By Kennedy Northcutt
As she returned to consciousness, the first thing Lacey was aware of was that everything hurt-her head, her arms, her back, her legs-even her teeth hurt. That was a good sign, right? If you hurt, then you weren't paralyzed or, worse yet, dead.
The second thing that she noticed was the acrid smell of smoke. Her eyes flew open and the world came slowly into focus around her. She was lying somewhere outside, her head pillowed on a small pile of sand and her body buried beneath sand and heavy metal wreckage. She blinked away the last vestiges of unconsciousness and focused on her surroundings, briefly wondering where her helmet was. The thought was fleeting as she saw the wreckage spread out in front of her. A jolt of icy fear for her fellow comrades ran through her then.
There were pieces and parts of the aircraft scattered everywhere, but the main fuselage was nowhere in sight. Then she noticed a large shadow blocking out the sun and reasoned that the fuselage was probably behind her.
Lacey tried to move, to turn and see what was left of the aircraft that had so recently been airborne. She couldn't. She was pinned underneath a large, heavy piece of metal and, when she moved, she felt a searing pain shoot down her left arm and across her chest.
"Agggggh!" She cried out in agony. The pain was so intense that she thought she was going to throw up. "Shiiiiiit!"
She closed her eyes and lay there panting until the searing pain subsided into a tolerable ache. When it was bearable, she decided to take an inventory of her injuries. Starting at her fingertips, she moved each finger in turn on her left hand. They all worked. She then tried her wrist. It worked as well, but the movement increased the pain in her shoulder. She realized she had either dislocated it or her collar bone was broken. Wonderful.
Lacey moved each finger and her wrist on her right arm. She could tell that two of her fingers - her middle and ring fingers - were dislocated or broken. When she tried to bend her elbow, she nearly screamed in agony. The joint was already swelling fast around the injury. She couldn't tell if the elbow was dislocated or broken. Either way, it didn't matter. Both limbs were useless to her.
Taking stock of her numerous injuries took a toll on what little strength she had left. She gave up trying to determine what other injuries she was suffering, realizing that she was trapped, with no way of moving on her own.
She lay there for what seemed like hours, but was probably only a few minutes. The smoke was still billowing around her. It was thick and black and smelled like an oil refinery. She wished she could turn to see the damage that lay behind her. Was the aircraft in flames? She didn't think so, but couldn't be certain. She could feel heat behind her, but also knew the sun was behind her, too.
She looked around for any other survivors. Where was everyone? Were they all dead? Was she the only survivor?
"Mac? Donaldson?" She desperately called. "Montgomery? Anyone? Can you hear me!?!" Her words ended on a painful cough that shook her entire body, as she accidentally inhaled the acrid fumes.
No one responded to her calls.
Mac jerked awake suddenly and glanced around. Everything around her was either smoking, sizzling or sparking. The nose of the aircraft, which she could barely see outside the windshield, was buried in the ground. They had definitely crashed. So much for their mission, she thought wryly. Then it occurred to her that she had survived the crash. She briefly thanked God for watching over her, then remembered she hadn't been alone in the aircraft when it went down.
She looked over and saw that Donaldson was slumped against the far side of the cockpit, his eyes wide and unblinking. The windshield in front of him was smashed and covered in blood, as was most of his face. She reached over to check his pulse. Nothing. Tears came unbidden to her eyes when it occurred to her he was dead.
He was far from her favorite crew member. Although he kept to himself and occasionally went behind her back to her superior when she wasn't following regulations to the letter, she would never wish any harm on him. He wasn't a jerk, as much as he was just very by-the-book. He was also very much a family man. Mac could respect that. As a matter of fact, she had once defended his reputation when someone called him a "milktoast" behind his back.
Glancing at the small picture of his family that he kept tucked into a corner of the panel, Mac said a silent prayer for them, as several more tears fell. She sniffed and wiped them away impatiently.
Then she realized that it was much too quiet in the rear of the aircraft. Another thought came unbidden. Where was Lacey? Was she dead, too? Pushing her grief over her co-pilot's untimely demise to the back of her mind, Mac took stock of her injuries and was surprised when the only thing that really hurt was her right leg. It was pinned and bleeding beneath the smashed instrument panel. The panel was sparking and a thin trail of smoke rose above it. Most of the instrument faces were smashed, cracked or broken, making them impossible to read.
Gathering her courage around her like a protective cloak, Mac knew what she had to do. She needed to unpin her leg and get the hell out of the aircraft. She could smell smoke and burning grease, which meant that more than the instrument panel was burning. Removing her helmet and setting it aside, she then quickly unbuckled her harness and prepared to escape what was left of poor Argo.
Using all her strength, she shoved against the panel with her other leg until she was just able to move her injured leg. Ignoring the searing pain and subsequent nausea her efforts caused, she slowly managed to pull her leg free. She toppled out of the cockpit onto the ground outside and lay there for a moment, catching her breath and letting the pain subside.
She slowly crawled clear of the aircraft and sat there for another moment. Smoke billowed from one of the engines, the other apparently buried deep in the ground. There were no flames that she could see. After a few moments, she finally decided to test her ability to walk. Once she was on her feet, she limped to the cargo compartment to search for survivors.
"Hello?" She called. "Hey! Is anyone still alive? O'Leary? Montgomery? Anyone?"
Black smoke billowed up from the main rotors and obscured most of the fuselage. She thought she heard a weak cough somewhere close-by and slowly limped over to investigate.
"Is someone there?" Mac called again, as she searched the ground. "Hey! Anybody there?"
She spotted a bloody arm sticking out from under a twisted piece of metal and limped over to it. When she lifted the metal off, she found the body of Sergeant O'Leary. His eyes were closed and his neck was twisted at an odd angle that made Mac cringe and her stomach knot. More tears came unbidden and she quickly swiped them away. There was no doubt the man was dead. Swallowing down the emotions that were threatening, she said another quick prayer and moved on.
The next body she came across was Montgomery's. He was lying on his stomach, half-buried beneath the fuselage of the aircraft. A large gash on the side of his head was oozing dark-red blood. She felt for a pulse, but knew he was dead by his glazed, unseeing eyes. Another quick prayer and she continued her search.
She found no trace of the Green Beret and wondered if, maybe, he was buried beneath the fuselage. If so, was he still alive? Mac had no time to ponder the man's fate before her thoughts were interrupted.
"Anyone there?" A female voice called weakly.
"Doc?" Mac glanced around, her eyes scanning the wreckage. "Lacey, where are you?"
Lacey was overjoyed to hear the pilot's voice not far from where she was trapped.
"Over here," she replied with a hoarse cough. "I'm under a piece of wreckage and I can't get myself out."
Mac was suddenly there beside her. There was concern and relief, as well as open affection, in her ice-blue eyes. But Lacey was too overcome with joy to notice any of it.
"Oh, thank God," Lacey shed tears of joy and coughed. "I thought I was the only one who..." She let the words trail off, as she realized they were probably the only ones who had survived.
"Hang on, Lac," Mac said, reaching down and grasping the large piece of wreckage. "I'll get you out of there. Promise."
Mac could see that Lacey was trapped beneath one of the two side doors. The door was incredibly heavy and despite her best efforts, she was unable to lift it off the trapped woman. She finally gave up, exhausted from her efforts.
"I can't lift it," Mac conceded, breathing hard. "It's too damned heavy."
"You're bleeding, Mac," Lacey noted. "Your leg." She wanted to point at the tear in the pilot's pant leg, but just motioned with her chin, instead.
"So are you," the pilot said, swiping a bloody lock of hair from the doctor's forehead. "You have a gash on the side of your head that looks pretty deep." She examined the cut without actually touching it.
"A cut is the least of my worries right now," Lacey said. "I'm not sure I can help you out at all. Both my arms are completely useless and I can't move my legs."
"Well, we can't just sit here," Mac said with a wry smirk. "The guys who shot us down probably have a pretty good idea where we are. Not to mention that smoke is acting like a damned beacon. Eventually those assholes are gonna come looking for survivors."
"Wasn't Peters carrying explosive with him?" Lacey added dryly.
"Shit! I totally forgot about that," Mac said, glancing at the fuselage and then returning her attention to Lacey. "Hey, how'd you know about the explosives? He and I were the only ones supposed to know about those."
"I saw them in the bag when we were grounded during the sandstorm," Lacey explained. "He really was a bit too overprotective of that duffle, so, of course, I had to see what all the fuss was about."
"Mac?" Lacey said quietly.
"Are we the only ones who-" She couldn't finish the question over the lump that suddenly formed in her throat.
"Looks like it, yeah," Mac answered with a heavy sigh. "I found everyone but Peters."
"Oh," Lacey said, then her sad eyes met Mac's. "Donaldson?"
"Yeah," the pilot answered, looking away and blinking back a fresh wave of tears. "I think he died on impact. His head smashed into the windshield. His helmet didn't do a thing to protect him, unfortunately."
"I'm sorry, Mac," Lacey said after a long silence. She glanced at the pilot and saw unshed tears glimmering in Mac's eyes an instant before Mac turned her face away. "I know how much the crew means to you."
"Donaldson was a pompous ass," Mac snickered and sobered instantly. "But he had a wife and kids. The guy was a devoted family man and spent most of his downtime emailing and Skyping his family. All he wanted to do was go home and be with them-retire with his twenty years and return to civilian life. Probably why he came off as such a prick. He just didn't want anything to jeopardize his chance at a spotless record. His family and his career were everything." Mac sighed. "Now he's dead and his family will have to deal with the loss."
"War really sucks," Lacey said.
"Yeah, it sucks big insurgent butts," Mac agreed.
With a grunt, Mac got back to her feet and balanced most of her weight on her good leg. She searched the wreckage for something-anything-that might help her free the doctor.
"Let me see if I can get you out of there," Mac said hopefully, as she moved away from the trapped woman. "There's gotta be something I can use to help lift that door off you."
She limped around the wreckage, searching for a suitable lever.
"So, where are we going after this?" Lacey asked conversationally, in an attempt to take her mind off her increasing discomfort and the pain that was now settling throughout her entire body. "You got any ideas?"
She knew there was more to her injuries than just the pain and the shock. She just silently hoped, and prayed, that she wasn't bleeding internally... or worse. Pain was supposed to be a good sign. If you were in pain, then the nerves weren't completely damaged. Then again…She shook off her musings and tried to concentrate on her surroundings, instead. It was difficult not to let her mind wander, though.
"Well," Mac stopped and surveyed their surroundings. "I don't know. All I do know is we can't stay here. We're sitting ducks for the enemy to find."
"What about a search party?" Lacey interjected.
"There won't be one," Mac stated flatly, resuming her search.
"What makes you say that, Mac?"
"They won't know where to look," Mac shrugged. "Communications were knocked out before I could give them our final coordinates. Damned assholes knew just where to hit us. They took out our underbelly gun and our radio, all in one shot."
Mac grabbed the medical bag from the chopper, then spotted what she had been searching for. She grabbed the metal rod and limped slowly back to where the doctor quietly lay with her cheek resting on the ground.
"Tell me what I can give you for the pain," Mac said shortly, unable to hide her growing unease or her concern for Lacey's condition. "This is probably gonna hurt like a son-of-a-bitch."
"There should be a vial of morphine and some syringes in there," Lacey answered without hesitation. She knew Mac was right. There certainly would be a great deal of pain when the pilot finally maneuvered the wreckage enough to free her. "I didn't bring a lot, because…well, I thought we'd just grab our guys and get the hell outta here." Lacey huffed. "Who knew this would happen?"
Mac located both the morphine and the syringes. She removed the cover from a needle, then looked to Lacey for further instruction.
"Turn the bottle upside down and insert the needle into the cap," Lacey instructed, in her most professional tone. "Fill the syringe with 20 ccs and push the plunger until liquid squirts out."
Mac followed the instructions to the letter, then waited for Lacey to continue.
"Now," Lacey continued. "With a quick jab - not hard enough to break the needle - stick my arm and empty the syringe."
"You ready?" Mac caught the brief nod.
Mac jabbed the needle into the doctor's arm and emptied its contents. When she was finished, she threw the syringe away and grabbed another from the bag. She filled the second syringe, then jabbed it into her leg and emptied it.
"Done," she blew out the breath she'd been holding.
"Thanks. You did a good job, Mac," Lacey gave the pilot an encouraging half-smile. "I'll make a doctor out of you, yet." The words were meant to tease, but were said with sincerity. "Or at least I can get you to medic status."
"No," Mac answered. "I think I'll stick to what I'm good at-flying."
Lacey looked skeptically at her, then looked around at the smoking wreckage. Mac's gaze followed hers and she had the grace to blush.
"Doesn't look like that's an option at the moment," Lacey teased. "By the way, you're still bleeding. You should wrap that leg before you end up passing out on me. That would certainly suck."
Mac looked down at her leg before grabbing a package from the medical bag. She ripped the package open with her teeth and took out the sterile pressure bandage, then wrapped it several times around the leg wound.
"Okay, time to get you out of there, Captain," Mac said finally. "We can't wait any longer or we'll have the entire Rebel Alliance after us."
"Rebel Alliance?" Lacey snorted. "Please tell me that wasn't a reference to Star Trek or Star Wars."
"Okay," Mac said nonchalantly. "I won't." She cast a teasing smirk at the doctor.
Lacey rolled her eyes at the pilot's teasing. She knew their playful banter was a way for them both to cope with the enormity of their situation. They had lost their entire crew and were facing impossible odds of survival themselves. It was a situation that would make even the most seasoned soldier break down into a fit of hysterics. Lacey thought back to her last conversation with Farrell and realized there were worse things than being raped by a bunch of assholes. Good thing she and Mac had one thing on their side. They had each other. It wasn't much, but it was definitely something.
With as much confidence as she could muster, Mac wedged the metal rod under the door and used a smaller piece of metal wreckage as a fulcrum. She tested the stability of the makeshift tool and decided it would hold.
Before she started, however, Mac carefully lowered herself to Lacey's level. She looked the doctor in the eye and gave her a kiss.
"What was that for?" Lacey asked with a pleased half-grin.
"For good luck," Mac answered seriously. "I love you, Lacey Stephens. Don't forget that, especially when you're cursing me for getting us into this damned mess in the first place."
Lacey was only mildly surprised by the sentiment. But she also took comfort from Mac's presence. She thought about all the people who died in the crash and was relieved to know that Mac was with her.
"It's not your fault, Mac," Lacey answered. "You did your best to keep us in the air after that first hit." She tried to glance behind her. "Choppers just weren't made to take that kind of punishment and stay in the air."
Mac considered Lacey's words and then shrugged. She had certainly tried her damnedest to keep them in the air, but the cards were stacked against them. Nothing she did could have kept them from crashing and at least Lacey was alive. That was some consolation, at least.
"Okay, let's do this. I want you to scoot free when I lift the door off you," Mac directed.
"Uh, just one problem," Lacey countered. "I can't use my arms. My elbow's broken and I think I've dislocated my shoulder or broken my collar bone. Either way, I can't use either arm."
"Shit!" Mac exclaimed, taking a few moments to rethink the situation with her fingers pressed against her forehead as she paced. "Okay, then, wait right there. I'll be right back."
"I'm not going anywhere," Lacey replied sarcastically. "I'll just sit here…" Lacey muttered to herself. "All by myself…just me and my morbid thoughts…"
Mac disappeared behind her and returned several minutes later, limping heavily and dragging a body with her. Lacey immediately recognized the identity of the dead soldier.
"What in the world are you doing with Sergeant Montgomery?" Lacey asked incredulously. "Mac, is he…"
"Believe me, he won't feel a thing," Mac stated flatly and slightly out of breath. "Besides, I think he would be honored to do one last service for his country and for the members of his team."
Mac set the Sergeant's body down next to the rod, then lifted him up onto it. She used his weight to lift the door and waited to be sure everything was stable before she went to pull Lacey free.
"Come on," Mac said, putting her arms beneath the doctor's and struggling to pull the woman free.
Lacey wanted to scream in absolute agony as her shoulder shifted slightly with the pilot's efforts. Instead, she gritted her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut tightly against the excruciating pain. She used her legs to help push herself free, as Mac pulled with all her might.
The moment Lacey cleared the twisted metal, the rod broke and the door crashed back to the ground and kicked up a cloud of dust. Both women just stared at the site, as they both lay there panting from their efforts.
"Son of a bitch," Lacey gritted out between clenched teeth. It was all she could do not to break down in a fit of tears. "That was too damned close for comfort."
"You can say that again," Mac sighed and wrapped her arms around the smaller woman.
"We're still not out of the woods," Lacey said, even though she was enjoying Mac's embrace immensely, despite the pain it caused her. "Don't you think we should get a move on?"
Mac sighed heavily and took another moment to let the shock wear off a bit, before she reluctantly let Lacey go and stood up. "Can you stand?" She looked skeptically down at Lacey.
It took a moment before Lacey finally nodded. Mac moved to help the doctor up, being careful not to touch her arms in the process. When she was on her feet, Lacey noticed that her left knee felt a little stiff. She took a tentative step forward and nearly fell to the ground when the knee gave out on her.
"Whoa, there," Mac made a quick grab and caught the doctor before she crumpled to the ground. "Easy, there. Take it easy, Lac."
Lacey leaned gratefully into the taller woman. "Guess standing is okay, as long as I don't try to move."
They both smiled at the absurd joke. This was definitely not their day.
"Are there any bandages left in that bag?" Lacey asked.
"I need you to tie my arms into slings," Lacey answered. "Otherwise, they're going to flop around, and I won't be much good to either of us. Every time my left arm moves, even just a little, I feel like a hot poker is jabbing me."
"Got it," Mac said sympathetically, taking two bandages out and unwrapping them.
