”
“A few copies were unearthed in a cave near the ruins of Alexandria during World War II,” Lacey continued. “Another relative—an archaeologist, I think—managed to translate two or three of the scrolls before the cave was sealed shut and the scrolls were lost forever. My father kept the journal that was passed down by his mother's mother from the archaeologist. The journal contains entries that mention the cave and the scrolls. Unfortunately, they don't reveal where any of it is located exactly. Just vague references to one of the Greek gods and some kind of stone that sealed the cave indefinitely.”
Mac was fascinated. “Sounds intriguing. I guess it makes for a good story.”
“Yeah, but not one to share with the masses, I'm afraid,” Lacey wisecracked. “Enough about my family. You said yours is from Greece , too?”
“Yeah, but there's really not much to tell,” Mac folded her hands on the table in front of her. “I'm from a long line of ranchers and innkeepers. That's about all I can tell you. Although,” she continued thoughtfully, scratching the side of her head. “There is a story that's been passed down from one generation to the next about a legendary figure in the family who traveled the countryside in the company of some kid—and I'm not talking goats here. The two were said to have been heroes as they traveled from one end of Greece to the other. At that time, warlords ruled Greece and not all of them were fair. My ancestor was said to have fought against the more tyrannical brutes.”
“That's pretty interesting, all right,” Lacey agreed. “Sounds like our ancestors might have been neighbors.”
“Too bad there's no real evidence to back up any of the stories,” Mac chuckled. “All my family has to go on is a two-thousand-year-old oral tale and some hearsay. We can't even lay claim to a family fortune.”
“Do you know the name of the village where your family came from?”
“Amphipolis, I think,” Mac answered. “It was supposed to have been located at a river outlet to the Aegean in Thrace . They say it was a fairly well-traveled crossroads and a port town for traders and merchants.” She regarded Lacey with a slight half-smile. “What was the name of the village where your ancestors hailed from?”
“ Potidaea ,” Lacey answered. “It was either a fishing village or a shepherding village in the Chalcidice . Some say it belonged to the city of Corinth and was founded about 600 years Before the Common Era or BCE, as the historians call it now. It would have been about the time of the tyrant Periander.”
“Fish?” Mac prodded with a teasing gleam. “That's where your blue-blood heritage springs from?”
“Hey,” Lacey gently chided. “I didn't say we were gold miners or oil barons. I just said we were blue-bloods, through and through.” She shrugged. “We could have raised sheep for all I know.”
“Shepherd,” Mac teased with a light chuckle.
“Brat,” Lacey shot back with the hint of a smile.
“I'll have you know, my ancestors were warriors,” Mac replied. “There's even mention of one who fought in the Trojan War. Although, the particulars are a little fuzzy on that particular tale.”
“Oh, really,” Lacey shot Mac a skeptical arched-brow look. “Was it the same adventurer who traveled with the kid that wasn't a goat?”
Mac shrugged. “Not sure. Like I said, the particulars are fuzzy. It's one of those oral things that got passed down through the generations. Not exactly a concrete fact with hard evidence to back it up.”
Lacey nodded her understanding and together they sat in companionable silence for a while, until Lacey could no longer stand it.
“So, what does your family do in Wyoming ? Have they continued the ranching tradition?”
“Yeah. We own a little plot just outside Jackson . I'd say it's about 6,000 acres, by now.” She watched Lacey brow lift into her hairline in surprise, as she took another sip of coffee and winced slightly at the bitter taste that coated her tongue, now that the brew was cooler. “So, Dr. Stephens of the never-been-poor-blue-blooded Stephens line, where were you born?”
There was a moment of hesitation, as Lacey decided whether or not to reveal anything about her personal life. “ Texas ,” Lacey finally answered. “But I haven't been there in a really long time. The Army's been my home for the past ten years.” Uncomfortable with the personal turn their conversation had taken, she let the silence hang between them for as long as she could stand it. “So, what do you do when you're not dodging bullets or flying over the desert? Do you wrangle stray calves and wrestle bulls to the ground in true cowboy fashion?”
