The chosen few who get to do this on a regular basis call it the Graveyard Shift – or, if we’re feeling more than usually flippant, the Death Watch. While that might suggest we’re callous, insensitive bastards, the fact of the matter is that a cloak of black humour is more effective than an armoured vest in some situations.
The term “graveyard shift” might also, to the uninitiated, indicate a slight reluctance to participate – as in, no-one looks forward to this particular one and we all wish we didn’t have to do it. As far as that goes, the uninitiated would be right. The difference is that, unlike most unpopular tasks, no-one shirks it. There are no swaps, no excuses. I may be speaking personally here, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who considers this a privilege rather than a duty. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now, despite the fact I’ve actually been here about fourteen hours longer than normal.
Okay, wrong word to use. Let’s face it, Scarlet doesn’t do normal. Doctor Gold reminded me of that only two hours ago in answer to my repeated question as to why it was taking so long for retrometabolism to start up.
“There are no hard and fast rules,” he said tersely. “The healing process will take as long as it takes. How he has survived this, God only knows. These are the worst injuries I have ever seen...”
He shook his head in disbelief as if he still couldn’t get his brain around his star patient’s ability to cheat the Grim Reaper. “He simply needs time, Adam.”
Yeah, well. After twenty-four hours with my ass glued to a chair that had bypassed the production line comfort test, time was certainly not what I needed. Time was turning into one of those obnoxious companions that you wish would just shove off and leave you in peace. It had taken to insidious whispering in my head, vaguely hinting at the unthinkable; What if this is finally it? The ultimate sacrifice, the one he can’t come back from? Hell, he’s been burnt to a crisp; how could he recover from that? No-one could, not even a Mysteron. Not even him.
My com-link flashed for the third time in an hour. I didn’t even glance at it - no need to. I knew who my caller was and I also knew how frantic she must be to use a frequency only I would pick up on. Yet, for the third time in an hour, I ignored it. I simply couldn’t bring myself to listen to the fear in her voice when she asked if he’d woken up yet; couldn’t bear to see panic fleeing across her face in pursuit of the realisation that this might be the one time he didn’t wake up at all. Cowardly of me, of course, and pointless; the mere fact that I hadn’t answered would say everything she didn’t want to hear.
Then, like a tiny miracle, a whisper floated across the few feet between his bed and my chair and crept into my exhausted and befuddled brain. It said, “Thirsty.”
Automatically, I reached for the plastic cup before I remembered. “Sorry, pal. The nurse said you can only have ice chips. Your throat got burned up pretty bad. Swallowing will be tough.”
He opened one swollen and blackened eyelid and looked at me as if to say, tell me something I don’t know. I wasn’t sure how much pain any movement might cause, but he didn’t protest as I raised his head off the pillow and slid a sliver of ice between his burnt lips. He sucked greedily but I didn’t let him take the chip fully into his mouth until it had melted. There’s a technique to this – it’s not as simple as it sounds, but I’ve had so much practice I reckon I’m at least as adept as the medics. That’s the beauty of a finely-tuned partnership, I guess. When we’re really rolling, we move along in perfect tandem.
Once his mouth was sufficiently lubricated, he managed the next few words on his slow re-entry into the world. “What’s with your ugly mug?” he croaked. “Where’s the pretty one?”
“Riding the skies,” I replied. “Against her wishes I might add, but Colonel White didn’t give her a choice in the matter.”
He understood. He sighed and then said, almost inaudibly, “Pretty bad this time, huh?”
“Yep. You’re not exactly a sight for sore eyes. In fact, when it comes to ugly mugs, you’re the Toby.”
Then, because I was suddenly angry with him for what he puts us all through and because I knew he would have preferred to have woken up to Destiny, I said roughly, “Call yourself a professional? You need to work on your timing, buddy, because frankly, it sucks. One more minute and you’d have been out of there, free and clear. But as usual, you take it to the wire. Next time, get it right.”
“Okay,” he muttered. “Next time.”
For some unaccountable reason, my eyelids started pricking and my throat tightened in sympathy, rendering further speech impossible. We both closed our eyes against the silence until eventually he said, “Look, it’s okay, Adam. You don’t have to be here. Just go, I’ll be fine.”