Mac slung one bandage around one of Lacey's arms and brought the two ends up behind the doctor's neck. She tightened the sling slowly and gently, lifting the arm so it was resting against Lacey's chest. She could tell the doctor was in pain, but admired the woman for not crying out or making the slightest sound.
"Whoa!" Lacey cringed once Mac was finished. "That's good. My elbow won't bend any farther. Now, careful with the other one. That's my bad shoulder."
"Okay," Mac said, wrapping the arm and gently bringing it into the same position as the other. She winced when she heard a quiet whimper escape the doctor. "Shouldn't we try to put it back in place or something?"
"Not sure if it's dislocated or broken," Lacey gritted her teeth and tightened her lips, as the sling shifted her shoulder and sent a jolt of searing pain down her entire arm. "Oh. My. God! That hurts!" She hissed.
Lacey just stood there for a moment. She felt the world closing in on her and knew she was about to pass out, but also knew she couldn't afford to do that. She breathed deeply to clear her head, as Mac stepped away from her and held her hands up in mock surrender.
Mac saw the doctor go ashen right before her eyes and was afraid the woman was about to pass out. She just stood there and waited, however, afraid to do anything or touch the woman.
"You okay?" Mac asked with concern. "You really don't look good, Doc."
"Just give me a minute," Lacey continued to breathe, feeling rivulets of sweat trail down her back. "I'll be all right, just as soon as the scenery stops spinning."
It took her several more precious moments to get the pain and nausea under control. She looked around and noticed the shadows were lengthening around them, which meant night was fast approaching.
"Okay. Now what?" Lacey asked hopefully. "We need to move. It'll be dark soon and those guys are probably on their way."
"Well," Mac answered, grabbing up two M-16s, a few extra clips of ammo that she quickly stuffed into the pockets of her flight suit, the bag of explosives and the medical bag. "We find someplace to hide until I can figure out how to get us out of here."
Mac moved to Lacey's right side and dropped her load, then she leaned down toward her companion. She watched Lacey's face closely, knowing the doctor was trying valiantly to hide the pain.
"Let me put an arm around you and you can lean into me for support," she suggested.
Lacey followed the suggestion and tried not to wince as Mac put an arm around her shoulders.
"You can't carry all that and support me, too, Mac," Lacey indicated the pile on the ground in front of them. "Your leg won't hold us and all that stuff, too."
Mac looked at the pile, then at Lacey. She pondered the woman's words for a moment.
"Okay, so you can't walk by yourself, which means I'll just have to leave most of it behind," Mac shrugged. "We'll manage."
She lifted one of the M-16s to her shoulder and picked up the medical bag.
"There, that should do it," Mac said. "We can hoof it from here."
"You can't leave the C4 for them to get their hands on," Lacey stated. "They'll use it against us, or worse..."
Mac eyed the open bag of explosives on the ground at her feet.
"You're right," she said, a sudden gleam in her eyes. "Come on. I have an idea."
Mac and Lacey slowly limped their way several hundred yards away from the still-smoking wreckage. When they reached a small depression in the ground, Mac lowered Lacey down until the doctor was seated on the ground. Lacey wriggled into a semi-comfortable position, then looked up at the pilot with hopeful, yet confused, eyes.
"I'll be right back," Mac said, dropping their gear next to the doctor.
"Wait! Where are you going?" Lacey nearly shouted to the pilot's retreating back.
"To carry out my plan," Mac shot over her shoulder with a gleam in her blue eyes, as she limped back toward the smoking wreckage. "It's just crazy enough to work." She grinned mischievously and then lowered her voice. "At least, I hope so," she muttered.
Lacey waited, as Mac took the explosives and placed them inside the fuselage. A moment later, Mac returned, sitting next to her.
"You gonna just leave those there?" Lacey asked.
"No," Mac answered, grabbing up the M-16. "I'm gonna do what I was trained to do."
"Something tells me you didn't go through standard flight training," Lacey commented, then crouched lower. "Were you a Green Beret, too?"
"I was assigned to Special Ops for six months," Mac said flatly. "I flew supplies and passengers in and out of some hot spots down in South America. Keep your head down and cover your ears. This is going to be really loud and probably very messy."
Lacey shot Mac an eye roll. "I can't lift my arms, Mac. So, covering my ears is definitely not an option."
"Oh, yeah, right," Mac shrugged. "Well, just be ready then. Like I said, it's probably gonna be loud."
Both women ducked down behind the sand hill and Mac took aim at the pile of explosives she'd placed inside the smoking fuselage. She fired several shots and the resultant explosion was larger than either woman had anticipated. Metal debris, sand and gravel rained down on them from above, covering them in a thick layer of dust. A huge black cloud of smoke billowed up into the clear blue sky and mushroomed out until it dissipated. When the dust, smoke and noise finally dissipated, both women looked at each other.
"Shit!" Mac exclaimed, looking over at what had been the fuselage of her chopper, but was now merely a charred metal shell.
"Damn! There were a lot of explosives in that stupid bag," Lacey commented. "What the hell was Peters planning to do, anyway? Blow us all to kingdom come? I'm surprised we didn't blow up on impact with all that shit onboard."
Mac smiled at the doctor's outburst, despite the gravity of their current situation. The explosion, she knew, was large enough and loud enough for anyone within a few miles to hear. It wouldn't take much and she didn't want to be around when guys with guns actually did show up.
"We need to get out of here," Mac quickly gathered up their stuff. "That racket was bound to catch someone's attention, even if the smoke billowing from the engines didn't. As flat as this land is, I'm sure our friends didn't miss either the crash, the smoke or the noise."
Mac reached down and helped Lacey to her feet. Together, both women started moving toward a group of low hills in the distance. They hobbled and limped in silence across the sandy, rocky ground, carefully picking their way in an attempt to keep from tripping and falling. They made very slow progress.
"And what if the rebels are hiding out in those... hills?" Lacey asked, after they'd covered several hundred yards. "We may be walking right into their hands."
"Maybe," Mac was breathing heavily with the effort of supporting them both and their gear. "We'll just have... to take our... chances."
Lacey was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other and not leaning too heavily on the woman next to her, but was not having much success. Her shoulder, which was now throbbing painfully, was distracting her, as was her rapidly swelling knee. Each step sent waves of agony radiating throughout her body.
"We have… to stop," Lacey said finally, her breathing coming in short gasps. "I can't go any... farther." She winced as a sharp cramp shot up her side.
"Just a few more steps, Lac," Mac encouraged. "We need to get behind those rocks before we can take a break."
"Does it really…matter?" Lacey groused, exhausted from her efforts and the waves of pain washing over her. "What's the worst… they'll do…"
"We don't know who we're dealing with," Mac answered, surveying the landscape around them.
"The Geneva Convention…"
"Fuck the Geneva Convention, Doc!" Mac exclaimed impatiently, her expression mirroring annoyance. "These guys don't give a rat's ass about that shit. They're damned extremists. Their leaders have declared jihad against the West. All they care about is wiping us from their country and from the planet. And don't think they give a shit that we're women. Now, come on, Doc. Don't make me drag your sorry ass behind that rock."
The bluntness of Mac's words was like a shot of ice water in Lacey's face. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she moved with as much of her limited reserves as she could muster.
"You're just…full of surprises…aren't you?" Lacey panted, as they neared the rock and their chance for a brief reprieve. "Aren't you?" She repeated with annoyance.
"Yeah? How so?" Mac returned with a wry smirk. Her own leg was aching and she could feel a trickle of blood running down into her boot, but chose to ignore her own discomfort. She knew Lacey's injuries were much worse than her own.
"Explosives expert, pilot…medic…ouch! Shit!" Lacey stumbled and wrenched her shoulder. "All that and a…temper, too. I didn't know what I was getting…myself into when I-Shit!-jumped into this relationship with you."
"Are you okay?" Mac turned concerned eyes on the doctor. The pause gave her a chance to catch her own breath. "We can stay here for a minute. Catch our breath. And who says we're in a relationship? You dumped me, remember?"
"I'm just…fucking fantastic," Lacey answered through gritted teeth. "Son of a bitch! Ugh!"
Mac saw tears spring to the doctor's eyes, an instant before the shorter woman looked away. She couldn't be sure, but she thought a few of those tears actually escaped to trail down Lacey's cheeks.
"It's okay to cry, Lac," Mac conceded. "I can only imagine how incredibly difficult this is."
Lacey smirked wryly as her eyes met Mac's. "Don't let the tears fool you, Mac. I'm hard as nails. A few aches and pains won't stop me from getting through this damned shithole we've fallen into. And I say we're in a relationship. Got it? Don't give me any shit about it. I love you, okay? Got a problem with that?"
"No, ma'am," Mac smiled. "You're a treasure, Lacey Stephens. You know that?" She put a comforting hand on Lacey's cheek and stroked the tears away.
They stood next to the boulder and realized what they thought was one large rock was actually a cluster of them. It was a kind of shelter that would offer a small measure of protection against the elements.
Mac and Lacey skirted around the first boulder, until they were well hidden. Then Mac dropped their gear and turned to gently assist the doctor to the ground. She knew how much the doctor was hurting, because her own leg was screaming in agony at every movement.
Lacey was beyond feeling, beyond exhaustion. She was just at the edge of collapsing right where she stood when Mac's strong arms helped her to the ground. She felt the pilot's gentle touch and felt her body respond to it, despite the pain and exhaustion. She was grateful for the distraction and reveled in the feel of Mac's hands on her.
"You know, if we sit here too long, I may not be able to get back up again," Lacey groused, after she had finally regained some semblance of herself. "I know my leg's gonna stiffen up. It's already so swollen that I can't bend it anymore."
Mac glanced around, careful to stay hidden behind the safety of the boulders.
"We don't have much choice, Doc," Mac shrugged. "There's nowhere else to go."
"We're not gonna last out here without water," Lacey sighed. "God, I could drink an entire river. Mm. Shouldn't have put that image in my head. Now I won't be able to forget how thirsty I am. Shit! How do people live out here? And why the hell are we fighting in this craphole?"
"Oil?" Mac shot back with a wry smirk. "Sure isn't much else out here, other than the people. Those kids at the orphanage/school were pretty cool."
"Fighting for oil is just plain asinine, if you ask me," Lacey wanted to cross her arms over her chest in a show of pique, but decided just to lean into her companion instead. "I like the people thing, though. And, yeah, those kids were definitely cool, especially that little boy that attached himself to you, Chief." She sighed. "But if it is because of oil, they should just sign a damned peace accord and get us out of here. No sense in fighting over a few drops of dinosaur shit, when there's plenty underneath Alaska."
"It's harder to ship from Alaska," Mac commented.
"Politics is for jackasses, if you ask me," Lacey huffed.
A canteen suddenly appeared in front of Lacey's face. She looked up to find Mac's blue eyes watching her with such open compassion that she couldn't help but smile. She didn't know if it was the exhaustion or the pain or just her own dejected spirits, but all she wanted to do at that moment was curl up into a tight ball and stop being - stop feeling.
Mac could see that the doctor was at the end of her rope. She sat down next to the woman and looked at her.
"Here, take a few sips," Mac put the canteen to the doctor's lips. "It's not a river, but the water's relatively clean. I just filled it this morning. Figured I'd play Girl Scout and come prepared."
Lacey felt the tepid liquid slide down her parched throat and suddenly every instinct within her wanted to just empty the entire canteen. Fortunately, reason kicked in and she took only a few sips. She sighed heavily when Mac pulled the canteen away and capped it.
"Thanks," Lacey said with a grateful smile.
"You want more?" Mac asked, as she unconsciously wiped a drop of water from Lacey's lower lip.
"No, I'm good," Lacey answered, unable to hide the blush that crept up into her cheeks at the pilot's gesture. "Thanks."
"You're welcome," Mac answered.
She put the canteen away without taking a drink herself. Lacey noticed.
"Aren't you going to drink some?" Lacey asked pointedly.
"I'm fine," Mac answered, swiping an arm across her brow.
"Oh, and I'm not? Seriously?" Lacey retorted, her own temper kicking in. "Take a damned drink, Mac. There's no way I'll be able to help you if you keel over from dehydration. Do it. That's an order."
Mac looked at the scowling doctor, then grabbed the canteen and took a deep swig.
"Satisfied?" She said, swiping excess water from her chin with her bare arm.
"Uh-huh," Lacey smiled weakly. "What I wouldn't give for a beer, right now, though," she sighed wistfully as her eyes drifted closed.
"Yeah," Mac sighed next to her. "Make mine a double. With lime."
"And a nice, juicy steak."
"With grilled mushrooms and onions…"
"Yeah," Lacey sighed. "And a fully-loaded baked potato, some steamed asparagus, and for dessert…a big slice of cheesecake drizzled with fresh raspberries and dark chocolate."
"Mmm," Mac smiled wistfully.
The sun had peaked overhead and was making its way toward the western sky. It was still hot-probably topping 120 degrees or more. But in the shade of boulder it was tolerable. At least that's what Mac told herself as she settled more comfortably against the cold stone with Lacey leaning against her.
Lacey turned to look at her companion. She could see lines of fatigue etched on the pilot's brow. They were both beyond tired, she realized. She studied the contours of Mac's features for a while longer, noting long, dark eyelashes and a nearly square jaw line. Mac's skin was well-tanned and several shades darker than her own. It was also smooth and... her thoughts were interrupted when Mac's eyes suddenly locked with hers.
Lacey quickly looked away, not wanting the woman to know she'd been staring. As her eyes tracked down to the pilot's injury, her professional mind kicked in and she noticed that the pilot's leg had bled through the bandage. There was probably blood pooled in the pilot's boot, too. She knew the wound wasn't life-threatening, but that didn't mean it would stop bleeding on its own.
"Grab another bandage out of the bag, Mac," Lacey ordered in a tone that was colder than she had intended.
Doing doctor stuff kept her mind off other…things, especially thoughts that she could not control while in the pilot's presence. Out there in the middle of the desert there was no way to physically show Mac how much she actually loved her.
"Why?" Mac asked suspiciously.
She caught the doctor's earlier scrutiny, but decided not to comment on it. She was also a little miffed at the gruff tone that followed. She wondered what Lacey was playing at. Was the doctor suddenly having second thoughts about their relationship? Was she chickening out?
"You're bleeding," Lacey stated flatly. "Your leg."
Mac looked down at her leg and discovered that, sure enough, there was blood leaking through the pressure bandage. She grabbed another bandage from the medical bag and started to unwrap it.
"Don't unravel it," Lacey directed. "Just push it down on the wound, hard as you can."
Mac looked at her skeptically. "Are you serious? I'm not a masochist, you know. It hurts enough as it is."
"It'll hurt like hell, but you have to stop the bleeding or we're both going to die out here," Lacey stated flatly. "I don't know about you, but I don't want to give those bastards the satisfaction of knowing we survived the crash, only to die here behind this damned boulder."
"Fine," Mac answered shortly, pushing the bandage impatiently down on her leg and wincing at the pain. "Ow! Christ, that hurts like hell!"
"You know what hell feels like?" Lacey smirked at her own joke.
"Haven't been there lately, if that's what you're getting at," Mac answered. "I guess I can only imagine what it's really like and if it hurts."
"You are so weird," Lacey scoffed softly.
"Any weirder than you?"
Lacey considered that for a moment. "No, I guess not. We both have to be nuts to be living on the edge like this."
"Certifiable," Mac replied with a chuckle.
Lacey rubbed her cheek against Mac's shoulder. "Guess that makes us the perfect couple."
"Couple of certifiable nuts. Yep, that's us," Mac used her free hand to gently stroke Lacey's disheveled hair. "The shrinks'll be so happy to get their hands on us."
For several long moments they just sat there in companionable silence, listening to the sounds of their breathing and not moving. It was so quiet, in fact, that the slightest noise seemed out of place. Something caught Lacey's attention.
"Do you hear that?" Lacey asked. The low rumble seemed to be moving closer. "What is that?"
Mac struggled to her feet and peeked over the boulder. In the distance, she could see a cloud of dust moving toward what was left of the wreckage. She quickly ducked back down behind the boulder and out of sight.
"What?" Lacey asked, seeing the concern in the pilot's eyes.
"They found the crash site," Mac stated. "Let's just hope my little diversion is enough to make them believe everyone died in the crash, including us." Her expression turned thoughtful. "Damn!"
"I just thought of something."
"If I just waited for those guys to show up before I detonated the explosives, we might have killed them and destroyed the wreckage at the same time," Mac could have kicked herself with regret. "I am such an idiot!"
"Not an idiot," Lacey shook her head. "You did what you thought best. I think that's all we can do at this point."
Mac got up again and carefully watched the approaching vehicle. She made out at least three men in the open-aired Jeep-like transport. She also saw a large machine gun mounted in the back that was manned by one of the men.
The transport stopped at the edge of the wreckage site and all three armed men jumped out. She couldn't really see them very well, but she could just make out that they were all wearing head coverings.
Mac watched as they split up and searched through the still-burning wreckage. One of the men found the extra M-16 that Mac had left behind and lifted it in the air in triumph. Another man found Sergeant Montgomery's body and fired several rounds into it. Mac swallowed the bile that rose in her throat at the horrendous treatment of one of her men. A wave of intense guilt washed over her that she hadn't been able to save them. She continued watching as the third man walked around the perimeter of the site, searching the ground.
Suddenly, the man stopped and looked up directly in Mac's direction. He lifted a pair of binoculars and Mac quickly ducked behind the boulder again.
"Shit!" She quietly exclaimed.
"What?" Lacey whispered, despite the fact they were far enough away that the men would never hear them, even if they screamed at the top of their lungs.
Lacey's heart pounded in her chest at the panic in Mac's expression.
"Company's comin'," Mac replied with a disappointed half-smile. "Guess my little diversion didn't quite work out. There are three of them and they're armed to the teeth." She gazed out across the desert. "Did I mention they're in a truck with a machine gun mounted in the back?"