“Hardly,” Mac answered with a wry chuckle, relieved that the doctor had finally spoken after such a long pause in the conversation. “I mostly take care of my horses and do some flying on the side.” She wasn't sure, but she could almost sense some tension in the doctor's demeanor. Mac studied the smaller woman across from her and decided to throw caution to the wind. “I run a small company that specializes in air freight and passenger transport. I've also been known to do a little search and rescue when the occasion arises.”
“Really? Do you do a lot of flying in the winter, then?” Lacey asked a little more easily now that the conversation had steered away from her own life. “I hear it gets pretty snowy up there in the mountains. That's got to be dangerous.”
“Well,” Mac grinned, warming to her subject. “Actually, I just mount a pair of skis to the landing gear and transport supplies and mail where they're needed,” Mac answered. “Of course, I don't fly if there's a storm, no matter what season it is. I mostly take tourists on aerial tours during the summer. You know, sightseeing and all that. Otherwise, when I'm not flying, I hang around the ranch and work my horses, play with my nephews.”
“Horses or nephews?”
“Horses,” Lacey answered.
“Six – two mares and four geldings,” Mac answered. “Argo and Sadie are the mares. Then there's Jack, Buster, Robby and Sam.”
Lacey nodded. “Who takes care of them while you're here?”
“My older brother, Ben,” Mac said. “He's a veterinarian, and his wife, Carrie, runs a B&B—a bed and breakfast—from their house and takes care of their three boys.”
“Do you have any other family?” Lacey asked.
“Nope,” Mac answered a bit wistfully. “My parents both died when I was little. After my dad died, my older brother moved my younger brother and me from Louisiana to Wyoming , where he found work as a cattle rancher for a while. That's where he met Carrie. She was the ranch owner's daughter. When they were married—to the dismay of his in-laws—the old man gave him the money to go to vet school. It was a wedding gift and the rest, as they say, is history.”
“And your younger brother? Where's he now?” Lacey prodded.
“Derek died fighting in the 160 th during Desert Storm,” Mac stated flatly. “His helicopter crashed and everyone onboard was killed.”
A long silence ensued between them, as they both pondered the turn the conversation had suddenly taken. Mac's thoughts were on her little brother, with his curly blond hair and shining blue eyes. She missed him terribly and wished he were there with her. He had been so fun-loving and easy-going when they were growing up that Mac couldn't remember a time when he wasn't smiling or laughing or pulling a practical joke on someone in the family. Thoughts of her little brother always brought a stab of regret that his life had been cut short and with such finality.
Lacey unconsciously reached for Mac's hand and squeezed it in unspoken sympathy, receiving a gentle squeeze in return. Their eyes met as Lacey returned her hand to her coffee mug and a silent message passed between them. They sat there in companionable silence for a while longer.
“I'm sorry,” Lacey's quiet apology finally broke the long silence. “Death sucks.”
“Yeah, it does,” Mac agreed as a wistful smile returned. She felt a gentle tingle in the hand that Lacey had briefly held. “Enough about me, though. What about you? Do you have family? And what was it like growing up in the Lone Star state?”
“I have a sister,” Lacey said with a proud smile. “She's younger than I am and is married to a state senator. At least, I think they're still married. Growing up was…” she shrugged. “You know, just like growing up in any other place, I suppose. You have your ups and downs. But, you're a kid, so you just turn all the downs into ups and try not to think about the bad stuff.” She frowned. “Then one day you wake up and find that you're all grown up. The world is a scary place and all you want to do is get lost somewhere.” A wistful sadness crept into her eyes and didn't go unnoticed by her companion. But, as quickly as the look came, it passed. “That's when the real fun starts.” She waggled her eyebrows.
Mac watched the different emotions play across the doctor's face and wondered if there was more to the story than she was letting on. The pilot wondered briefly what the other woman had been through as a kid that gave her such a cynical outlook, but decided not to pursue the matter further, since they still didn't know each other very well. There was time enough later to explore the depths of Dr. Lacey Stephenson.
Lacey stared dispassionately into her empty coffee cup and couldn't stop the sudden yawn that escaped her. She looked across the table and saw an answering yawn from her companion.
