2375—The Dominion War—Two months before Spirodopoulos’ capture
Federation Position on AR-558
Spirodopoulos would never be sure which one chilled him worse: the ghastly shriek from the Vulcan, or the next strained utterance—barely a whisper—from his fellow lieutenant commander: “Disregard…it is not logical…”
Stone shattered above his head at the crack of unnatural lightning—a missed shot? By the Jem’Hadar? Spirodopoulos ducked despite himself, bowing his head—breaking his line of sight—all to keep the shrapnel out of his eyes. No, the Vat-Bastards had done it on purpose. Why waste their power packs on a shot with the intensity to kill a human when a speck of dust and a kar’takin to the brain would do it?
They had to be programmed for psychological warfare, not just the physical kind. They had to know they were dealing with a race that fancied itself to be bred for anything but war and naively presented its soft bellies to the universe hoping the rest of the universe might just find them too charming to do anything but scratch them and make them purr.
Saan groaned again…a sound that from a Vulcan meant a bloodcurdling shriek on anyone else.
Mission accomplished, Jemmies.
If the intent was to terrify—then oh, yes…he was feeling exactly what they wanted him to feel.
“Shit!” The Indonesian woman behind Spirodopoulos had been the first to reach Commander Saan. Back on the Petraeus, Spirodopoulos would have chided one of his people for that breach of decorum. Here…he concurred with the assessment. Honestly, the only curses that bothered him anymore were the ones that took the Lord’s name in vain. “Vampire gun to the thigh—arterial bleed.”
“Can we move him?” Ensign Folani called back.
“Doesn’t look good!”
“Keep the pressure on!” ordered the Bajoran. “It’s all we’ve got!”
The Jem’Hadar began to concentrate their fire by the rock formation to the north of them where a smaller contingent of Starfleet soldiers just getting back from patrol were holed up—which of course was where their remaining medic was. All the while, a cadre laid down suppressive fire on the main group where Spirodopoulos crouched, squeezing off half-aimed shots whenever he got an opening. Oh, God…the Jemmies had taken on a mechanical pattern by now—they were picking off the others with the same casual, systematic air as one pulled weeds in a garden.
Not the time for the urge to throw up to distract one from one’s task—
To stave off the inevitable.
Keep firing—keep firing—
The Jem’Hadar ceased fire, surging forward into the territory they had just reduced to a mess of blood and flame. Tremulous moans—from ghosts even as the life still flowed through their veins—rose up to Spirodopoulos. And still the Jemmies’ perimeter guard had his group pinned; his shots only reached them, could do nothing about the butchery their suppressive fire allowed their comrades to carry out.
Between shifting bodies and the spots where Jem’Hadar fire had burst before his eyes, Spirodopoulos watched the unnatural soldiers draw their blades and slice arcs through the air, a threshing motion, a grotesque parody of the flail used to separate the wheat and the chaff—but the picture the varicolored jets of blood painted held no meaning, no coherent image. Like a Pollock painting…it simply was—and it was chaos. Entropy in visual form.
Suddenly even that image shattered with a crack that deafened every soldier in the room, except perhaps the Jem’Hadar. Dismembered chunks blew out from the epicenter, entangled in one final postmortem melee.
Had there been a last survivor in the separated Starfleet team? Or had they, seeing their demise, laid a trap for their slaughterers and set it to go off at the disturbing of their dead bodies?
Either way, the explosive had done its grisly work: every Jem’Hadar who had participated in the atrocious ritual was dead. Momentarily distracted and now outnumbered, the group that had trapped Spirodopoulos and his officers found the tables turned. One by one, phaser rifles upraised, the Starfleet contingent vaporized the Dominion cannon fodder, firing as quick as they could lest the Jem’Hadar advance too far, just in case one—
The entire subterranean network shook and the compression wave slammed into him straight on this time, catapulting him onto the stone floor back-first.