"Three against two. I can handle those odds," Lacey smiled back, although the smile didn't quite reach her eyes. "So, what do we do now? Run? I don't really think that's an option for me."
"I don't know, yet," Mac said. "I still have the grenades," she said as an afterthought. "I guess I could lob them at the truck when it gets close. Maybe we'll get lucky and I'll hit them before they discover where we are."
"True. Just don't expect me to cover your back," Lacey joked, wiggling her fingers without moving her arms. "This is one time I actually wish I could play soldier with you." Lacey's expression turned thoughtful. "Then again, I think I'd much rather play doctor," she wriggled her eyebrows and got a smirk out of her companion.
"You are so bad, Dr. Stephens," Mac chuckled.
"I aim to please, ma'am," Lacey used her best Texas drawl.
The pilot slowly got to her feet and peered over the boulder. She saw that the three men had returned to their vehicle. Unfortunately, another vehicle was racing up to join them. As the second vehicle approached the first, Mac could make out another six to eight armed men seated in the back. She hissed at this new development and dropped back down next to Lacey.
"Damn it!" Mac hissed and shoved a hand through her hair. "This just gets better and better."
"Let me guess," Lacey looked at Mac in all seriousness. "Our buddies out there just picked up some extra help."
"Another truck with about eight more men in the back, all armed to the teeth," Mac impatiently swiped a stray lock of hair from her forehead. "We are so screwed."
"Are they headed this way?" Lacey kept her composure, despite the dire news. Outwardly, she was much calmer than she actually felt. Inside, her guts were churning at the prospect of facing down the small detachment of armed men. "Maybe we should just surrender," the words were out before she realized she'd said them out loud. "They might allow us…"
"What?" Mac looked at the doctor incredulously. "They may not rape us both before they kill us and leave our bodies out here to rot in the hot desert sun? Please don't go there, Lacey Stephens. This is not a game."
"Never mind," Lacey sighed. "I guess it's a bad idea."
Mac smirked. "Horrible. I'd rather blow myself up and take a few of them with me than face the prospect of being a prisoner of war to a bunch of Islamic extremists. This isn't the First Gulf War, where they actually released prisoners of war."
"Oh, you heard about Rhonda Cornum, too, eh?" Lacey commented, then glanced down at her arms and chuckled wryly. "Funny how my current situation kinda parallels hers, broken arms and all."
"I read that book she wrote," Mac shrugged. "She went through some pretty intense shit, but still lived through it to tell her tale. I don't think things are quite what they were back then, though. Our continued presence here is really pissing some of these guys off." Mac ran an impatient hand across her face. "I can't believe I let those assholes live, when I could have blown their sorry asses to kingdom come."
Mac was more peeved with herself than she wanted to admit. The situation was not going in their favor and things just seemed to be piling up against them. Even with all her training, she knew that she couldn't defend them both against an all-out attack. Especially not against the odds they were facing. And Lacey's suggestion that they surrender was completely out of the question. Mac had heard the horror stories and knew Lacey wouldn't survive another rape without severe psychological repercussions. Not to mention the fact that they probably wouldn't live through it, anyway.
Mac got to her feet again and peered over the boulder. She watched as a verbal exchange took place between the driver of the second truck and the man with the binoculars. Even from that distance, she could tell that the two men were arguing about something. Then, suddenly the second truck turned and raced off in the opposite direction, heading back the way it had come.
Mac continued watching as "binocular man" said something to his driver, who then turned their vehicle toward Mac and Lacey.
"Well, you want the good news or the bad?" Mac said, sliding back down next to the doctor.
"Does it really matter?" Lacey smirked mirthlessly. It wasn't that she wanted to give up, but they just didn't have a choice-did they? "We're screwed, either way."
"Well, they're coming," Mac said. "But it's only the one truck - the first one with the three guys and the machine gun. The other truck took off back to wherever it came from."
"Oh, that's fantastic," Lacey grumbled. "Now, we're back to square one. Or maybe those other guys are going for reinforcements. Wouldn't that just be Jim Dandy."
"I can't use the grenades for fear those guys in the other truck might hear the ruckus and come back to investigate," Mac said. "I don't know about you, but I'd like to take my chances with these guys."
"Okay, so we wait until the first truck gets close enough, then take them out," Lacey said. "You said there were only three of them in that truck. Right?"
Mac smiled down at her incapacitated comrade. "Yeah, something like that. You think you're really up to fighting three guys with guns?"
"You know what I mean," Lacey returned, knowing full-well she would be useless during the fight.
Mac grabbed the M-16 and checked the clip. It was full.
"If they get close enough, I think I may be able to shoot a tire and take their whole truck out in one shot," Mac said, lifting the M-16 and propping it on the boulder.
"What if they see you first and start shooting?"
"Then I'll just have to implement 'Plan B'."
"Take them out before they take me out," Mac replied with a lopsided grin. "Hey, I didn't say the plan was foolproof."
Under any other circumstances, that grin would have warmed Lacey's heart and made her feel…what? She had already admitted her love for the pilot. The woman was the other half of her battered soul and Lacey couldn't stand the thought of losing her. And that scared her more than anything.
"Not funny," Lacey frowned up at the taller woman. "We were just getting to know each other. I don't think I can go this alone. You know what I'm saying?"
"Don't worry," Mac said after a long silence, her blue eyes locking with Lacey's. "I'm a decent shot. I can take them."
"Promise?" Lacey asked sincerely.
"Promise," Mac answered as sincerely.
Mac resumed her place against the boulder and watched as the vehicle came closer and closer. When it was within range, she set her weapon against her shoulder and took aim. She then fired one shot.
"Well?" Lacey asked impatiently.
"I nailed the tire," Mac replied without looking down at the doctor.
Mac suddenly ducked down behind the boulder, as gunfire erupted around them. Bullets ricocheted off the boulders, sending shards of rock and debris flying in all directions.
"Does that answer your question?" Mac grinned.
"But did you disable the truck?" Lacey asked.
Bullets continued to ricochet around them, until suddenly all was quiet again. Mac stood up and peered over the boulder. More gunfire erupted as she ducked back down again.
"Shit! Persistent assholes, aren't they?" She wisecracked.
Lacey just stared at her with a quirked brow and a look of "I told you so" gleaming in her eyes.
"You gonna answer my question now?"
"Yes," Mac hiked brow of her own.
"Yes, what?" Lacey continued impatiently.
"Yes, I disabled the truck," Mac replied with a smirk.
It was suddenly quiet again. Both women just sat there staring at each other, then Mac slowly raised the M-16 over the boulder and fired randomly in the general direction of the truck. She peered over the boulder and noticed that there were only two men, instead of three.
"Shit! Trouble," she said, ducking back down.
"More trouble than we're already in? Oh, big surprise there," Lacey snorted.
"One of them is gone," Mac continued, ignoring the comment. "I only see two, now."
She pulled Lacey's service revolver from the doctor's hip holster and put the weapon in one of Lacey's hands.
"Here, take this," Mac whispered. "If he gets by me or one of the others comes, don't hesitate to shoot."
"And where are you going?" Lacey whispered loudly.
"To find our missing friend," Mac said.
Mac disappeared behind another boulder, leaving Lacey sitting there alone. Lacey looked down at her sidearm and managed to get both hands around it. She cocked it and unlatched the safety, then sat waiting. Her thoughts turned to her lover and she sighed heavily. She couldn't imagine going on without Mac. That would be the end of her, for sure.
Lacey gazed down at the revolver in her hands and tried not to let the tears that threatened fall. She didn't want to end up dying alone. And she didn't know if she would be able to defend herself if the time came to do so. Her arms were still completely useless and she couldn't lift the revolver high enough to do any real damage. About all she could do is shoot the enemy in the foot and hope for the best.
She sighed again and let her head fall back against the cool surface of the boulder behind her, as she waited for fate to unravel itself before her.
It was the waiting that was the worst, Lacey realized. Not a patient person to begin with, she didn't enjoy just sitting there anticipating who knew what, especially when she was in pain. Physician, heal thyself. What a load of crap, she silently groused, looking down at her arms and knee.
Lacey heard a noise behind her that made her stiffen and ready herself for any possibility. Adrenaline kicked in and masked the incessant pain. She closed her eyes to listen, concentrating on her surroundings. She heard the noise again, this time a subtle scuffing of boots on sand that was coming from behind and just to her left. She sat as still as a statue, as noticed a large shadow moving on the ground next to her. The shadow edged closer and Lacey remained perfectly still.
She knew there was no way she could lift the revolver high enough to put a bullet in a man's chest, where it would cause the most damage. So she continued to remain still, hoping he wouldn't see her before he moved into her line of fire. The man edged by her. He was so close she could smell him.
He wore a faded pair of army-issue pea-green fatigues, with a scuffed pair of what once passed as black combat boots. He also wore a black and white checkered keffiyeh, a traditional Arab head cloth. As he passed her, Lacey could see that he was a young man of no more than twenty-five, despite the full black beard he sported. The doctor in her rebelled against causing harm to another human being, and she nearly gave in to the sentiment. But her years of training all came rushing to the forefront and pushed her hesitation down.
She closed her eyes briefly, as she realized what she had to do. Her stomach clenched and her hands began sweating uncontrollably. She could feel her heart pounding wildly and could hear the rushing in her ears. She had to shoot when the opportunity presented itself. There was no way around it. That thought didn't ease the growing unease that was causing her stomach to clench even tighter.
When she opened her eyes, she saw another shadow just behind the man who was now standing in front of her. Her hands shook with the effort it took just to hold the gun. She didn't want to shoot either man, but knew her life and Mac's depended on what she did next.
She tried to lift the gun barrel higher than the man's ankles but couldn't. Shit! She felt sweat beading her brow and running down into her eyes. She blinked to clear her vision and wished she had the use of her arms to wipe the sweat away. One shot was all she had to disable the man in front of her before the other man to her left would inevitably shoot her. In that moment, Lacey finally realized she didn't want to die-at least not there, in the desert-at the hands of some militant or insurgent or whatever they were called these days. It was senseless, when she still had so much to contribute to the world of medicine and to the world in general. And to Mac.
Just thinking of Mac sent a warm feeling through her. She loved the woman and wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of her life with her. That thought helped gird her for what she had to do.
As the Iraqi in front of her turned, their eyes met for a brief instant. His were a deep brown that were almost black in the fading sunlight. Before he could raise his weapon, however, the shadow next to Lacey suddenly sprang forward, materializing into a human form that took the enemy soldier down. The two struggled in front of Lacey for several minutes, until neither moved.
Lacey watched as Sergeant Peters lifted his bare head and looked directly at her. He had a bloody bowie knife in one hand and a look of carnal determination in his eyes. Lacey didn't care. He had saved her life, and she was grateful not to have to kill her would-be attacker.
"Oh, thank God," Lacey sighed, releasing the breath she'd been holding. "Sergeant Peters, you don't know how glad I am to see you."
"Ma'am," he acknowledged with a brief nod and a half-smile. "The feeling's mutual."
Just then, they both heard an exchange of gunfire several yards to Lacey's right. The man looked at the sidearm in Lacey's hands and noticed the effort it was taking for her just to hold the weapon. Her hands were shaking so much that he thought she might shoot herself in the leg.
"Do you mind, ma'am?" He asked, nodding toward the weapon.
"No, here, take it," Lacey answered gratefully, engaging the safety and dropping the barrel so he could grab it from her. "It's of no use to me, anyway."
The man smiled at her. It was a gruff smile, but one that was reflected in his chocolate brown eyes. As he gingerly took the weapon from her stiff fingers, he checked the clip and cocked it.
"Thanks, ma'am," he tucked the revolver behind his back. "I didn't think anyone else survived the crash. Then I saw all my C4 go up in smoke and you two heading this way. Too bad about the C4, but good to know I'm not the only one who survived."
Lacey studied the man. The exposed skin of his face and arms was dotted with small cuts and contusions, some of which were still bleeding. Other than that, he looked relatively unscathed. She wondered briefly how he'd managed to escape the crash in one piece, but filed the thought away for later.
"Why didn't you reveal yourself to us earlier?" Lacey asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.
"No time, ma'am," Peters answered. "I swung around and got behind those sons of bitches. Wanted to see if I could find out what they were up to. Then that other truck showed up, and I thought I'd better high-tail it back here, on the double."
"You were lucky they didn't spot you," Lacey said with a tired smile. Her arms ached unbearably again and she couldn't ignore the pain any longer.
Mac rounded a boulder just then. Both she and Peters turned their weapons on each other. And then they both lowered them at the same time, when they realized in unison who they were aiming at.
"Sergeant," Mac greeted him with a relieved smile. "Good to see you." She glanced at the dead Iraqi.
The Iraqi's neck was at an odd angle and his eyes were staring unseeingly. There was also a pool of dark red blood quickly soaking into the ground near the man's chest. Mac guessed Peters had something to do with the dead man's condition.
"Ma'am," he greeted back. "He was trying to sneak up on the Captain, here." He was nonchalant about the brief explanation. "I thought it best to take matters into my own hands."
"He must've gotten past me," Mac said. "I got the other two." Mac looked at the deserted truck sitting by itself in the middle of the desert. "If we get the tire fixed on their vehicle, we should be able to drive it back to Base."
The sergeant looked up at the waning sunlight and scanned the distant horizon, a skeptical look in his eyes. Mac could only guess what was on his mind.
"We'd do better to bed down for the night and fix the truck in the morning," he said. "It's going to get dark soon. Too dark to do much more than let the night play out."
"What about that other truck full of armed insurgents?" Lacey piped in. "Won't they miss their buddies when they don't show up?"
"She's got a point," Mac nodded. "Maybe we should make camp, then move the truck over here and get the tire fixed tonight. That way we'll be ready to leave at first light."
"Works for me. I just hope those boys don't decide to come looking sooner," Peters grumbled. "Damned insurgents are almost as impossible to predict as the weather. They're also as bad as the sandstorms that suddenly come up with no warning."
Lacey was leaning exhaustedly against the boulder. What little heat was left on the rock's surface during the day was long gone now. A chill ran through her and made her shiver, as the drop in temperature permeated her battered body. She realized she was probably in shock and just hadn't noticed her condition until that moment, what with all the excitement and all.
"First things f-first," Lacey tried to stifle the next painful shudder that ran through her. "Did anyone happen to bring matches and kindling for a nice toasty campfire? Or a blanket, maybe? It's getting a little c-cold out here."
Mac glanced at the shivering doctor and noticed how drawn Lacey's features were. Since she was standing in the last rays of the descending sun, Mac hadn't realized how quickly the air was cooling down around them. The doctor was sitting in the shadow of the boulder and was obviously feeling the chill more than both she and Peters.
"Can we get a fire going?" Mac looked pointed at Peters. "I don't have anything with me."
"Don't worry, I'll take care of it," he answered, then shrugged. "It kinda comes with the whole demolitions and Green Beret package."
"I'll leave you to it, then," Mac returned.
He disappeared behind the rocks and Mac returned her attention to Lacey. The doctor's pallor, even in the waning daylight, was not good. She looked like she was on her last leg and the pain in her eyes was giving them a glazed appearance.
"How're you doing, Doc?" Mac asked as she sat next to the woman and gently pulled her close in order to share some of her body heat. "And don't give me the 'I'm fine' version, when I can plainly see you're not."
"I've d-definitely been better," Lacey smiled weakly. "And please just call me Lacey. I hate being called 'Doc'. Sounds like I'm one of the freakin' seven dwarves." Then, as if on an after-thought. "And no cracks about my height, either. That's an order." She shivered again and tried not to think about how miserable she was.
Mac looked at Lacey with a raised brow. Was the woman a mind reader?
"You sure?" She glanced over her shoulder in the general direction of their companion. "Not that I mind, but Peters might not appreciate the informality."
"Screw it. We're stuck out here in the middle of nowhere. I don't really give a shit about military protocol. Who's he gonna tell, anyway?" Lacey groused. "Besides, I don't think Peters will care. He'll have something to tell his buddies when he returns to his unit - 'Ooo, you wouldn't believe what those aviation chicks do, blah, blah.'" She rolled her eyes for added emphasis.
Mac smiled. "Okay, Lac." She said as she got up to grab the medical bag and returned to the woman's side. "I like that we'll just be ourselves," she said as she took out a syringe and the vial of morphine. "I could give a shit what happens after we get back to base, anyway. Let them try to come between us or court martial us. I'm more than willing to give up the military for my nice, peaceful life back in Wyoming." She looked Lacey in the eye. "And I'd love to share that life with you. If you're willing, that is."
"Th-thanks, I th-think," Lacey gave her a lopsided grin. "What are you d-doing, anyway?"
There wasn't much morphine left in the vial, but Mac inserted the needle and filled the syringe anyway - only 12 ccs worth. She flicked the syringe neck with a finger and pushed the plunger until a precious drop of liquid trickled out.
"Giving you the last dose of pain medication," Mac answered. "Problem?"
"M-maybe you sh-should save it for when someone r-really n-needs it," Lacey suddenly hissed when the needle pierced her skin.
Mac emptied the syringe into Lacey's arm. For her part, Lacey only flinched slightly as the liquid emptied into her arm. Then she just sat there in a semi-half-daze. The pain of her injuries was weighing her down and the drop in temperature was multiplying her discomfort tenfold.
"Wh-where's P-Peters?" Lacey asked impatiently. "H-how l-long d-does it t-take to gather k-kindling for a f-fire, anyway?" She couldn't control the shivering.
Mac noticed that Lacey's cheeks were becoming flushed, despite her gray pallor. She could also see that the woman was still sweating, despite the temperature drop. Mac raised a tentative hand to Lacey's forehead and felt her brow.
"You're warm," Mac stated. "Why didn't you tell me you weren't feeling well?"
Lacey scoffed. "Duh," she said irritably. "Are you k-kidding m-me?"