“Excuse me,” Lacey said with an embarrassed grin. “Guess that's my cue to get my butt off to bed.” She stood to leave. “It was really nice talking to you, Mac.”
Mac was caught off guard by Lacey's abruptness, but decided to go with the flow.
“Yeah, time for me to hit the sack, too. Dawn comes pretty early, and I have a full schedule tomorrow,” the pilot said and stretched to emphasize her point. She felt several vertebrae pop back into place and almost groaned.
“You do?” Lacey stopped, turning back to look skeptically at the pilot. “I thought your bird was grounded for repairs.”
“She is,” Mac answered. “I like to help out when I can, especially since Jimenez won't be there to take care of her for me.”
“Tiny'll take good care of her,” Lacey said. “He's the best mechanic around.”
“And you're a good judge of aircraft mechanics, eh?” Mac said a little more sarcastically than she'd meant to.
“Have you been moonlighting as a mechanic in your spare time, Doctor? I wouldn't think you'd have the time.”
“Smart ass,” Lacey answered with a sly grin. “I've just heard other pilots talking and I'm a pretty good judge of character, myself. Tiny's a good man. Just give him a chance.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “Don't let his demeanor toward women put you off. That's just how he is.”
“Really?” Mac teased further, narrowing her eyes. “Hm, we'll have to just see about that.” Then she left the mess.
Lacey stood there for a moment, shaking her head at the turn their conversation had taken. Maybe making friends with the pilot wasn't such a bad thing after all. She wondered briefly at the alien thought, then shrugged it off. She picked up both empty coffee cups, dropped them at the bus tub filled with dirty dishes and left the mess to head for her quarters.
As she walked through the darkness, her thoughts were on the dark-haired, blue-eyed Amazonian pilot from Wyoming . She decided Mac had a pretty good outlook on life, despite her losses. Lacey could tell that Mac had been very close to her younger brother before he died. She had seen the deep pain in Mac's eyes when the woman had mentioned him. But what more was there? Lacey decided, for the first time in a very long time, that she wanted to find out. It was another strange feeling and one she just didn't know what to do with.
Entering her dark quarters, Lacey instinctively found the light on the nightstand next to her bed and flipped it on. The place was immaculate and devoid of any personal touches. There was no place for personal touches in her life. She was a soldier who didn't need to cling to worldly things.
Honor. Discipline. Courage. Those were her prized possessions, her treasures. She wore them like a cloak, wrapping them around her and burrowing inside their protective embrace. Some might say she hid behind them, kept them in front of her like an invisible shield, a wall that no other person could breach. But to Lacey they were her solace in a world gone terribly wrong—a world full of darkness, hatred, blood and pain. It was a world she would have escaped, if she could. However, with her shields of honor, discipline and courage before her, it was a world that she faced time and time again.
Lacey wasted no time stripping down to her Army-issue tank top and underwear. She climbed into bed and flipped the light off, plunging her quarters in darkness. That's when the monsters usually came to call, she realized. Those ghostly images from her nightmares that refused to leave her alone.
As she lay there in the darkness, feeling her body ache with exhaustion, sleep would not come. So, she just lay there thinking about the enigma that was her new pilot and the travesty that was her life.
She wondered what the tall, dark-haired woman was doing at that moment. Her mind conjured a pair of compassionate blue eyes and the sense of comfort she felt in Mac's presence. She briefly wondered what it would be like to be wrapped in the pilot's embrace, then quickly dismissed the notion. She realized she couldn't afford to have such thoughts, because they went against everything she had been taught to uphold as an officer in the military. She shoved them away before they could go any further and decided to bury them deep, where they would stay forever.
With a heavy sigh Lacey lay back down and stared up into the inky blackness, listening to the night sounds outside her tent. It was quiet, but still her mind kept racing. Just as she drifted into the haze before sleep, her thoughts turned to the day's events and her mood grew somber. She replayed her confrontation with the Iraqi doctor and unconsciously flinched at her own reaction to the man's arrogance and attitude. She tried to reason through why she had reacted so harshly to his words, but once again chalked it up to exhaustion and frustration.