“I knew we couldn’t get through this without at least one of those fuckers being a walking Houdini!” Susilaputra snapped once the thunder and the dust and all motion before them ceased at last. All the Jem’Hadar lay dead thanks to the explosive force of one of their own.
“Shut up,” Folani hissed at the Indonesian chief. “Keep the pressure on. And be grateful Tan-Ryshtak didn’t have to shoot him point-blank.”
Spirodopoulos hadn’t been there for the reign of the Houdini subspace mines, but he’d heard enough about them. After the Starfleet soldiers learned how to control the mines and turn them against their makers, the Jem’Hadar had come up with a horrific new tactic. No one had ever captured a live one to find out, but the theory went that they had either implanted bombs inside their own bodies or the Founders had even engineered glands to secrete the components of a binary explosive into their blood at times of mortal peril, which detonated at the impact of a high-speed projectile or energy beam, much like tannerite. And that would be just like Jem’Hadar to know how to play the odds of being shot before being poisoned, like a professional gambler.
The Greek commander whipped out his tricorder, scanning for any more signs of Jemmies in the area. Not that they always showed up shrouded, but there were things you could scan for. If they were close, that is. Gravitational lensing barely even worked to detect the presence of a cloaked ship—which compared more obvious culprits like planets or neutron stars, hardly bent light around its mass, but in a fixed location like this, with extensive baseline scans of the area from many perspectives, occasionally the specialized sensors of the tricorder caught a flicker of something far too subtle for the eye to detect, but by searching for a combination of ordinary light refraction and so-called ‘microlensing,’ sometimes the tricorder could give something of a warning. If you set your commbadge to vibrate like a 21st-century cell phone on silent when the tricorder sensed the probability of Jem’Hadar nearby, sometimes that was enough to avoid tipping off the Jemmies.
It wasn’t much of a warning—usually they were close enough to blow your face off once they unshrouded, but that split second sometimes meant the difference between life and death.
Right now his tricorder wasn’t showing anything, so for the sake of sanity Spirodopoulos tried to force his paranoia down and attend to Commander Saan.
We’re it, he realized. They’d had a doctor…once…and supposedly there’d been a request for a new one, but for security reasons no one knew exactly when the next ship was inbound with her replacement, though they’d been given to understand it would be within a few days. At least Captain Sisko had made sure this place got some kind of attention, but it wasn’t enough. It was never enough here in this place some long-dead Frenchman had spitefully nicknamed ‘Arras.’
Lieutenant Guarani had been doing one hell of a job as field medic—but the Brazilian had been a victim of the slaughter just now. Damn it, why had he been assigned to a scouting team?
Because Commander Saan had thought he could handle it; he, like Guarani, had a full field medic’s certification. And now…he’d been shot.
The vampire gun. The bleeder blaster.
Just like the walking Houdinis, no one knew exactly how it was the Dominion had managed to imbue chemicals into a directed energy beam. No one had ever detected transporter residue at the site of the wound. Spirodopoulos pulled out his tricorder. He didn’t detect any either. The latest theory involved buckminsterfullerene, one of the largest particles proven to exhibit clear wave-particle duality. The spherical molecule, resembling a pair of geodesic domes, could carry other molecules inside of it without interacting overly much with those same chemicals. The anticoagulant, the theory ran, was carried inside the buckyballs, which broke up on impact with the unfortunate victim, releasing the anticoagulant into his or her bloodstream.
But the how didn’t matter in the end. What mattered was that Saan was bleeding to death, and the poison would remain in his system for days, or until someone removed it the hard way: a full transfusion in a properly-equipped sickbay.
The Vulcan stared mutely up at the ceiling of the cave, his nictitating membranes sliding disconcertingly over his irises, leaving the dismal and vacant expression of an elderly, sick cat. A huge, cylindrical section of meat had been blown out of the muscle of his thigh, and continued to seep blood despite the hemostat clamping off the largest artery. But none of the minor vessels would ever clot with the Dominion poison circulating through him; they continued to ooze jade.