"Do you have anything in this damned bag for fever?" Mac asked, rummaging around and coming up empty-handed.
"Nope," Lacey answered flatly. The effects of the small dose of morphine were finally kicking in and giving her a light buzz. "I d-didn't h-have room for much on this t-trip. Had to l-leave my b-bigger med bag b-behind to make room for that d-damned gun you g-guys were all gung-ho about." She chuckled. "Lotta g-good the damned th-thing did us. You didn't even g-get a ch-chance to use it, from what I c-could hear. Now it's just a twisted p-piece of metal buried beneath your chopper."
"Things just happened too fast to even think about it," Mac added. "You don't even have an aspirin in here? You're a doctor, for cryin' out loud. What kind of doctor doesn't at least put aspirin in a medical bag?"
"Great, now what?" Mac sat back and tossed the bag aside. She reached over and pulled Lacey close, holding her as gently as possible. "You need something to help bring your fever down, Lac."
"I'm f-fine," Lacey answered on a yawn. "Probably j-just overtired. After Peters gets a f-fire g-going, I'll just r-rest a while and g-get my sssecond wind."
They both heard the sound of an approaching vehicle. Mac picked up her M-16 and crouched next to the doctor. The vehicle drew closer and, in the shadows of the waning daylight, Mac could see that it was being driven by only one man. She could also see that the vehicle was limping along, as if on a flat tire.
"I think Peters is bringing our ride over," Mac said lowering the weapon.
Sure enough, the vehicle pulled up in front of them with the headlights turned in their direction. Mac held up her hands and moved in front of the doctor to block the brightness. The man jumped down, grabbed something from inside the vehicle and came towards them.
"It's gonna be dark soon, so I thought..." he said, dropping some small sticks on the ground.
"Yeah, well, those are a little bright, don't you think?" Mac commented, squinting in the brightness.
"Oh, sorry," he said, returning to the vehicle. "Give me a second."
He backed it up and turned the truck so the lights were not shining directly on them, but were still casting a glow in their direction. Once he had the vehicle parked again, he jumped out and re-joined the two.
"Better?" He asked.
"M-much," Lacey answered with a shudder. "Th-thanks."
"No problem, Captain," he smiled. He noticed that she was still shivering. "Here, take this, ma'am," he said, taking off his uniform shirt and tucking it under her chin like a blanket. He still had on a buff-colored tank top and re-donned his flak jacket. His black-framed dog tags hung in the opening of his flak jacket.
"W-won't you get c-cold, S-Sergeant?" Lacey asked, her medical instincts kicking in. "We d-don't n-need another c-casualty of this s-situation."
"I'll be fine, ma'am," he answered with a half-grin, then turned to the pile of wood and began arranging some smaller pieces to start a fire.
With Mac's help, Peters got a small fire going and ringed it with several rocks to retain the heat. The fire worked two-fold to also provide light, as well as heat. Once the fire was going strong, Peters turned his attention to the truck, leaving the two women alone.
"He's a m-model s-soldier, that's for s-sure," Lacey commented. "I'm g-glad he didn't...d-die with..." her words trailed off, as she tried to swallow down the lump that suddenly jumped into her throat. "God," she exclaimed quietly. "I c-can't... b-believe...they're all..." tears welled in her eyes and spilled silently down her cheeks. None of her years of training could prepare her for the loss of her crew, even if she hadn't known them for very long. That blow, on top of everything else, suddenly weighed on her more than anything else had up to that point.
"Hey," Mac turned to find the doctor losing it. "Come on, now. It's going to be okay. Simmons and Jimenez are still back at base, waiting for our return. I'm sure they're really glad they weren't allowed to participate in this mission."
"Ya think?" Lacey sniffed, looking at Mac with tear-filled eyes. "They might think they missed out on all the fun." Her brief joviality turned sour. "We're stuck out here in the middle of enemy territory and no one knows where we are, unless you count those assholes who just want us dead." The more she talked, the faster her words came. "We have three dead soldiers, whose families will probably never be able to give their bodies the proper burial they deserve, because there is nothing left of them. There's a downed plane somewhere that we're supposed to find and a crew we're supposed to rescue." The tears were flowing now, which made the cuts on her face sting. She just didn't care anymore, as a wave of overwhelming sorrow and pain suddenly washed over her. "I'm a surgeon without the use of my arms, who couldn't help anyone, even if we found them, which we won't because we don't even know how we're going to get ourselves out of this-"
"Stop! Just stop." Mac interrupted finally, taking the tear streaked face in her hands and looking directly into Lacey's eyes. "Look at me, Lacey Stephens."
Her name on Mac's lips stopped her, but Lacey didn't want to look into the other woman's eyes for fear she would drown. She wanted to keep talking, to get it all out of her system. She wanted to just curl up in a tight ball and forget everything that was happening around her. Truth be told, she wished she had been one of the casualties lost in the crash. Instead, she finally lifted her eyes and looked into Mac's… only to lose herself in their comforting blue depths.
"Now," Mac continued when she had the doctor's full attention. "I said it's going to be okay and I mean it. We're going to get through this. I promise. Okay? You just need to have faith that it will all work out for the best."
Lacey gazed into the ice-blue depths and knew in her heart that Mac would keep that promise. She nodded once, then sniffed. It was hard to trust someone else to take care of things, but she couldn't fight the feeling forever. Like it or not, she trusted Mac to get them out of this mess.
Mac could see that her words had the desired calming effect. Although the doctor had been on the verge of a total meltdown, she seemed to be coming back to herself. The tears were even subsiding, though the doctor's nose was still running. Mac pulled the last bandage from the medical bag and used it to wipe the other woman's nose.
"Here, blow," Mac ordered in an almost-motherly tone that brought a smile to Lacey's lips. "We don't need trails of snot flowing across the desert to give away our position." They both smiled at the crude joke.
Lacey did as she was told and blew her nose into the bandage. She obediently allowed the pilot to wipe all the tears from her cheeks, as well.
"Thanks, Mom," Lacey finally said with an embarrassed half-smile. "I needed that. Can't believe I've cried more tears in the last few weeks than I have in my entire life. I feel like such a pitiful, blubbering wretch."
"You're not a wretch, Lacey," Mac returned. "And I promise not to hold the tears against you when we get back to civilization. But I really think a shrink is in order. After all this shit, I'll even agree to sit down with your school marm shrink and let her pick through my brain, too."
That brought a full-fledged smile from Lacey.
"Now," Mac continued. "I'm going to go help Peters change that tire, so we can get the hell out of here tomorrow and get you to the hospital. Are you going to be all right here until we're done?" Lacey nodded.
Mac stood up and leaned down to tuck Peters' shirt more firmly around Lacey's shoulders. She brushed a stray lock from the doctor's forehead and placed a chaste kiss on Lacey's brow.
Lacey's eyes fluttered closed and she forced them open again to watch the pilot move away into the darkness. The fire was crackling in front of her and casting eerie shadows on the surrounding rocks. She scooted down until she was relatively comfortable and watched the flames dance and flicker. The morphine, combined with her own exhaustion, was lulling her into a light doze. Moments later, her eyes closed and she drifted off to sleep.
She was standing at the edge of a cliff with the vast blue-green ocean spread out before her. Small whitecaps danced in the distance, as a soft breeze blew against her cheeks. Far below her, waves crashed against the rock wall she was standing above and sprayed water high into the air.
It was so peaceful there. Warm and quiet. She looked up into the cloudless blue sky and spotted an eagle soaring on the breeze. The majestic bird glided effortlessly, with its wings extended to either side of its dark brown body. The sun warmed her face and cast a golden glow on the eagle far above.
Lacey wanted to step off that cliff and soar like the bird. Just soar without a care in the world. No more worries. No more responsibilities. Gliding on the breeze with the sun warming her face and the ground far below her.
But, no. Something held her there. Something kept her from taking that step into nothingness. An invisible anchor kept her grounded and the anchor was love.
Suddenly, the scene changed and there were men dying all around her. Blood everywhere. The metallic tang of it stung her nostrils and made her gag. Sticky red oozed hot around her ankles. The cries of the men drowned out the sounds of her own breathing. She looked at her hands and they, too, were covered in blood.
"No," she whispered, then shouted. "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"
Her legs gave out and she crumpled to the blood-soaked ground. The blood rose around her until she realized she would soon drown in it.
Glancing up, she saw a pair of blue eyes watching her from the other side of a gorge. The woman was familiar, as were those blue eyes.
Eyes as blue as the Caribbean Sea and full of compassion and caring. Lacey wanted to keep watching the woman, but her attention was drawn back to the battle raging around her.
"No!" Lacey shouted again, as she looked down to see that her clothes were soaked with blood. "Someone help me!" She feared that no one would hear her cries above those of the injured and dying. "Help me! Please!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Mac heard the first soft cries, just as she and the sergeant were finishing tightening the last lug nut. The cries sounded like those of an injured child's and were coming from the direction of their campfire. Mac raced back over and found Lacey in the throes of a feverish nightmare.
As Mac sat down and lifted the injured doctor into her arms, Lacey cried out and then whimpered something unintelligible. Mac felt the doctor's brow and was surprised by the heat, despite the chill in the air. She wasn't sure, but she guessed that the doctor's temperature had spiked well over 100 degrees.
"I'm here, Lacey," Mac said, stroking a sweaty cheek soothingly and gently rocking the woman in her arms. "Shhh, you're okay now. I'm here."
"Please?" Lacey asked in a childlike voice. She opened her eyes, but Mac could see that they were unfocused. "Help me?" Her voice was weak and barely audible.
Mac continued to stroke Lacey's flushed cheek. "Yeah. It's okay. You're okay." She smiled, but worry creased her brow. "Come on, Lacey. Wake up and come back to us. You're okay. It's just a nightmare."
Sergeant Peters was suddenly there looking down at Mac with concern. He could see that the pilot was worried as she cradled their injured comrade in her arms.
"Is she okay?" He asked. "What's going on?"
"I don't know," Mac shrugged. "She's burning up. We need to get the hell out of here. Now."
Lacey felt warm arms embrace her and she leaned into the protective embrace. Everything was going to be all right now. She was safe. Nothing could hurt her now. Or could it?
Hot. So very hot. She was still standing at the edge of the gorge, but now, instead of a river of water flowing below her, there was a river of red-hot lava. The heat penetrated everywhere. She felt it burn deeply, threatening to steal her very soul. The arms holding her were suddenly gone.
Then she felt his presence behind her and turned to see her father standing there.
"You've failed us, Lacey," he drawled, his face stern and disappointment in his gray-green eyes. "You've failed your family. I will never forgive you for the choices you've made, young lady."
"No excuses. You've embarrassed our entire family for the last time. It's time we let you go," he turned away from her, and she noticed the shadows of her mother and sister standing behind him. They, too, turned away and Lacey felt their disappointment like a tear in her soul. Her father turned his head to look at her, "Don't ever return. We never want to see you again. You are no longer part of this family."
"No, don't go," Lacey tried to follow them, to bring them back, to say she would change... for them, for everyone. She would be what they wanted her to be.
Hands on her shoulders held her in place. "Let them go. Everything will be all right. I promise. We'll be fine."
A hand turned her and she was staring into a pair of smiling blue eyes. Suddenly she felt hard, demanding lips on hers and the fire within her burst into a full-fledged inferno that was consuming her from the inside out.
She couldn't breathe, couldn't think. Her mind swam with images of those blue eyes, always watching, always there for her. They wanted her, but she would not, could not give in. Could she? No, she had to fight, had to escape. Escape before she burned. Escape before she lost everything she'd worked so very hard for.
"No," she said, struggling against the arms that were suddenly holding her prisoner. "Let me go! Leave me alone!"
She tried to break free, tried to break that iron hold. She was burning in hell for the choices she'd made. Burning from the shame of her guilt. She'd made the wrong choices and now was paying for them with her life. She had to fight, had to break free.
Mac continued to hold the doctor and tried not to cause the struggling woman further injury. Lacey was still burning up and her delirium-induced nightmares were making her increasingly more violent. They were also causing Mac to panic. She just didn't know what to do.
"Lacey!" Mac called. "Lacey, listen to me. You need to calm down before you hurt yourself. Come on, sweetheart, calm down. You're all right. Everything's going to be all right."
As far as she could tell, her words were not penetrating the doctor's delirium. Things were going downhill fast. Mac realized she had to do something, before the doctor's condition worsened.
Peters had overheard the exchange and was trying valiantly not to acknowledge the fact that the dark-haired pilot had just called the captain "sweetheart." He knew all too well that the military frowned on same-sex relations, even if they didn't openly discriminate against homosexuals. The Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy had discouraged more than a few of his male and female comrades from remaining in the Armed Forces. Many signed up with the hope of being accepted, but soon found that they were treated like the lowest of the low, with no hope of promotion. Some were successful at hiding their sexual preferences, only to face roadblock after roadblock if the Brass even suspected they weren't "normal."
Now Peters realized he'd found a pair of the successful ones. He wondered how they'd been able to fool their commanders and hide their relationship from the Brass. Then he dismissed the notion. Who was he to judge? These women had beaten the odds and survived a chopper crash. Why shouldn't they be allowed to show their affection openly?
"Sergeant," Mac looked imploringly at the man across the fire from them. "How dangerous would it be to load up the truck and head back to base camp tonight, in the dark?"
He glanced at her as if she had suddenly sprouted two heads. "You can't be serious."
"I'm totally serious," Mac replied flatly. "She's burning up, and there's nothing I can do for her out here. She needs immediate medical attention. Please. We have to do something."
The sergeant sat there rubbing the stubble on his chin, as he seriously contemplated the situation. He could see that the doctor was in pretty bad shape and had heard her delirious ramblings. The problem was they might be risking more than just her life if they traipsed off into the desert in the dark. They would be risking all their lives.
"Okay, here's the deal," he began, as he lit a cigarette and took a long drag on it. "First of all, it's dark and I'm not quite sure where we are. I lost my compass and my GPS during the crash. Second, we don't know what kind of terrain we'll face out there. If we go driving off into the darkness, we can't be sure what we might run into or who. Things could definitely get a lot worse. Not to mention our friends are out there somewhere looking for their dead comrades."
"Yeah, I know," Mac agreed, feeling a shudder run through the woman in her arms. "But the fact remains, if we don't get her some help soon, she will probably die."
"Yeah, I get that," he said. He wiped a weary hand over his face and sighed in frustration. "I ain't arguing against leaving, just don't want to go out there in the pitch black. There ain't even a partial moon to guide us. If we hit a rock or a hole, it's all over."
"I don't think she'll last the night," Mac continued worriedly. "Not with a fever this high."
"And we may not last the night if we drive off into the dark without knowing where we're headed," he stated flatly. "It's up to you, ma'am," he shrugged. "Seein's how you outrank me. I leave the decision in your hands."
Mac stared at the flickering campfire for several moments, weighing her options. So, it all came down to who outranked whom, she realized. That was always the case in situations like this. Whether or not she was capable of making the right decision didn't matter. It was her decision to make. She had to choose between risking the doctor's life by waiting for first light, or risking all their lives by leaving the relative safety of their current location.
"You drive," she said finally. "I'll ride in back with her. I trust that you'll be able to navigate well enough to keep us from driving off a cliff."
"I'll do my best, ma'am," he answered. "Can't make no promises, though." Then he added under his breath, "Cliffs are hard to see, even in broad daylight."
"If we run into anything, or anyone," she continued. "Shoot first and ask questions later. Got it?"
He smiled. "Ma'am, yes, ma'am."
"All right then, let's go," Mac said, lifting the doctor into her arms and getting to her feet. "By the way," she said, as they started towards the truck. "When we get back to camp…" She eyed him warily as he flicked the ember of his cigarette away and stuffed the remainder in a pocket. "Lacey and I are…well, I care a lot about her…"
"I don't care if the two of you are shackin' up together, ma'am," he said, as he helped lift the doctor into the bed of the truck. "It ain't none of my business, and I ain't about to tell anyone about nothin' I've seen or heard. What happens in the desert, stays in the desert." He grinned mischievously and winked at her. "We'll chalk it up to the Vegas thing."
Mac nodded. "What happens in Vega, stays in Vegas," she smirked.
Mac climbed up and took Lacey in her arms, then scooted back until she was propped against the cab. She looked down at the woman in her arms and noticed that Lacey's eyes were open and watching her.
"Hey," Mac said with a reassuring smile. "We're gonna get you outta here."
Lacey remained silent and her eyes slowly drifted shut again. Mac felt the doctor's brow. She was worried that the woman's skin was both hot and dry. Definitely not a good sign.
They were making slow but steady progress across the desert in the inky darkness. Sergeant Peters was driving in what he hoped was a generally southwesterly direction-at least, that's what he kept telling himself in sub-vocal grumbles. He couldn't be sure, except that he occasionally looked up at the sky for confirmation of their position in relation to the star constellations above. Starlight navigation hadn't been part of his special operations training. He had explained to Mac that he'd learned that particular talent from his grandfather, who happened to own a small fleet of shrimping boats that worked off the coast of Louisiana.
Mac also occasionally checked the stars and used what little she knew of star charts to help them navigate. It was definitely a crap shoot, at best, as her skills in that department were seriously lacking. Without her trusty avionics and GPS to guide her, she was at a distinct disadvantage. No matter, though, they were still moving and hadn't yet run into any trouble.
Mac sat on the hard metal floor of the truck bed with Lacey cushioned in her lap. The doctor had slipped into unconsciousness several times during the trip. Mac didn't want to face the possibility that Lacey was getting worse. Mac just held onto her and prayed to whoever was listening that they reached civilization soon. Her heart ached for the woman in her arms and she couldn't bring herself to contemplate losing Lacey this early in their relationship.