She then replayed the moment when her very existence had hung in the balance, as she was forced to fight for her life. The huge rebel was bent on killing her. She could see the hatred in his eyes, but couldn't reconcile that hatred with her own outlook on life. Even when she was angry with someone, she couldn't bring herself to hate another human being. It was eerie to think that the man could have that much hatred toward someone he knew nothing about. He had no idea what kind of person she was and probably only saw her as “the enemy,” but that did nothing to appease her battered psyche. As those thoughts raced through her mind, she finally drifted into a fitful sleep.
Lacey was unarmed and standing in the middle of a battlefield. Men fought fiercely all around her in unfamiliar battle gear. The sharp tang of blood and the pungent smell of death were heavy in the smoky, acrid air.
She watched in stunned silence as a nameless soldier standing right in front of her was run through with a long sword. Blood spewed from his mouth as his attacker wrenched the weapon from the dying man's chest. Lacey moved to help, but was stopped in her tracks as another attacker – this one with the face of Dr. Ahmad – came at her with a sword raised high. The man was screaming in Arabic at the top of his lungs and there was a feral look in his dark eyes.
“Infidel woman!” He screamed in her face. “You are not worthy to walk the same ground as a man!! You are a disgrace to that uniform and a blight on the earth!!”
She turned instinctively, lifting both hands to stop him. With practiced ease, she grabbed his blade with her bare hands and surprisingly was able to wrench the weapon from his grasp. Ahmad gritted his teeth, yelled a battle cry and charged toward her again. She thrust the blade through his midsection and watched dispassionately as the life ebbed from his eyes.
As if she were merely an observer to this strange scene, she pulled the blade from his chest and watched as he collapsed to the ground in a lifeless heap, an evil grin on his face as the light faded from his eyes. She then twirled the weapon around and turned to find another man coming at her. She took him down with a powerful swing, as the healer within cried out for her to help the man. She watched blood spew from a huge gash across his chest, but another instinct – survival – kept her from doing anything.
She turned to meet her next attacker, all thoughts of healing gone as her body reacted without her mind's permission. The next soldier screamed a battle cry at the top of his lungs, holding his own blade high above his head and running toward her with feral vengeance in his unremarkable eyes.
Lacey patiently waited for him to come within range, then turned at the last minute and swung with all her might. She caught him across the left temple and watched as the blade sliced across his entire face. The war cry instantly died on his lips, as his head jerked awkwardly to the side and his momentum carried him to the ground in yet another bloody heap.
“You killed them all,” Simmons' voice came to her, as if from a great distance.
Lacey looked to her right and saw the young woman standing there. Simmons was looking at the dead men with a mixture of shock and awe. Her eyes met Lacey's and the doctor saw pure hero worship in them. Then, just as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone.
Lacey turned in a slow circle. All around her men were either dead or dying. Blood ran red and slick on the ground, making her footing precarious at best. Her heart thumped loudly in her ears, as she felt herself being pulled, not by her desire to heal, but by some deep-seeded barbaric desire to inflict pain.
She looked down at her hands and saw that they were covered in blood. She turned them over and over, staring at them as if she had never seen them before. Then, she was suddenly standing in the middle of an operating room. Lying on the table in front of her was one of the very men who had recently fallen victim to her blade.
There was a scalpel in her hand and the man was awake. He looked at her with venom in his eyes as he screamed, “Infidel! You shall die for your sins!”
“Don't listen to him, Lac,” Kevin suddenly appeared across the table. “He's just jealous.”
“Jealous?” She asked in confusion.
“Yeah,” Kevin grinned that boyish grin at her. “Of you and the pilot. You know you have feelings for her, Lacey.”
“We're friends, Kevin, nothing more,” Lacey said. “She's an interesting person. I've never met anyone like her before. Do you really think...”
His image suddenly shifted and he disappeared, leaving her alone with the Iraqi.
She shook her head and tried to step away from the table and the Iraqi who continued to scream at her in his native tongue.
Suddenly, the scene shifted again and she was standing over yet another patient. Her gloved hands were deep within the open cavity of her patient's abdomen and she happened to glance up to see the woman staring at her. The Iraqi woman was in her early twenties and her eyes were staring unseeingly at her.