“I think he’s meditating,” Susilaputra whispered from her position kneeling hunched over the Vulcan. “Trying to slow his heartbeat. Slow the bleeding. I’ve already got the main artery clamped—”
Spirodopoulos leaned over to Ensign Folani. “Do we have any clotting factor that works on species with copper-based blood?”
Folani snorted. “You wish. We don’t even have any that would work on ironbloods. Not with that poison anyway.”
“I suppose it would be too much to hope we have an antidote in there?”
“What do you think, sir?” Folani shook her head. “How long has Starfleet known about the vampire gun? And you know what else gets me? Even in the Resistance, we could swipe some armor off the Cardassians to make some kind of shield for ourselves. Maybe it wouldn’t stop the blast from coming, but it helped. But Starfleet can’t be bothered to get us some armor. I mean, I know why the Jemmies don’t have armor—”
“That’s neither here nor there, Ensign,” Spirodopoulos warned. Complaining about Starfleet’s torpid response to the war would accomplish nothing. No matter how good it felt.
The Founders had walked among them. They knew what to exploit. No armor. No goggles. Hardly anything aside from a phaser rifle and some grenades that resembled anything that a true ground-fighting unit ought to have with them. And hardly any specialists in ground combat—mostly people pulled from shipboard security and tactical duty like Spirodopoulos himself. Even police SWAT teams on freaking ‘Paradise Earth’ were better armed and trained for ground combat than this. Maybe the Founders had even designed these anticoagulant weapons just for them…custom made with ‘care,’ just like that virus for that poor species out there in the Gamma Quadrant.
Starfleet had known about the vampire gun for two years. Before the official declaration of war, in fact. And with Federation medical science as it was—only just barely behind the Cardassians among the Alpha Quadrant powers—an answer should’ve come far sooner. Or maybe one had, but was just caught up in interminable testing when it was desperately needed on the front lines. As far as Spirodopoulos was concerned, if such a medicine existed, as long as it wasn’t causing people to grow a second head, they ought to just deploy it. This was war.
And Folani was right about the armor, too. And why the Jem’Hadar didn’t have any. They were expendable. Did Starfleet think they were expendable, too? Or were they just so mentally unprepared for situations that they couldn’t worm their way out of with verbal sleight of hand—or handing populated planets over to the enemy, for God’s sake!—to have any idea what was needed at the front? Were they so bad that even defensive armor looked like undue aggression to their eyes?
Well, if I’m a war criminal for wishing we’d had something to stop this from happening to us, Spirodopoulos fumed, then so be it!
“All right, guys…if we don’t think we’re getting a new medic for a few days at least, then let’s hear solutions.” And mercy killing is not an acceptable one.
Folani started cleaning her phaser rifle. The actions were mechanical; her eyes betrayed the fact that her thoughts were elsewhere. Suddenly she yelped. “Kosst!” she swore. Spirodopoulos could see why: she’d caught her hand on the hot business end of the rifle. Then her eyes lit up. But she didn’t say a word.
“What?” Spirodopoulos whispered. She still didn’t speak. “Have you got something, Jederia?”
“I think so,” she whispered back. “But could we find somewhere else for this discussion?”
It’s got to be bad if she’s worried about creeping out a Vulcan, the human thought, but he acquiesced, leading her a good twenty meters away. Probably still not enough to get totally out of Saan’s hearing, but Spirodopoulos wasn’t willing to separate the group. “What’s your idea?”
“I’m loath to suggest it,” the Bajoran ensign said, crossing her arms, “but I’m thinking we’ve got to cauterize the wound. I don’t see any other choices.”
Spirodopoulos winced. It was nasty…it was low-tech…but it could work. “Have you done it before?”
“Yes, sir…and you’re not going to like it. You can’t really do it with a laser scalpel; they’re made to cut without sealing the area off. And a phaser…it’s not made to handle that precisely. Not to mention the shock to the nervous system isn’t what you want at a time like this. I especially wouldn’t do it to a Vulcan who might need to concentrate on that healing trance or whatever it is he’s doing. Which means we’re going to have to find something to use as a cauter.”