Mac was in love with the smaller woman, of that she had no doubt. She knew it with all her being and was afraid that Lacey would be taken from her before she they were even a couple. Mac could count on one hand the number of women she thought she'd loved over the years. And she hadn't had a single relationship with another woman since joining the Army almost a decade ago.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell or DADT, as it was more commonly known. The policy meant that Mac had to keep her personal life completely personal. As long as she was an soldier in the United States Army, no one would be the wiser about her sexual preferences. And no one had ever questioned her lack of a social life. Not until Lacey, that is.
She thought back to their first meeting and how her feelings had blossomed during that drunken kiss in the doctor's quarters. The doctor's lips on her own had sent sparks of recognition through her that just couldn't be explained or denied.
The truck hit a deep rut and bounced violently, pulling Mac out of her musings. A loud crack followed and the vehicle stopped with a sudden lurch. Peters got out and crawled under the truck.
"Damned, son of a bitch!" He exclaimed rather loudly.
"What is it?" Mac called out, without giving up her position as a human pillow.
The sergeant appeared as a shadow in the darkness at the side of the truck. "We have a big problem, ma'am."
"Other than the obvious?" Mac shot back with annoyance.
"The axle's busted in two, thanks to that last pothole," he slammed a fist against the hard metal in frustration. "We're grounded, ma'am."
Mac looked down at the woman in her arms. "Shit!" She cursed softly. "I don't suppose you can fix it."
"Sure," he added with a touch of sarcasm. "Give me a jack, a blow torch and a day or so to solder the pieces back together and I'll have 'er good as new." He let the words hang there, then added. "Sorry, ma'am, but I'm a demolitions specialist, not a damned magician."
"No, it's not your fault, Sergeant," Mac conceded. "So, what do we do now? I take it we're stuck. This is just damned…Shit!" She pounded the side of the truck with a fist as her own temper flared. "It'll be dawn soon. We're sitting ducks out here now. Me and my damned impatience. This sucks."
"Well," he said. "I think I may have a solution to one problem, ma'am."
"And what might that be, Sergeant?" Mac asked, her voice reflecting her frustration.
"Well, ma'am, I found a shovel tucked under the front seat," he answered, lifting his prize up for her to see in the semi-darkness. "I could dig a big enough hole to fit all of us in. It'll keep us out of the sun and we'll be hidden when our friends come snooping."
Mac noted the certainty of the "when." He knew, as well as she did, that the insurgents would eventually pick up their trail and come barreling down on them. The question was, when.
"And, in the meantime, the doctor doesn't survive the night," Mac shot back. "Not to mention, last time we saw our so-called 'friends,' they outnumbered us three-to-one. Sounds more like suicide, if you ask me, Sergeant. And just call me Mac, will ya? Ma'am is way too formal for the mess we're in here."
"We have their automatic, ma-Mac," he said with a wry grin. "That gives us a small advantage, at least. We hide it on our perimeter somewhere and I can pick them off. They'll never know what hit 'em."
Mac considered the sergeant's plan carefully. It could work-in theory, anyway.
"Sounds like something we can work with, except for one thing," Mac continued.
"Ma-um, Mac?" He ducked his chin. "Sorry. But callin' you by your given name is gonna take some gettin' used to."
"No problem, Peters" Mac smirked. "But all this hinges on those assholes finding our trail. What if they don't?"
"If there's one thing I'm sure of," he answered confidently. "It's that those guys know the desert better than we ever will. It's their home, their territory. They'll find us. That's a fact."
"Hm," Mac murmured. "Somehow that doesn't sound very reassuring, Peters."
"Give me a few hours to get that hole dug, Mac," the sergeant continued. "By dawn, I should have it ready to go, and then we can plan our next move."
"Fine. I just hope, for her sake," she glanced down at the doctor again, "your plan works."
"It will," he said, then disappeared.
Mac returned her attention to the doctor and felt her forehead. The skin was warm, but not as hot and dry as it had been earlier. Definitely an improvement. Thinking optimistically, Mac hoped things were finally looking up for all of them. She gently held her and relished having Lacey in her arms.
"Well, I think your fever's down, at least," Mac said quietly. "Come on, Lacey. Hang in there a little while longer. I promised I'd get you out of this, and I just need more time to keep that promise."
"Hmm?" The doctor murmured sleepily.
"Lac?" Mac looked down. "Hey," she smiled when Lacey's eyes fluttered open in the darkness.
"Th-thirsty," Lacey croaked.
Mac grabbed her canteen and raised it to the woman's lips. She was careful not to pour the contents down Lacey's throat, for fear she would choke her.
"Better?" Mac lifted the canteen away a bit, then noticed Lacey was still awaiting more.
Lacey took several more sips before she coughed and Mac pulled the canteen away.
"You okay?" Mac got a brief nod. Mac set the canteen aside, then looked expectantly at the smaller woman. "How do you feel? Any better than before?"
"Like hell," came the throaty reply. "Where are we? What time is it?"
"We're still in the desert in the back of a truck, and I think it's well past midnight," Mac answered.
"Midnight? How long was I out?"
Lacey considered Mac's words thoughtfully. "Geez. I definitely don't remember being in a truck."
"No, you were pretty far gone by the time we got the truck fixed," Mac said. "You've had a fever for several hours. Feels like you still have one, but not as high as it was before."
Lacey tried to sit up, but decided against it when her entire body protested even a little. Pain shot up her spine and radiated along every nerve in her back. She winced and sucked in a breath, which did not go unnoticed by her human pillow.
"Hey," Mac said. "Take it easy."
"Ow, ow," Lacey panted shallowly and tried to remain still, hoping the pain would subside enough for her to breathe again. It didn't, not really. "Give me a second." The words came out as barely more than a shaky squeak.
Mac just sat still, afraid that any movement on her part would further aggravate Lacey's injuries. She held her own breath for a moment in the hopes that Lacey's pain would subside on its own. They'd already used the last of the morphine and there wasn't anything left in the med bag that would do the doctor any good.
Lacey finally relaxed a bit when the pain leveled out. She let out a shallow sigh of relief, as the tension her movements caused eased into a dull ache.
"Phew! Guess I won't try that again anytime soon." She looked up to find Mac watching her intently. "I'm okay now. Promise. Just don't ask me to get up and run a marathon, anytime soon. Ain't gonna happen." She added the last with a weary smile.
"I won't, as long as you don't ask me to do the same," Mac returned the smile and winced when she tried to straighten her leg out in front of her.
"I'm so sorry," Lacey apologized. "Are you okay? How's the leg?" She sighed in exasperation and couldn't help the guilt that washed over her. "Some doctor I am. Can't even take care of myself, much less my only other patient."
"I'm fine and the leg is hanging in there, Lac," Mac frowned, looking down at the bloody bandage. "I just hope there's no permanent damage. I'd hate to be stuck with a limp for the rest of my life."
"You should be fine, as long as we get you treated in the next day or so," Lacey said in her best professional tone.
"You don't have to do that, you know," Mac said. "Not now. It's okay to just be you for a while, Lacey."
"It's not in my nature," Lacey replied curtly. "I'm a doctor, first and foremost. It's what I do and it's who I am. It's who I've been for most of my adult life."
"It's not who you are," Mac said quietly, her thoughts now centered on boosting Lacey's self-esteem. "It's just what you do - professionally. I'm a pilot. Flying is part of what I do and what I love, but it doesn't define who I am. That's something that lives inside me - right here." She pointed to her chest.
Lacey considered Mac's words. Could it really be that simple? She tried to wrap her mind around the concept and just couldn't. She was a doctor. It was something that had been ingrained in her from childhood. Her job - her entire reason for existence, actually - was to heal people, treat their wounds, give them comfort and ease their suffering. She offered hope when things looked grim, even if it meant she had to lie to them. But was that the sum total of who she was?
"I don't think I can..." She stopped to consider what she was trying to say. "I've thought of myself as a doctor for so long that it's hard to think any other way, Mac. Stepping out of that role…" She shuddered. "What if it's not enough? What if I'm not enough?"
She met Mac's gaze and saw compassion and understanding reflected back at her. Lacey wondered at the caring that came so easily for Mac and studied the lines and planes of the woman's features. Even in the darkness, she could tell there was a strength there that defied everything Lacey had been taught to look for in others. As a doctor, it was her job to look for the weaknesses and to fix them. She rarely found someone who possessed the kind of strength that she saw in Mac.
"You're a person, Lacey," Mac continued, unaware of Lacey's intense scrutiny. "A person with thoughts and feelings. You're also in a lot of pain... both physically and emotionally," Mac paused to let the words sink in. "I'm here if you need to talk about it. I won't judge you and I certainly won't think any less of you for not being a doctor. Underneath all that tough exterior is a warm, gentle, loving human being who has more courage and strength in her little finger than most people do in their entire body. You're special, Lac. And that's why I love you."
Lacey was silent for several long moments. Emotional pain was something she'd lived with all her life. Her father's disappointment weighed heavily on her, but she had learned to bury it deep down inside and present a façade of strength to the outside world. It wasn't something she let herself see and certainly wasn't something she revealed to others. She wondered how Mac knew what was really going on behind her defenses.
"So," Mac tentatively continued, afraid she'd crossed a line with the elusive woman. "What are some things you like to do... other than heal people... and take time out in the OC to pound down more than a few beers." They both smiled at that.
Lacey considered the question. What did she like to do? It had been so long since she'd even considered the question that she really didn't have a ready answer.
"I'm not sure," she said finally. "I joined the Army right out of college, just after finishing my undergrads, and have spent most of my adult life serving my country. I used to keep a journal, but had to stop when Army life kinda took precedence over anything personal. And then there was my unexpected demotion. I don't like to talk about that, though. Kinda painful. There just wasn't time for me to have a personal life, and I was too tired at the end of the day to do more than fall into bed and pass out."
"And what did you do before college?" Mac prodded. "What activities did you participate in during high school?"
"I was on the debate team," Lacey said. "Besides that, I did a lot of studying. School never really came easy for me. I had to work really hard for every decent grade and didn't have much time for playing with the kids in our neighborhood. I was on the swim team one summer, but my father's schedule changed and there wasn't time for practice and meets. Then I tried tennis." She grimaced and rolled her eyes. "That went over like a lead balloon."
"I actually was pretty good at it, until I ran for a ball and twisted my ankle," Lacey answered. "My father about had an apoplectic seizure when they took me to the hospital. The ankle healed just fine, but my father said my limbs were far too important to risk on sports. I was ten and he was already pegging me for a career in medicine."
"Hm," Mac continued. "Were you any good at debate?" She paused to consider her own question. "Wait, you were on the debate team? So, what made you decide to become a doctor? You could have become a lawyer or a diplomat or something. Why a doctor?"
"Weren't you listening? My father's a doctor," Lacey groused. "He wanted me to take over his practice one day. So he pushed me to excel at academics." There was a faraway look in her eyes. "He was always riding me to get the best grades, so I would be a shoe-in for medical school."
"You became a doctor because of your father," Mac stated flatly. "It wasn't something you wanted to do?"
"Actually," Lacey continued, "I never gave a thought to what I wanted. That is, until I went to college and found a whole new life and world that didn't include my overprotective and overbearing family. That's when I discovered the Army ROTC. It seemed…I don't know…"
"It was your way of rebelling against what your father wanted you to be," Mac finished for her. "You thought that throwing the Army thing in his face would get him to acknowledge you as a person, instead of just someone he could manipulate?"
"Yeah," Lacey answered. "It was my way of telling him I wasn't going to play the 'dutiful daughter' anymore."
"Yeah," Mac agreed. "So, did he finally get it?"
"Not sure," Lacey answered with a wistful smile. "It pissed him off royally, that's for sure. He was so mad, in fact, that he cut me off from the family. Didn't want anything to do with me, except..." She let the statement hang.
"Except?" Mac prodded.
"Except he still wanted me to marry the man he'd chosen for my husband," Lacey said sadly. "Plastic Paul."
"Plastic Paul?" Mac chuckled at the nickname. "Sounds like one of those Barbie doll things." And then the timber of her voice changed. "Look, Ken, it's Plastic Paul."
"Yeah," Lacey chuckled. "I started calling him that after our third date. It just seemed to fit. He was just…"
"Let me guess," Mac said in a sarcastic, sing-song tone. "He was perfect in every way. Everything a father could want in a son-in-law. And your father was completely smitten from the moment they met."
"Yeah," Lacey said. "Except that he had the personality of a wet dish rag around me and only cared about pleasing my father. Every time he kissed me, I felt like I was kissing a fish. He even smelled like one. I think it was all the sushi he ate on his lunch breaks."
"Ah, I see." Mac nodded her understanding. "Must have been a real winner, that one."
"I broke it off just before I left for OCS," Lacey continued. "He didn't even blink. As a matter of fact, I don't think it surprised him in the least." She contemplated that for a moment, then her thoughts turned in another direction. "My father, on the other hand, was furious when he found out. He hasn't spoken or written to me since he told me I was no longer his daughter. Neither has my mother." The words were spoken with true disappointment. "He probably gave her an ultimatum not to communicate with me or he would divorce her-leave her penniless and destitute. I don't know. Sometimes..." her expression became wistful and her voice lowered. "Sometimes it really..."
Mac waited for Lacey to finish. "It hurts. I understand."
Mac heard the defeat in Lacey's tone and wanted nothing more than to wrap her in a protective cocoon that would keep her safe from harm. She didn't tighten her hold on the woman, though, for fear she would further aggravate the doctor's injuries. Mac knew in that moment that she had been correct. Lacey's pain went far deeper than the injuries she'd received in the crash. It tugged at Mac's heart to know that Lacey had suffered her family's indifference for the choices she'd made.
They sat in companionable silence for a while, each listening to the sounds of the desert and Peters's shovel against the hard sand. Lacey's thoughts drifted back-and-forth from her father to her present situation, as she lay there in Mac's warm embrace. For the first time in years, she truly felt safe and protected. It was a strange, almost foreign feeling and one that she hoped wouldn't end anytime soon.
"You sure you don't want to talk about that demotion?" Mac cut in.
"Nothing really to say," Lacey sighed. "It wasn't one of the bright spots of my career, I will say that much. I was in a rather self-destructive period in my life. It didn't help that the Army kept sending me to some places that I wouldn't send my worst enemy." She paused and would have shrugged, if not for her injuries. "I made some incredibly stupid decisions and paid the price. Case closed."
Mac wanted to ask a few more questions, delve in a bit deeper, but decided against it. It was enough for Lacey to tell her that much, she was sure. The smaller woman was a hard egg to crack and Mac had the patience to spend the rest of her life trying to peel away the layers.
"So," Lacey finally said. "What's Peters up to? I can hear digging. Is that him?"
Mac nodded. "It's part of the plan."
"The plan to keep us alive," Mac tried to inject some optimism in her tone, for Lacey's sake. "We're going to hide in a hole and wait to ambush that other truck full of insurgents when they catch up to us."
"You're kidding, right?" Lacey scoffed. She wanted to turn and look into her companion's eyes for confirmation, but didn't. She was afraid she would aggravate her already tenuous condition.
"Nope, not kidding," Mac stated flatly. "We have the machine gun from this truck, so he's going to pick them off and we're going to steal their truck."
"What's wrong with this truck?" Lacey asked.
"Broken axle," Mac answered.
"Can't he fix it?"
"Nope," Mac continued. "We hit a pothole and the axle sheared in half."
"Oh, yeah, that's not good," Lacey said. "So, let me get this straight. We're sitting out here in the middle of the desert, where our illustrious demolitions expert is digging a pit large enough for all of us to hide in, with the hope that a bunch of over-zealous religious fanatics will somehow find us, so he can kill them all with one automatic weapon, and we can steal their truck?"
"In a nutshell, yeah," Mac said with an amused chuckle. "Didn't quite look at it from that point of view when we came up with the plan, but, hey… Beggars can't be choosers when you're stuck in the middle of the desert with a bunch of…um, fanatical whatevers…trying to kill you."
The absurdity of the situation hit both of them and they shared a chuckle that erupted into quiet laughter.
"Welcome to the military," Lacey snorted, when she finally had her laughter under control again. "I can't believe you two came up with that one on your own. Are you telling me the Brass wasn't involved in your hair-brained scheme? It actually sounds like something they would put in the Army handbook. I'm surprised I didn't find it in there during Basic or OCS."
"Sheesh, Doc, it seemed like a good plan at the time," Mac shrugged, a little put-off by the doctor's sarcasm. "But when you put it that way...well..."
"Let's just hope the Rebel Alliance cooperates," Lacey continued. "Knowing our luck, we'll still be out here well after they give up and crawl back into the holes they came out of. When are they supposed to elect a new leader? 2006? 2007?"
Mac couldn't help but smirk at the absurdity of Lacey's words. "Not exactly what I signed on for," Mac said. "You?"
"I signed on to be a doctor and to heal people," Lacey replied sarcastically. "Being used for target practice was rather low on my list of priorities. Strange how that's exactly what's been happening to me lately. First, I meet up with a goon who wanted to kill me with his grimy bare hands. Then I get the pleasure of being gang-raped by a bunch of gay-bashing soldiers. And now this. I'm a little tired of fighting for my virtue and my life."
"Goon?" Mac prodded. "I don't remember you mentioning that."
"You were too busy flying away," Lacey shot back sarcastically. "Sorry, I didn't mean that like it sounded. I'm…" She sighed heavily and regretted the move when her insides protested. "Ugh! Note to self: stop the heavy sighing."
Mac shrugged, "It's okay. I understand."
Mac frowned. "No, not really. I've never had to fight someone hand-to-hand before. I'm usually too busy flying away." The last came out with a teasing smirk.