Nearby, an alarm blared. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew the woman had flat-lined and she should do something about it. She reached her bloody gloved hands up under the woman's chest to massage the heart. But, instead of a heart her hands found... nothing.
“She's dead, ma'am,” Simmons said in her ear. “Call the time of death, ma'am.”
She searched frantically, but there was no heart to grab. There were no organs whatsoever. Suddenly, the woman's eyes focused on her with accusation and hatred.
“You killed me,” the woman said in heavily-accented English.
“No,” Lacey said breathlessly. “I...”
Then she looked down to find that she was staring at the same Iraqi man who had attacked her on the battlefield. He was glowering at her with such open hatred in his eyes that she impulsively stepped away from him. He reached up to grab her, but she stabbed him in the chest with the scalpel she still held in her hand.
Once again, she was standing on the battlefield. There was sandy desert as far as the eye could see and it ran red with the blood of a thousand dead and dying soldiers. The blood rose higher and higher, until it covered her ankles with its warm stickiness.
“No…” She exclaimed.
Lacey's heart raced and sweat poured from her as the images continued to change around her. She tried to catch her breath, but the surgical mask that covered her mouth was stifling. She reached up and ripped the constricting covering from her face, then looked up to see an entire army of Iraqi soldiers heading her way, all of them armed with AK-47s. Lacey looked down and saw that her only weapon was the bloody scalpel she had been holding before.
The Iraqis charged toward her, firing their weapons at her. Suddenly finding that she was all alone on the arid battlefield, Lacey's battle instincts kicked in and she charged toward the enemy with a loud battle cry of her own. “Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”
Mac was on her way back to her quarters, after a night of poker in the NCO Club, when she heard the scream. She was just passing the dimly lit officers' quarters and suddenly stopped in her tracks.
Charging into one of the tents without thinking, she saw someone sitting up in their bed and noticed in the faint light from the tent opening that the woman's eyes were tightly closed. The woman was screaming at the top of her lungs, but didn't appear to be awake.
“Ma'am!” Mac yelled to be heard above the woman's screams. “Ma'am, wake up!” She grabbed the smaller woman's shoulders and gently shook her.
Lacey felt someone grab her and subconsciously knew she was being shaken. Her eyes shot open and a shadowy face was right in front of her. Her dream became reality, as her attacker shook her again.
Mac wasn't really prepared for the violence of the woman's blow. It caught her on the side of the head and sent stars shooting through her vision. She grabbed for the woman's wrists and held them in an iron grip until she was sure the woman wouldn't strike out again.
“What the...” Lacey suddenly came to her senses. “Who are you? What do you want?”
The voice was all too familiar. “Doc?” Mac's voice penetrated the darkness between them, snapping Lacey instantly back to reality.
“Mac?” Lacey said, pulling her arms free of the woman's grasp. Lacey leaned toward the nightstand and flipped the light on. “What the hell are you doing in my tent in the middle of the night?”
What the hell was she doing? Mac sat down on the edge of the bed, touched her aching head lightly with her fingers and winced. She tried to collect her errant thoughts and still her racing heart. She'd been so sure someone was being attacked that she never gave a thought to what might really be happening. It had never occurred to Mac that the screams were night terrors, rather than an attack.
Mac noticed a thin sheen of sweat on Lacey's brow. Must have been some nightmare, Mac thought to herself.
“I was passing by when I heard you scream. I thought you were in trouble, so I came in to check out the situation,” Mac said finally, wincing again at the headache that was already starting. “Apparently it was just a nightmare.”
“It was?” Lacey said.
For the life of her, Lacey couldn't remember what the dream was about. She realized it couldn't have been good, since she could still feel sweat trickling down her back. She wracked her brain and tried to remember the elusive dream, but couldn't.
“Yeah,” Mac answered, a little embarrassed now about the whole situation, as she unconsciously rubbed her head. “I thought you were being attacked or raped or something. I came to investigate and tried to wake you, but you were too far under. So, I shook you a little and that's when you...Well...” She shrugged.
Lacey's expression mirrored her confusion. “What? Did I do something?”