“Tough,” I replied shortly, feeding him another ice chip. “There’s no peace for the wicked, as they say. I’m here for the next three hours, then Ochre takes over.”
“Oh, God.” He rolled his eyes to the ceiling in mock despair as I buzzed the nurses’ station.
On cue, Nurse Cornflower bustled into view armed with a fresh supply of drips and hypodermics. “Good evening, gents,” she said briskly and then to the patient, “I see you’re back with us, Captain. How are you feeling?”
He considered the question. “I think there’s a word for it,” he murmured. “Oh yeah, that’s it. I got it. Crap.”
She smiled. “On the mend, then. Perhaps you won’t be needing the famous Cornflower Christmas cocktail of heavy-duty narcotics.”
He groaned. “Don’t be a spoilsport. There’s nothing else to look forward to in here.”
“Very well.” She expertly replaced the almost empty drip bag with a fresh supply and then rapidly assessed his healing flesh.
“Not bad. In fact, coming along rather nicely,” she pronounced at last, although I noted she didn’t check under the bandages covering a large percentage of his body. I wasn’t sure if that was because retrometabolism was finally kicking in so fast she reckoned she didn’t need to, or that we’d probably have to scrape him off the ceiling if she attempted it without full anaesthesia.
“I’ll check on you again in an hour,” she said eventually, heading for the door. “In the meantime, behave yourself. I don’t want to have to mash up your Christmas dinner and feed it to you on a spoon.”
As soon as she disappeared, he asked anxiously, “I haven’t missed it, have I? Christmas, I mean?”
“Still twenty-four hours to go,” I reassured him.
His charred features looked alarmed. The words, “out of here, presents, quarters and bombsite” spilled from his mouth in fairly unintelligible fashion as he struggled unsuccessfully to detach himself from his IV port. He was definitely getting better; the look of appraisal he gave the drip bottle told me that he might try to rip it from the wall and take it with him if I didn’t do something to stop him.
“Whoa! Not so fast,” I said, hastily reaching out to push him back onto the bed and restore the line to its rightful position in his hand. “You’re in no fit state to be going anywhere. You’re still a mess, you can’t go wandering the corridors scaring the natives.”
“Right.” He lay back down without further protest and closed his eyes, seemingly exhausted by his efforts. I suspected he had caught sight of himself in the mirror above his locker and had realised the truth of my words; either that, or he was giving himself over to the soporific properties of Cornflower’s Christmas cocktail. For some unspecified reason, I didn’t think this was a good idea. Now that he was back in the world, it seemed important that he should stay there and not wander off into a drug-induced Neverland.
“I brought you something,” I said brightly, hoping to head off another descent into the ether.
“Not grapes, I hope,” he responded with the resigned air of one who does not expect a great deal.
“Nope. Simone gave me some magazines. She thought I might read to you.”
“Great.” He didn’t look impressed. “What have you got?”
“Um.... Vogue, Vanity Fair and the ISA Monthly Christmas Special. What’s your preference?”
“Sports Illustrated, Swimwear Edition.”
I chuckled. “ISA Christmas it is, then. Let’s see...... here we go. ‘Space Station cat alerts Houston of impending disaster. Venus, the resident feline on the International Space Station saved her fellow crew members from certain death after a crucial pressure valve malfunctioned.’”
He murmured a warning, “Jesus Christ,” but I was not deterred. “‘Even as the crew was starting to lose consciousness, Venus risked her own life by scrambling over the control console, hitting the emergency signal as she did so. ISA chiefs in Houston were able to remotely restore pressure levels to their correct state before tragedy ensued. Colonel Henry Adams, head of the ISA, has already suggested that Venus, an eight-year old orange tabby, should be formally commended for her efforts. Is it possible that an animal may be the next recipient of a Purple Heart?’”
He groaned and said, “You really are trying to kill me, aren’t you?”
I laughed and decided to cut him some slack. “Would you prefer it if I simply let your favourite Angel know that you’ll be around to play Santa Claus after all?”
“Only if you remind her not to renew her subscription to ISA Monthly.”
I slid another ice cube into his mouth and said, “Done deal. Welcome back, buddy.”
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