They were quiet again, each lost in her own thoughts. Memories of a burly Iraqi and the men who had raped her raced through Lacey's mind and threatened to overwhelm her. She didn't know why she couldn't shake the memories, especially when she was facing an even greater challenge that might mean sure death. A lone tear escaped and rolled down her cheek, as she tried valiantly not to let the floodgates open again. She knew Mac would understand the need to vent her frustrations, but Lacey didn't know if, once she started crying, she would be able to stop. It was just too much for her to take.
"So," Mac said without knowing what was running through her companion's mind at that moment, but sensing Lacey needed a distraction. "Why did you choose the military? I mean, it's not like you couldn't open your own practice in some backwoods town somewhere. There's also Doctors Without Borders. You could have joined that organization and managed to get your kicks in some Third World country somewhere. Besides, your father probably wouldn't have bothered to look for you in, say, Alaska, the swamps of Louisiana or even Canada or Mexico."
"And you couldn't become an airline pilot for, say, American Airlines?" Lacey shot back.
"I asked you first," Mac said with a mock-growl.
Lacey considered the question. Why did she choose the military? She'd been asking herself that same question for some time now and didn't think she really knew the answer - at least not the real one.
"Well," she began. "I guess I could just give you my stock answer."
"I wanted a little adventure in my life and the Army had that stupid motto. I don't even remember the damned thing now, come to think of it. And I certainly don't feel like an Army of One most days."
"Not the real reason, huh?"
"No," Lacey said with a sigh. "If I'd really wanted adventure, I certainly could have joined Doctors Without Borders. At least they don't use guns. I don't think they do, anyway. Probably would have been a lot less stress and much more satisfaction."
"Weapons," Mac corrected absently.
"Right, weapons," Lacey smirked.
"So?" Mac asked after several moments of silence. "Why the military?"
"Impulse, I guess," Lacey finally answered, her mind getting a little more sluggish with each passing moment. "I just wanted to get away, as far away as I could possibly get, and not just from my father, but from my whole silver-spooned, mapped-out, plastic existence." She stopped to ponder the absurdity of that statement, considering where she'd ended up. "Pretty stupid, huh?"
Mac could probably agree with the woman. Sure, she could say that leaving a life of privilege to join the military was a stupid move, but then she'd be just as guilty of stupidity as her companion-except for the privilege part.
"Not stupid, no," Mac answered. "Granted, it probably wasn't the best career choice, considering we're at war, but it was your choice and not your father's. That is partly why you did it. Right?"
"Yeah," Lacey agreed. "It was definitely my choice... and look where it got me. I so enjoy a good challenge. Not many women have the opportunity to stare down the muzzle of an AK-47, much less lay helpless while three guys…" Lacey couldn't finish the statement. She knew if she did it would mean she would have to accept what had happened to her. "I'm such an idiot."
"It wasn't your fault, Lacey," Mac said and gently stroked Lacey's cheek with her thumb. "Those guys had no right to do what they did. They raped you and for what? Huh?"
"For a label," Lacey stated flatly. "They raped me because they wanted to teach me a lesson and make an example out of me." There, she'd said it. Tears slid down her cheeks unbidden and Lacey knew she could no more stop them than wipe them away with her useless arms. "I am such a goddamned idiot. I should know better."
"You're not an idiot, Lacey Stephens," Mac stated emphatically. "You are an honorable woman who has more courage in her little finger than those three assholes had in their entire beings. Hey, I think I'm repeating myself now. Sorry. Anyway, two of those assholes are no longer gracing the earth with their miserable presence. We can thank the good Lord for that bit of consolation, at least. Although, I feel for their families, so…"
"Yeah, some consolation," Lacey sniffed loudly. "You really know how to cheer a girl up, Mac."
"On the bright side," Mac continued, "at least you're not sitting in some boardroom, listening to a bunch of old farts bicker about who will be the next Chief of Surgery. That's gotta count for something. So, things could be worse." She shrugged.
"Please don't say that," Lacey said. She was getting sleepy and had to stifle a yawn.
"What?" Mac asked innocently, not seeing the yawn or noticing how limp her companion suddenly was in her arms. All she was really concerned about was Lacey's tone of voice. There was such bitterness still there that Mac was afraid for the doctor's sanity.
"Don't say 'things could be worse'," Lacey reiterated, letting her eyes drift shut. "Whenever someone says that, things inevitably get ugly. At least... tha's been my 'sperience." She could feel the exhaustion pulling her down. "By the way, wha' time 's it?"
Mac pushed the backlight on the LCD display of her aviator's chronograph. It had been a gift from her brother when she'd passed her cross-country solo flight and received her private pilot's license. She smiled at the memory of that bygone innocent time. What she wouldn't give to erase the last few months and simply whisk Lacey away to the remote mountainous region of Wyoming.
"It's about 0300," Mac said, returning her attention to the matter-at-hand.
"Mm," Lacey murmured sleepily. "'s early."
"Hey," Mac finally noticed that her companion was nodding off. "You okay?"
"Really tired," Lacey replied with effort.
Lacey knew she was losing the battle to stay awake, but didn't care. All she wanted to do was sink down into the welcome oblivion that was beckoning her. Her body ached all over, her head was pounding and there was a dull throb in her side that was getting progressively worse. She didn't care about any of it, though, especially from a medical standpoint. Physician heal... ah, screw it.
"Hey, Doc," Mac called quietly, gently patting the woman's pale cheek. "Come on. Don't leave me hanging here by myself. Tell me what you need me to do."
"Le' me sleep," came the murmured reply. "Tha's an order."
"You sure that's a good idea?" Mac asked insistently. "This isn't some symptom of your head wound that's gonna make you slip into a coma, is it?"
"Jus' tired," Lacey mumbled.
"Okay...well," Mac noticed the slow, even breathing and gentle snores of her companion. "Guess I'll just sit here, then."
Mac readjusted her position as best she could before laying her head back to gaze up at the night sky. The inky blackness was pierced by a mass of twinkling stars-too many to count. She tried to identify the constellations, but soon became frustrated. There were just too many to group them together like she used to do back home on the ranch.
She missed those nights, when she and her younger brother would lay in the dewy tall grass and count the constellations. Mostly, though, she missed him. Derek had been her light in a world gone dark after the deaths of her parents. His easy smile and constant teasing always made her feel like she belonged. Then one day he was gone, and she never saw him again.
She remembered that day like it was yesterday. He had been so proud in his beige fatigues and the slightly-cocked, green beret he wore over his cropped blond hair. The beret was in stark contrast to his otherwise beige outfit, right down to the beige boots. His hair was shorn in the high-and-tight style, but he still wore his customary cheery smile. So handsome and tall. He carried a tan duffle over one shoulder, as he waved to them and made his way down toward the gray-green C3 cargo plane that would forever take him from her.
Mac shifted the woman in her arms slightly, careful not to wake her. It had been so long since she'd allowed herself to care about another human being that she didn't know if she could do it. When she'd lost Derek, her world just seemed to collapse around her. She'd thrown herself into work and pushed herself to excel at any task that she put her mind to.
Mac had only allowed herself a few relationships. A few brief romances in college, one of which had lasted two years before she finally gave up and ended it. Kim had been nice enough, but things just never really clicked between them. They were more like close friends and roommates than anything else. Amazingly, Kim hadn't been angry when Mac announced that they should stop seeing each other and go their separate ways. The woman had merely hugged her and said that someday Mac would find the one person who would make her toes curl and bring a flutter of butterflies to her stomach.
Mac didn't feel any butterflies, nor did her toes curl when the doctor looked at her. What she did feel when she was around Lacey was that she was finally home. Even now, as they sat in the back of an enemy truck in the middle of hostile enemy territory, holding Lacey in her arms brought a sense of peace and belonging that Mac hadn't felt since she and Derek were last together. But it wasn't a sisterly thing, either. No, Lacey was definitely not her choice for a sister. If only that peace could last once we're rescued, she thought - if we're rescued, she amended.
Just then, she heard the familiar booted approach of Peters. He stepped up to the side of the truck and leaned against it with a tired sigh.
"How's she doin'?" He gave Lacey a concerned glance.
Mac could barely make him out in the shadowy darkness, but what she could see was covered in dust and dirt.
"Hangin' in there," Mac answered. "How's the digging coming?"
"Progress is slow and the ground is hard as a rock, but I think I've just about got it," he answered. "Shouldn't be too much longer, now."
"That's good," Mac said. "It'll be dawn soon."
They both were silent for a bit. Peters dusted himself off, then climbed onto the tailgate and sat there with his legs dangling. He stared up at the million stars twinkling in the black sky.
"Sure is pretty out here," Peters commented. "Quiet…Peaceful."
"Yeah," Mac sighed. "Hard to believe there's a war going on around us, especially when you look up into that sky and see all those stars. It's beautiful. Eternal."
"Wish I could say it puts things in perspective," he nodded. He was quiet for a bit. "You'd think, since we can get a space ship up there, that we'd be able to settle our differences and live together in peace down here. Won't be long before we're exploring beyond our solar system, yet we can't do something as simple as accept each other as human beings. Granted, we're all different, but that doesn't mean we can't get along."
The words caught Mac by surprise, especially coming from a man who had chosen to live life as a soldier. As if sensing her thoughts, Peters turned to look at her.
"What?" He said with a wry smirk. "Just 'cause I'm a demolitions expert don't mean I don't have philosophical views and opinions."
"A philosophical demolitions expert isn't something you encounter every day," Mac answered with a smile of her own. "But, you're right. It's a vast universe and our planet seems to be getting smaller, as we become more globally connected. Maybe, someday, we'll realize just how much we need to rely on each other. Maybe then we'll work together instead of working so hard to tear each other apart."
"Amen," Peters replied. He reached into one of the pockets of his flak jacket and pulled out a rather battered pack of cigarettes. He pulled one out and stuck it in his mouth, then offered the box to Mac in silence.
"No, thanks," Mac answered. "I don't smoke."
"Good thing," he replied, shoving the pack back into his pocket and pulling out a metal lighter. He lit his cigarette, took a long drag, then blew a stream of grayish smoke into the still night air. "Nasty habit, but one I just can't seem to shake."
"We all have 'em," Mac said conversationally. "Comes with the territory, I guess."
"So, what's yours?" He asked, taking another long drag from the cigarette and enjoying the nicotine rush.
After a moment's hesitation, Mac finally decided to answer. "Chocolate," she said with a wistful smile. "Of course, you don't see much of it here in the desert."
He smirked. "Damn stuff melts faster than a crayon over a blowtorch."
"Yeah," she chuckled. "I had my brother ship me a box. It arrived last week and sat there, waiting to be sorted. Damned stuff was dripping out the bottom by the time anyone noticed. Needless to say, the company clerk was none too happy to have sticky chocolate smeared all over the mail."
They shared a companionable chuckle as Peters finished his cigarette and tossed the butt out into the night.
"Well," he said, jumping down from the tailgate and grabbing up the shovel. "Guess I'd better get back to work if I'm ever gonna get that hole finished by sun-up. Take care of the Captain, there," he finished, giving her a nod of encouragement before disappearing into the darkness again.
Mac looked down at the woman in her arms and frowned. Lacey hadn't made a sound during the entire conversation and it was worrying her a little. She touched the woman's cheek, then felt for a pulse at her throat. Thankfully, the doctor's pulse was beating a steady rhythm beneath her fingers. However, there was a fine sheen of sweat covering the doctor's exposed skin and dampening her hair.
"This can't be good," Mac mumbled, then settled the two of them into a more comfortable position.
Lacey felt herself drifting up from the darkness. She didn't want to wake up and face the pain again, but had no choice. Far off in the distance, she heard voices. They weren't loud, but they were familiar. Her return to consciousness brought an intense wave of pain, despite her best efforts to ignore it. Her body ached and the persistent throbbing she vaguely remembered feeling just before she went to sleep now radiated up her back and across her abdomen. She searched her brain for the cause of her discomfort, but her mind was blank. It was as if all her years of training and experience as a doctor had suddenly evaporated, leaving her empty and befuddled.
As the pain intensified, Lacey tried to shift to a more comfortable position. The movement caused her even more pain, however, and she groaned louldy. Strong arms gently wrapped around her and a voice spoke softly in her ear. She felt gentle fingers stroke her cheek.
"Stay still, Doc," the voice said. "Shh, I've got ya."
Lacey opened her eyes and took a moment to allow them to adjust to the darkness around her. She could tell that she was lying against someone, and they were on a hard surface. The arms around her were warm and so was the body she was leaning against. She felt a sense of peace and wanted to burrow back down into the embrace and escape the pain.
"Where am I?" She croaked, her voice nothing more than a hoarse rasp.
"You're... well, that's kinda hard to explain, actually," the woman's voice was low and familiar. "We're still where we were the last time you were conscious."
Mac was worried. Lacey hadn't slept that long-maybe an hour, at most. She wondered why Lacey was disoriented again, after so short a time. She hoped the doctor's injuries weren't causing her to lose touch with reality.
"Mac?" Lacey croaked out her sudden recognition.
"Yeah," Mac sighed with relief. At least the woman remembered who she was. "Are you okay?"
"And the rest of you?"
"Everything hurts," Lacey replied, wincing as the stabbing pain shot through her side and radiated up her back. The moan that escaped her brought a worried frown to the pilot's brow.
"What can I do to make you more comfortable?" Mac asked. "We're out of morphine, so that option is out." She sighed in frustration. "I'm sorry, Doc."
"'S Okay," Lacey answered, realizing her companion was as worried as she was. "I'm just not a very good patient, I'm afraid." Her attention turned to the woman beneath her. "How's your leg?"
"Numb, mostly," Mac answered. She'd given up trying to move it long ago. It was so stiff now that she didn't think she'd be able to do much when the time came to put their plan into action. "I'm more worried about you, though. Do you have any idea why your side hurts?"
"Probably tore or broke something during the crash," Lacey answered matter-of-factly. "The pain was probably masked by swelling and the morphine. When the morphine wore off, well..." She winced again, as another stabbing pain shot through her side. "God, that hurts." Her body tensed, which caused her other injuries to make themselves known.
Unable to come up with anything else to do, Mac gently stroked Lacey's jaw line with the backs of her fingers. Sweat beaded the doctor's brow and trickled down the side of her face, despite the chill in the air.
"I wish there was something I could do to help," Mac said, laying her cheek against Lacey's damp hair.
"I wish I'd paid more attention in my alternative medicine courses," Lacey joked weakly. "Dumbass that I was, I thought everything could be fixed with a pill, a needle, or a scalpel. Who knew there'd come a time when a simple pressure point would really come in handy. Ugh..." She winced and sucked in a breath, as her body tensed from the next stabbing pain that radiated up her side.
"Pressure point?" Mac said, as Lacey's words suddenly registered.
"Yeah," Lacey picked up on the other woman's sudden interest. "Why? Do you know something about them?"
"Well," Mac said. "As a matter of fact, I knew this guy in college who was more than familiar with pressure points. His family was from China and his dad was some kind of kung-fu or tai chi master-or something like that. He said he could kill a man just by touching a spot on the neck and cutting off the flow of blood to the brain. He helped cure my shin splints when I was running track. Anyway, he taught me a few things."
Lacey wanted desperately to turn around, to look at the woman behind her in surprise and ask why she had never said anything about this before. Unfortunately-or fortunately-all she could do was lay there helplessly in her companion's arms.
"Do you remember any of what he taught you?" Lacey asked.
Mac shrugged. "Some."
"Are there any points that you know of that could numb my side?" Lacey asked hopefully. "I don't know how much longer…I can stand this pain." She was breathing shallowly to keep the pain to a minimum and light spots were dancing in her vision.
Mac thought a moment.
"How could I be so stupid," Mac chided herself. "I'm so sorry I didn't think of this sooner."
"Please," Lacey's breathing was becoming more rapid and shallow. "Just do it. You can berate yourself later." She sucked in a breath and held it as another wave of pain shot through her. "Actually, you won't be the only one doing that. Right now, though, I really need you to deaden the pain, so I don't… pass out on you."
Mac wracked her brain in an effort to remember the right pressure point that would do the job. "Okay, then, exactly where does it hurt most?"
Lacey thought about that for a moment, unsure how to answer. She couldn't exactly point to the spot, but describing exactly where it was would be just as difficult. There was also the added obstacle she was still wearing.
"I…uh," Lacey stuttered. "You're not going to be able to reach it with my flak jacket on."
"Oh, right," Mac shifted so she could extricate herself from behind her companion. With quick fingers and a great deal of care, Mac quickly divested Lacey of the garment.
Lacey shivered, as the cool night air penetrated the thin layer of clothing she was wearing. Without the flak jacket to insulate her, she sorely missed what little warmth it provided.
"Brr," Lacey shivered, as her body tensed and another shooting pain ripped through her side. "I... uh, still can't…"
Realizing again that her companion was unable to move her arms, Mac came up with an alternative solution. "Okay, here," she gently placed her hand against Lacey's side. "Is this close?"
"No, a little to the right," Lacey answered, thankful for her companion's insight. "My right, not yours."
"Here?" Mac asked hopefully, moving her hand just a little to Lacey's right, as directed.
Lacey nodded. "Yeah, that's it."
"Okay, then," Mac continued. "Let me see if I can..." She moved her hand to the point that she believed would do the job. "This might hurt." She hesitated just a moment, then pressed her fingers into the soft fabric of Lacey's BDUs.
Lacey's breath caught as Mac's fingers found a particularly sensitive spot and pushed against it. Her eyes closed tight against the excruciating agony, and she bit her lip, tasting blood, as she kept from crying out. In seconds, Mac released her hold and Lacey nearly fainted with relief.
"How's that?" Mac asked hopefully, watching the doctor's face carefully.
Lacey opened her eyes and took a deep breath. The pain still hovered in the background, but it had subsided to a dull ache. "Better. Much better," she answered on a relieved sigh.
Mac smiled, then scooted carefully back to her place behind her companion. "Good," she answered, once she was situated. "I'm not sure that my little trick won't cause you more problems later, but at least your color is returning slightly. That's gotta be a good sign, right?"