Mac touched her head again and hissed in pain. Lacey caught the sound and noticed Mac's gesture.
“Are you hurt, Mac?” Lacey asked with concern.
“Yeah, a little,” Mac answered, at bit embarrassed that she had been caught unawares. “You have a mean right hook, Doc.”
Lacey reached a tentative hand to touch the bump that was quickly forming on Mac's head. Her gentle touch elicited a hiss from the pilot as the woman grabbed her hand and held it away from the small wound. Lacey looked into Mac's eyes as the pilot held her wrist a bit longer than necessary. As their eyes met, Lacey forgot all about the hand that was now holding hers, her attention riveted on those eyes watching her with such intensity.
As suddenly as the moment came, however, it passed. Mac pulled her hand away from Lacey's and reached tentatively for her aching temple, then hissed again when her fingers found the swollen bump.
Quickly pulling herself together, Lacey put aside her feelings of loss that suddenly hit her when the pilot pulled her hand away. It was strange to think she could melt so completely with just the slightest touch, but she quickly shifted her thoughts to the woman who was obviously in pain.
“Mac, what happened?” Her concern brought Mac's attention back to her, as she moved to examine the purpling area next to Mac's left eye that nearly matched her own.
“Let's just say, you were a little out of it when I came in here and tried to calm you down,” Mac answered with a nonchalant shrug.
Lacey was flabbergasted. “I did that?” She sat back and stared incredulously at the other woman.
“It's not bad,” Mac smirked, not wanting to worry the doctor and certainly not wanting to be sent to the hospital at that time of night. It was not an explanation she wanted to make. “I'll live.”
“You sure?” Lacey prodded gently. “We could go over to the hospital so I could take a look at it. Even in the dark I can see that it's already starting to bruise.”
“No, I'm fine,” Mac said, hurriedly getting to her feet and moving toward the tent opening. “Are you gonna be okay now?”
“I'm fine,” Lacey answered, a little uncomfortable now that the conversation had moved back to the nightmare that was still vaguely niggling at the back of her mind.
“Must have been some nightmare,” Mac said with a half-smile.
“Yeah,” she agreed, looking down at her hands to hide her discomfort. “That happens sometimes if I go for a long stretch without sleep. It used to take my sister a while to wake me.” She looked up and met Mac's gaze. She felt something tangible passed between them. Lacey saw real concern in blue eyes gone dark in the sparse lighting and decided to open up, if only just a little. Her head lowered, as she spoke next. “One time, she slapped my face to get me to stop screaming. Pissed me off so much that I slapped her back without thinking. She didn't speak to me for days.” A smile tugged at her lips, as she returned her gaze to Mac's and saw the pilot returning the smile.
She noticed that Mac's eyes were smoky gray in the dim light and there was a look of understanding there that warmed the doctor's heart. She suddenly had an overwhelming urge to throw herself into the other woman's arms. The feeling was so strong, in fact, that she was surprised that the pilot's strong arms weren't already wrapped around her.
Mac unconsciously rubbed the side of her head. “I can see her point,” she joked and flashed a full-fledged smile to put the doctor at ease. “Well,” she continued after an uncomfortable moment. “I should, you know...” she gestured outside, “I should let you get back to sleep.” She turned to leave.
“Wait,” Lacey called out, stopping the other woman at the tent opening. Lacey just didn't want to be left alone just yet. “Thanks for your help, Mac,” she said, glad the pilot turned to look at her. “I don't remember what the dream was about, but it must have been pretty bad for me to get physical with you. I'm sorry about hitting you. That doesn't happen very often.”
“It's okay,” Mac smiled tiredly. “You didn't know what you were doing, and I shouldn't have tried to grab you. Lesson learned.” She stood there for another moment longer, not sure how to extricate herself from the situation and unsure whether she really wanted to. “Well... I should... you know...” This time, she pointed a thumb outside.
“Yeah,” Lacey said, then added. “Put some ice on that bruise and get some sleep, Mac. You look like you could use it.”
“You, too, Doc,” Mac answered. She smiled warmly in the soft glow of the outside lights, “Sweet dreams, okay?”