“Which is?” He thought he knew, but he wanted to hear it confirmed first.
“A really, really hot metal object that you jam right into the wound.”
“In other words, we skewer him like souvlaki.”
Folani gulped—slowly, as though she were trying to force down an egg. She’d seen him eat souvlaki before; she knew what that meant. In better lighting, and with a lighter complexion, Spirodopoulos imagined he would have been able to see her turn green—just as he must have been doing—at that mental image. “Pretty much.”
It took her several seconds to speak again. “If we’re going to do this, we’d better make sure to have lots of burn salve on hand, and sterile bandages. And antibiotics, too. The cauter itself will be sterilized by the heat, and the wound will be sterile—at first. But burns can infect. Badly.”
Spirodopoulos nodded. “And we’re not going to be able to move him, either. Not without risking reopening the wound and having to do it again. Or an internal bleed getting started.” And it went without saying that if this went on too long, he was likely to lose the leg, assuming he survived the critical next few days until…maybe…help arrived.
And there was one more thing, Spirodopoulos knew. “We’re going to have to ask him permission.”
There was no telling what sort of calculus the Vulcan might do to determine the value of his own life, in light of a possible solution. His first conscious instinct—one that chilled Spirodopoulos—had been to repudiate the cry for a medic that had come from an instinct far deeper than any discipline of Surak.
The instinct of life itself, screaming to survive.
“Commander Saan!” A pause. “Commander?”
It took several tries to roust him sufficiently from his trance to get an answer. Susilaputra increased her pressure on the wound as his heart rate increased. The Vulcan officer’s eyes opened, locking on Spirodopoulos’ face.
“Commander Saan,” he tried again. “We have a possible solution. It comes with serious risks. But it might save your life.”
Spirodopoulos described the solution himself, sparing Ensign Folani the necessity. True, this was a Vulcan they were dealing with, not a being known for vindictiveness, but he figured it would be far better to have Saan’s attention focused upon him, rather than one of his subordinates. Once he finished, he posed the question. “Do you give your consent?”
Saan drew in a deep, shuddering breath. “As…long as you believe that—that it would not unduly compromise your ability to defend yourselves.” Another breath, long and slow. “I cannot be moved from here.”
Spirodopoulos solemnly nodded. “We know. And for right now, we aren’t detecting any more Jem’Hadar.”
Either he was too weak to nod, or deliberately choosing not to expend the energy. Either way, Saan replied, “Then consent…is given.” Then he added something else…something that sent a chill down his spine. “No…painkillers. They disturb my concentration.”
Folani jumped in. “Are you sure?”
Saan raised his eyebrow as if to say, Really? You think a Vulcan's lying to you? Perhaps after all this time on 'Arras,' gallows humor had finally rubbed off on him.
Folani lifted her improvised cauter with her left hand: a thin piece of iron piping from a shelving unit deeper in the Federation encampment. In her right she took a hand phaser and squeezed the trigger, holding it down for a sustained burst. The low pitch of the phaser told Spirodopoulos she had set it just barely above stun, the better to ensure the end of the rod she wanted heated would reach the temperature she needed, but without spiking the temperature so quickly that she burned the hand she gripped it with.
The rod never glowed, even though in Spirodopoulos’ mind it ought to have. Somehow, with precise judgment that suggested Folani had indeed watched the procedure far too many times, she knew exactly when to release the trigger.
It assaulted his senses.
The sight—horrendous pain, the Vulcan’s face split by an involuntary grimace, eyes that screamed but a mouth that only gasped in shock, even now seeking control—control—as thin smoke rose.
The sound, the smell of the burning flesh—far, far too much like that of hamburger on a griddle.
It would save his life. He prayed it would save his life.
Still—it was too much. Spirodopoulos spun around, leaned over, and vomited.
After it was done, he turned around and looked at the mangled mass of flesh. Mangled…
…but the bleeding had stopped.