"At least I can breathe more easily," Lacey sighed.
They sat there in the murky silence for several moments. Mac's thoughts drifted to the woman in her arms. She realized, with a start, that when she had moved out from behind Lacey and they were no longer touching, there had been a moment of...what? Loss? Disconnection? Yeah, that was it. Now that she had Lacey in her arms again, she felt... connected again. It was as if their physical proximity created a familiar bond between them.
Coincidentally, Lacey's thoughts were running along the same lines. When Mac had resumed her place behind her, Lacey felt safe and protected again. The woman's mere presence made her feel things that she had never felt with anyone else before. The feelings were alien, yet familiar, and somehow they were also very right. Then, suddenly, her attention was drawn to something else entirely.
"Do you hear that?" Lacey asked.
Peters was suddenly hopping into the back of the truck with them. "We got company," he said in a hushed whisper, heading for the machine gun mounted behind them. "Time to put this plan into action."
Mac was slightly stunned by the sudden development, but hid her reaction behind her soldier's mask. Her foremost concern was the woman in her arms, a woman she had silently vowed to protect with her life.
"I guess cuddle time is over... for now," Mac said quietly in Lacey's ear and scooted to the edge of the tailgate. In a louder voice, she said, "Help me get her out of the truck, Sergeant."
Lacey wondered briefly what Mac had meant by the softly spoken words and, more importantly, why those words had sent a thrill of anticipation through her. She didn't have time to ponder, though, as Mac moved them to the tailgate where Peters waited.
"Careful, Sergeant," Mac said, as she gently lifted Lacey into the man's arms.
Peters took the doctor and carried her over to the deep hole he had dug. He waited until Mac limped over to them and watched as the pilot gingerly and stiffly climbed down into the six-foot-deep hole, favoring her injured leg the entire time. When Mac was settled, Peters carefully handed the doctor down to the pilot's waiting arms.
"You got her?" He asked and received a brief nod.
When Mac had Lacey settled, she stood there for a moment until her leg protested and she had to sit down. When they were both situated, Mac turned her attention to the woman in her arms.
"You okay?" Mac asked.
"Yeah," Lacey lied through gritted teeth. Being jostled around and then passed from one person to the other had taxed her sorely depleted reserves, but she didn't want to worry Mac further. "I'm... good. How's your leg holding up?"
"It'll be better when we're rescued," Mac replied with a wry grin. "I could sure use a shower and a cup of that sludge that passes for coffee." She scowled. "Check that. A juicy steak, a huge baked potato and fresh corn on the cob would really be great," she amended with a lopsided grin.
Mac let the words hang there between them, oblivious to her companion's silence. She carefully adjusted her position so she was leaning against the sandy wall behind her and the doctor was propped against her chest.
"Company's not too far away, now," Peters quietly called down to them, after poking his head over the lip of the hole. "I'll get the gun situated. Here." He tossed the M-16 toward Mac, who caught it easily in one hand. "I'm gonna maneuver the truck over the hole so they're less likely to spot you when they get here."
"Where will you be?" Mac asked quietly.
"I found some scrub just over there," he pointed. "I've got a shallow foxhole dug, so they won't be wise to my position."
They could both hear the sounds of approaching vehicles now. They listened for a bit and could tell that there was definitely more than one vehicle.
"Better get the truck over here," Peters said. "I'll be right back."
Mac waited patiently for several tense moments. "You all right, Doc?"
"Mm," Lacey didn't trust herself to actually speak. The pain and her weakened state were making it difficult to stay conscious.
Her eyes were closed and she was trying to listen to everything that was happening around her, but it was getting harder and harder to focus. The ache in her side was now a dull persistent ache and she was vaguely aware of the insistent headache that had plagued her since the crash. There was also ringing in her left ear. She tried to think of the significance of that, but couldn't quite wrap her mind around anything. Not really caring anymore, she just let herself drift off into the warmth that was wrapped around her.
"You're gonna have to give me something more than a grunt, Doc," Mac insisted. "Hey, come on now, don't you be drifting off on me just yet. Things are just getting exciting." Mac tried to keep the concern in her voice to a minimum, but really wasn't succeeding. Ever since they had moved to the hole, Lacey hadn't been very responsive. "You would let me know if something was really wrong, wouldn't you?" She waited. "Lacey?"
Just then, a large shadow loomed over them, blocking out the starlight and plunging them in shadows. Mac heard scuffling, then saw a much smaller shadow peek over the edge of the hole.
"There, that should do it," the Sergeant's voice penetrated the darkness. "How's the doctor doing?"
"Not good," Mac answered truthfully. "I don't think moving her was such a great idea."
A brief flash of light illuminated the area above them, then faded into darkness. The sergeant stilled until the light was gone, then moved away from the hole.
"That's my cue," Peters said and disappeared into the darkness.
"You be careful, Sergeant," Mac called softly. "Don't take any unnecessary chances. Got it?"
"Take care yourself, Chief," he replied noncommittally.
Just then, another dim light flashed near them. Mac wanted desperately to take a peek over the edge of their hiding place, to see where the light was coming from, but decided her job as the doctor's pillow was much more important.
"Looks like they have a spotlight," the sergeant's voice said from somewhere close. "Damned if this doesn't just keep getting better and better, Chief."
Mac ignored his words. "If they overpower us, I want you to surrender and live to fight another day. Got it, Sergeant?"
"If I surrender," he replied, his voice lowering as the sounds of the vehicles drew closer. "I certainly won't live to see another day, ma'am. Better to fight the bastards with everything I got and hope for the best. You just keep your head down, ma'am. Let me take as many out as I can."
Mac knew his words rang true. Would any of them live to see another day? The thought flashed briefly through her mind, then was pushed into the background where she kept all her morbid thoughts.
"You still with me, Doc?" Mac asked softly, but just loud enough so the woman in her arms could hear her. Silence loomed. "Well, that's just great. You're gonna miss out on all the action, Doc." She sighed, leaned her head back against the wall and listened to their destiny unfold above her.
Lt. Colonel Jack Delancy adjusted the toggle in his hand and added a bit more right rudder to adjust his Black Hawk's heading. They were moving in a generally northeasterly direction, according to his GPS. His night-vision goggles painted the ground beneath them in eerie shades of green and black, but otherwise he was able to make out the details of the landscape below. It was barren and mostly empty.
"Oh-five-niner to Base," he said into the mic attached to his helmet.
"Go ahead, Oh-five-niner." Major Kevin Johnson's voice came over the radio.
"Still no visual on either aircraft," Delancy continued. "We've covered all of sector two-six-zero and are now heading..."
"Wait! What's that?" Lt. Sarah Epps, Delancy's co-pilot, pointed outside the windshield to their right.
"What is it, oh-five-niner?" Kevin asked anxiously.
"Stand by, Base," Delancy said. "We may have something. Heading to sector two-six-eight."
Delancy veered the Black Hawk in the direction that his co-pilot had pointed out. His goggles weren't quite picking up anything, but that didn't mean much.
"What did you see?" He asked the woman next to him.
"Looked like a flash of some kind, sir," Epps answered. "I only saw it for a split second, but I know it was there."
"Gunfire?" Delancy continued.
"Maybe, sir," Epps answered. She glanced over at the pilot and they exchanged a brief look.
"Let's hope not, Lieutenant," Delancy replied. "I'd hate to think they survived only to be picked-off like dogs out there. No telling what we'll find."
"What's your status, oh-five-niner?" Kevin's voice came back over their radio.
"Base," Delancy keyed the mic. "We're checking something out. Will advise when we have visual confirmation."
"Roger that, oh-five-niner," Kevin's voice had a note of hope in it. "Be careful out there."
Mac cringed as more gunfire was exchanged above her. From the little she'd been able to determine, Peters was doing a good job of holding the new arrivals at bay. He'd started shooting as soon as the first vehicle came within range. One vehicle was now disabled, whether by the sergeant's gunfire or because of the driver's poor driving skills, Mac wasn't sure.
The doctor moved slightly and an involuntary groan escaped her. "Wha's happ'nin'?" Lacey asked groggily.
Mac knew Peters wasn't going to be able to hold off the insurgents for long. She had to do something to help and knew what that was.
"Will you be all right for a little while?" Mac asked, looking deeply into her companion's pain-filled eyes. "We have company and I need to get up there and help Peters hold them off."
"Do…whatcha gotta do," Lacey replied. "Don' worry 'bout me. I'll…I'll be f-fine."
Mac was torn. Lacey didn't sound good, but Mac also knew she had a job to do. If she left the doctor alone, Mac was afraid she would return to find the woman dead. Then again, if she stayed where she was and didn't at least try to help the sergeant, they all might end up dead anyway.
"Don't die on me, Lac," Mac pleaded, rubbing her thumb lightly over the doctor's flushed cheek. She pushed a button on her watch to illuminate the doctor's face. "Please? I really want to spend more time with you, away from all this."
Lacey saw the worry in the other woman's eyes, even in the dim light from the LCD. "I won't, Mac."
"Promise?" Mac asked hopefully.
"Promise," Lacey answered with a weak smile. "Got too much to live for."
Mac hesitated, unable to put into words just how much Lacey's presence in her life was really beginning to mean to her. She wanted to say something, anything, but the words just wouldn't come. All her years of military training had never prepared her to face the possibility that she might someday fall in love with someone. Damn. What excellent timing.
"All right, then," Mac said, grabbing up the M-16. "I need to…you know…" She pointed up to the mouth of the hole.
"Promise you won't do anything…stupid?" Lacey said. "Like get shot or…"
Lacey had no idea what had prompted her to say those words. A sudden fear gripped her that Mac would go off and die, leaving her alone. She didn't want to be alone anymore. Not now. The thought brought a tear to her eye and she couldn't stop it when it trickled down her cheek.
Mac caught the tear with her thumb. She put all the warmth and love she felt into the smile she returned as she kissed the single tear away. "I promise. I really do love you, Doc. More than you will ever…"
A sudden explosion nearby brought both women back to the matter-at-hand. Sand and debris rained down on them, despite the fact the truck was still over the hole they were in.
"What the hell?" Mac exclaimed. "Peters, are you all right?" She shouted to be heard above the ever-present gunfire.
"Yeah, but I don't know how much longer we have 'til that rocket launcher of theirs pinpoints our location," came the sergeant's reply, as the sound of his return-fire echoed into the night.
"I'm on it," Mac shouted back. "Maybe I can distract them or something."
"With all due respect, ma'am, I don't think that's such a good idea," Peters said, skepticism dripping from every word. "We're not exactly holding them off until the cavalry arrives. They get a bead on us and it's all over. That truck ain't doin' much to deter 'em, either."
Mac looked up at the underbelly of the truck and a sudden realization hit her.
"Shit!" She exclaimed, looking toward the woman lying next to her.
Lacey knew what was going through Mac's mind, despite the fact she could not see the pilot's face. The truck above them was acting like a bullseye - a big target for the insurgents to hone-in on their position.
Gunfire and another explosion, this one much closer, erupted around them. Despite the stiffness in her knee, Mac was able to pull herself out of the hole and roll free of the truck. As she cleared the hole, she came up firing the M-16. Because the insurgents were driving with their lights dimmed, Mac couldn't really see what she was firing at. She didn't care and just continued to fire, regardless.
Another explosion, this one only a few yards away, made Mac duck behind the truck. She was breathing hard from her exertions. The effort it took to get out of the hole caused her to break out in a good sweat.
"You still okay, Sarg?" She yelled in Peters' general direction.
"Yeah!" He shouted back. "How 'bout you?"
"Hangin' in there," Mac replied, checking the clip in the M-16 to be sure she still had ammunition. "Doc? You okay?"
"Peachy," came the quiet reply from beneath the truck. "You two wanna keep the noise down up there? Some of us are tryin' to rest."
Mac smiled, despite herself. "You are such a brat," she said with a chuckle.
"That's Captain Brat, to you," Lacey answered childishly with a pout in her voice. "I love you, Mac."
Just then, one of the trucks barreled past Mac's position and gunfire reverberated around her. Mac ducked underneath the truck and rolled back down into the hole. She came up firing the M-16 in the general direction of the other truck and heard the sergeant's answering gunfire.
Another truck circled in the opposite direction. Several insurgents fired from the second truck, laying down a blanket of gunfire that effectively put a damper on the situation.
"Shit! They're everywhere!" Peters shouted above the din.
Mac continued firing, despite the bullets ricocheting around her. She knew they were in a precarious position. The truck above them had enough fuel in its tank that it would only take one lucky shot to send them all to hell in a ball of flames. The insurgents were relentless and continued their attack.
"They know they have us pinned!" Mac shouted. "We have to do something!"
"I'm certainly open to suggestions, Chief!" Peters' voice held a note of frustration.
As if in answer to his comment, an aircraft flew overhead, laying down a blanket of gunfire at the two enemy trucks. The aircraft made a tight turn, chasing after one of the trucks until the driver finally gave up and turned-tail, disappearing into the darkness. The aircraft took off after the truck and also disappeared into the darkness.
"Was that what I think it was?" Lacey asked from where she lay.
Mac shrugged, "I think it was one of ours, by the sounds of it. Don't quote me on that, though."
"Yee-haw!" Peters yelled from his foxhole.
"You okay, Sarg?" Mac yelled.
"Better'n ever, Chief!" He yelled back.
Mac jumped out of the hole, rolled out from under the truck and came up firing. She fired in the other truck's general direction and was rewarded by the sound of her bullets hitting metal. She kept firing and felt a touch of satisfaction when she heard the distinctive pop of a tire blowing. She watched in the inky blackness as the shadow of the truck careened sideways for a few yards, then came to a stop. Several shadows jumped from the vehicle and scattered in different directions.
"Shit!" Mac exclaimed, realizing the insurgents were now on foot and coming toward them. "Here they come, Peters!"
"Got yer back covered, Mac!" Peters yelled.
Gunfire erupted from several directions and Mac ducked behind the truck for cover. She heard some unintelligible shouts from a few yards away, aimed the M-16 in that general direction and fired off a few rounds. The answering gunfire exploded around her, ricocheting off several points on the truck. As soon as the gunfire ceased she returned fire again.
To Mac, the exchange seemed to go on for hours. But as suddenly as it began, it stopped. Mac waited and checked the third clip in her weapon. There were only a few rounds left. She patted her pockets and realized it was her last clip. The ammunition left in the clip in her weapon was her last. She sat there listening and tried to focus on the darkness around her.
The night sounds that came to her were almost eerie. A few desert creatures made noises, skittering across the sand or mewling in the darkness. She could also hear Lacey's faint breathing from beneath the truck. Knowing Lacey was still alive grounded her, at least.
"You still with me, Doc?" Mac called in a loud whisper.
"Still here," Lacey answered quietly. "Wha's goin' on up there? You two sound like you're having fun without me. Not fair."
Mac didn't get the chance to answer, as a huge insurgent suddenly appeared around the side of the truck. A knife glinted in the starlight and there was vengeance in his dark eyes. Mac turned just in time to catch the knife as it descended on her. Since she was already half-crouched behind the truck, Mac was at a definite disadvantage. She put both hands up and just managed to catch his wrist. The muscles bulged in her own arms, as she tried desperately to keep the knife from plunging through her forehead. As it was, the point nicked her hairline and stung like a wasp sting.
"Son of a…" she hissed.
The man seemed to weigh a ton as his momentum carried him towards her, but Mac knew what she had to do. Years of training came down to that single moment. She took advantage of it by displacing her own center of gravity and throwing him off balance just enough. Jerking his wrist, she managed to turn the knife away from her just as she let his momentum carry him over her and to the ground beyond. Much to Mac's surprise and general relief, the maneuver worked and the brute ended up in the dirt a few feet away. Mac looked at the knife that was now in her hand and just barely had time to react, as the man surged to his feet and came at her again.
This time Mac was more prepared. She jumped awkwardly to her own feet and dodged his attack, turning and letting his momentum take him past her again. He was quicker on the draw this time, however, and turned back immediately. He shouted several things in his native tongue that Mac didn't understand.
"Oh, yeah?" She answered with a sneer. "Well, give it your best shot, asshole."
The brute charged toward her again, careful to avoid the knife she held menacingly in her hand. Mac stabbed toward the man's mid-section, but missed her target. He swung a fist at her head and his blow connected with a sickening thud that made Mac's head spin. For a moment she saw stars, but quickly blinked them away.
She recovered, only to find him there in front of her again, an evil sneer on his bearded lips. He uttered what sounded like a curse, then spit on the ground at her feet and moved to grab her, but Mac was ready. She brought the knife across his arms and watched with satisfaction as the blade drew first blood. The tangy smell hit Mac's nostrils and triggered something primal deep within her. Her instincts kicked into a kind of autopilot and she was suddenly fighting without conscious thought.
He came at her again and she blocked his blow with both arms crossed in front of her, then spun and used his momentum to send him sprawling. The big brute landed on his back with a loud thud that knocked the wind from his lungs. Mac saw him look beneath the truck and also saw a sudden dawning in his dark eyes as they zeroed in on the hole beneath.
He yelled at the top of his lungs in his language and a sudden panic hit Mac like a physical blow. She had no idea what he was saying, but something told her he was shouting instructions for the destruction of the truck.
With little thought, Mac fell on the man and slashed the blade across his throat with all her might. She saw shock register in his eyes, as blood gushed from his slit throat. She then plunged the knife into his chest and watched the life quickly ebb from him. His dark eyes watched her and a faint smile appeared at the corners of his lips as blood gurgled into his mouth and spilled down his chin.
With a final effort, he looked directly into her eyes and spoke in perfect English. "You will die, infidel bitch." Then his head fell back and his eyes went unfocused as they stared up into the night sky.