“Okay,” Lacey returned the smile. “You, too, Mac.”
Lacey watched the woman leave and sat there staring at the vacant tent opening for several moments afterward. She suddenly felt alone again and didn't know why that feeling left her so unnerved. She'd been alone for the better part of her adult life, especially after she'd gone off to college. It wasn't until that moment, however, that her loneliness was so palpable. She continued to stare at the empty tent opening and felt something pulling at her.
“What the hell is wrong with me?” She asked into the darkness. “If I didn't know any better…”
She stopped dead and tried desperately not to finish the thought. Putting that thought into words would have…what? Made her feel? Made her realize she was different. Different? No. She was just like everyone else. She could love just like everyone else. And, there, she'd let the thought invade her consciousness.
“Yeah,” she mumbled to herself. “That's why I've had so many successful relationships in my pitiful life.”
Lacey rolled her eyes and lay back down on top of her slightly damp sheets. She didn't give a thought to why they were damp, until she remembered why she was awake in the first place. Her thoughts turned to the nightmare and, try as she might, she couldn't remember what it was about. That was more than a little frustrating.
Lacey just lay there staring up into the darkness. She thought it was sweet that Mac had bothered to rescue someone from…what? What was it Mac had said she thought was going on? An attack? A rape?
“Jeez,” Lacey exclaimed, throwing a sweaty arm over her eyes in an attempt to block out the sliver of light coming into the tent through the slight opening. “Where was she stationed before this that she would think someone screaming in the night would be under attack… or worse?”
She shook off the morbid thoughts and turned on her side, tucking her arm under her head. Her thoughts drifted back to the nightmare and her frustration mounted. Hard as she tried, she just couldn't grasp the elusive dream. When she finally resigned herself to being unable to remember, she decided to take the pilot's advice and go back to sleep. Unfortunately, sleep was elusive and she merely lay there tossing and turning for what seemed like hours.
Thoughts of the blue-eyed pilot kept plaguing her, until Lacey wondered why Mac had been outside her tent in the first place. Of all the people who could have passed her tent at that moment why had it been the pilot who came to her rescue? Then she wondered where the pilot's quarters were in respect to her own. Had Mac been merely passing by, as she'd said? Or was there more to it? The feeling of familiarity she'd been carrying with her since meeting the dark-haired woman was still there. Being in Mac's presence just felt so… right.
“Shit! Get over yourself, Stephens,” Lacey chided. “You nearly knocked her block off and didn't even know it, for cryin' out loud.” She scolded. “She probably thinks you're crazy… or worse. And now you're lying here talking to yourself. You've got it bad, sista.”
Finally, disgusted at the turn her thoughts had taken, she decided to give up on sleep and start her day. She glanced at the clock and saw that it was already 0330. Time to check on her patients and see what kind of trouble she could get herself into.
She quickly dressed, then headed for the mess tent and another cup of stale, barely-palatable coffee. Her eyes burned and her neck ached from lack of sleep, but she just put her discomforts to the back of her mind, as she decided to face another day, head-on.
Mac was restless. While she'd been sitting there in the doctor's tent, all she could think about was taking the smaller woman in her arms. She wanted nothing more than to hug Lacey tightly and make her feel cherished and protected. She could sense that the doctor, though showing a façade of strength to the outside world, was actually covering for some long-buried vulnerability that she didn't want anyone to notice. She was so like Derek in that respect. Just the mere thought of her dead brother stopped Mac in her tracks for a moment.
After only a moment, she finally resumed her trek across the darkened compound toward her quarters. Mac tried to turn her mind to other thoughts, but to no avail. There was just something about the doctor that drew her to the woman, and she didn't know what to do about it. It was as if nature itself were pulling them together, something she couldn't explain. The whole thing was making her a bit uncomfortable, to say the least.
She entered her quarters and glanced at the clock on her footlocker—0330—the big red digital numbers blared at her. Great , she thought. An hour and a half before I need to be up and moving again . She quickly stripped out of her fatigues and dropped down on her bed. She spared a brief thought for a pair of sea-green eyes, before she quickly slipped into a dreamless sleep.
Continued in Part 2
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