Mac stared down at the dead man in silent shock. Her hands were now covered in his warm, sticky blood and yet she couldn't look away. She had killed a man with her bare hands. She looked at her hands again. Blood, his blood, covered them. The thought sickened her and she felt bile rise into her throat.
"Mac?" Lacey quietly called to the stunned woman. "Mac? Are you all right?"
Mac shook herself and slowly let the knife fall from her limp fingers. "Yeah," she answered quietly, then swallowed, cleared her throat and added a little louder, "I'm f-fine."
"What happened?" Lacey's voice drifted up from beneath the truck. "Are you sure you're okay? Are you hurt? You don't sound fine."
"Just…uh," Mac looked down at her hands, then quickly tried to wipe the blood off on her fatigues. "I…uh… "
"Mac?" Lacey continued. "What's going on up there? Please, answer me. You're scaring the hell out of me."
Several gunshots rang out in the darkness, bringing Mac back to the situation at hand. She grabbed for the discarded M-16 and held it at the ready.
"Mac?" Lacey then put as much command into her next words as she could muster. "Tell me what's going on. Are you hurt?"
Mac looked down at the dead man. Her mind flashed to his last moments and she realized what he had said to her just before he died. She looked at the truck and then quickly scanned the darkness around her.
"Shit," she quietly exclaimed.
"Mac, you're really freaking me out, here," Lacey's voice was slightly stronger, as anger took hold.
"I'm fine, Doc," Mac quietly answered, moving closer to the truck. "Just hold on." She turned and scanned the darkness beyond. "Sarg, you still with us?"
"Yep, I'm still here," he answered immediately, then laid down another blanket of return gunfire as the insurgents tried to hone in on their voices.
"We have a problem," Mac said.
"Other than the obvious?" Peters answered sarcastically. "You gotta fuckin' be kiddin' me, Chief."
"We have to get Captain Stephens out from under there," Mac blurted, as a bullet ricocheted off the bumper of the truck. "They're gonna try something and I think it involves targeting the truck."
Another insurgent suddenly appeared between the truck and Peters. Mac turned and fired on him at the same time he fired his own weapon. White hot fire erupted in her shoulder, as a bullet ripped through it. She ignored the pain as she watched the insurgent drop to his knees on the ground. Mac looked down to see a small hole in the shoulder of her fatigues. She then looked up in time to watch something roll from his limp fingers as soon as he fell forward.
"Shit!" She exclaimed, just as the grenade went off and exploded only yards away.
The explosion slammed Mac back into the truck before she had time to react. As her body hit the unyielding metal she felt a brief moment of intense mind-numbing pain before darkness took her and she collapsed in a heap.
"Mac!" Lacey screamed when the world above her exploded and she heard the resounding thump of something hit the truck. "Mac!?! Sergeant?" No one answered her and Lacey knew a moment of utter panic. "Answer me, God damn it! Mac!!"
Ignoring her own injuries, Lacey managed to somehow inch her way up the wall behind her until she was on her feet and shakily leaning against the hard-packed sand. She could feel adrenaline surge through her, as her concern for Mac's wellbeing suddenly gave her the strength she needed. Unfortunately, the hole she was in was too deep for her to do much more than stand there. She couldn't see over the rim and had no way to pull herself up. Her frustration mounted when she heard a soft moan somewhere nearby.
"Mac?" Lacey called again. "Are you okay, Mac! Sergeant Peters! God damn it! Somebody answer me!"
"She's out cold, ma'am," Peters' head suddenly appeared above her.
"Get me the hell out of here, Peters!" Lacey ordered. "I can't help her from down here, and I certainly don't want to be down here when this damned truck goes up in a ball of flames."
Peters jumped down into the hole. "Yes, ma'am," he said, unceremoniously lifting her up and over the rim.
Lacey nearly gave in to the darkness that poured over her. The pain that shot through her entire body was so agonizing that she was hard-pressed to remain conscious. But she pushed it away as the sergeant hurriedly pushed her out from under the truck. She was grateful for the assistance and for being out from under the truck, but had second thoughts when she realized how exposed she suddenly was. Taking several moments to catch her breath and let a wave of nausea subside, she assessed the situation, as Peters joined her.
"Where is she?" Lacey panted heavily. "And where are the damned insurgents?"
"Mac's over there," he said, pointing to a prone shadow on the other side of the truck. "I've no idea where those assholes went." He was looking around, searching the darkness in an attempt to locate the enemy. "A helicopter chased one of the trucks off, but the other one..."
Several shots rang out in the darkness and the sound of an approaching vehicle broke the silence. Peters grabbed for Mac's M-16, which was lying a few feet away.
"Push me over to her," Lacey ordered, knowing how much the action was going to take its toll on her sorely-depleted reserves. She didn't care in the least. Mac was injured and Lacey was the only one who had the medical training to do anything about it.
"You sure, ma'am?" Peters asked. "You'll be exposed out there, with all due respect, ma'am."
"Did I stutter, soldier?" Lacey replied in a voice that brooked no argument. "I don't recall asking your damned permission, Sergeant. And the last I checked," she eyed him, "I outrank you. So, yes, I'm sure, Sergeant. Get me the fuck over there, A-SAP!"
"Yes, ma'am," he answered crisply, his training and discipline overriding all other objections.
Peters wasted no time dragging Lacey to the side of the truck where Mac lay. It took every ounce of willpower for Lacey not to cry out or let the darkness swallow her. The sergeant had to grab her around her middle to drag her from beneath the truck, which sent excruciating burning pains all through her midsection. Try as she might, this time, she couldn't put the pain to the back of her mind. She girded herself and let her mind fill with thoughts of Mac, instead. Even when the sergeant finally let her go and sat back, it took Lacey several long moments before she was finally able to focus again.
"Shit! That hurt like… like god-damned fucking hell!" She gritted out her agony. Tears trailed unheeded down her cheeks and it was all she could do not to give in to unconsciousness. "Ugh!"
"You gonna make it, ma'am?" Peters asked anxiously, knowing she had reached her limits.
Lacey wanted to answer that she sure as hell wasn't, but decided against it. "No problem, Sergeant," she ground out, once she knew she wouldn't throw up in front of Peters. "Just…goddamned peachy."
Lacey wanted desperately to wipe the sweat from her brow before it dripped down into her eyes, but knew that wasn't possible. So, instead, she concentrated on the prone figure next to her. She noticed the growing blood stain around a hole in Mac's fatigues and saw purpling around the side of the pilot's head.
"Mac! Mac, can you hear me?" She called between gritted teeth. She turned her worried gaze on Peters. "I need you to slap her cheek for me, Sergeant." She looked imploringly into his eyes. "Please. Not too hard. Just…"
"Ma'am?" The sergeant looked over at the doctor, but could not make out her expression in the darkness.
"Look, Sergeant," Lacey continued in frustration, exhaustion and pain. She was so tired of the pain that she just wanted it to end. But she also had a job to do and that brought her focus back to the task at hand. "I need her to wake up if I'm going to help her. Since I can't move my arms, I need you to be my arms for me. Slap her face and get her to wake up. Can you do that?"
Without another word, the sergeant moved to Mac's head and gently slapped her flushed cheeks. "Hey, Chief. Come on. Wake up. The Doc, here, wants you to wake up and tell her where you're hurt."
Mac groaned a bit, but didn't regain consciousness.
"Harder," Lacey said and the sergeant complied. "Mac! Mac, wake the hell up!" She shouted, as Peters continued to slap the pilot's cheek. "Come on, Mac, Wake up!"
"Ugh!" Mac finally responded to the insistent slaps. Her eyes fluttered open briefly and closed again.
A noise somewhere in the distance caught the attention of both the Sergeant and Lacey.
Peters stopped and searched their surroundings. "I'll be back," he said, then disappeared into the darkness.
"Can you hear me, Mac?" Lacey continued. "Come on, sweetheart. Let me know you're awake."
"I…I'm…ugh!… what the hell happened?" Mac finally responded, putting a hand to her head and grimacing. She tried to sit up, but stopped when her head and shoulder protested.
"Shh, stay still while I figure out how bad it is," Lacey said. "Can you tell me what hurts most?"
"My head," Mac squeaked, still holding the body part in question. "And my shoulder, too. Damn it! I think that bastard shot me."
"Yeah," Lacey continued. "Does it hurt anywhere else? Your back? Your legs? Any numbness anywhere?"
Mac shook her head, then immediately regretted that move. "Ugh! That was stupid," she groaned. "I think I'm okay, except for this incessant pounding in my head and the burning in my shoulder."
"Okay," Lacey said. "I can't tell if the bullet went clean through. Can you turn on your side so I can take a look?"
Mac slowly turned then scooted up so she was leaning against the side of the truck. "What happened anyway?"
Lacey frowned at the question. "You just told me someone shot you. Don't you remember?" She looked into Mac's confused eyes. "Damn! I wish we had more light. I can't see your eyes."
"Here," Mac said, unconsciously reaching into a pocket of her flight suit and producing a small pen light. "I carry it with me in case of emergencies."
Lacey eyed the light with a frown. "You had this with you the whole time and are just now pulling it out?"
"We didn't really need it, until now," Mac shrugged. "Besides, I don't like using it unless it's absolutely necessary."
Lacey continued to eye the light in Mac's hand. "You're gonna have to shine it in your own eyes. I can't use my arms, remember?"
"Oh, yeah," Mac grinned sheepishly then clicked the light on and shined it in her left eye.
"Now the other one," Lacey said, watching Mac's eyes closely. "Yep, you definitely did a number on yourself. Other than your shoulder, that is. Here," she nodded toward the injury in question. "Shine that light over here, so I can see if the bullet went clean through."
Mac did so and winced a bit at the pain her actions caused. The shoulder didn't feel too bad. It was more of a dull ache you feel when you've overused some muscles. She tried to move it and regretted the immediately action, wincing as a shooting pain radiated down her entire arm.
"So, what's the prognosis, Doc?" Mac asked with a pained smile, as soon as the pain subsided. She clicked the light off and put it back in the sleeve pocket of her flight suit. "Am I gonna live?"
"You'll live, but you have a concussion and you're bleeding," Lacey answered shortly, her own pain and exhaustion finally catching up to her. "No sleeping until we get back to base and …"
Mac noticed the doctor swaying slightly. "Hey. Hey! You don't look so good yourself, Lacey." Mac reached for Lacey just as the doctor collapsed against her. "Doc? Lacey? Shit! Peters! Peters!!!! Where the hell are you, you son of a bitch!" Nothing but silence met her shouts, as she sat there leaning against the truck with the unconscious doctor in her arms. "Don't you dare die on me, Lacey Stephens," she whispered against the doctor's hair.
Mac sat there holding Lacey for what seemed like hours. It was so quiet that she wondered where the rest of the insurgents were. She also wondered where Peters had gotten off to and could feel herself drifting in and out of consciousness. She knew the gunshot wound was still bleeding and wondered briefly why she cared. Things didn't seem to be fairing too well for them and there didn't appear to be any help on the way.
Where the hell was that damned idiot, Peters, she thought briefly during a moment of lucidity. Suddenly, as if she had conjured him out of the darkness, the sergeant appeared in front of her.
"Where the hell have you been?" Mac asked weakly, a note of irritation dripping from every word.
"I found the other truck," the sergeant answered matter-of-factly, dropping down beside her. "How is she?"
"What other truck?" Mac asked. "The one the helicopter chased?"
"No, the other one," Peters answered. "Is she okay?"
"She passed out on me after... Well, that doesn't really matter," Mac answered absently. "Where are those assholes? Are they all dead? Is the sun coming up?" She looked up at the now-grayish sky.
Peters was having a hard time following the pilot's train of thought, but decided to ignore her ramblings and try to answer at least one of her questions.
"Dawn's just around the corner," Peters said. "We got maybe ten minutes before sunrise. And I have no idea what happened to our friends. The truck was abandoned when I got there. Looks like they just hightailed it out of there." He looked around anxiously, anticipating trouble at any moment.
"Any sign of that chopper?" Mac asked, her headache and probably the loss of blood were making it hard for her to concentrate. "Do you think it was one of ours or one of theirs?"
"Don't know, but it was probably ours, considering it chased off that other truck," Peters answered with a shrug. "How about you? Are you okay? You were out for a while there."
"Other than I've been shot and blown up..."
"Shot?" Peters was suddenly kneeling in front of her.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, he saw the large blood stain on her shoulder and realized the truth of her words.
"I think there's some rags in the truck," he said. "I'll get 'em."
He disappeared before Mac could respond and reappeared just as suddenly. Neither one commented on the fact that Mac was still holding an unconscious Lacey in her arms.
"You had practice with bullet wounds, Sergeant?" Mac commented dryly, as he unbuttoned the front of her fatigues and revealed a large, still-oozing blood stain on the front of her shirt.
"I was a medic when I first made it through boot camp," he said, concentrating his attention on the wound and applying pressure to it. He looked up and caught her blue gaze watching him intently. "Here," he motioned for her to hold the rag. "Keep pressure on it while I check to see if it's a through-and-through."
He gingerly pulled her arm completely free of her BDUs and Mac winced and sucked in a breath at the pain that shot down her arm.
"Sorry," he commented as he prodded her shoulder. "The bullet's still in there. There's no exit wound."
"Hurts like hell," she said, her eyes tearing up, as she tried unsuccessfully to will away the sudden emotional surge. "Sure wish we still had some of that morphine."
Mac's head nodded a bit and the sergeant noticed. "Here, let me hold that," he offered, grabbing and applying pressure to her wound.
"You don't mind if I just..." she never finished the sentence, as darkness closed in and she passed out cold.
Peters sat down and pulled both women into his lap. Actually, he only had Mac in his lap. Lacey was still lying unconscious in Mac's lap.
"Damn," he commented to no one in particular. "If the boys ever catch wind of this, I'm toast. Then again-nah." He smirked in the growing light. Being alone with two injured women just didn't have the same appeal that it should have, especially know what he did about them. He'd heard enough to know they had feelings for each other. That much was for sure. "I will not live this down to my dying day." He frowned, but continued to apply pressure to Mac's wounds.
He leaned his head back against the truck, squinted at the sun peeking over the horizon and sighed heavily. It was going to be another long day in the desert, he realized.
Mac slowly opened her eyes and then squinted in the bright sunlight. Her shoulder felt like it was on fire and something was pushing against it.
"You awake?" A familiar gruff male voice asked.
Mac blinked to clear her vision and nodded. "Yeah," she answered and cleared her throat. "We got any water?"
"Nope," Peters answered. "Not a single drop."
Mac licked her dry, chapped lips and realized that she was sitting up against the truck. She closed her eyes against the bright sunlight, then opened them and glanced down at her shoulder.
"Bleedin' stopped 'bout an hour ago," Peters remarked. "Shortly after you passed out on me."
Mac saw that her shoulder was wrapped in a dirty length of cloth. She also realized something was missing.
"Where's Lac-Captain Stephens?"
"I put her back down in the pit," Peters answered, wiping his brow with his bare arm. "She's still unconscious. Thought it best to keep her out of the sun, since it's getting hot and there's no water left."
Mac saw the concern in his hazel eyes.
"This really sucks," she groused on a gravelly sigh.
"How's the head feel?" Peters asked.
"Hurts," Mac answered. "Feels like I plowed head-first into a brick wall. But, on the bright side, both injuries are taking my mind off my leg." She smirked wryly at him.
"Good deal," Peters said, sitting down next to her with an exhausted sigh. "Much more of this and I'll be retiring on a Section 8."
"You do know they don't do that anymore, right?" Mac glanced over and smiled half-heartedly at the man next to her, really looking at his face for the first time since the crash. "Section 8 discharges are a thing of the past, Peters. Haven't been used since…Well, since the TV show M*A*S*H*."
"Okay," he said thoughtfully. "So, I'll just claim PTSD and they'll lock me away in some padded cell in a VA hospital somewhere."
They both chuckled, then Mac sobered and glanced at the hole.
"Think you can help me down there?" She asked hopefully. "Someone should stay with her, in case she wakes up."
"No problem, Chief," Peters jumped to his feet.
He helped her to stand, which took some effort on both their parts when Mac swayed a bit from blood loss. She was light-headed and felt more than a little nauseous, but willed away her own discomfort and set her thoughts on getting to Lacey. She was worried about the doctor and concerned that the woman hadn't regained consciousness.
As Peters helped Mac down into the pit, the pilot tried not to jar her shoulder too much. Despite their best efforts, however, she still cringed in pain.
"You got it?" Peters asked once Mac was finally down in the hole.
"Yeah," Mac answered, trying to keep the pain from showing.
She sat down and scooted next to the unconscious doctor, examining Lacey for telltale signs of life. When she saw the woman's shallow breathing, Mac let out a sigh of relief.
"Thank god," Mac whispered.
She used every ounce of strength she had left to lift the doctor into her lap, then scooted against the wall for support. Once she was settled, she let her body relax and felt the tension leave her. There was nothing further to do but wait, so Mac let her head rest against the sandy wall and closed her eyes.
Sergeant Peters sat in the shade of the truck and contemplated his situation. He had two injured comrades down in a hole beneath the truck he was leaning against - a truck that was as useless to him as a sack of flour and no water. He stared off into the distance and tried to will the shimmering mirage that hovered just above the shimmering horizon into something useful. But it didn't work. Nothing appeared that would save them from this blistering heat or his companions' miseries.
He had not heard a peep from either the doctor or the pilot since he helped the latter down into the hole. He had checked on them periodically, only to find them in exactly the same position each and every time. Mac was propped against the sandy wall of the hole, while the doctor was propped against the pilot's chest. Neither woman was conscious that he could see. The sergeant was worried, but also knew there was nothing he could do to change their current situation.
He jumped to his feet and pulled his hat low over his brow. His senses were on high alert despite his relaxed appearance.
"Time to do a perimeter check," he grumbled, as he took off into the desert.
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